The Sexy Synopsis

Okay, I admit it. I put sexy in the title because “The Synopsis” sounded about as exciting as the lame jazz rendition of Marvin Gaye with which I am being aurally punished in Starbucks right now. And then I thought, it really is important to make your synopsis truly sexy, so I am not a total pimp. No matter where you are in your writing career, you have to be able to let people know what your book is about. There will be situations that require small, medium, and large descriptions.  


At my first RWA convention, one of my favorite workshops was the Elevator Pitch by Carrie Lofty. 90,000 words down to 30? Thirty words. The entire story—all those lush details and compelling plot points and sexual tension—boiled down to thirty words. By learning how to do that, I learned how to answer the dreaded question that crops up at most cocktail parties and family gatherings: “So, what’s your book about?” You must be able to answer that in one breath…which turns out to be about thirty words. I’ve got it down to eight now (Clever American Woman Unwittingly Falls for British Duke). If I am talking to someone who appreciates colorful language I replace “clever” with “smart-ass.” I used “sassy” a couple of times, but it’s too Peppermint Patty and doesn’t really convey the maturity and self-possession of my heroine. I used “unwittingly” because he fails to mention he’s heir to a dukedom when he meets her in a secondhand bookstore in Wicker Park. (See! Just like that I want to go off on a thousand tangents, and really all anyone wants to know is, “What’s your book about?”) If someone wants to know more, well, then you have them in your clutches and you can go on from there. (Why, Yes! It’s a contemporary! With glamourous locations…castles! black tie balls! Why, Yes! He is dashing and smoldering and a bit of all right, and she is gangly and sexy in a knock-kneed way!) You get the picture. Keep it simple.


This is the 100-250 word synopsis, also known as the Query or Pitch Letter synopsis. A lot of agents and publishers ask for a one-page pitch…roughly 250 words. Okay, here you can get into some of your favorite parts. The really good bits. You can also get your voice in there. Make it sing. (No pressure.) Again, great workshops on this at RWA. There was one agent workshop where the moderator read actual query letters aloud and if you looked at the four agents on the panel you could see precisely when they lost interest (or when their interest was piqued). As writers, we get (necessarily) caught up in our own stories, frequently ploughing on in our descriptions without really looking up at our listeners to see if they are even paying attention. If you are pitching, you need to pay attention. While I was querying agents, I read all of my query letters aloud to my (at-the-time) ten-year-old daughter. I figured if I could hold her attention, I could hold anyone’s.

[Bittersweet Memory Aside: When I got my first request for a full manuscript, my dad asked what I had sent to garner their interest. I read my query letter to him and when I was done, he said, “Someone really read that whole thing?” It was one page, people.]


I was lucky and went straight from query letter to a request for a full manuscript, so I never got into the long-form synopsis. I thought I was in the clear. Then, in December, I got a request from Sourcebooks for a 2,000-word synopsis. What?! What is that? Apparently lots of people need to know what the book is about without actually reading it. Marketing People. Art People. Booksellers. People who are going to be instrumental in the sales and distribution of my book. So. Fuck. Two thousand words is a lot. Did I include a bit of dialogue? (No.) Physical descriptions? (Yes! Cover Art, remember?) Cliffhangers? (No! They need to know the whole story, remember?) Thankfully, Pam Rosenthal’s husband, Michael, wrote a fantastic essay here:

Everything he says is exactly right. (It’s more important that you read that essay than this one.) So, it took a while, but again, totally worth it. I mean, let’s face it, I had to do it whether it was educational or not, but it was nice to know it was enlightening to boot. I have a renewed big-picture grasp of my story that I was beginning to lose touch with after rounds of editing and re-writes. I sent a draft to my agent and she said it looked great except what about this and what about that. I had completely overlooked two major plot points and had about two hundred words of dead wood. I made those changes and sent it to the Managing Editor this week. She said it was just the thing. (Actually, she said, “Excellent,” but it would sound self-aggrandizing for me to say that here.) Now, if someone asks for more than 2,000 words? At this point, I will probably tell them to just read the damn book.

A Little Rilke for Your Troubles

I am trying to purge old books and finding it very difficult. Was ready to throw away 1990 paperback of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, then happened upon this passage and no longer want to part with it:

“It would be difficult to persuade me that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the legend of a man who didn’t want to be loved. When he was a child, everyone in the house loved him. He grew up not knowing it could be any other way and got used to their tenderness, when he was a child.

But as a boy he tried to lay aside these habits. He wouldn’t have been able to say it, but when he spent the whole day roaming around outside and didn’t even want to have the dogs with him, it was because they too loved him; because in their eyes he could see observation and sympathy, expectation, concern; because in their presence too he couldn’t do anything without giving pleasure or pain. But what he wanted in those days was that profound indifference of heart which sometimes, early in the morning, in the fields, seized him with such purity that he had to start running, in order to have no time or breath to be more than a weightless moment in which the morning becomes consciousness itself.” (pp 251-252, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

As I Lay Dyeing

I suppose I should be writing about Craft or Career or something like that, but today I think I’ll talk about hair dye. When you Google “feminism hair dye” the top three hits are:

The Simpsons and Gray Hair as a Feminist Statement (
Should a Christian feminist color her hair? (
Feminism – SILVER: A State of Mind (

One website said 75% of American women color their hair, while in 1950 only 7% did. I could probably write seventeen different blogs about what those statistics mean to me (ageism, sexism, racism, feminism, ism-ism…all as they relate to hair dye), but I won’t force either of us to suffer through that. Suffice it to say, the men at Clairol probably had a little something to do with encouraging women to believe it was a sign of their freedom and independence to become hooked on a product that requires frequent re-application over many years.

To me, hair dye is the tip of the iceberg.

My grandmother had a story she used to tell to illustrate the slippery slope into moral turpitude, about a frog swimming in a glass bowl (for some reason I always pictured it swimming in this vintage Pyrex Flameware double-boiler):

In any case, the ignorant frog swims in happy oblivion as the evil forces around him turn the water temperature up one degree at a time (candy! billiards! alcohol! drugs! SEX!). By the time the frog realizes what has happened, he’s in boiling water. In my grandmother’s version of things, then, if I start dyeing my hair, the next thing you know I will have Maori tattoos running up the entire right side of my face, a bull-ring through my nose, vaginoplasty, and augmented double-D breasts.

She was right in a way. If everything is acceptable, then what? Chaos! (I am not ruling out the boob job, for example.)

These thoughts on shifting moral compasses remind me of this interview that Mike Wallace had with Bennett Cerf 11/30/57:

(NB: I highly recommend the entire Harry Ransom Center collection of Wallace interviews…especially if you have many hours to spare and like to watch people smoke.) Anyway, the fascinating thing about the video is how certain behaviors are culturally taken for granted: some things are masculine and fabulous (smoking, for one) and other things are vile trash (sexually explicit books). My grandmother was a big opponent of moral relativism. Hence the frog metaphor. It is a very clear-cut way to live. Right. Wrong. End of discussion.

But this silly hair-dye-decision now has a lifetime of my conflicting morals pressing in on me from every direction:

-DON’T MESS WITH MOTHER NATURE: I want to be “natural,” whatever the fuck that means. I want to be hairy and crazy like Janis Joplin. But then I think, “I drive a Prius, isn’t that enough?” (I had been led to believe that driving a Prius would cover a multitude of sins.) Why is my natural state no longer “good enough” for me? Who am I trying to please?

-CHEMICALS ARE EVIL: I don’t want nasty chemicals seeping into my scalp…right there by my brain…that just can’t be good for me. I live on planet earth, who am I kidding? I probably inhale more carcinogens when I clean the bathroom.

-VANITY VANITY ALL IS VANITY: I don’t want to care what other people think, but let’s not be ridiculous, I don’t want to look like an old bag either.

I spend very little time contemplating my appearance (despite what you might think), so when I am jarred into doing so, I am not very good at it. Everything about getting my hair dyed feels fraught with meaning. I just want to get the gray hair off the top of my head, damn it. It makes me feel old. And I guess now that I put it that way, this IS where I am going with this. Whether I am 25 or 85 I don’t ever have to FEEL old. I don’t care what it looks like to other people, but when I look in the mirror? Seeing those springs of lifeless, colorless hair (they’re not even the same texture! they are harbingers of death!) I feel my own mortality pressing down on me and that is not a reminder I need every time I wash my hands or brush my teeth.

But wait! Maybe I do need that reminder. The truth is, I AM getting closer to death every day, so maybe those gray hairs are there to say, “Hurry the fuck up!” Maybe that’s why I should leave them?

Fuck that. I want to beat death back with a stick.

On Agents

This whole weekly blog thing is a novelty. I will be all over the map. I guess this one could be filed under C for career.

Was just pondering where I was a year ago and realized I was probably sitting at this same table at Starbucks doing pretty much the same thing…writing. But my mind? A million miles away. As I scroll through my emails from a year ago, it reads like any aspiring author’s who is in the midst of The Dreaded Agent Search. At this time last year, I had my first book on submission to agents and I was a wreck.

I had been soaring on the highest highs (Axelrod requested the full!! I am going to be HUGE!!) and the lowest lows (Nelson rejected me 13 hours 4 minutes and 22 seconds after receiving my query. I am the shittiest writer. What am I doing spending precious time away from my children and family to write these ridiculous stories? I suck.) My husband and I were having a minor tiff at the time because I hadn’t heard back from InkWell—my “dream team”—and I was reluctant to follow up. They had requested the full in November and then…crickets. My husband and I have both spent time in “normal” industries like banking and marketing, where the idea of *not* pursuing a deal is preposterous. If someone doesn’t call you back? You call them! You try to win their business. You are avid! You are dogged! I try to explain to my husband that agents are DIFFERENT. They don’t want to be pursued in that way. All of the Twit-Wisdom, upon which I based my entire agent search, said unequivocally DO NOT harass the agent. I was trying to be a good bunny. (Note to aspiring writers: Get your ass onto Twitter! Use #askagent! Talk to other authors!)

After my husband pointed out that a polite inquiry did not equal harassment, I wrote a very small, quiet, sorry-to-bother-you email to InkWell and LO! I got a ping-back auto-reply that the person who had requested my manuscript back in November was no longer with the company. I was momentarily stunned. I picked up the phone with a shaky hand and dialed the 212 number. In my smallest, quietest, sorry-to-bother-you voice I asked to speak to the person now handling the departed person’s responsibilities. He sounded normal enough. “Oh! Yes! I remember your query. I am so sorry about the confusion. Would you mind re-sending it and I will pass it to the correct person?” Would I mind?!

Rapid heartbeat, gasping, and husband’s crowing all ensued.

From there on out it was a story of true love. Allison Hunter email’d back that she was looking forward to reading the manuscript and that I would probably hear back from her within four weeks. An actual response time? I was in heaven.

I got an email back from her in three weeks about how much she had enjoyed the manuscript. BUT. Before making an offer to represent me, she said she wanted to work on the manuscript together, to see if we would be a good fit. It reminded me of living together before marriage. (I am totally for it!) We spent the next two months on revisions, with tons of back-and-forth emails to make sure we could work well together. I was a quivering mess the entire time, but, as with any difficult birth, the details have already become misty and almost quaint. Megan at Ocean Reef freaking out about how to create greater depth of character in the protagonist’s father. Megan in Miami for a hen party freaking out about how to make the hero’s mid-book departure more imperative and less asshole-ish.

And then (finally!) on April 25, 2011, I opened my email to see the following subject line: Happy Monday News.

I burst into tears (duh) and just stared at the words over and over: Welcome to InkWell. (I don’t deny that I occasionally revisit this email when I am feeling low.) It was the Monday after Easter and I have never felt more full of new beginnings. I am not a religious person, but during my childhood, Easter was always my favorite holiday. None of the pressure to have the-best-time-ever-and-love-every-present-with-utter-abandon that Christmas always seemed to bring. On Long Island, Easter was always a meteorological crap shoot: sometimes it was sunny and warm and all the daffodils and forsythia were in full bloom. Other times it was still late winter. One of my favorite years it was poised exactly between both. The flowers were out, but the grass was still cold when we reached into the moist blades to get our eggs. When I read Allison Hunter’s email? I felt like that…all the cold, hard evidence of winter there in my fingertips, and all the promise and color of spring in my future.

I didn’t know it at the time (who does?) but I was learning so much during that whole back-and-forth editing process with Allison. The publishing submission process was a breeze by comparison. First of all, I was no longer alone. I had an advocate. Second of all, I knew I was capable of being meticulously edited. It’s not fun, in fact it’s grueling, but I can do it. And knowing that I could bend and not break was totally liberating. I know my core story. I know my characters. But if an editor wanted it a little more of this or a little more of that? Cool. I could do that. Having that flexibility was borne of those two months of our “living together.”

And if some of you are wondering, What if I had adhered to the no-answer-means-no philosophy? What if my husband hadn’t pushed me to be pushy? Hell, if I know. But, without sounding too Stuart Smalley about the whole thing, all of you aspiring writers out there: If I can do it, so can you. Put yourself out there!

On Boobs

Since I resolved to write one blog per week (instead of one per month) this is my first attempt to meet that New Year’s Resolution. It is 7:31 pm on Saturday, January 7 so this is technically Week One. The husband is in the kitchen marinating the steaks. The eleven-year-old and the five-year-old are watching Parent Trap (Lohan 2.0) in the living room and arguing about something that I can vaguely hear through my Bose noise reduction headphones, but am choosing to ignore.

There were several topics this week that were worth thinking about for longer than 140 characters (which will be how I come up with ideas for these weekly musings). Sarah Frantz’s breasts, for one. She threw a picture up and asked, “Twitter, does this shirt pull too much for (academic) job interview?” I became enthralled with the picture and then with why I was enthralled. I kept staring at that picture of Prof. Frantz (who has what is commonly known as a rack), then wondered if I was staring for some sexual reason and then stared some more.

Our society has such a mass-fetishization of breasts it is almost impossible (for me at least) to separate my own aesthetic or sociological interests from cultural, pornographic brainwashing. I have always thought the entire human body was aesthetically pleasing: Michelangelo’s David and his slingshot, Ursula Andress and her Bowie knife are both beautiful to me. But I have never thought breasts in and of themselves were sexy. Most heterosexual men of my acquaintance, on the other hand, say they have been turned on by breasts for as long as they can remember, citing National Geographic, circa 1969, featuring breastfeeding tribeswomen of the Masai, as an early example.

Yeah. For me? No.

Thus ruling out a possible sexual attraction to Frantz’s rack, I realized it was simply the existence of something so unavoidable right there on the front of one’s body that was causing me to spend so much time on the topic. I do not have large breasts: what was really keeping me staring was a fascination with The Other. No longer thinking specifically of Frantz, I began to wonder how different my own life would have been if I had had a body like that. I wouldn’t know how to dress. I wouldn’t even know how to move around in the world.

My clothing style has always run along the lines of Annie Hall-meets-Giorgio Armani (depending on whether I am broke and thrift shopping or gainfully employed and buying top-of-the-line retail). If I were Albert Einstein, I would have an entire closet full of crisp white Oxford shirts and a variety of comfortable, flattering blue jeans, with the occasional perfectly tailored black dress thrown in. I like how Diane Keaton and Jodie Foster dress. Surprise. Both are flat-chested. I understand how their bodies wear clothes. Long lines that accentuate assets (tall and thin) rather than deficits (negligible tits and ass).

I grew up in a world that told me I should downplay my femininity as much as possible if I wanted intelligent people to listen to what I had to say. Especially intelligent men. Don’t distract them with anything that could be confused with sexual provocation, was right up there with firm-handshake and look-them-in-the-eye. And since I wanted to be taken seriously in life, that advice stuck.

I tried to make my body attractive but, ultimately, irrelevant. But guess what? I have a body! Living in Florida has made me blissfully body conscious. Everyone at the beach is more or less naked. And when they walk from the beach to the hotel across the street, passing the ice cream parlor where I sit with my five-year-old? Yep. They are all pretty much naked. And they are talking and laughing and interacting. Much like my romance-novel reading sprang from a desire to escape the confines of my self-imposed intellectualism, so moving to Florida and wearing the occasional bikini or too-short skirt must have come from the same psychological impulse. To escape the mannish tailoring of my self-imposed sartorial androgyny.

But, hark! In the thirty years or so since I got all that bad advice about de-feminizing my appearance in order to be taken seriously, lots of sexual freedom fighters have come forward and said, “Check me out! I have huge sexy tits AND a brain!” They’ve said it far more eloquently than that, but this is an off-the-cuff blog for Christ’s sake. Give me a break. The point is, they got to be all that…sexy AND serious, while I was still living in the Dark Ages of thinking I had to choose.

At the end of my little Twitter exchange with Frantz, I promised (you can remove those tenterhooks now) to write a blog “about how mass-cultural fetishizing of breasts informs my view of ‘sexy’ vs ‘serious'” and Frantz replied, “Oh, interesting. Am I incapable of looking serious, then? ;-)” And I replied, “:) no, my residual adolescent tells me women-with-boobs get to be serious *and* sexy, but I don’t get to be sexy”

But I do! In my reading and my appearance, I too can be sexy *and* serious. Because sexiness really has nothing to do with breast size. I think it was Victoria Dahl who once pointed out that, regardless of size, most men think the sexiest boobs are the ones they are touching.