Writing Nowadays: Treatments

Fifteen years ago when I started writing novels, you hit up editors with a proposal package that included a 20-page synopsis and the first three chapters.  If you were lucky, the editor wrote back and said, “Send me the full manuscript,” which you did.  If you were really lucky, the editor called you to say, “I want to buy your book.”  You thanked the editor profusely, hung up the phone, and hunted madly for an agent.

Things have changed.

Today’s blog starts a series on submitting your novel for professional publication.  We’ll go through the steps, with (I hope) input from other BVCers and anyone else who wants to row an oar.  So join in!

First, we’ll assume you have a completed novel of any genre.  It’s pretty much a given that no editor will offer a contract to a first-timer who doesn’t have a full manuscript yet.  So if you’re not done with that book yet, get going!  Don’t worry–we’ll wait.

. . .

Finished?  Great!  Now you need to write a short treatment. Computers and the Internet, you see, have largely destroyed the 20-page synopsis.  Word processing made the physical act of writing much easier, and people who wouldn’t have the patience for it before are now producing 100,000 words.  And they all want to send them out.  Couple that with massive layoffs that require everyone in publishing to do the work of three people, and your average editor has much less time for reading.  Twenty pages?  Ha!

A treatment consists of three to five double-spaced pages.  It sketches out in broad terms what your book is about.  Think of it as an expanded version of the back cover blurb.  You don’t have much room, so you need to hit the ground running:

Life is conspiring against Henry Bayfield.  His ex-wife has filed for sole custody of their daughter, his company is going bankrupt, and the guy in front of him at the bank has just pulled a gun.  As the customers dive for cover, Henry fingers the gun in his own pocket and wonders why be bothered to get up this morning.

You’ll notice the total lack of explanation about who Henry Bayfield is. It’s death to start with something like Henry Bayfield is a corporate lawyer with a nasty ex-wife. No, a treatment focuses on what the character does, as in the above example.

As the treatment progresses, you’ll have to condense greatly:

…Henry barely escapes the bank, but now the FBI are chasing him.  Some time later, he meets Farrah Finn, an old high school flame who seems ready to re-ignite.  They hide out together in a series of bad motels while dodging the FBI and the hitmen sent by Henry’s ex-wife, and their relationship deepens…

The ending can be done in broad terms as well:

…In the end, as the hitmen close in, Henry is forced to choose between Farrah, his daughter, and his own feelings of self worth.

In three to five pages, you don’t have much room to explain symbolism, theme, or character development.  That’s the way it goes.  Focus on the main plot points and count on the sample pages to draw the editor in.

Next time: Giving good samples.

–Steven Harper Piziks


Books available at Book View Cafe:

Full selection available at http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Steven-Piziks/Steven-Piziks-Novels/



Writing Nowadays: Treatments — 5 Comments

  1. I’ve been in the biz since the early Eighties and back then, a “selling synopsis” was 3-5 pages. If the editor wanted more detail, you went longer, but while I heard of people basically writing a really really light draft of the book (100 pages or more, ye gods), I’ve always done what you call a “treatment.” It’s not a new thing where I come from.

    The thing I see that didn’t used to be such a huge hairy deal as it is now is the query letter. That’s where I’m noticing the decrease in available agent/editor time. I’m not entirely sure there’s been an actual increase in the size of the slush pile. Publishers used to talk about how they got tens of thousands of slush submissions a year. A great deal of that has shifted to electronic media, and a lot of it has diverted into a different channel. Remember when publishers used to have slush readers? Now those are called “agents.”

  2. Hey! No jumping the gun, you! I was going to get into that later. 🙂

    That was an issue of the anthrax nonsense post-9/11. Remember that? Despite the fact that all of, what, three people out of millions actually received icky packages in the mail, suddenly everyone was ordered to be suspicious of large packages they hadn’t ordered and publishers stopped accepted unsolicited manuscripts. After the scare died down, the publishers mysteriously failed to start reading unsolicited manuscripts again, and that responsibility shifted over to agents.

  3. That’s a great example. About the only other thing I might add is that a neutral tone is deadly in these things–though you are summarizing wildly, that does not mean strive for journalistic detachment. If the story is a romantic comedy, a bit of that flavor in the treatment helps convey the tone of the book.A gritty suspense story–elegiac horror–historical novel–the treatment should reflect a bit of the book’s voice.

    Neutral reportage can make the most exciting book sound like a snore.