If like me this is your least favourite part of submitting a manuscript, then like me you probably pay the least bit of attention to it. (Edit: what I wanted to say was that I had a lackadaisical approach to query letters and sometimes synopsis, because I’ve always wanted to use that word). As part of the submission reading process, I was exposed to a lot of these (480 of them thereabouts) so I started to have an opinion on them and also had a few realisations. Number one was I have been very slack in the past and I will try very hard not to be from now on. Next thing I should say there is help out there. I usually consult www.agentquery.com as it tends to have sample query letters and search facilities. There are also links out there if you google.
I maintain that it is the writing itself that is important, that’s the clincher and I think that is true. However, the query letter and the synopsis have a purpose.
Query letters/introductory email
This is your introduction to the publisher/editor/reader, that is, the first impression you are going to make. It is not really the place to write an A4 page or more about your life, the troubles of your childhood, the reason you write dark fiction (as a result of said bad childhood) and that your idea came from a dream and then recount the dream verbatim. I am sure these recountings have a place. Hopefully, after you have signed the contract and your publisher has taken you to a bar and bought you so many rounds of margaritas that you drunkenly reveal all. They’ll recover from the shock and there won’t be documentary evidence.
One lovely man said in his email/query letter that he was a failed aspiring writer (waves). This struck me because year before last I was calling myself that (never in a query letter or email). A writer friend almost smacked me down for saying it. The crux being “had I given up?” No says I. Well I’m not failed then am I. Which is basically the comment I gave back to this writer in his rejection, you aren’t a failure until you give up.
So what works in a query letter/introductory email?
A short salutation. A short one liner about your MS, or a pitch. What is your story like and what makes it stand out. Saying you write like Terry Pratchett is not really inspiring. You need to be saying what you are like and how you are different. For example, my story is a traditional fantasy with aliens instead of elves. It will appeal to readers of GRRMartin and Peter F Hamilton (not!).
A bit of background information on yourself, such as your past publications if any, your qualifications/occupation, special interests if they relate to your ms. For example, if you are writing about a pacific nation of 400 people, do say what credentials you have to do so–like you did a thesis on it, or spent your formative years there etc or you are part of the nation etc. Or if you are using a World War 2, European setting, then mention you spent twelve months researching it etc. It lends a bit of credibility to what you are sending in.
Check www.agentquery.com if you want some guidance.
For me as a reader, anything that was brief and to the point was useful.
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. (hint check guidelines). Actually I’ve submitted somewhere once thinking I could get away with over word count and basically I got it back the next day with a rejection. It wasn’t read because it didn’t comply with guidelines. I did read the partials for these over large ms but I did not request any of them. My knees shook just reading the word count.
The best ones for me were the ones that eased me into the mood to read the ms, filled me with excitement (that sounds interesting etc) and didn’t poke me in the eye for any reason.
These were an interesting thing. When I started out, I read them quite religiously, except where they were impenetrable. Then I’d head straight for the ms (and occasionally the MS was also impenetrable). Then when the pressure built up (lots of MS and not much time), I read the first bit of the synopsis get the idea and then go read the MS because that’s where the ultimate decision was going to be made.
Then if the story didn’t reveal its speculative elements or I suspected paranormal romance I’d go back and read the synopsis.
However, I did come to appreciate the synopsis that was easy to read, the one that caressed my head. I gained an insight here that the synopsis does need to be easy to read. That way it will be read.
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.
There is a trend apparently to put the character names in capitals. It made no difference to me, except where there were lots of characters and then there were all these capitals screaming out of the synopsis at me. A bit off putting, actually.
A chapter summary is not a synopsis, btw. A synopsis has its own narrative flow. It is meant to engage, inform and basically sell your work. A chapter summary has a different function.
This is the most important thing I learned. As a reader and a writer I may not have valued a synopsis as I should. However, it is an important tool. Editors use it to sell the novel to the publisher or the acquisition team. Marketing use it to help market your work and maybe assist with developing the blurb.
While personally I don’t think it is fatal to your prospects if you can’t write a good one, it certainly helps if you can.
I met an agent once who said she only reads query letters and in her view if a writer can’t write a good one then they are a crap writer. A bit harsh to my mind. Obviously I don’t agree. If I do write to agents, I choose ones who allow a sample to be sent with the query and synopsis. But that’s just me.
The other interesting thing in the Angry Robot submissions was the ‘intentions/inspirations’ part. I wonder if you had as much trouble as I did when I had to write to that part a year or so ago. So it was interesting to see what you guys did with it. Rarely was any one the same, though there were a few who said they wrote the novel because they want to write for a living. Hey don’t we all. I did check with Lee about this. According to Lee, there is no one way to respond to it but they are interested in what you say. I thought the response should be about the particular novel, where the idea came from, what inspired you to write it etc. But don’t listen to me. I’m wrong!