That dreaded Query Letter and Synopsis

We all have to write them, and I don’t know many authors who enjoy doing it. The query letter isn’t so bad, for me it is the synopsis that I dread. How do you write a synopsis for a 100,000 to 150,000 word fantasy novel without making it sound generic? When you reduce even the most inventive fantasy books to its bare bones, it sounds derivative.

Over on Donna Hanson’s blog, she talks about the good and the bad she’s seen in query letters and synopsis while reading for Angry Robot. On the topic of query letters, she says:

‘What made me lift an eyebrow and wonder was the A4 page of oversharing, unamusing attempts at humour, which make the writer sound wankerish, (just personal taste), saying that you have submitted 500,000 words, or 300,000 words or even 275,000 word manuscripts. These word counts are well in excess of the guidelines and did not give me a good impression at all.’

Donna says When writing a synopsis …

‘It helps not to clutter it up with sub-plots and minor characters. In my opinion, you need the central narrative of the story and those bits that impact on it and not every single detail. Angry Robot asked for character lists. I remember rolling my eyes when someone would say there are hundreds of characters but here is the first twenty or so. Yep I’d head straight to the MS tail between my legs.’

As a writing tool/exercise for myself I like to write a one page character bio for my main characters (usually the PoV characters). It covers their back-story, strengths and weaknesses and I also include a description of their character arc. I know what they want when the story starts, and what they need to achieve to reach their potential during the course of the book.  I’ve found, not only does this help me when I write the book, but I can use an updated version of these character bios when I come to story background for the series on my blog (see Outcast Chronicles).

For a few tips on writing  synopsis see this ROR post, based on what I’ve gleaned over the years. In some ways I find it easier to write a synopsis of a book I haven’t written, because before I start I have a general idea of where I want to go, the characters and the theme I want to explore. As it isn’t written yet, I don’t get bogged down in details. The synopsis helps me get my thoughts in order to write the book. Invariably, the book varies from the synopsis, because the characters come to life and insist on their time centre stage. But this isn’t a problem as publishers understand the final book will vary from the synopsis.

I tend to write a variety of synopsis:

There’s the one paragraph synopsis, which appears in the query letter and can be tweaked to create the back cover blurb.

There’s the one page synopsis which gives a brief overview of the book.

And there’s the 5-10 page synopsis which covers the major plot points of the book. Since I write fantasy novels which contain convoluted plots several narrative threads, I find it useful to keep a second document open beside me while I write. Into this document I put the scene length and page numbers, whose PoV it is in, and a brief description of what happens. I’ve found this really helpful when writing the long synopsis.

Don’t get a synopsis mixed up with a chapter outline. That’s what I was working from. Because I’m obsessive, I colour code the PoVs, so I can see at a glance if one of the character’s is getting forgotten.

If you are looking for an agent, then you can’t go past this site: Agent Query.  How does it work and what does it do? See here. This site includes How to Write a Query Letter. I read it to make sure I hadn’t been steering people wrong all these years. Whew!

Here is a ROR post on The Getting of an Agent. The business model of publishing is changing, but there are still times when it is a relief to know that you can call/email your agent for advice.

And, if you’d like feedback on your Query Letter there’s the Query Shark.

Do your research, send the kind of synopsis the publisher is looking for, be professional. Is there anything to do with writing craft and the publihsing industry that people would like the ROR team to cover in these posts?

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5 Responses to That dreaded Query Letter and Synopsis

  1. Chris L says:

    A synopsis has got to be almost as hard as writing the book. I’ve just sent something in for the Hachette open call. I already had a synopsis but I read it and just thought, that is totally lame, and re-wrote the whole thing from scratch. The guidlines said to write the synopsis giving a flavour of the voice used in the book, which I tried to do. It’s scary to hear comments like those above, saying things like “unamusing attempts at humour” and “wankerish writing” because those writers were probably just trying to liven up their A4 blurb, which, as everyone knows, is really only half a skeleton of the story.

    I’ve no doubt there is a lot of “wankerish writing” going around, but as someone whose never had to plough through slush, I don’t think you should really hold a synopsis against anyone. I always hear about how not to write these things, and about just giving the main story arc and the POV characters, but does anyone have an example of a really kickass synopsis? Because I’d really like to see one. Right now, writing a synopsis simply sounds like an exercise in trying really hard not to suck, rather than writing something really inspiring.

    • Aw, Chris. Don’t let it get you down. When I’ve had to judge these things, I just read the manuscript because that’s where the writing will shine. Then I take a quick look at the synopsis.

  2. Chris L says:

    Hi Rowena,

    Has a synopsis ever changed your mind about whether the story will make it over the line? I don’t mean the mechanics of the plot the synopsis is describing, I mean the way it’s written and the voice.

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