What To Have Before You Query (a checklist)

Dear Authors – I want to read your book.

Not just as a fellow author, or editor, or someone in publishing. I want to read your book because I’m a reader first and foremost and, by golly!, I need more books in my life! The good news is, I’m not the only one who wants to read your book. There are agents and editors who want the book you’re writing. To get to them, you need to write a query and put together a submission packet.

Now, I know that somewhere in my website I’ve published this list before. I’ve talked about queries, synopsis writing, and your packet, but I can’t find that today, so here it is again! This submission packet checklist works well whether you’re querying a ‘zine, a major media outlet for an essay, a small press, or an agent.

SUBMISSION PACKET:
1. A researched list of names to query written down in a document with relevant contact and query information. Verify the agent/publisher is open to queries before sending anything. 

 

2. A finished and polished manuscript or non-fiction proposal. Not almost done. Not unedited. Not “still tweaking”. Make sure the manuscript is complete and edited before you send any of of the following. Why? Because there is always a chance that, five minutes after sending the query, the agent will ask for a full and you do not want to say, “Oh, I need to write the ending real quick…”

3. A polished query

4. A folder on your computer where you keep all of the following data so that sending a submission out is a matter of a copy/paste/attach and you can respond quickly to all requests.

Proper Formatting… (Note –  This is the industry standard, but doesn’t make or break anything. Check the submission guidelines before sending. Also, this doesn’t mean you have to write like this. Use any font you want while typing, just format the final document before querying.)
Manuscripts: 12pt TNR font, double-space, page numbers and TITLE/author name at top
Synopsis: 12pt TNR font, double space between paragraphs only, ALL CAPS the first time a new name is mentioned, TITLE/synopsis/author name and page number at top
Query: 12pt TNR, double space between paragraphs

In the folder saved as separate files for ease of attachment to an email…
Query
Short Synopsis
Long Synopsis
Author Bio
First 5 Pages
First 10 Pages
First 50 Pages
First 3 Chapters
Partial Manuscript
Full Manuscript
Sample Art (if you are an author/illustrator)

How To Write A Synopsis

One of the things I’ve noticed while editing for clients and helping with Son Of A Pitch is that many authors are intimidated by the synopsis. This is a standard part of most query packets and something that many authors hate writing.

A synopsis is just that: a brief summary of a book. It’s usually between 2-5 pages in length and dull as dirt. Because it is very challenging for authors to summarize their book, and because the synopsis is a very dry read, many people dismiss it as unimportant. They’ll dash off a synopsis, run spellcheck, and call it a day. That’s not the way to get an agent or sell your book.

WHY A SYNOPSIS?
The synopsis allows agents to see a summary of your book without reading the full manuscript. It’s a shorter time investment, which is better for business, and it allows them to see if your plot jumps the shark thirty chapters in. It also tells an agent where your marketing skills are at.

If you can make a synopsis with few adjectives and limited description exciting, you’ll be just fine. If you can’t, well, the agent has to decide if they want to invest the time in helping you learn.

WHY DO AUTHORS NEED SYNOPSIS WRITING SKILLS?
Here’s the dirty little secret most querying authors don’t know… your query and synopsis writing can make or break your career.

I don’t mean in terms of finding an agent either. A query becomes the basis for your back-of-cover blurb, i.e. that thing that actually sells your books to readers. The only difference between a query and a back-of-cover-blurb is you add the word count to the query. Even Indie authors need to know how to write one well.

A synopsis becomes the basis for selling your second book. After you’ve sold your debut novel it is common for agents to try and sell your next novel on spec. That means you write the blurb, the synopsis, and the first three chapters/30 pages of a new novel and try to sell it on that alone. In the case of a multi-book deal like the one I had for the Time and Shadows series, I had THE DAY BEFORE written and I sold the other two after I sent a synopsis in for them. The synopsis was the basis for the outline when I was writing. It was how I proved to my agent and editor that I had some idea where this series was going.

The sooner you learn to write a good synopsis, the better off you’ll be.

HOW DO YOU WRITE A SYNOPSIS?
– Finish the book
– Summarize each scene with one sentence
– Add additional information that is relevant for understanding character choices (fears, motivations, goals)
– Read through to make sure the plot and motivations are clear
– Add any words necessary to tie the sentences together (next, then, after)
– Edit for typos and grammar errors

One thing I have found DOESN’T work is trying to explain the book’s backstory in the first chapter of the synopsis. Case in point, the original synopsis for THE DAY BEFORE vs the synopsis that I sent to Marlene Stringer.

Synopsis 1: This was before the R&R that killed Sam’s fiancé. Notice how dull it sounds. This isn’t the opening chapter either. This is just filler.  

Samantha Rose is a junior agent with the Commonwealth Bureau of Investigation, the main government body responsible for investigating violent crimes. While the Commonwealth borders stretch from the Panama Canal to the Arctic Circle, the bureau doesn’t see a reason to station Sam anywhere fun after she took personal leave to care for her father within six months of being hired. For her sins, she’s stationed in Alabama District 3 with a misogynistic boss who still thinks the United States shouldn’t have joined the Commonwealth.

Sam is bound and determined to handle every case with cool efficiency, no mistakes allowed. If Senior Agent Marrins had nothing to complain about, he can’t deny her promotion and the transfer to Washington DC where Sam’s fiancé lives. When she’s told to wrap up a Jane Doe case that looks like a dumped clone to investigate the vandalism at a government-funded lab, Sam thinks she’s found her way out of the rural south.

 

Synopsis 2: Written over a year later. It incorporated advice from agents, workshops, and fellow authors. It gets to the book right away, focuses on the plot, and shows the agent what the story was. 

When a trucker finds a dismembered body on the side of the road junior agent SAMANTHA ROSE is the one responsible for finding a name for Jane Doe. Senior agent ROBERT MARRINS thinks the dead woman is clone. The coroner, LINSEY MACKENZIE thinks Jane was tortured to death but her fingerprints don’t match anyone in the database. MacKenzie’s fingerprints were found on the body, but this is dismissed because everyone believes he forgot to put his gloves on when Jane first arrived at the county morgue.

Sam is also assigned to look into the break-in at Novikov-Veltman Nova Laboratory by her boss, Senior Agent ROBERT MARRINS.

At the lab, DETECTIVE ALTIN walks Sam through the crime scene. Sam is introduced to DOCTOR EMIR and to Doctor Emir’s assistant HENRY TROOM. Sam is concerned by the disappearance of the two security guards, MORDICAI ROBBINS and MELODY CHIMES. It looks like the lab break-in is an inside job.

 

Can you see the difference?

A good synopsis may be dull in places, but it still sells the story. Happy writing!

Need more help? A query packet critique costs $25 and includes a full synopsis critique.