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How to Write the Query and Synopsis


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With a quarter century of experience working with thousands of writers, I've seen plenty of submissions. This presentation gives guidelines on how to target queries, write a cover letter that grabs, boil the synopsis down to one page and other valuable information on the road to getting published.

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How to Write the Query and Synopsis

  1. 1. How To Write The Query and Synopsis The dreaded synopsis. Agents and editors ask for it. Writers bleed to write one. I’ve seen thousands of queries and queries over the past quarter century. What follows are guidelines I’ve come up with to assist you.
  2. 2. Find The Right Place Are you querying the right agent/publisher? Know your genre. Check the Writer’s Market. Go to Writer’s Conferences. You must address the query to the right person, not just the right place.
  3. 3. The Query/Submission. Don’t add an extra step. Send everyone the same, essential thing, personalizing the address and any specific information for that agent/editor that you know. (Unless on their site, the agent/editor specifically says what they want). A good query consists of a query letter/email, a one page synopsis, and your opening of your book (roughly 20 pages, ending at a natural break point)
  4. 4. The Query/Submission. Study and understand the market. Understand the flow. Query letter: I have a great idea. Synopsis: I’ve translated my great idea into a great story. Opening sample: I can write. Don’t put the copyright symbol and other subconscious negatives in your query. Don’t denigrate yourself.
  5. 5. Query/Cover Letter First line has to hook. Think hardcover book jacket with cover blurb to start; or the Amazon page for your book. Two paragraphs on idea. Two paragraphs on you. One page total. Don’t market or praise your own work. Humor needs to be funny. If you are in a genre, say so. Add any individualized note early— “we met at such and such conference” or “you represent so and so whose work I admire”. Goal: You’ve got a good idea, now they want to read your synopsis.
  6. 6. Example Cover Letter Dear Ms. Agent, What if a secret organization of West Point graduates has been covertly manipulating our government’s policies for the past 50 years and is now planning a coup against the President? THE LINE is the story of Boomer Watson, an officer in the elite Delta Force assigned to Hawaii where the President will be arriving in one week to give a speech. He discovers clues pointing to both the existence of The Line and the coup. It is a race against time for him to stop it. I have eight novels accepted for publication, three of them published. As specific background for this book, I graduated from West Point and served in the Infantry and Special Forces, including commanding a Green Beret A-Team. This is a 100,000 word thriller. I appreciate your taking the time to review this submission and look forward to hearing from you. Bob Mayer
  7. 7. Excerpts From Bad Cover Letters: “Self-published book selling well. With your help it will sell more!” “This book is big money and we really don’t ant to sit on it. I mean no disrespect . . . But if you don’t have the time to prioritize this than maybe you can suggest a different agency.” “I really love your vision. I am not telling you this sentence to please. Today thiere is no vision in the literary world.”
  8. 8. Excerpts From Bad Cover Letters “My questions are simple: will you read my works? Will you represent me? Will you sell my books? “What do a professor of physics, a well known Philadelphia radio personality, the staff and clientele of a posh beauty salon, and the volunteer association from a county library have in common? They have all fallen in love with my self-published novel.” “If I’m so damn good at telling catchy stories in writing, why am I not published? Ethic, my dear. I got shafted by some of the so-called editors/agents rip offs and stepped back from the stench I smelled.”
  9. 9. Synopsis Do you really need one? Yes, they can always choose not to read it. Unless, of course, on their web page they specifically say send only a query first. One page. I know you want more: LESS IS BETTER. We can remember 7 things in short term memory. Thus, the person reading your synopsis is limited on what they can keep track of.
  10. 10. Synopsis: LESS IS BETTER The light is on, you can only turn it off. The agent/editor is not reading your synopsis unless they were hooked by the query letter. Thus the only thing that can happen now is bad— you turn them off. Thus the less you give them, the less likely you will put something that turns them off. They know you have a 100,000 book and there’s lot to it. But no one goes into a bookstore and reads an entire book from an unknown author and buys it. The agent/editor is in the same position.
  11. 11. Synopsis It is the main story arc from beginning to end. Drop all your great subplots. Give only three names (that’s going to be 3 of 7 things in short time memory): Protagonist, antagonist, one major supporting character. More names than that on one page is too many. Give the ending. Goal: Good story, want to read your excerpt.
  12. 12. Common Synopsis Mistakes Too long. If your resume can go on one page, your book’s resume can go on one page. Too much detail in certain areas, such as the climactic scene. List of bullets rather than prose. Too many adjectives/adverbs.
  13. 13. Common Synopsis Mistakes Bad questions you don’t want someone to ask after reading your synopsis: What’s the story? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What is the core conflict? What’s the ending? What’s the genre?
  14. 14. Ways To Write A Synopsis Write a long one and keep cutting. Have a friend write it for you. It’s difficult for a literary book. Give enough to get them to read your writing style. Test it. Give it to someone who has no clue what your book is about, let them read it, take it back. Ask them what your book is about. Use narrative structure as your template.
  15. 15. Narrative Structure Inciting Incident. (Protagonist, Antagonist, Problem) Escalating Conflict. Crisis. (Protagonist makes choice, darkest moment) Climax. Protagonist vs Antagonist on stage resolving Problem) Resolution.
  16. 16. Narrative Structure Keep the synopsis balanced between those areas. Don’t emphasize one area too much. Drop your subplots. Yes, they’re fascinating, but keep the focus on the main storyline. Remember: A novel is a character (the protagonist) trying resolve a problem (introduced by the antagonist). In the following example, the red font is just to show you the parts. You don’t put the red in the actual synopsis.
  17. 17. W h a t i f m a n k i n d d i d n ’ t o r i g i n a t e t h e w a y w e t h i n k i t d i d ? ( I d e a ) A n e w r e p o r t e r t r y i n g t o i n f i l t r a t e A r e a 5 1 d i s a p p e a r s u n d e r m y s t e r i o u s c i r c u m s t a n c e s . ( I n c i t i n g i n c i d e n t ) M a j o r T u r c o t t e , a s e c u r i t y e x p e r t t h e r e , ( P r o t a g o n i s t ) b e g i n s t o r e a l i z e m o r e i s g o i n g o n a t t h e s i t e t h a n t h e g o v e r n m e n t k n o w s . T u r c o t t e r e b e l s a n d g o e s o n t h e r u n . H e i s j o i n e d b y a f r i e n d o f t h e r e p o r t e r w h o w a n t s t o k n o w t h e t r u t h o f w h a t i s h a p p e n i n g a t A r e a 5 1 . ( T h e p r o b l e m ) A t A r e a 5 1 a s e c r e t m e e t i n g o f M a j e s t i c - 1 2 l e d b y G e n e r a l G u l l i c k ( A n t a g o n i s t ) i n i t i a t e s a c o u n t d o w n t o t e s t a n a l i e n m o t h e r s h i p . T h e c o u n t d o w n i s o p p o s e d b y o n e m e m b e r w h o b e l i e v e s p o w e r i n g u p t h e s h i p w i l l c a u s e a c a t a s t r o p h e . T u r c o t t e i s j o i n e d b y o t h e r s w h o h a v e p i e c e s o f t h e p u z z l e o f w h a t i s a t A r e a 5 1 a n d o t h e r m y s t e r i e s o f m a n k i n d ’ s p a s t . A s t h e y l e a r n m o r e , t h e y r e a l i z e t h i s i s m u c h l a r g e r t h a n j u s t A r e a 5 1 a n d t h e f a t e o f t h e w o r l d i s a t s t a k e . ( E s c a l a t i n g c o n f l i c t ) ) T u r c o t t e a n d h i s t e a m r e s c u e t h e r e p o r t e r . G e n e r a l G u l l i c k ’ s f o r c e s a r e c l o s i n g i n o n T u r c o t t e a n d h e h a s t o d e c i d e w h a t t o d o n e x t . ( C r i s i s ) I n s t e a d o f r u n n i n g , h e a n d t h e t e a m h e a d f o r A r e a 5 1 . T h e y i n f i l t r a t e t h e b a s e a n d T u r c o t t e s t o p s t h e p o w e r u p o f t h e m o t h e r s h i p , k i l l i n g G e n e r a l G u l l i c k i n t h e p r o c e s s . ( C l i m a x ) H e l e a r n s t h e t r u t h o f w h a t h a s b e e n h a p p e n i n g a t A r e a 5 1 a n d r e a l i z e s i t i s j u s t t h e t i p o f t h e i c e b e r g t h a t w i l l r e w r i t e t h e e n t i r e h i s t o r y o f m a n k i n d . ( R e s o l u t i o n )
  18. 18. Sample Chapters First twenty to thirty pages. End at a natural break point (chapter, scene). Purpose: Can you write the great idea into a great story? Goal: Ask to see the manuscript.
  19. 19. The Flow Cover letter= great idea. Synopsis= great story. Sample chapters= great writing.
  20. 20. After the Query? Keep track of who you sent to and when. How long to wait? Forever in some cases. Ignore the ones you don’t hear from. Should you follow-up? If they didn’t reply to your query, why will they reply to your query about your query? Move on. There are plenty of agents/editors out there. NEVER respond negatively to a rejection.
  21. 21. Literary Books What is literary? Real life. Focus on theme and why readers will relate. Need to get read. Enter contests. Go to Writers conferences/retreats where there are editors/agents.
  22. 22. Multiple Submissions Yes. Don’t put it on the cover letter/query. It’s just assumed you’re doing it. Do a rolling submission. 50 agents, 50 publishers, 5 of each, each week. Go exclusive when manuscript requested, but should get a time line on how long it will take them to get to it.
  23. 23. The Players (Traditional) The Writer The Agent The Editor The Publisher The Publisher Book Rep The Chain or bookstore Book Buyer The Bookstore— note that for eBooks we go from Publisher directly to outlet. The Reader
  24. 24. The Players (Non-Traditional) The Writer The Editor (if not backlist) The Book Formatter and Uploader The Reader
  25. 25. Agents Came out of the studio system in Hollywood. Are the filter around NY Publishing. Help make a manuscript marketable. Find the right place and the right person. Negotiate contracts. Look out for your business interests. Collect money.
  26. 26. Why Do You Need An Agent? If you want to be published in NY To help editorially To handle the business of dealing with publishers To negotiate To help plan your career For contacts
  27. 27. Why Do You Not Need An Agent? Small publishers with no advances Or you’re going to self-publish
  28. 28. Finding An Agent Writers Market by Writers Digest. Online searches. Writers’ Conferences. Author recommendation. Or check author web sites and often they list who they’re agent is. Editor recommendation. MFA programs Don’t do a fee charging agent.
  29. 29. Not Legitimate Agents if they Promises to get you published. Won’t provide references or recent sales. Wants you to pay for services. What if they’re outside of New York City? That’s fine.
  30. 30. Questions to ask an agent How long have you been an agent? How many books in my genre have you sold in past year? Can you refer me to existing clients? What is your timeline on a submission? How do you like to communicate? What kind of contract do you have?
  31. 31. Warning Signs Asking for money up front Promise to get you published They stop communicating Withholding money due to you They don’t submit in a timely fashion after saying they would
  32. 32. “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Dorothy Parker.
  33. 33. Rejections It will happen. Don’t take it personally or react. Often has nothing to do with the quality of your book or writing; there’s simply no room at the inn. I averaged over 100 for my first three manuscripts. Personal letter? Use any feedback constructively.
  34. 34. Rejections An emotional decision, then they invent logical reasons. “We want something like X, but not X.” Read between the lines. What if you get a nasty rejection? Be glad you learned it’s someone you wouldn’t want to have a business relationship with before you got in a business relationship with them. Once the book is done, it’s not your baby, it’s a product. Sever your emotional connections to it; put your emotions in the next book you are already writing.
  35. 35. Rotten Rejections “A very bad book.” The Bridge Over The River Kwai. “Regret the American public is not interested in anything on China.” The Good Earth. “The girl doesn’t have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.” The Diary of Anne Frank.
  36. 36. Persistence and Patience Many talented people go home. Look three years ahead. Believe in what you’re doing. Never quit.
  37. 37. Original Idea Conflict the Fuel of Your Story and the Conflict Box Plot I: Research and Narrative Questions Plot II: Outlining Plot III: Narrative Structure Character Point of View Write It Forward: From Writer to Bestselling Author Writers Conference Guide (Free eBook) Three P’s: Platform, Product, Promotion Writers’ Block and Rewriting How to Write the Query/Synopsis Planning for NaNoWriMo Success Bob Mayer’s Workshops, Seminars & Presentations Your Creative Process: How You Write The Present and Future of Publishing for Writers Writers Workshop and Retreat ON WRITING SLIDESHARES
  38. 38. For More Information click on covers The Complete Writer is four books at discount in one bundle.
  39. 39. New York Times bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret, and feeder of two yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He’s had over seventy books published, including the #1 bestselling series Time Patrol, Area 51, Atlantis, and the Green Berets. Born in the Bronx and having traveled the world he now lives peacefully with his wife and labs. Sort of. Free books below available HERE
  40. 40. Writing Scenic Workshop •An intense, on-premises workshop focusing on idea, conflict, story and the ever-changing business of publishing. •At our house on Scenic Drive in Knoxville, TN •Most importantly, this workshop focuses on developing your creative process as a writer. •Led by Bob Mayer and his wife, Debbie. •We’ve worked with everyone from #1 NY Times best-selling authors to novices writing their first book. •Limited to four people per workshop. This workshop can also come to you if you have four interested writers.