Editor's Notes: Query Letters, Synopses & Manuscripts

I find myself amazed at the difference in my attitude about publishers after only a week at Xchyler Publishing.  To say I have learned a lot would be an understatement.  The prospect differs immensely from this vantage, and here I sat with the unenviable task of playing the jack-booted control freak as a matter of survival.  Insanity and I have parted ways intermittently over the past 18 hours, but somewhere in the chaos this treatise burbled forth and got plastered all over the group lounge.  Surely not enough exposure for this crazed lunatic, it's as good as anything else for blog fodder.

From Unabridged.Miriam-Webster.com:  Synopsis: 1 : a brief orderly outline affording a quick general view (of a treatise or narrative) : a condensed statement : ABSTRACT 2 a : a brief outline summarizing the action of a proposed screen play or television script b : a summary of a completed film (as for cataloging in a film library) 3 : a conjugation by one person and number synonym see ABRIDGMENT 

One way to write the synopsis is in outline form. They include a chapter-by-chapter description of the book with headings, subheadings, points, etc. Vital elements include: 
  1. Plot development/arc 
  2. Character development 
  3. Theme 
  4. Structure/sequencing (how the story is to be told) 

What the synopsis does for the editor:

  1. The editor learns very quickly whether or not the story interests them or is marketable through their publishing company. 
  2. A good synopsis allows the editor to judge whether or not the story is told in a clear manner. It will alert the editor to various mechanisms and divergences which may seem inappropriate or confusing but are placed with very specific intent. Your synopsis is the map the editor uses to follow your journey. 
  3. A good synopsis can compensate for an author’s weaknesses.   Perhaps writing skills or techniques trip up the editor and prompt a rejection.  With a strong synopsis in hand, they may be willing to see the diamond in the rough. They may decide the storytelling is worth the effort of refining the writing. For the difference between storytelling and writing, see this post.  Such a synopsis could prompt a “revise and resubmit” suggestion, which is a heckofalot better than a form rejection letter. 
  4. Providing the properly constructed synopsis demonstrates to the editor both the author’s willingness and ability to work within their guidelines. Producing a book is complicated. Rules are created to simplify the path to success. Authors who staunchly maintain their individualism by failing to comply end up in the reject pile. 

What the synopsis does for the writer:

  1. The process of creating the synopsis once the manuscript is complete compels the author to take a good, strong look at their work. Writing synopses requires effort—intense effort—especially within the very strict guidelines of most publishers. Reducing their work to a one- to three-page outline often seems impossible. Imagine a lady in a dressing room holding up a gorgeous, size 6 cocktail dress. It’s a special night and she wants to knock ‘em dead. But, perhaps she’s too short or too tall or too thin or too fat. Perhaps she lacks the curves to properly fill it out. Perhaps it just plain doesn’t fit. In writing a synopsis, the writer is forced to stand before that agonizingly truthful three-way mirror and see the bulges and the rolls and the straining seams, or the loose, ill-fitting form, or both. Writing a synopsis enlightens and inspires when approached properly. 
  2. Writing a synopsis provides the author with excellent practice in working within the structures imposed by the publishing company. By their very natures, writers are independent folk with their own ideas and the compulsion to express them. They don’t take well to being told what to do or to change their way of thinking. However, working within the construct of a publishing company, they will have perfect strangers doing just that, from the editors to the proof-readers to the artist who designs their cover. Consider the synopsis the warm-up. 
  3. Writing a synopsis empowers the author. The process will help them identify the points they want to defend with their life and those they are willing to concede. No two people read the same book and come away with exactly the same story. The editor’s ideas will differ from the writer’s. They will request rewrites. Bank on it. With synopsis in hand, the writer can choose which battles to fight. It gives them the ammunition to do it. 
  4. Writing a synopsis humbles, inspires, and motivates. The writer will see themes and subtext which may have previously escaped them. It provides a fresh outlook and allows the writer to see the forest when they have spent so long immersed in the trees.
For tips on writing a synopsis as a narrative, visit this helpful website.

About query letters: 

These are your sales pitch to the screener of the slush pile. Imagine you have them trapped in an elevator with you for the time it takes to rise one floor. Within those few seconds, you must intrigue and engage the screener and tempt them into investing more of their precious time in reading your synopsis.

Good query letters will include the following:
  1. The pitch (or blurb). Think of the screener standing in a bookstore with your novel in their hands. They flip open the cover to read the pitch on the flap, deciding whether or not they will walk out of the store with this book. This (the blurb on the flap) is your pitch. It must be as engaging and enticing as possible in just one or two paragraphs.  
    a.  Consider:  Society’s most eligible bachelor, Pierpont Durant has it all: the freedom of an early independence and unimaginable wealth, the status of an ancient nobility, a brilliant intellect, a dashing manner; a crushing family legacy to restore, a father’s dying wish to fulfill, a war to end, a tyrant to depose, and lives to save or sacrifice to accomplish it. Life submerged in the violence of a shadow warrior threatens to destroy him, and his one hope of redemption—the love of a certain lady, his lifelong goal—is claimed by another, his brother-in-arms to whom he owes his life. Journey with Durant as he wanders across war-ravaged Europe, through the halls of power, and into the salons of high society, wrestling with obligations of duty and honor, seeking escape from his obsession—both his salvation and damnation—certain the fires of his passion will consume his soul. 
    b. Compared to: My book is about Pierpont Durant who is a shadow warrior seeking to end the Napoleonic wars. He is in love with Cassandra Sterling, a young lady he has admired all his life but to whom he is unknown. She is also loved by Loyal Partridge, his friend and fellow soldier who has saved his life on more than one occasion. Durant must decide which path he will choose: his own happiness, or defer to that of Partridge, and then convince both Sandy and his friend to embrace his decision.
    Both are accurate depictions of my book, but which would you choose? Your blurb needs to sell.
  2. The word and page count. 
  3. The genre and market you are targeting. 
  4. Your own credentials. This is where you sell yourself. What are your education credentials? What colleges or universities have you attended, what courses did you take pertinent to your writing? What are your vocation and avocation? Have you been published? In a magazine or a newspaper or a journal? Do you guest blog? Have you won any competitions? Be brief, but touch on the most impressive. 
That’s it. Include nothing else. Keep it short, keep it simple, but convince whomever is reading that query to turn the page and look at your synopsis. Your query letter is your bait, the synopsis your hook. Your manuscript reels them in, but remember, after landing the big fish, a lot of gutting takes place. It’s a messy business.

Very Important Points regarding your manuscript: 

  1. Follow the guidelines to the letter.  Make sure you know exactly what they are and do it.  Do they specify either an outline or narrative synopsis?  How long should it be?  Pay attention to the details.  Noncompliance will single you out, to be sure—right out of the slush pile and into the reject bin. 
  2. Use the proper file format.  Make your manuscript accessible. Unless otherwise specified, send .doc files in the MS Word format. Convert .docx files to .doc, as this indicates a newer version of Word which does not always cross operating systems. Remember: editors edit. Don’t block them out with a .pdf file. 
  3. Don’t get funky with the font. Again, being singled out in this manner is not a good thing. Restrict your use to a common open-faced font, one that is pretty much universal such as Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri or the like. Remember that not all fonts are included in all operating systems or word processors. Using an uncommon font means you have no idea what your document will look like on the computer of whomever is screening your manuscript. 
  4. No matter what, double space the lines. This speeds reading and makes it easier to proof. Screeners and editors can find what they are looking for in double-spaced work. 
  5. Use 12 pt font size or above. This goes hand-in-hand with double-spacing. The last thing you want is your screener/editor to close your manuscript because reading it gives them a headache. Truthfully, I opened a manuscript the other day and shut it right down again because it was single-spaced and I have neither the time nor the patience to read it. A screening editor would not open it up again. 
  6. Always, always use double spaces after end-of-sentence punctuation. Word processing has not eliminated the need for this, as the programs treat punctuation marks the same as any other character.  They do not add space after sentences.  Double-spacing sentences allows for quicker reading and easier scanning.  It contributes far less to eye strain.  Remember, a happy editor is a helpful editor.
  7. DO NOT USE INTERNET OR ELECTRONIC MEDIA TECHNIQUES TO ESTABLISH IDEAS OR EMOTIONS. This demonstrates a weakness on the writer’s part and is very annoying. Use your words—real words.  Whole words. Unless specifically quoting, do not abv w/txt-spl abbreviate with text-spell. Big. Red. Flag. At most, use italics to place emphasis, but avoid anything more significant, especially color changes. Your voice—that narration the reader hears in their head while their brain processes the words they see—should speak, not the letters on the page. Do not rely on typeface to convey sensibilities. 
All these rules and demands may seem like so much jack-booted fascist — hog-swallop, but there are very strong reasons for imposing them. They all have to do with screening manuscripts as quickly and easily as possible. As both a writer and an editor, I promise, it looks very, very different from this vantage, and you want whomever is looking at your manuscript to see the story, not all the difficulties and road blocks thrown up in their way as they attempt to work through it. Most of the time, they won’t make the effort to figure out what the heck you’re trying to get at. They will simply choose another path, and it won’t be yours. So, learn the guidelines, follow them meticulously, and free your manuscript of that elimination pitfall.

No comments: