What is a query and why should I learn to write one? The short answer is that once upon a time, you didn’t need to. You could just send your completed novel manuscript to the agent or editor of your dreams, with or without a cover letter. You could be reasonably confident that either that person or some overworked assistant would actually read it. True, the turnaround time might be suspiciously short, and the form rejection letter clearly one-size-fits-all.
These days, the number of publishing houses that read “unsolicited” or “unagented” submissions has shrunk alarmingly. The result is that editors want to maximize the chances of a manuscript being what they want before they invest the time in reading it. Most of the publishers who will consider work submitted “over the transom” have very long response times. Regardless of whether this is fair or even good business practice, it is widespread. Hence, marketing one’s work means getting past a series of gate-keepers.
A query basically says, “Would you look at my book?” It does not say, “I’m a fabulous writer, so please represent me.” It does say, politely and succinctly, “I’ve written a book. This is what it’s about. Would you like to see it?” That way, the agent or editor can say, “Sure,” “Sorry, we don’t publish this type of book,” “Sorry, we’re overstocked,” etc.
A query should be short, a page or two at most, something an editor can read quickly. It should be as well written as possible because you have so little space in which to arouse the editor’s interest. It should also be direct, not manipulative or cutesy. There are various opinions on whether to include biographical information or publication credits, but in general, it’s best to include only the most relevant data such as experience directly related to the project or previous publications and awards in the same genre.
The “Sure” is usually accompanied by submission requirements. “Send us a partial” or “the complete manuscript.” Whatever the response, a wise writer follows these instructions. If an agent wants to see a synopsis and 100 pages electronically in rtf format, do not send a paper printout of the whole book. Chances are, it will generate a form rejection and a distinct prejudice against any further queries. “No thanks” can mean anything from the agent had a bad day and it just didn’t strike her fancy to the letter was so badly written, the story stands no chance to nobody’s buying cross-dressing teenage werewolf stories.
This is where a synopsis comes in. The agent has said he’s interested, but he doesn’t want to wade through the whole thing. He wants a good idea of the essence of the book and he wants to see a bit of the writing itself. He wants to know how you envision this book and if you can carry it off. Sometimes, agents or editors will ask for one to three chapters, sometimes a given number of pages, for example, 100.
A synopsis is not an outline. Although it may describe the plot, it is not a blow-by-blow description of events. It’s a way of communicating the emotional experience a reader can expect from the actual book. Usually it takes about 8 to 10 single-spaced pages to accomplish this, but requirements vary. A synopsis conveys not only the tenor and shape of the story, but basic information, like does it have a beginning, middle, and end? An identifiable climax? Does it fit within an established genre or is it daring and experimental? More importantly, Does the writer know what he’s doing? Is this a book I can sell?
If marketing a manuscript is like arranging a marriage, the query is the listing in the dating service and the synopsis is the first date. You’re trying to get a sense of the other person. You’ve signed up for an evening together, a little chat, a little dancing, maybe a nice dinner, but definitely not a lifetime commitment.
I’m not going to tell you how to write a synopsis. I’ve seen how-to instructions online and if I tried to follow them, I’d go nuts in five minutes. They make as much sense to me as a checklist for writing a novel does. I think it’s as important to convey your distinctive voice in a synopsis as in the text of the story itself, which means not sounding like a pale copy of anyone else. When I sit down to write a synopsis, I pretend I’m writing to a dear friend about my novel, someone who is a careful reader and well-disposed to my ideas. That works for me. It might not work for anyone else, which is why I don’t think step-by-step directions are helpful.
Next week, I’ll talk about pitches. It seems the shorter they are, the harder they are to write, so they deserve their own column. Stay tuned!
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.