Posted By Kevin J. Anderson on January 28, 2015
As we move toward the 2015 Superstars Writing Seminar, it’s time to show off another excellent writing book we’ve just released at WordFire Press. THE SYNOPSIS TREASURY contains the actual proposals and synopses submitted by well-known authors for books that many of you have known and read. An excellent snapshot behind the scenes of the business. Look at original proposals by H.G. Wells, Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert, Joe Haldeman, Connie Willis, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson, James Gunn, Ben Bova, Piers Anthony, Michael Bishop, Terry Brooks, Robert E. Vardeman, Orson Scott Card, David Brin, Janny Wurts, James P Blaylock, Bruce Coville, Margaret Weiss, Nancy Varian Berberick, Robert J. Sawyer, Sara Douglass, Louise Marley, Roberta Gellis, Ian R. McLeod, Julie E. Czerneda, Jacqueline Carey, Chris Roberson, Eldon Thompson. An invaluable treasury!
Here’s the Foreword, by our hard-working editor, Christopher Sirmons Haviland
The Synopsis Treasury began in 2003, at what was then called the Maui Writer’s Conference, in a conversation with science fiction author Ben Bova. It went some-thing like this:
“There are lots of books telling aspiring writers how to write synopses,” I said to him. “What they really need is an anthology that shows them what authors did in fact submit to their agent or publisher.”
“You should put that together,” Ben said right away. “That’ll sell.”
It took me longer than it should have to intuit what this meant. “You mean I should just approach authors out of the blue and say, ‘I am compiling a book of actual synopses that authors sent to their publishers. Do you have one I can publish in my collection?’”
“Yes,” he said simply.
I paused, considering this advice. “Okay, do you have one I can publish in my collection?”
“Sure, how about Mars?”
Next thing I knew, he pitched the idea to his wife, literary agent Barbara Bova*, who asked me to put together a book proposal so she could shop it.
I spoke to a few authors at the conference, including Terry Brooks and Bruce Coville, and they made verbal commitments to help me as well. When I got home I reached out to a few more authors I had been in contact with over the years, starting with Andre Norton. Andre responded so quickly that hers was the
very first I actually received. In a fairly short amount of time I had a handful of synopses from major authors.
So life had assigned a project for me to do, and I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. But I had no idea what I was in for.
Very early into the project I had to make decisions as to the goal of my book, although some would be tweaked over time. My first decision, which never changed, was that it would be about content, not about format. There are plenty of books that teach format, and every publisher has formatting guidelines. This relieved me from having to reproduce each author’s contribution in its original format. Instead, I chose a single, basic format for each synopsis to give the book continuity, and only diverted from that when necessary. I also decided I would not line-edit the synopses, except to make sure that my transcription was ac-curate. For the most part, I wanted my audience to read what the publishers read. (Except that, with the older typewritten transcripts, a few typos might have been inadvertently corrected.)
From 2004 to 2005, when I lived in White Plains, New York, Barbara shopped the book proposal with every big publisher she could think of. But none of them would pick it up. Stymied, she told me I’d better try shopping it myself with the smaller presses. So in 2005–2006, when I moved to Hadley, Massachusetts, I tried to gain interest from independent markets. None of them would pick it up either. I visited the Book Expo one year and pitched it to whomever would listen, and many thought it was a good idea, but would not pick it up.
In the meantime, I kept collecting synopses. I attempted to go after mainstream authors, but a vast majority of them were either impossible to contact, or did not have anything to submit. Science Fiction and Fantasy authors, however, were not only more accessible but often had synopses they were willing to contribute. I still don’t know what to conclude from that. Do publishers of science fiction and fantasy need synopses more often, even from established authors? Or do many genre authors find a greater use for them? Or is it just easier to make contact with more genre authors than mainstream, and so I don’t have a proper basis of comparison?
Whatever the reason, the collection ended up with mostly science fiction or fantasy submissions, or mainstream submis-sions by authors who write in the genre.
Most of the authors I established contact with were very excited and supportive of the project. But publishers were holding back. A large factor in the industry’s hesitation was economic. Book sales were declining, small presses were shutting down, and “niche” books were squeezed out of inventory.
So I decided I’d try publishing the book with my own company at the time, LegendMaker Scriptoria. In the years between 2006 and 2009 I had built a new house for my growing family in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and at the same time established publishing agreements with most of the contributors, paid them, and continued to find new synopses and outlines to include. It became a strain on me financially when I got carried away with what I could find.
At various university archives I discovered synopses and outlines written by authors long deceased. Some of the most famous and prolific genre authors of all time. And I found story ideas pitched by authors to their editors in letters, who would respond with tweaks to those ideas, and so on, until a book emerged. The book was turning into a “Who’s Who” in science fiction and fantasy spanning over a hundred years, with a behind-the-scenes glimpse on how the stories were born. I amassed over seventy actual synopses, most of them written by genre heavyweights!
So I struggled to find the copyright holders of the material, then a way of contacting them. That was a daunting process. In some cases I couldn’t figure out who owned the rights, or how to reach out to them, and some agents representing literary estates were unresponsive to my inquiries.
Then in 2009 I was laid off from my day job. By that time I had two young boys and a third on the way, was just recovering from being hospitalized with pneumonia, and was barely making ends meet with the newly constructed house. Not to mention, the housing market had flipped upside-down, making it impossible for me to sell the house without killing my credit rating. After six years of work and lots of money spent, I had no choice but to fold LegendMaker Scriptoria and put The Synopsis Treasury on hiatus indefinitely until I could sort my life out.
From 2009 to 2012 I was forced to take a lot of different jobs, some of them so stressful that they affected my health. One long gig took place in New York City, forcing me to live away from my family for weeks at a time. Imagine how hard it was on my wife, too!
Finally I was offered a management job in greater Phila-delphia in 2012 that appeared solid. So I moved into a temporary apartment there, leaving the family behind in Massachusetts until I could find a suitable new home. In the summer of 2012, I finally found and bought one in Royersford, Pennsylvania, and I moved my family down. Reunited after about five months!
I couldn’t afford to sell the Massachusetts house, so I rented it out.
All I had to do was lick my wounds for a year or so and resurrect The Synopsis Treasury. But alas, the rug was yanked out from under me once again. I was laid off from my Pennsylvania job only a few months after our big relocation. And I lost my tenant in Massachusetts. By early 2013, I had no income except unemployment insurance with two mortgages on my back. It seemed like The Synopsis Treasury would have to stay in its coma for a long, long time.
In the summer of 2013 things looked more promising again. I found a new tenant for my Massachusetts house, and I was offered two jobs in the same week. However, both jobs were out of state. I picked the stronger of the two, and once again left my family behind as I moved into a tiny, cheap apartment in Dallas, Texas to start work as soon as possible.
It was history repeating itself, living away from my family. Much further away.
Fortunately, my good luck continued. In early 2014 I managed to sell my Pennsylvania house in less than six days—for my asking price! With closing in mid-May, I elected to let my family stay at friends’ and hotels to finish out the school year. That kept them busy while I focused on a double-relocation. I moved all the Pennsylvania furniture down to a bigger apartment in Frisco, Texas, within commute of my new job, and I also moved out of my little apartment in Dallas and into Frisco. (These moves included my library of 3,500 books and various collections that can be the plague of science fiction and fantasy writers and enthusiasts.)
With towers of unpacked boxes in my new apartment, and utterly exhausted, I fell under the delusion I could get some R&R at the Dallas ComicCon in May 2014.
I was on my feet all day at the con, standing in lines for autographs like a geek, without food in my stomach. It was brutal, especially given that I have bad feet to begin with. Late in the day, my feet screaming in pain, and feeling dizzy, I wove my way through the retailer floor toward the overpriced hot dog stand. And I happened right up on Kevin J. Anderson’s pavilion. He was a contributor to The Synopsis Treasury back in 2006, and in fact it was via his newsletter that I learned of the timing of the Dallas ComicCon in the first place. So I stopped by to see him.
I reminded him of The Synopsis Treasury, and told him of its fate.
He said, “Did you know I am now also a publisher?” (A hint of epic proportions.)
“Uhhh …” was all I said. To be honest I hadn’t had enough mental bandwidth to connect those dots over the last few years, and on the spur of the moment I couldn’t think of a clever response. I really needed to get that hot dog in me.
“We’re looking for good writing books and I’d like this one,” he continued. He asked me to submit The Synopsis Treasury to him for publication in the Fall of 2014.
I only remember staring blankly at him, like a deer mes-merized by the headlights of a fast moving truck. I had so much unpacking to do before my family moved in, and very little PTO left at work.
I then bought a truckload of books from Kevin’s table and staggered off to eat junk food.
Kevin’s first concern was that The Synopsis Treasury tried to accomplish too much. I had collected too many chapters, and the page count was exceptional. It had suffered from scope creep. The solution was obvious, I just needed to be forced to cut chapters. While stuffing myself with empty calories at a dirty indoor picnic table and trying to rest my burning feet, I yanked out my iPad, found my chapter list (God Bless Dropbox) and emailed it to Kevin, explaining my situation in more detail. Kevin advised, “Give me what’s finished. Shelve the rest for later.”
He made it sound so easy. Maybe I was overcomplicating it.
But first I had to find the project. It was still packed from my relocation. Somewhere.
Then I had to re-read all the material, scan in all the agreements, reconnect with the authors I wanted to keep, and chart my progress.
I had until July to unpack and set up the apartment for my family to move in, and until September to prepare and submit The Synopsis Treasury. Just the volume of cardboard after un-packing was an absolute nightmare! My wife, Sara, had accepted a four week job teaching Chinese at a Massachusetts summer school to make back a little of our expenses. Two of my kids attended the classes and the other one stayed with my mother in Connecticut. That bought me some time, but I didn’t want Sara to have to drive all the way down to Texas with three little boys by herself, after everything she’d already been through. I needed to take a week off work, fly up, and drive them down. If the apartment wasn’t ready before I left, there would be nowhere for them to park, to cook, to eat, to sleep, to sit …
So when I wasn’t passed out in my recliner from sheer exhaustion, I juggled my “free time” priorities on an hourly basis. My day job also took turns compressing me, as day jobs usually do, and once in a while needed off-hours attention as well.
I found my book project, which was very well filed and organized in hanging folders for each author, and read through everything as fast as I could. How was I to decide what chapters were finished? The criteria wasn’t as clear as I’d hoped. Most of my chapters had all their assets but the bios and photos were outdated by six to eight years, and so was all the contact infor-mation. Some of my agreements needed to be renewed. Some chapters were missing a minor piece—a photo here, a bio there. If the synopsis and introduction were great, and the author was paid and I had a signed agreement, why cut the chapter just because it’s missing a bio? I had to get it all together.
From May through September 2014 I cut lots of chapters that I had no hope of finishing on time. Some of these cuts broke my heart, because they would have been a wonderful addition, but I could not establish rights to publish them on my new timetable. With what was left, I began reaching out to all my contributors again, reminding them of the project, getting them up to speed, and asking them to please send in a photo, or a bio, or even finish their introduction.
I thought perhaps they’d say they were too busy, and couldn’t help me on such short notice. But instead they were very understanding, agreeable, and quick to respond. Professional writers are used to deadlines.
I also decided I would really like to have an editor’s point of view. I wanted an editor with experience at reading synopses and outlines for a publisher to write the introduction to The Synopsis Treasury. But there was so little time! Could I find one? Who?
On a whim, I reached out to one of the most well-known and respected candidates in the genre: Betsy Mitchell, former vice pre-sident and editor-in-chief of Del Rey, whom I had met all those years ago on Maui, before the book even began. Terry Brooks himself had introduced me to her, as she was his fiction editor.
I thought it was a shot in the dark, but Betsy responded with a “yes,” and wrote a great introduction for the book on a very tight deadline.
By some miracle I accomplished all my goals. I got the apartment unpacked and organized (mostly), moved my wife and boys in, and finished The Synopsis Treasury.
Finally I reached the end of a ten year journey.
What you will read here is only a fraction of what I originally compiled. But maybe there is life in it yet. Maybe all those chapters I had to cut will make it into a Volume 2 someday? Tell all your friends to buy this book, and we’ll see!
In the meantime, here are my suggestions on how to use The Synopsis Treasury:
Read the summaries herein.
Buy and read the novels that were finally published, and compare. What changed? Did the changes improve the idea?
As a bonus, compare these synopses to the cover copy if available—the summary of the story usually found on the back of the novel or in the cover sleeve. Cover copy is designed to entice a reader, whereas the selections in The Synopsis Treasury are designed to entice a publisher.
I hope you are as fascinated reading all this as I have been!
—Christopher Sirmons Haviland
Editor, The Synopsis Treasury
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