Saturday, 7 June 2014

Synopsis as Friend by Tracy Alexander

 As I contemplated cracking on with my novel this morning – I’m only on Chapter Three – I had a comforting thought. The exact words in my head were Synopsis as friend. My mind’s circuitry led me straight to a case study from my long gone life as a marketer. The subject was dog food.

For ten years I was a proper PAYE employee, selling the likes of frozen food, tennis shoes and booze. For the next ten years I was freelance, selling money in the form of mortgages and investments. At some point I was invited to give a guest lecture at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Given that I was seven months pregnant, I probably should have declined. Instead I pulled on a pair of black trousers with an oh-so-attractive stretchy panel fetchingly topped by an elastic waistband (for that little known waist that is in fact directly beneath your breasts), buttoned the matching black maternity waistcoat (what joker thought of that) and drove to Cookham.

I wasn’t nervous, until I opened my mouth and realised that my lung capacity, whilst adequate for conversations where you only have every other turn and the person is close by, wasn’t up to the job. I cut short my introduction, offering the delegates a chance to say a little about themselves while I recovered my composure.

My subject was segmentation. Bread and butter stuff. I had all sorts of examples from the world known as FMCG (fast moving consumer goods), from retail and from financial services. All I had to do was teach the theory, show examples – the brilliant dog food slides were ready and waiting – and then relate it to the fields they were working in. I could do that with or without oxygen.

The first attendee mumbled her name and said that she worked on treated mosquito nets. My mind gave a sarcastic ‘yippee!’ Never mind. The others were bound to be working on cars, shampoo, biscuits . . . something I could relate to.

The conch was passed round the room. My confidence ebbed. My smile became as fixed and unresponsive as my twenty-something pupils.
It turned out that I had a global monopoly on marketers of mosquito related products.
Inside I did the equivalent of a refusal at Becher’s Brook.           

Whether it was the peppering of the content with irritating little breaths, the hideousness of my maternity waistcoat or my lack of engagement with the mosquito market, by the time I got to the segmentation of the dog food market, I’d lost them. A shame, because it was my favourite part.

Here’s the gist:
Categorising dog food in terms of form – dry, wet, raw – or flavour – lamb, rabbit, chicken – didn’t help marketers understand how to make their products attractive to dog owners. Nor did using the breed, age or size of dog. Research showed that the most meaningful way of sorting the market was by looking at how dog owners thought about their dogs.
Four segments were identified that most influenced the type of dog food chosen:
Dog as grandchild – indulgence
Dog as child – love
Dog as friend – health and nutrition
Dog as dog – cheap and convenient.

My audience woke up slightly. Proof that a pet can always be relied on to liven things up, be it in business or school visits. We had our first interaction of any length, a welcome reprieve for my pulmonary gas exchange. The treated net marketers had never considered the relationship between dog and master.
Had they not read The Call of the Wild? Seen Bill Sykes mistreat Bull’s Eye?  Or Hagrid berate cowardly Fang? Timmy was surely as much a friend as Anne, Dick, Julian and George. 

They eagerly volunteered product names and quickly slotted them into the four segments.

Cesar Mini Fillets in a foil tray – Dog as grandchild
Asda Smartprice Dog Meal. – Dog as dog
Pedigree Chum Chicken – the clues in the name . . .

In what was overall a pretty grey-with-clouds lecture, I enjoyed the little spell of sunshine. Motivation wasn’t something mosquito experts thought a lot about. They thought about geography and insects and shelter and disease and mosquito net fixing kits. They didn’t think about what might be on the mind of the traveller, setting off alone to try and find traces of the Hairy-nosed Otter in Borneo, or maybe the traveller’s nervous father, buying the very best treated mosquito net for his passionate but impractical son.

Marketers often end up segmenting by demographics e.g. age, gender, income, despite the power of psychographics like motivation, personality and attitude. Perhaps writers should lecture at the Chartered Institute of Marketing instead . . .

Quite why my inner voice chose the words Synopsis as friend, inextricably linked in my hippocampus to Dog as friend, who knows, but it made me reflect on my changed relationship with synopses.

My first few books grew in a free spirit sort of way, meandering towards a vague nirvana shrouded in uncertainty. The synopses written afterwards, if at all. 
This was: Synopsis as bureaucrat.

My new book, Hacked, out in November, was the product of a synopsis I HAD to write because the publisher, Piccadilly Press, was interested in an idea I’d mooted and wanted it fleshed out.
This was: Synopsis as unwanted dependant.
I developed the beginning, middle and end of the story, my lovely publisher made a few suggestions and then I forgot about the four-page plan until there was a problem, at which point I reluctantly referred to it.

The synopsis for the sequel, however, is printed out and has its own space on my desk. It feels reassuring. Trustworthy, but not prescriptive. 
857 words in, with 50 000 ish to go, I’m glad that I’m not alone.
This is: Synopsis as friend

I even enjoyed the discipline of writing it.

Tracy Alexander


Penny Dolan said...

What a positive and interesting way of thinking about the dreaded synopses - and about dog food. I did smile at your account of the marketing lecture. Glad you and the maternity outfit won through with the dog food. Maybe people buy books for children in a similar way. Child as interested learner? Child as keen tv watcher? Child as librarian/owner of beautiful books? Child as wacky joker? Hmmm.

Tamsyn Murray said...

I love synopses. Like your most recent one, it's the first thing I write and I refer back to it as needed. In fact, it's kind of like stabilisers on a bike - there until I feel confident enough to carry on without (usually about 60-70% into the story). So the synopsis is definitely my friend.

Did you learn anything about mosquito nets?

Unknown said...

Love the parallel - am busy making up my own segments for how we choose what we think a child we know would like to read.

Unknown said...

No, Tamsyn, not then, but have since bought one for my gap year son. They're very uninteresting.

Stroppy Author said...

In Borneo, leech-proof socks are more important than mosquito nets. Just in case you were thinking of looking for that otter!
Congratulations on befriending the synopsis. I still think of it as would-be gaoler

Unknown said...

Stroppy Author - you should have given the lecture!

Ann Turnbull said...

What an interesting post! I completely forgot about the synopsis and became engrossed in maternity wear, mosquito nets and whether I was friend or grandparent to my cat (mostly friend, but occasionally I become grandma and provide one of those reassuringly expensive little pouch delicacies.)

I too have grown to love synopses. I used to have a vague plan, but never wrote synopses until publishers started asking for them. But I now find the synopsis - covered in little pencilled thoughts and additions and sparks of new ideas - reassures me that I really can write the book.

Nicola Morgan said...

I love synopses, too, and have even written a book about them :)