The Long Road toward becoming Published

As a fantasy writer, I recently joined the Mythic Scribes forum boards to solicit advice regarding this purgatory state of being in-between having completed a novel and awaiting publication that I currently find myself in. This dead zone, if you will, could cause authors to get confused about what they should be focusing on during this time. For example, while I am waiting to hear word back from literary agencies, I focused a lot of my time toward developing my synopsis – which would be a necessary item for querying more agents/publishers in the future. The advice I received from the community of fantasy writers on the forum board really set me on a path forward that I think will help any authors that are also walking down the long road toward traditional publishing.

Like many others, I usually want closure from all the places that I’ve submitted, so I’ve really exercised my patience when waiting for a response. However, in this industry, literary agents are so overwhelmed that sometimes a non-response is your answer. Unfortunately, that has become a reality in this industry. For this one reason, it is important to not stay stagnate as an author. Just keep writing because you don’t want to misuse the time that you have.

In addition, if an agent/publisher does contact you after a long while, often times they are curious as to what other finished work or work in progress (WIP) you can show them. And if it has been a while since you submitted to them, hopefully you at least have a WIP that you can discuss. But if your answer is, “I’ve rewritten my synopsis three times,” that’s not going to cut it. So the lesson here is: Don’t get caught with your pants down. Having more work prepared is never a bad thing. It proves that you are serious as a writer and that you are ahead of the game.

I still need to rewrite my synopsis, but the community’s words of wisdom have really got me motivated toward writing my sequel. Hopefully, it will do the same for you too.

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How to Write a Synopsis For Your Novel

Synopsis of Hamlet. This mind map gives a visual display of why it is so difficult to capture everything from a novel within the short length of a synopsis.

In my journey toward seeking representation, I have queried over 50 literary agents, all of which did not require a synopsis as part of the submission. I kept a reserve of ~20 other literary agents that I would submit to if my first round of submissions didn’t go so well. These 20 all require synopsis’s.  Unfortunately for authors, literary agents do not have standardized requests. Some ask for 1 page synopsis’s and others want 2 pages (a rare few even ask for a 3-5 page synopsis), which of course must be submitted along with your Query Letter and/or a sample of your work. While I do have one very promising agency reviewing my manuscript (fingers crossed!), I am preparing for round 2 (just in case) and just completed my synopsis.

SYNOPSIS TIPS & FORMAT:

At the top of the page (left or center) provide this info: Synopsis of “Title”. Genre: ____ Word Count: _____ By: “Your Name” (however, you can put your pen name if you wish).

Since most agents/publishers ask for either a 1 page or a “brief” synopsis, I think it’s best that you craft it to be within 1 page, single spaced. A synopsis is a narrative of your story, written with the same style and sense of excitement and wonder of your novel. Do not simply say, “Here is the main character, and this is what happens to him/her,” you must make the synopsis drool-worthy.

Synopses are always, ALWAYS, written in 3rd person and in the present tense. No exceptions! The synopsis must introduce your main characters. When you do so, you must make their full name in ALL CAPS, but only for the first time you mention their name. This makes it easy for a reader to locate the introduction of a character.

You do not have to detail all your sub-plots or all your characters, but the main story line must come across in your narrative. So it is best to ensure that you have captured all the major scenes and major plot elements and conflicts, and most importantly: The ending. Yes, you must give away your ending. How you conclude your story is especially important to agents and publishers.

PRO TIP #1:

Have a reader that is unfamiliar with your story read your synopsis and give you feedback. It can be difficult for you to be objective about your synopsis since you understand the meaning behind every sentence.

PRO TIP #2:

Think outside the box. You don’t have to write your synopsis in the same order of events as your novel. You can explain things out of order, which can help when you are trying to condense things down to one page.

PRO TIP #3:

Before writing your synopsis, bulletize the main points that you want to write about. This will help keep your novel at a high level and will help prevent you from diving into the details.

PRO TIP #4:

Don’t go down a rabbit hole. Beware of explaining one event/scene that forces you to explain another. Rabbit holes add additional details to your synopsis that only raise more questions than answers.

PRO TIP #5:

Less is more.

PERSONAL OPINION:

Why did I delay writing a synopsis, you ask? Because, summarizing your entire novel into one page is quite possibly the Achilles Heel of every author. Reducing my 100,000 word novel into an ~900 word page is difficult, to say the least. For most novels, there are so many complex sub-plots that hold a lot of weight to the overall story (as shown in the picture above), and not being able to fit them into your synopsis can be torturous.

When I joined NaNoWriMo this year, in order to fill out my profile, it made me write a synopsis of my novel before I even began writing it. I must say that writing the synopsis beforehand helped me identify character motivations that I hadn’t even considered in my outline. It was profound, and it helped me expand on my planning. However, if you were to write a synopsis before hand (which is similar to the Snowflake method of outlining, which I discuss here), you can bet, with a certainty, that you will need to revise it after you finish your novel.

STEPHEN KING’S APPROACH:

In his novel, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King doesn’t touch on writing a synopsis, but what he does talk about is plot – which is what a synopsis is supposed to capture. Steven King’s novels are not born from the conception of a plot, but are based on a single situation instead (I wrote more about it here in my discussion of the 7 basic plots). He is able to reduce his entire novels down to one sentence. It struck me that when writing a novel using this approach, it would probably be a lot more friendly when it’s time to summarize your novel into a synopsis. And even more helpful for the purposes of writing a Query Letter (explained here with additional detail here).

Questions For A Literary Agent

An agency has requested to read my full manuscript. After I had submitted it, I had been waiting to hear from them for about two weeks. Those two weeks were nerve racking. I began rereading my book and noticed so much more that needed editing. They were small things, but they were imperfections, so I did another round of editing. I took the liberty to send the revised manuscript to them just in case they hadn’t received my original submission (they never confirmed with me that they got it). 

The lady that I was in contact with informed me that she was 100 pages in and did not want to switch to a new file. I learned that she was an intern at the agency and it was her job to review my manuscript and then write a report to submit to her boss. As far as I can tell, this report is going to be the deciding factor in whether the agent chooses to offer me representation or not.She also informed me that whatever her boss’ decision is, he will let me read her report verbatim. While that is very comforting, this chance to communicate with an agent about my novel and my future as an author is monumental. It is also a critical opportunity for learning any information that can help me to succeed if, *knocks on wood*, he chooses to pass.

I can only hope that they can look past any minor errors that may have existed in the version of my manuscript that she read. I’m hoping that they can say, “With editing, this book would be great!” What I don’t want to hear is, “I’m sorry, while your story is compelling, your writing isn’t strong enough.” (Or something of that sort). So, in during the wait for their response, I have prepared a great many questions. When I get that phone call, I want to be ready.

  1. (The BIG question) What did you think of the story of The Soul Smith?
  2. What criteria was I being evaluated against?
  3. As an agent, what are you looking for in a book? (e.g. marketability, story, characters, originality, length?)
  4. What are you looking for from the author? (e.g. commitment, motivation, coach-able, long term relationship?)
  5. What was I doing well in my book?
  6. What is my greatest area that needs improvement?
  7. (If necessary) Am I worthy of a second chance?
  8. What did he like about my query letter? What caught his eye when I submitted?
  9. (Assuming he offers me representation) What are the next steps? (e.g. professional editing? submitting to publishers? getting it translated for international submission?)
  10. What services do you provide as a boutique agency?
  11. What could a full agency provide that a boutique agency cannot?
  12. What are the terms you are offering me? (% for international and national sales)

Submitting Query Letters to Literary Agents

My experience with sending query letters has not been too exciting. In fact, I’ve just received my first rejection letter. Though,I’m certain that the process that I’ve implemented would be useful to others. I created a free account on www.querytracker.net which is an incredibly useful tool for authors. It even has easy video tutorials to learn how to navigate and use their features. What I’ve used this website for is to purely track when I’ve sent a query letter, and to whom, and then set reminders for myself to do some sort of follow up if I haven’t heard from them in the expected response time.

However, I do not recommend using Query Tracker for the purpose of acquiring contact information of Agents. Their database is good, but not reliable. I have seen agents post on Twitter that querytracker does not always have the most up-to-date contact information, and that authors should always check the Agency’s website for submission instructions. Matter of fact, I was at one agency website with a page outlining their general submission guidelines, and when I was browsing the agent bio’s, I noticed that the agent I wanted to submit to had drastically different submission instructions listed in her bio… so keep an eye out.

So I’ve submitted to 3 agents thus far. Why did I stop there you ask? Despite all of my research into drafting a query letter (as seen in my previous blog post), I stopped at 3 because I am uncertain at the quality of my query. This is only because I have not recieved any professional feedback on it yet (I sure hope Query Shark posts my submission to her).

So I do understand that query’s should be tailored to the agent you are sending it to, and in fact, you should only submit to agents that you’ve done research on and believe that they are the right fit for you. However, on the other hand, what if the agent doesn’t feel the magical connection through your poorly crafted query letter that hasn’t undergone any feedback?

I’ve noticed that agents claim up-front that they will not provide you feedback on why they declined your query, if they turn you down. But a simple answer of “No” from an agent is enough to know that something in your query letter needs to be changed. That is why I stopped at 3… to allow myself to adjust and adapt to their responses (or lack thereof) before I continue my quest to find representation.

For example, now that I’ve received my first “No”, I am going to rewrite the bio in my query.

Thoughts on a Query Letter

The thing that I have come to love about this industry is how helpful everyone is (and look, now I’m doing it too!). There are numerous free resources out there, and you should gobble them up. Not everyone’s thoughts and opinions are in sync on the matter, but the wisdom and insight gained from the perspective of how literary agents view query letters is immensely valuable itself.

The main resources I used to guide me when drafting my query letter were Query Shark’s blog and Noah Lukeman’s free ebook on Kindle: “How to Write a Great Query Letter”. I highly recommend reading through both, as writing a query letter is a skill, and unfortunately, this letter is what authors get judged on. Not your novel. No, no. You get judged on a single piece of paper, and if they like that 1 page, then (and only then) may you be judged on your work, if they request it of you. So here is my summation of everything that I’ve gleaned from the two:

Bottom line up front, your query letter should be no more than three paragraphs. Make it succinct, word economy is key. Also, follow the rules. Some people might want to make their query stand out by using different font, special colored paper, or even provide quotes from their novel, but those are just red flags in an agent’s eyes.

  1. First paragraph, you must grab the agents attention. You could appeal to the agent personally by naming an author they represent and how you believe that your novel is similar, which is why you chose them, etc (which requires lots of research). Be sure to mention that your novel is completed, mention the word count, its TITLE, and the genre.
  2. Second paragraph, try to sum up your entire novel into 2 or 3 sentences. This can be incredibly difficult to do, so focus on the main plot and drop all the sub plots. Agents don’t need to hear about the sub plots at this point yet.
  3. Third paragraph, your bio, written in first person. Only provide major publication credits (if you have them). If you don’t, (or are a new author like me), join a writing organization or a writers critique group. Beware, most of these cost money, and sometimes require that you have been published before you can join, so options may be limited. However, do not ever include any NON-relevant information. Anything that is not DIRECTLY related to being a writer should not be included. The only exception to that is if your personal life experiences are what helped you write your novel (e.g. You lived through Desert Storm and now you’re writing a book about it).

As a last word of advice, there are places out there where you can view successful query letters, such as: http://bit.ly/ISki7u. I highly recommend reading over those as well since this is more of an art than a science.