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 Writing: The Submission Process

From past experience, I would say that manuscript submission is both the most exhilarating and most frustrating process a writer has to contend with.  On the one hand, we’re absolutely thrilled that we’re sending our finest work off into the great big world like we’re sending our five year-old child off to kindergarten.  It’s an immensely proud and exciting moment, and we can’t wait for the point where our handiwork will be seen by many on the shelves of bookstores.  Yet at the same time…

At the same time, we have absolutely no idea if the agent and/or the publisher will think our book is the best thing they’ve ever read, or if it’s absolute drivel and all our beta readers were just being nice to us out of pity.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad…it’s not always a bad manuscript that gets the rejection, and a writer needs to remember that more than anything else during the submission process.  I know I certainly do.  There are a lot of reasons for rejection, and “because it’s drivel” is actually pretty low on the list, from what I’ve seen and heard from the professionals.

Here’s a short overview of issues one might face when submitting your novel:

You’re not paying attention to the guidelines.  A lot of newbies run into this.  It’s understandable, but it’s really something you should be vigilant about.  I just recently sent out two agent submissions for A Division of Souls, and I made sure I followed directions. Both agencies request e-queries only; they even went out of their way say snail mail queries will be recycled unopened.  Frustrating for some, yes, especially if you’re not wired…but this can be easily rectified by a trip to the local library or anywhere that has a connection.  Most agencies actually request the first few pages within the body of the email, which makes it even better for those unable to attach files.

Many agencies and publishers request a specific page amount; one agency I submitted to requested the first chapter, whereas the other asked for the first twenty pages.  When I submitted to Angry Robot’s Open Door last year, they asked for the first fifty pages.  They all requested a short synopsis (one agent had no length limit, the other requested one paragraph), maybe a short personal bio, and contact information.  Point being: what you put in your query really does depend on who you’re sending it to.

They’re just not interested.  Well…this doesn’t necessarily mean your novel bored them, nor is it proof that your novel is in fact drivel.  This merely could actually mean that you’re trying to sell Noel Gallagher’s latest High Flying Birds album to someone who can’t stand Oasis.  You could be trying to sell your zombie novel to someone who thinks zombies are the stupidest trope ever, and would be doing both you and their agency a disservice trying to sell something they don’t like.  Or on the other hand, it might not be their personal taste but the agency’s or publisher’s tastes; sometimes they state they’re looking specifically for hard science fiction but no swords and sorcery books.  Again…it’s all about the guidelines.  Instead of trying to shoehorn your book into a spot where it doesn’t quite fit, look for a place where they would fawn over it like adorable fluffy kittens.  [Or puppies.  Your choice there.]

You can write it, but you just can’t sell it.  This is the problem I run into the most; I consider myself a pretty decent writer, but I can’t sell you sliced bread to save my life.  I’m no salesman.  I hate the process of trying to sell something to someone.  [The only exception to that was my job at HMV.  I can upsell you music like no tomorrow.]  But how the hell do I distill a novel that’s around 150,000 words down to one paragraph?  I don’t mean the one sentence elevator pitch, which I can kind of get away with.  I’m talking about explaining the entire book’s plot in about ten sentences.  What do I keep in?  What to I leave out?  How do I best describe what goes on without rambling incoherently, as well as explaining the entire arc?  It’s pretty damned hard, I tell you.

I spent the other night forfeiting a writing session just so I could focus on explaining A Division of Souls with just enough detail to spark the agent’s interest.  Here’s what I came up with:

In A Division of Souls, the delicate supernatural balance between two spiritual factions is threatened when a renegade leader sets off a powerful ritual that escalates a mass psychic and spiritual ascension well before the alien Meraladhza and the human race are ready for it.  In the process, he’s also awakened their deity, the One of All Sacred, much earlier than anyone expected.  Alien Relations Unit agents Caren Johnson and Alec Poe are assigned to find and stop this man, but as they learn more about his ritual and its aftereffects it becomes a bigger race to keep this enlightenment from spiraling dangerously out of control.  They must not only come to terms with a changed city, but the change within themselves, and what it means to be a part of a new conscience.  And Caren must face her worst fear: her lone surviving family member, her young sister Denni, is in fact the resurrected One…and a spiritual war has just been declared in her name.

I’d like to think this covers most of the bases: the main plot of the spiritual war between the Shenaihu and the Mendaihu (names taken out here to avoid too much confusion…just mentioning the imbalance is enough); the introduction of two of the major characters who have to fix the conflict (Alec and Caren); the other main arc of the awakening of the One of All Sacred (and the fact that she’s a lead character’s little sister, thus showing further conflict); the fact that the awakening ritual had affected more than just Denni.  [Note: as a follow-up paragraph, I gave very brief one-sentence descriptions of Books 2 and 3 to show that the trilogy was in fact already complete, and what they would entail.]

So did I sell it?  Again, I have no idea…I’m a horrible salesman when it comes to selling my own work, and I thought I did, but I could be totally wrong.  I do know that I can talk convincingly about my trilogy because I’m so familiar with it from the many versions and revisions.  If any questions come up, given a few moments I can probably give a detailed and reasonably concise answer.  But the hardest part of this query was not the writing of it…it was trying to see my book from the perspective of someone who hasn’t yet read it.  I had to back away from all that Mendaihu Universe knowledge just enough so I could give the novel the leanest yet most informative description I could.

All told, it’s one of the toughest pieces of writing I’ve ever had to do, but I’m proud and relieved that I forced myself to do it despite the odds.


Of course, at this point I’ve been hitting the refresh button at my GMail account in hopes that a response will have arrived.  And I’m sure I’m not the first or last writer who’s done that after they send their book off into the wild.