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?


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?

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.

On Writing: Rejection Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

For those of you that have been following along for the last few years (or decade or so) with my grand scheme of getting the Bridgetown Trilogy published, today was an interesting day.

Angry Robot Books has had some kind of “Open Door” special event over the past few years in which they would accept unsolicited submissions* until a set date. As it so happened, I had just finished up a major revision of A Division of Souls, and thought this would be a perfect opportunity. I speedily worked through the rest of the revision and sent it in with about two weeks left to go before the December 31 deadline. You may have heard they had a bit of a business shake-up a few months ago**, which caused a significant delay in the reading and accepting process. I’m fine with that, especially as they took the time to follow up with an email informing us they would still read all the submissions.

This morning, I received an email stating that they have decided to pass on the novel.

Now, I’m well aware that this would most likely be the case, for a few reasons: a) they had over a thousand entries this time out (MUCH higher than previous Open Doors), b) digging through a high number of entries to find that one shining piece of gold is normal in the publishing biz, and c) I’ll readily admit that it could still use work. More on that in a few. The long and short of it is, this is not my first rejection, and will most likely not be my last. This is just part of the game.

Am I bummed? Of course, but not overly so. You might say I’m actually a bit relieved, as this gives me the freedom to tidy it up a bit more and shop it elsewhere now.*** Given that I’ve been working on this project off and on for way too long (twenty, seventeen, fourteen, or seven years, depending on the version you ask about and whether or not you count interim years of stasis), I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about how I would want to see this book out in the wild. Between those years in the early 00’s where I sent it out to various agents and publishers, and now, where self-publishing has become a viable, more professional and accessible option, my options have actually expanded.

I’m actually kind of happy that Angry Robot took the time not only to read the first four chapters of A Division of Souls, but upon rejection went so far to state that they felt “the dialogue could use work, as it reads as too artificial, not natural enough” as part of the reason.

Honestly? That’s the best thing a publisher has ever said to me in all my years of being a writer.

In all the rejection letters I’ve ever received from both publishers and agents, I’ve only received the variation of the “not for us” form letter. Which is all well and good–I’m okay with those too, because I’m pretty sure they at least took a cursory look at it. But this is the first time I’ve actually received something that says “hey, it’s not for us…but here’s what you might want to fix/focus on in the future.”

To me, that means two things: they took my submission seriously, and that they took the time to let me know what didn’t work, even if it was one out of many possible issues that could be wrong with it. And that makes all the difference.

So what are my future plans for the Bridgetown Trilogy? Am I going to make good with the fake cover I made on the previous post and go self-pub? Am I going to be the stubborn bastard that I am, revise AGAIN and find a new home for it? It’s up in the air, really. I’m keeping my options open. Yet another recent reread has shown that some of the dialogue and prose is indeed a bit stiff, and oddly about halfway through, the default reaction for many characters seem to be that of sighing in frustration. Eesh!

One thing’s for sure, I’m not going to ragequit this writing life. I love it too damn much to give up now.

Learn from mistakes. Listen and process the critiques. And make the best damn piece of art you can.

* – For those unaware, ‘unsolicited submissions’ means that the publisher would accept manuscripts cold, rather than through agents or an agreed-upon offer. I highly suggest studying up on the submission guidelines of various publishers and agents to understand what’s needed–some want specific things and/or in specific formats, others will take printed copies, etc. Following their guidelines makes them happy and makes you look like a pro.

** – Short version: They closed down their YA and Mystery imprints earlier this year, and changed ownership last month. Not holding this against them, and I hope for the best, as they have quite a number of great titles out there that are definitely worth checking out.

*** – I would love to go into detail here about multiple submissions, but I’ll save it for a future entry. Suffice it to say, I purposely waited on this one to force myself to start working on other projects on the interim, which has worked out well so far.