When I was in college I took a class called Fantasy Literature, which I thought would be nothing but fun and actually turned out to be a lot of hard work. On the first day of class, our professor told us that we would be reading one book a week, and a paper on that book would be due every Monday. The class collectively groaned, until he smiled and said our papers only needed to be one page long. Then we all cheered. And that’s when he got this wicked little smile on his face.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “That one page will be more work than writing ten.”
I didn’t at all understand what he meant, until I tried to write my first one-page paper. I’d had no problem chewing my way through the 300-page story, but now that I had to find a primary theme, explain it, give at least one example to back it up and tie the whole thing together with wit and verve—and all in one page—I would have paid good money to find somebody else, anybody else, to do it for me.
By the time I got through that one page I understood my professor’s wicked smile, I felt like I had earned some serious writing chops, and I was filled with dread for the next coming Monday.
I ended up writing twelve of these monstrous little one-page papers and by the end of the semester I had gone through my writing trial by fire. I put that period of my life behind me forever and moved on, confident that I would never have to undergo such an ordeal ever again.
And then I was ready to send out queries for my first novel, and it all came flooding back.
Writing a query letter and/or synopsis is probably one of the hardest tasks that writers have to accomplish. And you can rest assured, it’s not just you—you’re not a defective writer—it really is that difficult. No one likes doing it. Most of us end up a) in tears b) pissed off or c) binge eating chocolate chip cookies and rage cleaning our house in a last-ditch effort at procrastination.
The first step to getting through it is to know that you have to get through it. It totally sucks, but you have to get through it. And you will get through it. This beast can be tamed. If you’ve written a novel made up hundreds of pages, thousands of lines of words all strung together, you can get through writing your query letter and synopsis. Again, it sucks. But you can do it.
The second step is to sit down and write, and write as if your page limit is much higher than it actually is. For example, if you’re trying to write a one-page synopsis, start by writing five to seven pages of summary. Then call on your inner editor and start carving it down. Be ruthless. Do you really need that paragraph that goes into your supporting character’s back story? No. Cut it. Do you absolutely have to have three paragraphs at the beginning to set the stage? No. Get to the point. Who is your protagonist, what is his conflict, what choice does he have to make and what does he decide. Keep your eyes on these four targets and aim to hit all of them, with precision and economy of words.
The third step depends on if you’re going for a one-page, or a three-page synopsis (these two page-lengths for synopses are the most commonly requested by agents). If you’re going for one page, keep carving. Shave it, shave it, and shave it some more. If you’ve got the luxury of three pages, start looking at your plot points as they show up in the summary. Where can you add in some sparkle and flash? If a love interest appears, don’t just say that these two people meet each other. Mention the heat between them, the magnetic chemistry they share. If violence comes into play, use vibrant language that will briefly paint the scene.
Years and years ago I worked at an Applebee’s restaurant right outside Seattle, WA. One of the cheesier things I learned was how to incorporate “sizzle” words into my description of a meal when trying to upsell the customer. The fajitas were “mouth-watering.” The chocolate pie was “creamy and delicious.” And it is cheesy, but it also works. The human brain latches onto language that gives us a clear image, a strong emotion, or a sensual attraction toward something.
You want your agent to immediately get the bare-bones summary of your characters and plot, while also nudging them to consider actually ordering your mouth-watering manuscript.
As a writing coach, one of the services I offer my writers is help with crafting their query letters and synopses. I only do this for clients for which I’ve already done a beta read, because I believe that you can only really write fantastic query materials if you’ve already read the novel in its entirety and you’re thoroughly familiar with it. I also make my clients take the first stab at writing their own query letter and/or synopsis because I believe that this is one of the most valuable processes any writer could go through who is serious about pursuing writing as a calling. After they’ve given it their best effort, I step in and help take the pain away.
If you’re interested in finding out how a beta read could help your book, or you already know you need help with query materials on top of a beta read, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out my coaching and let’s talk. If you’re not there yet with your book, but you’re looking for a little inspiration check out my book The INFJ Writer for tips and strategies on how to best tap into your intuitive writing side.
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