QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Word Writers Dread

©Stina Lindenblatt

Many writers are paralyzed at the thought of writing queries. It’s like our whole future as a writer comes down to those 150 to 250 words. Blow them, and an agent will pass on your book before he even gives it a chance.

So we slave away at our query. We ask our beta readers and critique partners to provide feedback. We risk humiliation by posting it on public forums for strangers to tear apart. And tear it apart they will, often at the risk of asking you include everything but the kitchen sink. Often at the risk of either sucking out your voice or giving you a new one. Heck, they might even try to change your query to a story that doesn’t exist.

Once you’ve beaten your query into shape and shed a few tears over it, you’re now ready to send it out and refresh your inbox every 2.3 minutes.

Or are you?

We loathe writing queries, but there’s something else we loathe even more—the dreaded synopsis.

Now, I know writers who hate them so much, they purposefully exclude all agents from their query list who want a synopsis with the query and sample pages. The writers hope the agent who doesn’t request a synopsis will be the one to offer representation, and then the writer doesn’t have to create one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. When your agent is ready to pitch your book to editors, she will send out your blurb (aka query), author bio, and synopsis. Stop. Let’s rewind and play that again. She will send out your synopsis, and if an editor is interested, he will request your manuscript.


Where’s the ending?

The query should intrigue the agent or editor enough to request your manuscript. It’s like the blurb on the back cover of a book. You don’t want to reveal the ending of your story in the query. This is a major difference between the query and synopsis. If you don’t include the ending of your story in the synopsis, it’s an instant rejection.

Don’t Forget the Voice

Sample pages are not included in the submission package sent to editors. They rely on your synopsis to get an idea of your voice. A dry sounding synopsis isn’t going to win you points. Just like with the query, try to infuse voice in your synopsis.

Whose POV Is This In?

The synopsis is always written in third person, present tense, even if your book is in first person, past tense. The exception is when you reveal backstory necessary to the synopsis. Then you write it in simple past tense. If your book is in first person and you’re having difficulties writing the synopsis in third, write it in first person then change it to third. If your story is told from multiple point of views, pick the protagonist whose story is the main one, and write the synopsis based on that. It’s impossible to include everybody’s storyline in the synopsis without confusing the reader, so don’t even try.

Keep It Simple

Your story will be complex with multiple layers and characters, but for your synopsis, keep it simple. Mention only the key characters and only focus on the main points of the story. This is easy to do if your book follows basic story structure (e.g. inciting incident, first turning point, midpoint, second turn point, etc). For more information on story structure, check out Save the Cat by Blake Synder, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hague. And make sure you show your protagonist’s character arc in the synopsis.

How long?

This varies from agent to agent. Some ask for one page. Some want up to five pages. If it’s more than one page, the synopsis will be double spaced. A one page synopsis will be single spaced. The easiest way to write one is to make it as long as it needs to be to get your main points down, then edit, edit, edit. To save time, create several synopses of different lengths, then you’re ready no matter what the agent requests.

Start Early

Get in the habit of creating the synopsis before you write the first draft. By doing this, you can ensure you have a cohesive story that moves forward, and you don’t waste time on a story with structural issues. Also, if you eventually go on to sign a multi-book contract, your editor may want to see the synopsis for your yet unfinished books.

Review your synopsis anytime you make changes to the plot. There’s nothing worse than expecting a happily-ever-after ending, as stated in the synopsis, only to discover that in the manuscript the author sent you, the hero is murdered in a tragic ending.

Get Feedback

We spend time ensuring our queries are compelling and free of errors by enlisting the help of others to give us feedback. Make sure you take the same care with your synopsis. While your agent will help you make it shine, if need be, they are extremely busy. By putting it through the same degree of scrutiny you put your query through, it will make her job easier. And that will make your agent happy.  

When do you tend to write the synopsis? Do you enjoy writing them, or do you prefer writing the query?

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes Young Adult and New Adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer, a blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog (when she isn’t writing).  She’s represented by Marisa Corvisiero, and finds it weird talking about herself in third person.


Suzanne Lilly said...

Stina, this is a terrific post. How did you know I check email every 2.3 seconds after I send out queries? Oh, wait. Maybe I check every 1.7 seconds.

Your advice about writing the synopsis first is great. I started doing that a while back, and it has really helped focus my writing. Once I began writing the synopsis first, my stories began flowing better. Thanks for the reminder as I head into another story this summer.

Julie Musil said...

Great advice, Stina!

Mirka Breen said...

And here I was, making excuses why today is not the best to get to the distillation of a full MG, making a synopsis that fits into one page. All right, I've done it before. It isn't that bad. it's actually illuminating and satisfying once I get going. But the *thought* of this inevitable part of the process is one of dread.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow might be better. No? ;)
Good advice from you, Stina. Bit the bullet. It worked.

Unknown said...

I like writing the query and synopsis after the first draft, but before any subsequent drafts. This lets me change things in the story during the writing process, so I don't feel like I'm trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

But it's essential to write it before any further drafts to make sure the story has a solid conflict and ending before spending months perfecting the wording. :)