On Writing Queries and Synopses

Image courtesy of Beyond the Boundary

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that I find writing queries and synopses for novel submissions infinitely harder than writing the novels themselves. I can keep tabs on multiple plot threads in my head without ever writing them down. I can write two completely unrelated novels in tandem and not have any unexpected crossover issues. I can even update my blogs at some point during the week and have time left to focus on the big work.

But sit me down and ask me to write a query letter and explain my novel in one or two paragraphs? Ask me to write a short synopsis with the barest of details? Say I just need to do an elevator pitch? That’s when my brain stutters to a halt and I end up looking at you in anime-dots-for-eyes confusion.

I mean, I can write them. I did just that the other day so I could send out a novel project to a prospective literary agency. But it took me nearly all day to do both, even though I knew the novel backwards and forwards. I might joke that I’m a New Englander of French-Canadian descent and that talking about anything quickly and clinically is nigh on impossible for me, but it really is a frame of mind that’s super hard for me to shift over to. [Side note: I saved these documents soon afterwards so I can reuse them elsewhere if need be. I’d rather not repeat that work again, thank you very much.]

It’s not just the question of what definitely needs to be in this synopsis and what can I leave out?, but crafting it in a way that makes sense to someone who has not read the story yet. It kind of feels like a job interview in a way: I’m trying to upsell my abilities while at the same time not overwhelming them with detail. I’ve talked to agents at cons many a time, and they always come across as nice and easy to approach, and yet I always feel super nervous and that I’m about to fail the most basic of introductions because I freeze up and flail and blather and my thought process is rarely in chronological order.

One of the many assignments I’ve given myself over the last couple of weeks is to fix that mindset once and for all. After that massive exercise the other day, I was confident enough that I’d gotten my point across and managed to edit everything down to a normal requested size. I sent out the submission without feeling like I was about to make a fool of myself. [Side note: Synopses can still be tricky, as I’ve had agents and publishers say they should be three paragraphs or three pages, depending on who you ask. I’ll adjust as necessary, but whoo doggie is it hard for me to adjust either way sometimes.] And usually when I get through this kind of thing once or twice, I’ll be comfortable enough with it so future attempts won’t be as agonizing. As with most things, I just have to do it.

It’s tough as hell sometimes, but with experience, I’ll get used to it soon enough.

On Submitting Instead of Self-Publishing

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been contemplating submitting Diwa and Kaffi to agents and/or publishers. I haven’t taken this route since probably 2013, when I submitted A Division of Souls out to a few publishers. I’ve self-published everything since then.

So why go the submission route this time out? Well, my first and most important reason is that I have high expectations for this particular novel. I’m quite proud of how it’s come out; it’s quite possibly my best work since I started self-releasing my work. And to be honest, I really don’t want this one to fall into a void like my other books have tended to do. [That’s partially my own fault, but that’s for another post.] I want Diwa and Kaffi to get the best cover, the best production, the best editing, the best everything. While I could find an artist to commission for a great cover, and while I could do my damnedest to get this book into the hands of as many people as possible, I also know that going the ‘pro’ route would provide me with better chances than I could ever give myself.

Which means I need to start researching for agents and publishers for the first time in ages. I’m aware that the process and the field has changed considerably over the last ten or so years since I last researched it, so I’m going in knowing full well that I may need to relearn it all. I’m totally down with that, considering I’ve been in this writing gig for pretty much my entire life. I’ve read all the Writer’s Digest articles. I’ve read the how-to books. I’ve talked to the panelists at conventions. I know where to look and who to ask.

So what’s different for me this time out? On a personal level, I’m going into the submission process with a bit of context and experience. I’m not mailing these printouts passively into the wind and hoping they graduate past the slush pile. I’m not looking at the process with rose-tinted glasses and getting my feelings hurt when I get rejection letters back. And most importantly: I understand why those past submissions failed as they did. I learned how to read my own work clinically so I could see why they were rejected. I was able to understand that changing my style or my process or whatever had no bearing on me personally; there’s going against the grain and then there’s just using that as an excuse for sloppy work.

Do I know who I want to submit to? I have a few ideas. I look at who’s published my favorite books in the last decade, who the editors were, who their agents are. I’ve met a few of them at cons, or know of them through some of my other writer friends (this is one of the reasons I do enjoy social media).

I know it’ll still be high-stakes. I know the turnaround will be significantly longer. I know it might still get published but not get any promotion whatsoever. I know it might still get rejected. I know it still depends on timing and luck. But I’m willing to try it anyway.

And if all else fails, I can still self-publish it.

On Submitting a Novel

I’m trying to remember the last time I tried submitting one of my novels to a publisher or an agent, and I’m thinking it may have been at least five or six years go, when I’d just finished the final edits of A Division of Souls.  I’d submitted it and other projects off and on over the years before that, with no success.

That part was frustrating, sure, but I won’t hold it against the publishers and agents.  I get why it’s so hard to get past the slush pile.  I got over it, and it helped me take the idea of self-publishing a hell of a lot more seriously.  It also made me a better writer in the process.

During our vacation a few weeks back, I reread what I have so far of the Apartment Complex story, and I was struck at how different the style is from most of my other novels.  It’s not as frantic as the Bridgetown Trilogy, or free-floating as Meet the Lidwells, or as fantastical as In My Blue World.  It feels like a style I could really sink my teeth into with future novels.  At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think this is some of my best stuff yet.  [Even after threatening to ragequit the project in frustration earlier this year, at that!]

Dare I say, I’m rather proud of it right now.

It got me thinking — maybe this one has a good chance of being picked up somewhere?  I mean, yeah, I have a wish list of publishing houses and agencies where this would fit in quite nicely, and that’s a good place to start.

So why now, and not with the other novels?  I think part of it is due to the fact that my previous work does feel rather indie.  I’d like to think they’re decently written, but they purposely don’t have that Manhattan Literary Sheen™ to them.  [I’m not saying that as a put-down.  I say this as a parallel to, say, the loose noise of early-era Dinosaur Jr or Sonic Youth on indie labels versus their much cleaner late-period major label releases.  I produced my self-published novels to be indie on purpose rather than to attempt to conform to something more commercial.]

Simply put, the Apartment Complex story, I feel, is a story that deserves a strong platform.  I’d rather not see it fall through the cracks due to my inability to get it seen by potential readers.  It’s a story that I truly would like to share with a lot of people.

That said…I’ll have to start doing my submission search soon, because it’s been ages since I’ve looked at a Writer’s Market to see who’s out there nowadays and who’s accepting and who isn’t, and what format they prefer.

But that part’s easy.  It’s getting the thing done and all cleaned up that’s the hard part!

Questionable Writing Advice

nathan fillion nope
Me too, Nathan.  Me too.

In a recent issue of one of the few writing magazines I subscribe to, they provide a multi-page article (in garish school-bus yellow, I should add) of “what agents hate.”  I only briefly skimmed it, having had the sense that this was going to be little more than a list of personal irritations that may or may not be helpful to the writers reading it.  I found it more annoying and self-important than helpful to be honest, but that’s just me.

One that did kind of rub me the wrong way was one in which said, and I quote:  If you don’t know how to write a compelling pitch for yourself, you probably should not pursue being a writer.

I mean, I get the context:  this agent has a personal issue with writers who fail at trying to sell themselves.

On the other hand, I personally know a hell of a lot of writers and artists out there who can write phenomenal prose or brilliant dialogue or draw beautiful sequences…yet doing something so compact and microscopic as a one-page advertisement for yourself is a fucking nightmare.  Trying to distill a hundred-thousand-word story that you’ve worked on for lord knows how many months into twenty sentences is a hell of a lot harder than it looks.  It’s two completely different types of creative thinking, and it’s hard as hell to switch easily from one to the other.   Some writers/artists just aren’t as good at the elevator pitch as they are at telling the story.  [Speaking from experience, I should add.]

If anything, I’m thinking they should have maybe rephrased that to be a little less, I don’t know…snobbish?  Soul-crushing?  I’m not sure what word to use here, other than they’re an agent I will most likely not submit to, just on attitude alone.  You’re an agent, you’re supposed to help the writer, not chase them away with Fame platitudes about ‘only the best survive’ and turn them away before they even start.  Yeah, I know, it’s a small field with a crapton of wannabes.  I’m still not a fan of that kind of thinking.

Anyway.  There were also your usual bingo-card points of advice:  kill the adverbs, kill the non-‘said’ dialogue tags, don’t self-edit, farm it out to your writing group, submit only your best work, follow submission directions on the website, don’t hassle the agent/publisher, etc.  Be gracious.  Be patient.  A lot of it does make sense, of course.  YMMV, as they say.

And as I’ve mentioned plenty of times before, some of these are reasons why I’m a self-published author.  I want to be able to successfully edit my own work.  I want to go against the grain.  I’ve gotten better with the pitch.  I don’t think I’m at pro-level yet, but I’ll get there eventually.  I like working on my terms instead of shoehorning myself into everyone else’s.


So.  Anyone else come across some questionable writing advice lately?


Adventures in Self-Publishing: Cover Art

Almost-official cover, take two.
Almost-official cover, take two.

Today’s work included taking the step of buying a stock photo and finally utilizing my sort of decent art skills for future profit. I used the most basic plan on Shutterstock: $41 for five downloads, four of which I’ll use at a later time for the other two books in the trilogy, and maybe a future project or two.  That was the easy part.

The hard part was thinking three or four steps ahead before I even started. There are a few things that I had to keep in mind before I went anywhere with this.

Image Resolution. Many places like Smashwords and BookBaby require high resolution of the finished product. This is so your potential readers will see a nice clear picture on their e-reader, and won’t cause pixelation (i.e., it won’t look all blotchy and fuzzy if you blow up the picture larger than necessary).  Thus I downloaded the highest resolution, which I believe was 3400 x 3400 pixels. Much higher than necessary, but after cropping, it still looks good.

Cropping ratio.  This is something that is actually pretty important yet not too many people think about.  The most common ratio for e-book covers, I’ve read, is 1:1.33.  That is, 1.33 times taller than it is wide.  And looking at this cover take, that makes sense, because it’s roughly the same shape as most tablet and e-reader screens.  I admit I went a bit lo-fi here to figure it out:  I took a ruler and measured the picture on the screen.  In the above thumbnail here, it’s 2.5″ wide.  If you multiply that by 1.33, you’ll get 3.325″, which is very close to the height I ended with.

Fonts: color and placement.  I have to thank album covers for being able to understand this one.  For my example, the most important part of the cover, aside from the visual, is the title, right?  So in this version, instead of bannering it up on top like the previous attempt, I chose to spread it down the entire center.  The font had to be larger than the other two lines I’d be adding (the subtitle and my name).  BUT — it also had to stand out.  In this case, I asked for assistance from one of my artist friends: since I knew I’d be using this photo and that its primary color was blue, what is the opposite of blue?  [This is actually pretty easy to figure out: here’s a color wheel chart you should save for reference!]  In this case, it’s yellow, so I used a very light shade of it for the title, to make it stand out, even more than the subtitle or my name (both in standard white).  The fonts themselves were provided on the free version of PicMonkey.com…the title is Geo Sans Light and the other two are De Walpergen Pica.  All three were placed with a bit of ingenuity:  I aligned the sides of the text blocks with the sides of the picture, and had everything center-aligned.

Clarity.  My original outtake in the previous post used the Edo font on PicMonkey, but here my wife suggested a different, plainer font.  It’s a bit unexpected to be sure, because it doesn’t look like a genre font.  It’s classic and plain, but it still looks professional.  The trick here was to ensure that none of the words vanished in the white spots of the picture behind it; yellow stands out well against blue, but gets lost against white.  Everything is readable, and that’s the most important part.

Viewing it in different sizes.  This is another thing that sometimes gets glossed over or forgotten, but it’s actually quite important, and ties in with everything else.  Think of it this way — say you’re looking for that new book you know has just come out, but you need to scan the New Release shelves and the endcaps in order to do it.  Chances are when you see it, you’ll be at least a good ten or twenty feet away.  Same goes with e-books: when you’re browsing online, you’re not looking at the actual-size cover, you’re looking at a thumbnail cover.  This is another reason I downloaded the high-res version: the picture itself doesn’t look too sketchy, but more importantly, the fonts are still readable.  It’s okay if the subtitle is fuzzy; it’s not important.  What is important is the title and my name, so I had to make sure they were large enough to be read.  This is why I’d tweeted it right after I’d completed it:  I wanted to take a look at it on my phone, to see how it looked on a much smaller screen, plus I’d get feedback from my friends as well.


Granted, I already own Photoshop (a birthday present from a few years back), and I’m kind of lucky that I have a lifelong interest in art and a passable ability for it, so I’m able to do most of this myself, which is exactly what I wanted to do.  Some of you may want to hire out a professional cover artist instead.  There are many out there — The Creative Penn has some good links to a few out there, for instance.  And many of them are quite affordable.

In the end, the cover still remains one of the most important parts of the book (or e-book), because it’s the first thing every reader sees.  You can let the pros take control of the cover creation, and all you’ll need to do is explain the images you’d like to see.  But if you have the ability and want to go it alone, definitely keep the above in mind.  Don’t just throw something together and call it done, either; just like musicians, save a small handful of differing takes and use the one that works best.

On Selling the Book: Who Is My Audience?

Kakashi from Naruto, @Masashi Kishimoto
Kakashi from Naruto, ©Masashi Kishimoto

It’s come to that point, and I don’t think I can avoid it anymore.

Who is my audience for the Mendaihu Universe novels? I admit it’s something I never really took took seriously while writing the Bridgetown Trilogy in the first place.  Sure, I bashed some of my ideas out with my coworkers while working at Yankee Candle, and I know a few of them have been waiting way too long for me to release these damn things.  I’ve talked about this universe here and there online for years.  I’ve had a small handful of beta readers over the years.  And then there’s me, the one who create the series, who loves writing within it.

And thinking about how to sell the thing to potential publishers, agents or readers is something I haven’t exactly wanted to think about too often, because I hate dealing in sales.  I had a telemarketing job back in ’93 and it was soul-sucking, and I lasted all of three months before I left.  Not that I can’t sell things I’m interested in — as mentioned earlier, I could upsell you records like no tomorrow — but it’s just not something I enjoy doing.  And come to find out, a lot of writers I know are in the same boat.

But seriously — who is the target audience for this universe, anyway?

I have a few ideas on who might enjoy reading this series, and though I’ll be shamelessly upselling to everyone in general, I know there are a few subsets of genre readers out there who might really enjoy the books, and I’ll be giving extra focus to those readers when the time comes.  [The actual upselling can be pretty tricky as well…there’s a fine line between selling it to a potential audience and billboarding yourself everywhere.  Something to think about.]

But who should I sell it to?

Well, that’s a good question.  I consider myself lucky that I’ve gone to various sff conventions, and that I have a reasonably large group of online friends and acquaintances so I’m familiar with what kind of readers are out there.  There are those who’ll read anything.  There are those who will only read military sf, or hard sf, or sword and sorcery, or paranormal romance, or what have you.  There are slow readers, speed readers, those who love short stories and those who love doorstop novels.  If I had to narrow it down, I would say my potential readers would be a mix of general genre readers, urban fantasy, and future sf, with a bit of fantasy realism in there as well.  [I think some manga readers/anime watchers would also enjoy the series, and that’s why you see Kakashi up there.]

Part of the trick is not so much to say “I want to sell to manga/fantasy/future sf readers” but to say “How can I capture the interest of this particular fantasy reader?” and adjust accordingly.  That’s part of what ‘knowing your audience’ is about: understand who it is you’re showing your wares to, and speak with them, not at them.  That’s something I learned in my day job, actually…don’t demand their attention, but pique their interest.  Your pitch will be a lot less stressful that way.

I’ve been thinking about this over the last few months — mind you, I’ve been doing a lot of research on this, not just hemming and hawing (although there’s been some of that as well).  I don’t want to do this half-assed.  I know if the response to the initial launch is crickets, thankfully I should be able to pick myself up, dust myself off, and launch it again, the right way.  There are way too many moving parts in this game, and I can totally understand that it can be frustrating, and one missed part can send the whole contraption falling down in an avalanche.  I’m hoping all this homework paid off, however, because it’s almost high time to get these things out in the world.

On Writing: More About Submission

[Note: I’ll state here and now that I’m still at that point where I have not yet been accepted by a publisher or an agent.  These are merely thoughts and ideas that have come to me over the years via the submission process and the numerous articles, con panels and books that I’ve encountered.  These entries are not about how to win at submitting; they’re more about giving you things to think about.]

After I posted last week’s entry about submitting to an agent, I had a few more thoughts about it that I’d like to share.  These aren’t exactly how-to-query thoughts, but more along the lines of FYIs; stuff to think about when you’re at this stage.

Multiple Submissions. This one’s confusing to a lot of people, especially new authors, and that’s totally understandable, because it can be a very vague phrase and misintepreted easily.  You’ll see submission guidelines that say “no multiple submissions.”  What does that mean, really?  Does it mean “you can only submit to us and no one else until you hear back from us (whenever that turnaround time is)”?  Or does it mean “don’t submit everything you’ve ever done to us all at once”?  Or does it mean “don’t submit the same novel query to my co-agent Bob that you’re also sending to me”?  For those like me, this could mean just about anything.  I need a bit more to go with.

Thankfully, most agencies and publishers have more detailed submission guidelines nowadays, which they have on their websites.  One agency I submitted to last week said “If submitting to me, please do not also send it to the other agents on my team.”  To put it another way, it’s a bit like getting one of those “Reply All” emails you sometimes get at work.  Should you work on this issue, or should James?  Or do you both ignore it and thus nothing gets done?  Pick one agent you’d like to work with at that agency and stay with them until they say yes or no.

I’ve also seen agents where they want exclusivity; if you’re sending to them, do them a favor and don’t send to another agency, because that’s just bad business.  [Granted, there are some writers and agents who take umbrage to exclusivity, and I have my own opinions about it which I won’t go into here.  How you want to handle your manuscript is completely up to you, not me.]

On the other hand…

Do you really want to send to one agent at a time?  Do you want to send your Awesomesauce Novel to an agent, hope for the best, and have no idea what your answer may be in the next six to eight weeks or however long it takes?  Maybe so, but what if you don’t get any bites until, say, the twentieth agent that says yes?  Do a bit of quick math, and that’s a good year or so between the first submission and the final successful one.  Do you really want to wait that long to maybe achieve your goal of being published?

This is why some agents and publishers state off the record that they accept that you’re more likely submitting to multiple places at once, to cut down on the time.  Remember, you’re not entirely at their mercy…they want to do business with you, if your novel is what they want to work with.  If you get a yes in the meantime and you’ve made your informed decision that you want to work with that particular agent or publisher, at least be courteous and tell them you’ve withdrawn your submission.

As always, if in doubt, check out their submission guidelines. They usually have their own linked page on the company’s website, and many of them are totally fine with you asking for clarification if need be.

What Agency and/or Publisher to Choose.  This one can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.  When I was growing up I had dreams of getting published at a Big Name Publishing House.  I took these dreams a bit less seriously in the 90s, though at the same time I started paying attention to who was publishing most of the books I enjoyed.  It’s a little like noticing how a lot of my favorite late 80s albums were released on 4AD, or how many great bands I liked were distributed by Warner.  Take a look at what you’re reading and why you enjoy it so much, and think about whether or not your novel would fit in their roster.  I have a small list of genre publishers in my head that I think would like the Bridgetown Trilogy, and am aiming to submit to them.  I also have a list of agents I’ve been researching over the years and have been submitting to them as well.

At the same time, I’m keeping an open mind.  I could just as easily check out a few small presses who could suit my needs as well.  And I could even try my hand at indie publishing (read: going the self-pub route — I like the “indie-pub” moniker better, as it makes more sense logically).  Don’t be afraid to have backup plans.  I’m reasonably sure that agents and publishers are also well aware of these alternate routes. Keep in mind, they’re also looking for new work, so they’re not about to say “oh–well, he might be skiving off and using BookBaby instead, screw him.”  That ain’t good business sense.  If you can get picked up by them, both you and they will be happy for it.

I buy Writer’s Digest’s Writer’s Market every other year or so, just as a reference guide to see which agents and publishers are out there and doing business, and I also subscribe to various magazines: The WriterPoets & WritersWriter’s Digest, and Publishers Weekly.  [That last one can be pretty expensive for those on a budget, but it’s extremely worth it for the news coverage, book reviews, and other business-side issues.  Ask your library if you can’t afford it.]  Keep an open mind about it, and use these reference tools to come up with a good solid idea of how you want to sell your novel.

Social Media.  There are so many things being said about this right now, many of it contradictory.  On the one side, you’ve got pros suggesting you have some kind of social media platform: a blog, a Twitter account, and so on, and reminding you to be visible as much as you can.  On the other, you’ve got people howling in frustration that so-and-so spends way to much time tweeting that their new book is out.  There are others out there suggesting you must have an extremely professional website if you want to make it…and George RR Martin only shows up in person on LiveJournal.

There are no hard and fast rules, no matter what anyone says, save one: all in moderation.  You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a pro website when you can get a free one via WordPress (or drop an annual Benjamin for an upgraded version, which I do).  Your social media visibility should be at your own pace, design, and comfort level.  I post a lot of unique blog entries over different platforms, depending on the subject, maybe once or twice a week.  I’m on Twitter a lot, though I don’t always actively tweet.  I balance all this with a lot of offline activity as well, which I don’t always make public.

You may need to sell yourself to some extent, especially if you’ve got a book coming out or you’ve got an appearance at a con or a local book store, and that’s totally fine.  You may even want to occasionally remind people that your book can be nominated for a Hugo or whatever award.  [I know there’s a lot of guff about this subject, but again–all in moderation.  A sticky note on your website or an occasional reminder on Twitter is fine; hourly announcements probably less so.]  If you feel you can get away with livetweeting your life, by all means go for it.  If you’re more an analog person like me and enjoy not being plugged in 24/7, that’s fine too.

Do you have any other thoughts about submission you’d like to share?