Query letter advice, query letter samples, and how to write a query letter advice for the children’s book marketplace. From query letter length to how to start a query letter to how to reply to a query letter. All of your query letter questions for the children’s book market are answered in these articles.
Not every part of the year is made equal in terms of manuscript submission timing. Of course, it’s true that agents and publishers sometimes go “open” to submission and then wink “closed” on their own schedules. That’s why doing rigorous research is so important—you will want to check everyone’s submission guidelines before you send your query or submission package. Sometimes an individual is overwhelmed, on maternity or paternity leave, deciding to scale back on signing new clients, etc.
But there are definitely times of the year that are generally considered to be poor submission targets.
Times to Avoid Manuscript Submission
We are now deep in the no-go zone: Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Agents and publishers are vacationing, sleeping, or, more likely, catching up on submissions and slush from the rest of the year. Most are either officially or unofficially closed to submissions. Most agents won’t even go out with client projects after November 1st because a publishing decision requires consensus—and consensus is out of town.
The same could be said about the end of summer. Traditionally, August has been a slow time in publishing, though I’ve heard over and over that the 24/7 business environment has gotten in the way of this summer idyll.
You may also want to be cognizant of some of the bigger publishing trade shows, which happen in March (Bologna—specific to children’s books), June (London Book Fair), and October (Frankfurt), and whenever for whatever is happening to Book Con/Book Expo. Obviously, a lot of these events have been up in the air since the pandemic, so publishing people aren’t traveling all over creation.
A note about the last few mentions, though: You cannot predict what a person is doing right down to the second, or when they will sit down to read submissions. You don’t know if they’re going to Frankfurt. You don’t know if they’re having a baby. You don’t know if they just got the flu.
Manuscript Submission Timing Takeaway
You can only do your best to prognosticate about when to submit. Just avoid Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Sometimes this means that the agent you were hoping for will go closed to submissions suddenly. That’s okay. I’d recommend having a favorite and a Plan B at every major agency, just in case.
What To Do With Downtime
As we near the biggest submission blackout period of the year, you might find yourself wondering what to do with your submission/writing/manuscript energy. Here are three suggestions:
Plan the future! Work on another project. After you submit, you’ll want to keep your creative wheels spinning, so plan your next move.
Revise! If you want to shoot your best shot, you’ll want to have the strongest possible manuscript to go out with. Authors admit that they tinker with already-published works in their heads as they read. You can always do another revision polish. Why not now?
Read! If your writing or revision work needs a break, catch up on your reading pile. This may not seem like “active” writing or revision work, but you are gathering information about the craft and the market by reading—inside and outside of your category.
When the new year dawns and it’s time to submit, you will be that much of a stronger candidate.
If you’d like advice on your Submission Package Edit in the meantime, consider working with me as your freelance editor.
After a lot of work and time and the wonderful contributions of many real writers, just like you, I’m thrilled to introduce my ebook, Successful Query Letters: Query Letters That Worked. Check out the cover. Ain’t she a beaut?
Forty-Three Real Query Letters From Real Writers
One drawback of being a querying writer is that you don’t have access to a slush pile, so you don’t know what everyone else is doing. Critique partners share manuscripts, but maybe not queries. It’s tough to get your hands on real query letters from real writers.
Well, I had my own slush pile for five years as a literary agent, and I have reviewed hundreds of thousands of queries over the last decade-plus. Not only have I collected forty-three query letters from real writers (some of which have gone on to gain representation and even book deals!), but there are queries in every category, and I dissect each one with margin notes and overview feedback.
My goal with this ebook was to make it as comprehensive as possible, with as many examples as possible, to be the ultimate query letter resource and learning tool.
Get Your Copy Today
This ebook is only available from the Good Story Company store as a digital PDF download. It will be delivered to your email inbox as soon as you check out for your reading and learning pleasure!
Title formatting is a pretty straightforward question, but one that many writers are confused about. Carolyn recently wrote in to ask the following question:
When writing the titles of book for comps (as well as your own title), should they be underlined? Or written in all caps?
Title Formatting is Different From Manuscript Title Formatting
Clear as mud, right? The “sometimes” really isn’t in there to be difficult. However, the first thing I want to mention is that everyone approaches title formatting differently, as you will see.
Generally, with published works and publication names (including magazines and newspapers), I recommend italics with standard title capitalization. Here’s a handy widget that will help you know which words to capitalize, as title case capitalization can be confusing.
If you are referencing a published work or publication, be sure to use the same capitalization as the publisher of the work or the publication use. If you are referencing a published article or essay, use quotation marks instead of italics, and refer to how the article or essay is capitalized where it was originally published. Easy!
Where things get muddy is that you have written a manuscript, not necessarily a published one yet—which is why you’re submitting in the first place. So does it get treated the same in title formatting as a published work?
That depends on the writer.
Manuscript Title Formatting
I have seem all kinds of title formatting choices for manuscripts. Some writers use italics, though the work is not yet published. Some writers use quotation marks. Some writers use all caps.
Purely anecdotally, and form my experience referring to manuscripts within the industry, I prefer all caps for unpublished manuscripts, and the above formatting conventions for published works.
Yes, this means that your query letter may have one formatting (italics) for the comp titles you’re citing, and one formatting (caps) for your manuscript title.
This may look like torture to you, but you would be operating very much in the realm of normal for the industry. This would be my personal choice and recommendation. (You can find more thoughts on email query letter formatting here.)
Consistency is Key in Title Formatting
But we are all unique snowflakes and some other writers or professionals may disagree. Variety is the spice of life! I would, however, counsel you to avoid too much variety … within your query letter and manuscript.
All that is to say, whichever choice you make, stick with it consistently. Don’t refer to your manuscript title in all caps, then use quotation marks later in the letter or manuscript. You could risk a sloppy-looking submission, and nobody wants that.
Does your query letter or submission package put your best foot forward? Hire me for a query letter edit and find out your unique strengths and opportunities for growth.
The query letter hook is the “grabby” part of the query letter, where you include a logline, or one-sentence description of your story. If you’ve heard me talk about self-editing and revision, you may have seen me call this your book’s “mission statement” as well. What is it about? Who is the main character? What is their main struggle? And what is the theme or bigger picture idea behind it?
Query Letter Hook
To write an effective query letter hook, think about the number one most important thing you want the query letter reviewer to know about your story, as they pertain to:
An example for a picture book like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown might be:
When Mr. Tiger tires of being proper and reclaims his wild side, surprising things happen all around him.
An example for a YA novel like The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon might be:
Two teens from very different cultures and with very different priorities collide as one of them is about to be deported, and have to decide whether to give love a chance.
Now, one thing you might notice is that both of these loglines are open-ended. What happens to Mr. Tiger’s friends? What effect does going wild have on everyone? Do the teens give love a chance? Does the character get deported?
For a query letter hook, this can be desirable. It creates some tension and invites the agent or publisher to keep reading. Normally, the hook or logline belongs at the very top of the query letter. But then what? Do you fill in the blanks with the rest of the letter? Here, my opinion flies in the face of some other thought leaders on the topic, like the wonderful Jane Friedman.
She says that you should tease and avoid revealing your ending in the query. I say, if you’ve engineered an amazing plot, let’s see it. An agent wants to know if you can tell a story, and whether it’s a story that has enough substance and excitement behind it.
Rhetorical Questions and Revealing the Ending
The rest of the query letter will expand on your story. Who are the characters? What is the main thrust of the plot, including the biggest three or four plot points? Even a picture book query letter could go into more detail than what I’ve mentioned above.
How do you land the query, then?
I argue that your query letter hook involves more information, not less. If you leave agents and publishers hanging with a rhetorical question, for example, by ending your Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and The Sun Is Also a Star query letters this way:
Will Mr. Tiger be true to himself?
Will Daniel and Natasha give in to their hearts, after all?
… is your query letter really doing the full breadth of your story justice? I will tell you one thing right now that I know to be 100% true:
No agent will be so maddeningly compelled by your open-ended query letter hook or rhetorical question that they will read an entire novel to find out how your tease plays out.
There is simply not enough time in the day. If your query letter is open-ended or teasing or doesn’t clearly portray the story you’ve written, an agent may lose interest and move along because it’s too vague. There’s not enough substance. They are most certainly not going to breathlessly request and read 300 pages to scratch a small itch created by a coy query letter.
Instead, you can end your query letter strongly by revealing the ending to bring the query letter hook full circle, like this:
Only by going extremely wild—at the risk of alienating everyone—does Mr. Tiger bring more self-expression to himself and his whole community.
The deportation goes through, and Natasha and Daniel don’t get their happily ever after. Lest readers think all is lost, they meet again years later, opening a surprising opportunity for the universe to continue to work in its mysterious ways.
By doing so, you may actually get more interest because agents and publishers will see that you have plot chops and will want to see how you get the story from Point A (the set-up) to Point B (the ending that you’ve revealed).
A picture book about extreme self-expression? Let’s see how far this goes! A YA romance where the leads don’t end up together? What the heck? I want to read that and see how the writer pulls it off!
I hope you can at least entertain my point that this reveal generates interest that is much more compelling than some teasing rhetorical question.
I can be your query letter editor, and bring over five years of experience as a literary agent (and over a decade in publishing) to the project.
Picture book illustrators need an illustration query to break into the field. You have several extra considerations when crafting an illustrator query letter and starting to pitch your illustration services, so here’s how you will want to approach the topic of pitching yourself and your art.
Getting Work as An Illustrator
There are several ways to break into picture book illustration. The first (and best) is to create a picture book project from scratch. A lot of picture books these days are sold as author-illustrator projects. Why? This makes things easy for a publisher. They deal with one creator, the art and text tend to have more complex interplay, and they don’t have to go through the arduous process of matching a text to an artist.
But you can also try your hand at an illustration query if you want to enter a publisher’s stable of potential illustrators (they all have one). This is the more circuitous route, with (often) less pay-off. If you don’t have a picture book project ready to go, though, this is what you’ll have to do. The bare minimum you need is a portfolio.
Picture Book Illustration Portfolio
Before you think about writing an illustrator query letter, you will need to assemble some materials. A strong illustrator portfolio needs to be available and viewable online (more on this later). As a bare minimum, it should contain:
6 to 8 fully finished illustrations
Different styles, if you have them
Different compositions, if you can, with some close-ups, and some wide angle scenes
Different subjects, from settings to characters
A special focus on characters and faces–portraying emotions is key for picture book illustrations
If you don’t have this kind of work available yet, you aren’t ready to pitch your portfolio around. Concentrate there, first.
Making Your Illustration Portfolio Available
There are two main ways to showcase your illustration work. The bare minimum is an illustration portfolio that’s viewable online. Many websites, like Wix and Squarespace, can help you put together a visually appealing, easy-to-navigate website for cheap. (I personally use Squarespace for my editorial website and a WordPress blog hosted independently for this website. I highly recommend Squarespace for ease of use. I’ve been using WordPress for over a decade and am comfortable with it, but it tends to have more moving parts.)
Since most literary agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited email attachments, having your work hosted online so you can direct them to a website is key.
Mailings and Other Opportunities for Illustrators
The other approach is to target literary agents, artist reps, and publishers with postcards. (Artist reps are specialized literary agents who work with illustrators. Some illustrators opt to get a literary agent, and those are usually illustrators who are also interested in writing their own books. Some, who are interested primarily in illustration work, target art reps instead.) Use a website like Vistaprint (though do spring for better quality paper so that your art is reproduced faithfully and in more vivid color) to print postcard mailings. (I recommend Vistaprint for the first few mailings because they’re cheap and run promotions, but for quality reasons, you’ll want to move on from them eventually.)
Use books like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market to find and target literary agencies, artist representatives, and publishers (aim for the art director role at houses) with your postcard mailings. Showcase one to three of your top pieces and include a way to contact you on the back of the postcard.
A third way to showcase your art is to go to conferences that feature portfolio showcases or join the SCBWI, which has an area for illustrators to create galleries. There are a lot of other places to showcase art online, like creating a portfolio with Deviant Art, for example, but the SCBWI and conferences with illustrator opportunities are very targeted to the publishing business.
(For every activity you do, consider what you want to get out of it. Are you looking for representation for your art? Are you looking to connect directly with people who might be looking for illustrators to hire, like self-published authors? Are you looking to do all kinds of illustration, from editorial to picture book, or to target picture books exclusively? Some of these questions and answers are beyond the scope of this blog post, but food for thought. More thoughts on illustrating your own children’s book here.)
The Illustrator Query Letter Made Simple
If you are pitching a picture book project along with your illustration talents in the query letter, you will want to follow my advice for the picture book query, but also add a paragraph that contains any illustration credits you have (magazines, blogs, etc. count!) and links the recipient to your online portfolio.
If you have a dummy of your picture book, you will need to transmit it somehow since, again, most agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited attachments. Have a PDF available and upload it to your website, but don’t make it widely available. Instead, put a direct download link in your illustration query (or make the file password protected and send credentials). You can also use tools like Google Docs and Dropbox to generate a link to a file, but make sure the links don’t expire.
If you are just sending an illustrator query letter to literary agents, art reps, and publishers that pitches your general talents, you will want to keep it very simple. You don’t have a story to pitch, so instead give an abridged resume of your experience and a link to your online portfolio. Easy peasy! What will really set you apart here is a strong sense of your publishing history (so work on getting illustration jobs) and your online portfolio (so spend valuable time developing it).
I work with illustrators, too, as a picture book editor, so don’t hesitate to reach out for feedback on your art!
Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)
Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them
The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.
The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:
Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:
Age of Book Comps
It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.
But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.
Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query
Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp onlyThe Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.
As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.
Similarity to Your Book
You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Lifesimilar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.
Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List
Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.
Number of Comp Titles
The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.
How to Find Book Comps
This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.
Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.
As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!
Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Picture Book Format
Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).
Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.
While I’m no longer a literary agent, I still want your query letter submission for an upcoming project! Aspiring writers are desperate for feedback on example query letters, and to see what their peers are working on. Reading real, live queries is one of the best ways to learn about query writing. But a lot of writers don’t have a venue to share their letters or read other people’s work.
I’m looking to change that. But I need your help!
UPDATE: I am still looking for submissions in the nonfiction (not nonfiction picture book), adult memoir, adult literary fiction, adult fiction, and self-published categories. My children’s fiction query needs have been met! I am also looking for a short nonfiction book proposal example if anyone wants to share.
Are you currently working on a query letter? Have you successfully used a query letter to get literary agent representation or a publishing deal?
I am seeking submissions of successful query letters AND query letters in progress to use for a teaching resource. For query letters in progress, I will provide feedback on every letter that I select for inclusion in this resource as my token of gratitude for your participation. Everyone whose query is selected will receive access to the teaching resource.
I’m especially looking for queries in the following categories:
Memoir or creative nonfiction query (for any audience)
Nonfiction query (in any category, eg, business, reference, parenting, etc.)
Short nonfiction book proposal example
Self-published project query
UPDATE: I am still looking for submissions in the nonfiction (not nonfiction picture book), adult memoir, adult literary fiction, adult fiction, and self-published categories. My children’s fiction query needs have been met! I am also looking for a short nonfiction book proposal example if anyone wants to share.
The queries will be used for a paywall-protected teaching resource only,they will not be published or distributed widely on the blog. Since this is a project in progress, I will provide more concrete information only to people who are selected. You will need to provide written/signed permission for me to reproduce your query letter and provide annotations. (If you don’t want to give permission, that’s not a problem, this post simply isn’t for you.) If your query is in a category that I have already filled, or it does not fit the needs of the project, it will not be selected and I will, unfortunately, not be able to provide the complimentary critique.
If you are submitting a successful query letter that has earned literary representation or a publishing deal, please mention that. You are welcome to crow about your agent’s name, book title, etc. I can include your name and project title in the resource, or omit identifying information. The teaching resource will be released in early 2019.
Query Letter Submission Instructions
Please send your query letter as a Word doc or docx attachment (not a PDF, because I will annotate in Word) or share via Google Docs to:
The updated submission deadline is December 14th, 2018. I will respond to every submission. I will ask until late January to turn around on query annotations, so, unfortunately, the query critique opportunity is not for queries you’re planning to go on submission with, like, tomorrow
This post is all about query letter format, a perennially popular topic that won’t quit! While there isn’t just one query letter format or query letter template out there, I’ve developed a handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Query Letter Format
From my recent webinar on query letters, I’ve learned that writers continue to be fascinated with this little one-page document. It’s my most popular webinar by far, and a constant fixture of Google searches about writing.
But what makes successful queries? And can I get a query letter template? Writers are desperate for query letter examples.
When I was speaking at writer’s conferences, I always gave out a handout with a query letter example that I’d written for Twilight. Cue your eye rolls, but it’s a well-known story that everyone has at least glancing familiarity with. (My query letter example is written with Edward as the protagonist because I think Bella is such a wet blanket, ha!)
Writers are also curious to see if there is a query letter template that they should be following for formatting their query letter. Is there a set formula for writing a query and organizing the information? Not really, unfortunately. Even if I was going to call my query letter template the perfect way to write a query, many writers wouldn’t get the memo and the slush would still be filled with queries that don’t follow this flow.
But I believe very much in my query letter template, which you’ll find in the second page of the PDF. It has a nice flow to it, and is a good way to organize all of the elements of the query letter.
Here’s something to keep in mind about writing a query letter: IT’S A ONE-PAGE COVER LETTER. Your query letter length? 250 to 450 words. That’s it! Sure, it feels so much more monumental than that, but the query letter only has one job: To get the agent or publisher interested enough to move on to your writing sample or proposal. That’s it. That’s all.
Writers obsess over the query letter. It feels like their “one shot” to achieve publication. Their foot in the door. But believe me when I say that I never offered representation based solely on the query letter, and I have overlooked many crappy queries to then offer on a great manuscript. The query is a means to an end.
The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to write a novel synopsis in a way that’ll keep your sanity intact.
What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does
A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.
Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.
A novel synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. A wonderful elevator pitch can very easily fall apart in the execution.
Agents and Publishers are Curious to Know the Following
that you have a lively cast of characters
that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)
Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. But no matter what, you should know how to write a novel synopsis. Better yet, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.
How to Write a Novel Synopsis
The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case. But once your butt is in the chair, here are some basic tips on how to write a novel synopsis.
Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am. Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.
For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.
Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.
For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)
Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing
The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).
So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:
Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.
Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.
There is one great test of a novel synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.
The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.
Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.
I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.
I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.