Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.6: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.


Hello, campers —

My apologies to those of you who spent the afternoon and evening yesterday holding your breath, symbolically at least, in anticipation of my promised run-down on how to read, interpret, and follow contest entry rules. I honestly did mean to go into that last night — I’m all too aware that the postmark deadline for the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday — but health matters, alas, intervened. Long story. And if I have one rule I like to follow in life it’s not to give contest advice while on painkillers.

I’m still a bit groggy, so I’m going to cling to that excellent precept for at least a few hours longer. In the meantime, here is another of my favorite posts on how to write a 1-page synopsis. This one tackles the always-daunting challenge of trying to construct a synopsis for a multiple-perspective narrative.

Just in case anyone who might be thinking of entering a contest could use a few tips on the subject. Enjoy!

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in the weekend? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere cry out in anguish, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary to include and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of any fiction synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may lacerate your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13’s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis, especially a super-short one. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this Synopsispalooza. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English Lit class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent or end up crushing the last two or three into a single sentence at the bottom of the page, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more wrench left in our writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. That’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):


with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complicated plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the last example exhibits in spades but the one just before it avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?

I seldom advise my readers to drop what they are doing to watch an imbedded video, but I was so struck by’s 7-minute synopsis of the previous several seasons of Mad Men that tonight, I’m going to make an exception. At least for those of you who plan to write a synopsis anytime soon: run, don’t walk, to watch the extended plot summary above.

Well, okay, you can just click. But trust me on this one: anyone who has ever even contemplated compressing a book-length tale could benefit from watching this.

Why? Well, it demonstrates beautifully, swiftly, and as well as a spoken-word piece can the central problem with most query- and submission-packet synopses: despite covering a story arc that many, many people have found quite compelling for many years, this summary consists of nothing more but a flatly-told list of purely factual elements. (And, if memory of the show serves, not all of the facts in it are accurate.)

Yes, it could provide someone who just wanted to know what had happened with the essentials, but there’s no sense of causation, character development, or any vestige of the show’s actual charm. Doubly troubling to those who admire the generally fine writing on the show itself, virtually every sentence in this summary is a declarative sentence.

It is, in other words, just a frantic attempt to cover a whole lot of plot as fast as humanly possible. Sound familiar, synopsis-writers?

Unfortunately for the cause of literature, professional readers like Millicent the agency screener see synopses like this all the time. The stories being told may in fact be well-written, fascinating, and crammed to their respective gills with nuanced character development — but Millie would never know that from reading the synopsis. Oh, she doesn’t doubt that the events listed all occur within the manuscript being described, but that’s not the point of a synopsis. The goal here is to make the story sound interesting to read.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard bouncing around the ether the sound of jaws hitting the floor?

I’m not entirely astonished: the overwhelming majority of synopsis-writers, like most queriers, pitchers, and book-length literary contest entrants, labor under the impression that style does not matter in a plot summary.

“If Millicent’s boss were really interested in gaining a sense of how my book was written,” the average synopsizer/query descriptive paragraph-constructor/2-minute pitcher/entrant reasons, “she would ask to see my manuscript. Or at least the opening pages of it. So obviously, the expectation that I should summarize my 400-page opus in 1 page/3 pages/5 pages/1-2 paragraphs in my query/2-minute speech/whatever length the contest rules specify must mean that the length, and not the quality of the storytelling, is the most important element here. All I’m required to do, therefore, is to cram as much of the plot as I can into the stated length. And if that means that the result is just a list of plot elements presented in chronological order, well, that’s the requester’s own fault for asking for so short a summary.”

I get why most first-time synopsis-writers feel this way; honestly, I do. They don’t know — how could they, really? — that writing a synopsis is not just an annoying hoop through which writers of even the most excellent book-length projects must leap in order to get an agent, editor, or contest judge to take a serious gander at their manuscripts. It’s a professional skill that agented writers are expected to develop, because — brace yourself if you are summary-averse — a synopsis is the standard means of presenting a new book concept to one’s agent or editor.

That’s right, those of you who just felt faint: the more successful your first book is, the more likely you are to have to write synopses for subsequent books.

It also means, as those of you currently clutching your chests and hurling invectives at the muses may already have guessed, that Millicent, her boss, the editors to whom they pitch books, and contest judges see a heck of a lot of synopses in any given year. As I intimated above, a stunningly high percentage of them — at the query, submission, and contest-entry stage, at least — are written more or less identically: as a hasty, detail-light series of plot highlights, told almost entirely in declarative sentences and vague summary statements.

Can you honestly blame them, then, if all of those similarly-told stories start to blend together in their minds after a while? Or if they sometimes cannot see past a rushed, sketchy telling to the beautifully-written, complex book upon which it was based?

Yes, that’s depressing, but there’s a silver lining here: the relatively few excitingly-told synopses, pitches, and query letter book descriptions do tend to leap off the page at Millicent and her cronies. Because of their rarity, even some original small touches — a nice descriptive phrase, a detail they’ve never seen before, a bit of if/then logic well handled — can make a professional reader’s day.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there, do I not? “But Anne,” many of you shout in frustration, and who could blame you? “If the pros are so longing to see a nicely-written synopsis crammed to capacity with unexpected details, as you maintain, what gives with the length restrictions? It’s not as though every gifted long-form writer is similarly blessed with summarizing talents, after all. Surely, if Millicent wants to be wowed by writing, asking for a synopsis — or, still more limiting, the 1- or 2-paragraph premise description in the query — is not the best way to elicit it.”

Perhaps not, frustrated synopsizers, but remember what I said above about tossing ‘em off being a necessary professional skill? Let’s apply a little if/then logic: if Millicent’s boss is looking for new clients who will be easy to handle (read: will not require a lot of technical hand-holding), then is it in her interest to ask Millie to

(a) be lenient about the writing in the synopsis, because it doesn’t matter as much as the writing on the manuscript page,

(b) apply her imagination to a detail-light synopsis, filling in what the writer did not have space to include,

(c) just accept that due to space limitations, most descriptive paragraphs in queries within a particular book category are going to sound awfully similar,

(d) all of the above, or,

(e) operate on the assumption that a good writer — and, equally important to authorial success, a good storyteller — should be able to wow her within the specified length restrictions.

If you answered (a), welcome to the club of most submitters and contest entrants — and, indeed, the frustrated shouters above. Writing is an art, you reason; producing these extra materials is just an annoying practical exercise. As tempting as it is to blame the format for uninspired writing (because, let’s face it, few writers find synopsis-writing inspiring), though, is it really in your book’s best interest to treat it like irritating busywork, to be polished off as rapidly as humanly possible?

If you said (b), you have thrown in your lot with the countless conscientious queriers, submitters, and contest entrants who want to tell Millicent and her ilk a good story in a short time — but feel that, due to space restrictions, they have to sacrifice unique details to completeness of story. In most cases, this is a false economy: no one seriously expects you to convey the entire story arc of a 360-page book in a single page or paragraph. They are looking for a sense of the main characters, the central conflict, and, in a synopsis, how that conflict will play out.

Rather a different task than telling Millie everything that happens, isn’t it?

If you opted for (c), you might want to take a closer look at the queries and synopsis you have been sending out. Do your synopses make your unique storyline sound like every other book in its category — or like the most recent similar bestseller? If so, is there a way you can work in plot elements that a Millicent familiar with your genre won’t see anywhere else?

Don’t tell me that your manuscript doesn’t contain anything that will astonish her. I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that for a moment.

If you voted for (d), am I correct in assuming that you believe agencies to be non-profit organizations, devoted solely to the promotion of good writing, regardless of whether the fine folks who work there can make a living at it? If so, you’re hardly alone; many, if not most, first-time queriers and submitters cling to this hope. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, such a hefty percentage of those who get rejected once never try again.

And that’s distinctly bad for the cause of literature. Chant it with me, Queryfest faithful: just because one agent says no doesn’t mean that a manuscript is not well-written or a marketable story; it means that one agent has said no.

If, on the other hand, you held out for (e), I’m guessing that the Mad Men synopsis drove you nuts. “Yes, most of these things happened,” you found yourself muttering, “but where’s the storytelling style? Surely, this is not the best way to make an exciting story arc sound exciting.”

I’m with you there, mutterers. So is Millicent. And that clamor you hear outside your studio window? That’s half the literary contest judges in the country, lobbying for you to enter their contests. They’re quite stressed out after years of watching so many well-written entries get yanked out of finalist consideration by a hastily tossed-off accompanying synopsis.

Now that those expectations are lurching around the Author! Author! conversational nook like Frankenstein’s monster, I would like to know what concerns, fears, and moans about technical difficulties those of you struggling to write effective synopses, pitches, and query letter descriptive paragraphs you would like to see hobnobbing with them. What hurdles have you encountered while trying to synopsize your work, and how have you overcome them?

And, speaking more directly to the usual purport of my posts, is there any particular synopsis-related problem you would like me to address here?

As I said, this is a standard professional skill; I toss off synopses all the time. So do quite a few of the people giving advice online about it. So what we might see as the difficulties of the art form — and writing a good synopsis is an art form, as well as a marketing necessity — may well not be what a talented writer coming to it for the first time might experience.

So please chime in, people. I’m here to help. And to save the world from storytelling consisting entirely of summary statements and declarative sentences.

Oh, and to those of you who had been wondering: the promised wrap-up of Queryfest does follow soon. That Mad Men synopsis just passed up too good a teaching opportunity to pass up, even for a day. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XV: selecting the elements that will grab Millicent’s attention, or was this honestly the most exciting news story of the day?

Since I’ve gone down to posting only once or twice per week — a rate I hope to be ramping up again, perhaps as soon as tomorrow — I’ve noticed something interesting, campers: reality seems to have slowed its rate of tumbling all over itself to provide me with practical or symbolic examples of whatever I plan to discuss next. The last time I delved into the fine art of querying, the world around me seemed to burst into anecdotes every time I looked up from the computer.

I’m glad to report that since Thanksgiving, the Muses have gotten off their collective tuffet and hopped back on the illustrative story bandwagon. This weekend, they provided me with a lulu — and, perhaps to make amends for their lack of productivity throughout the autumn, they seem to have gone out of their way to provide parallels to not just one, but several widely misunderstood aspects of querying. So sit back, relax, and let the girls do their stuff with today’s tale.

One of the more charming (or more trying, depending upon how one chooses to look at it) aspects of having grown up in a small town lies in the ongoing interconnectedness one feels with the playmates of one’s early years. Where the friend options are few, pickiness is a luxury. Even if you happened to loathe a particular nursery school classmate with abandon, chances are that by the time the two of you graduate from high school, you will probably have enjoyed at least a couple of moderately pleasurable collective moments along the way. Or at least having shared the often-underestimated bond of having loathed the same person in junior high and having had the town’s elders shake their heads over your respective coiffure choices in high school.

Oh, you try to find more scintillating entertainment in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard. Bucolic paradises are frequently very dull.

So although I left that delightful small town at a pace that can only be described as a dead run when I was seventeen, when my kindergarten classmate Kevin left a voice mail message last week, saying he had something important to tell me, I called him back with alacrity. We had spoken perhaps five times since we graduated from high school, but hey, we’d learned to play the xylophone together as tots: the least I could do was let him tell me something I had already heard from my mother (who had gotten the skinny via the garrulous grocery check-out clerk who had happened to scan Kevin’s mom’s Froot Loops earlier in the week), that he had proposed to a Lady From Elsewhere and was planning to move her back home.

That he chose to break the news in two short sentences should have warned me what was to come: even in kindergarten, Kev had embraced John Wayne-like levels of taciturnity; in situations both mundane and life-shifting, he has always eschewed wordiness. Nouns and verbs seldom occupied the same breath with him. Now, his sentences were not complete enough to contain his beloved’s name. By five minutes into our conversation, he was answering my polite questions about the LFE and their wedding plans with monosyllables — and seeming to enjoy it immensely.

I, on the other hand, felt as though I were cross-examining a hostile witness, the kind Perry Mason would have decided must be the murderer. “Well, I’m happy for you, Kevin,” I said, hoping to draw the teeth-pulling to a graceful close. “Do give my best to your mother — and, of course, to your lovely fiancée.”

The mention of the LFE seemed to galvanize him into action. “You should talk to her!” he cried, ignoring his beloved’s perfectly audible cries of, “Who, me?”

I’m not particularly given to heart-to-hearts with complete strangers, but sure that if not my mother, then at least the checkout clerk would be dying to hear some details about the LFE, I revved up my interview skills anew. After a startlingly brief set of exchanges, I was perfectly convinced that the LFE and Kevin were made for each other: she must make him feel like a positive chatterbox. Where he might go out on a limb with a yes or no, the lady favored non-committal humming.

I’ve conducted more productive interviews with mollusks. Actually, I’m fairly confident that your garden-variety mollusk bride-to-be might have coughed up a more substantive response to, “Tell me about your engagement ring,” than a terrified blurt of, “Um, it’s gold?” followed by thirty seconds of anxious silence.

Compared to her answers to most of my questions, that was a philosophical treatise. I might be going out on an interpretive limb here, but I suspect that the LFE is exceedingly shy.

If she was frightened to talk to me, however, she was petrified that I might get off the phone before Kevin returned. Or so I surmise, from the fact that my repeated, “Well, I really should let you get back to your evening together,” did not elicit anything that might remotely be interpreted as an invitation to hang up the phone, unless in the Far Land of Elsewhere, whimpering “No, don’t go!” is the standard way to say good-bye. I began timing the silences after her brief answers, just to have something to do.

Shortly after we’d broken the minute-and-a-half barrier, I heard something unexpected in the background: Kevin’s voice, talking to what sounded like a small child. By dint of a torturous game of 20 Questions, I managed to get the LFE to admit that she had a six-year-old (who, like her mother, was apparently devoid of a name), that she was in the room, and that Kev was playing with her. A full five minutes of motherly silence followed, punctuated only by my commentary on what I guessed the child to be saying and doing.

Having quite a bit of time on my hands, I found myself wondering if perhaps Kevin and the LFE were operating under a completely different understanding of the purpose of an interstate phone call than I had encountered before. Many of the requisite elements of a normal telephone exchange were here — two persons on the same phone line at the same time, an ostensibly exciting development to discuss, time in which to do it — but by no stretch of the imagination was this a normal telephone exchange. Was the point here to share time together, even if there was no conversation? Was having me listen to him chatter with the child Kevin’s way of letting me know that he was enjoying his new family, or did was he in another room, happy in the belief that his sweetie and I were enjoying a half an hour of uninterrupted girl talk?

Or — and this seemed increasingly likely as the seconds ticked by — had he simply forgotten that I was on the phone, and she was too meek to remind him?

Eventually, I did what any self-respecting small-town refugee would have done: I positively forced the LFE to listen to my thanking her for having made Kevin happy (“Mmmph,” she replied), wished her luck with the wedding-planning process — and faked an emergency to excuse getting off the phone. I have no idea whether she actually believed a curtain rod had fallen onto my cat, but at least she said good-bye and hung up.

And my readers heave a huge sigh of relief. “That was odd, Anne,” many of you point out, “but am I missing something here? Didn’t you at least hint that this event put you at least vaguely in mind of something having to do with querying?”

Why, yes, it did. From Millicent the agency screener’s perspective, queries that include some or even all of the required elements but seem to adhere to a different logic than she recognizes are not all that rare. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the kind of e-mail that appears in her agency’s inbox on a regular basis.

Dear Ms. Agentson,

Communication, Garbled tells the story of Ambrosia, a woman trapped between conflicting forces beyond her control. Try as she might, she can’t see a way out, until Greg opens a door for her that she thought had been closed long ago.

Please give me a chance. I have worked very hard on this, and I really, really want to get it published.


Struggling B. Storyteller

This artless little missive raises more questions than it answers, doesn’t it? “What on earth is this book about?” Millicent cries, rending her garments. “What forces? Why are they beyond her control, and what are the consequences? Who the heck is Greg, and what makes Struggling think a cliché like reopening a closed door conveys any specific meaning? Is Communication, Garbled the title, or is it a review of this letter? Perhaps most perplexingly, why does this writer believe it’s my job to figure out what his? her? book is about, rather than the writer’s job to convey the premise of the story lucidly?”

Why, indeed, Millie: you’re quite right that this vague e-mail does not give you enough information to figure out whether your boss, the agent of Struggling’s dreams, might conceivably want to represent this manuscript. It doesn’t mention the book category, the intended audience, the premise — and because this description could be applied equally well to thousands of wildly different plots, a screener would have absolutely no way of guessing productively on any of these essential points. If Struggling had opened with some indication of why s/he had picked this particular agency (like, say, Since you so ably represented Competent Author’s debut novel, UNCLEAR EXCHANGES, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction project…), Millicent might have been able to make an educated guess, but since she has hundreds of queries to screen before lunch, why would she waste time speculating?

Especially for a query that doesn’t even say whether the book it is pushing is fiction or nonfiction. Heck, if it hadn’t landed in the agency’s inbox along with 1500 similar missives, Millie might not even have been able to guess it is a query intended to solicit representation.

In short, it contains some of the elements of a standard query letter, but does not bring them together in a manner comprehensible to a reader who knows nothing about the book in question. From Millicent’s perspective, Struggling has missed the point of this mode of communication.

From the writer’s side of the SEND button, though, it’s fairly clear what happened here, though, isn’t it? Struggling knows what her book is about: concerned with the brevity requirements of a query, she’s generalizing. Millicent’s boss represents books like the one she’s written, so wouldn’t anyone at the agency be able to fill in the blanks about where this book would sit in a bookstore, who the target audience is, and why Struggling approached this agent in the first place?

The short answer is that it’s not Millicent’s job to read the querier’s mind, but the querier’s job to present her work clearly. The long answer is…wait five minutes in silence, then read the first sentence of this paragraph again.

On the outside chance that I’m being too subtle here: Struggling might well have written a stellar book, but her misinterpretation of the requirements of the query letter render the quality of the manuscript a moot point at the querying stage. Most of the time, this kind of query is the result of a writer’s having based the query not upon research about what the agent in question is seeking, or even what a generic query might contain, but rather a vague guess about what a query letter is.

Such guesses mystify the pros, frankly. They believe, and with some reason, that there are enough blogs like this, reputable books aimed at aspiring writers, and writers’ conferences out there that any writer serious about landing an agent should be able to learn the basic elements of a query quite easily. Even if that were not the case — but it is — many agencies go out of their way to list those elements for potential queriers, posting guidelines on their websites. That being the case (their reasoning continues), a writer with sufficient talent to compose a good book should be able to string those elements together in a graceful and coherent style.

So when a screener is confronted with a query that appears to have been written without either a basic understanding of what the requisite parts of a good query letter are or how those parts might be fitted together into a convincing argument to request the manuscript, she generally feels more than justified in rejecting it regardless of the inherent interest of the story. A query like Struggling’s, then, might be legitimately be regarded as self-rejecting: it differs enough from what Millicent has been trained to regard as the minimum standard for a successful query letter that it is instantly recognizable as a non-starter.

Were those shrieks of rage I just heard echoing around the ether, or has my house been invaded by harpies? “Talk about misconceptions!” those of you who have been wading through the mountains of querying advice out there wail. “Clearly, these people haven’t taken a look at the welter of information out there on the subject. I’m perfectly willing to follow directions, but there are literally thousands of sources of advice out there, and half of them contradict one another!”

Of course, they haven’t taken a look at what’s out there — why should they? Millicent already knows what information a query letter should contain. But Struggling and writers like her tend not to be those who have, like you wailers, conscientiously worked their way through a number of different credible sources on how to write a query. No, Struggling almost certainly based her effort upon quite limited research, assuming — wrongly — that she understood what an agent might be expecting to see even though she had never written a query letter before.

That so many queriers don’t recognize that a query must contain certain industry-specified elements, including the imperative to include enough information about the book that Millicent doesn’t have to guess why it might appeal to her boss, is almost as frustrating to those who screen queries for a living as for those who write them and get rejected. To the pros, a query is an application to have an agent or editor take a writer’s work seriously — and part of the case to be taken seriously includes the writer’s demonstrating that she has invested the time in learning how the querying and submission process works.

Frustrating, from the writer’s point of view? Certainly — but remember, aspiring writers tend to be the ones who expect a book to be picked up right away, not agents or editors. People in the industry are well aware that it often takes a good writer years to learn the ropes, but from their perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming majority of queriers begin the agent-seeking process before their manuscripts are ready for professional scrutiny, increasing the chances of rejection; to an experienced screener, Struggling’s query above practically cries out, “I typed THE END two weeks ago, so I have not yet had time to revise and polish this manuscript!”

Will that be a valid conclusion in every case? No, of course not, but a best-guess query and a first draft go hand-in-hand often enough that you really can’t blame Millicent for making the correlation. Or for rejecting the query in the hope that Struggling will be prompted to do the requisite homework to write a better letter next time. And if that professionalization process sucks up enough time that Struggling has a chance to do a little revision on her novel, isn’t that actually in her book’s best interest in the long run?

Yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel that way when you open a form-letter rejection. But honestly, doesn’t it make you feel just the tiniest bit better to know that form letter was not necessarily saying Give up — this book doesn’t have a chance but possibly, You haven’t given me enough information to assess this project, because you’re not speaking about your book in professional language, but I hope that you will do better next time?

Don’t like that moral? Okay, try this one on for size: it’s very much in your interest to do your homework not only on what elements should be in a query in general, but what, if any, advice any particular agent or agency you are planning to approach has put out there for potential clients. Trust me, if Ms. Agentson took the time to create a page on her agency’s website to explain what she wants to see in a query, she will expect Struggling to be familiar with it before writing the query letter.

If, after scouring agents’ guides and agency websites, you’re still not sure what the protocol is for querying your type of book, I also have a bit of advice for you. It’s short and sweet: find a credible source and ask.

What, you thought successful authors were born knowing this stuff? Would I have had material to blog for more than six years if that were the case?

To encourage the asking of trenchant questions, I shall devote the rest of tonight’s post to an exceptionally sensible question brought up a couple of years back by intelligent and thoughtful reader AM. In the course of a spirited discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, AM suggested:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

There, now — that wasn’t so hard, was it? If I can wade my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right onto AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

And while we’re on the subject of blandishment: no matter how much you want to grab Millicent’s attention, never, ever, EVER include a bribe of any sort in a query or submission packet. It will not garner positive attention for your book project; in fact, it is virtually always an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, even if it’s merely a photograph or two of the gorgeous scenery you have written about in your travel memoir or that business card you had made up for your last foray to a writers’ conference. Agencies have to be extremely defensive about this one: due to how fast rumors about the latest querying trick spread around the Internet, if even a single Millicent accepted a single box of fudge from an aspiring cookbook writer, half the agencies in the country would find themselves up to the top of their cubicles in bribery-aimed cookies, helium balloons, and fruit baskets. Not to mention something most agents have a horror story about already, videotapes of aspiring authors giving speeches about their books.

So what is the best plan for stuffing that query packet to get your work noticed positively? At the risk of repeating myself, checking the website and/or agency guide listing for each and every agent you plan to query, making sure that you are sending precisely what they expect queriers to send — no more, no less — topping it with a professional, well-crafted query letter, and mailing it off with a SASE. Or going through exactly those steps for an e-mailed query.

Given that most agencies with websites are pretty explicit about what they do and don’t want aspiring writers to send them, you would expect that query packets that conform to their various standards — because, lest we forget, every agency is looking for something slightly different — it’s astonishing just how often the Strugglings of this world send, well, something else. Every Millicent I have ever asked about it (and believe me, I ask as many as I can) complains about how often her agency receives query packets with extras.

Or — sacre bleu! — with elements missing. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is almost universally an instant-rejection offense.

Why? Well, the only message such query packets are actually sending to the Millicents who open them is hey, look: here’s a writer who can’t follow straightforward directions! Or possibly, depending upon the clarity of the agency’s guidelines, wow, here’s a writer who doesn’t read very well. (More common than any of us would like to think, alas.) Or, the most likely of all, oh, no, here’s another writer who didn’t bother to do his homework; we went to all the trouble of telling potential queriers what we wanted, yet this guy just assumed that every agency was identical.

All sentiments our Millie is prone to sum up with terse elegance as: “Next!”

So what, out of all of the possibilities a writer’s active imagination could conceive and all of the suggestions for querying techniques flying around out there in the ether, is the bare minimum that MUST be in a query? Glad you asked:

1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

3. A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

Is it clearer now why Millicent would not even have considered asking for Struggling’s manuscript? Our writer friend’s query included only (1), a vague stab at (4), and, if we’re generous, (5). That’s simply not enough information for Millie to be able to make an informed decision about asking for pages.

All of those elements are required, but that doesn’t mean you can’t include a bit more persuasion. Two other highly advisable, but not strictly speaking required, elements include:

7. A BRIEF marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (Optional for fiction, but I would strongly recommend either including it or replacing it with #8.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book. (Also optional for fiction, and can be replaced with #7; it’s niftier, however, if you can manage to include both, even for novels.)

Is everyone comfortable wrangling all of those elements? Now is the time to speak up, if not.

Now that we have the notes, let’s talk about making some music. When all of these elements are pulled together into a smoothly-worded piece of correspondence, it reads something like the following. (If you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

mars query

Now that we’re thinking in terms of constituent parts vs. whole, we can see that what AM is asking about is not how to construct the entire query letter — she couldn’t be, since elements 1, 2, and 5-7 are not concerned with plot or narrative, right? #3 could be relevant here, but only if the agent had a track record of representing multiple-narrator books. (In that case, Since you so ably represented STORY IN FIFTEEN VOICES, I hope you will be interested in my multiple-narrator novel… would be perfectly acceptable.)

You look so cute with your eyes bugged out like a cartoon character’s. “What do you mean, Anne?” flabbergasted would-be queriers everywhere exclaim. “How is it possible that something as important as the narrative structure of the book could affect only a single paragraph of the query? Isn’t the voice choice the single most important thing to know about a multiple-narrator story — or a first-person narrative, for that matter? Or, if it’s not the most important, isn’t it at least the most interesting?”

From a professional point of view, the answer to those last two questions is very short: no. And the answer to the second, the one about why the narrative choice shouldn’t spill over to the rest of the query, is also pretty brief: because how a writer has chosen to tell the story in the book is not a required element in the query.

Oh, scrape your jaw off the floor. You don’t see it on the list above, do you?

Unless an agency’s guidelines specifically ask for information about narrative voice, leave it out, or as we’ve already discussed, you’ll run the risk of producing a query that reads more like a book report than, well, a query. Remember, the query is not expected to provide analysis or review of the manuscript it is pushing: it’s supposed to tell Millicent the premise.

Let’s face it: telling her how many protagonists there are, or whether the narrative talks about their experiences in the first or third person, actually doesn’t give her much of an indication of what the book is about, right? So is it really the best use of scant querying space?

In case you’re waffling on that last question, here’s a peek at what the result might be if a writer’s answer were yes.

book report-style query

Quick: what is this book about? What is the event that all of these narrators observed, and what about it is compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest through 187 changes of perspective?

Beats me. So how can it be an effective query letter? Especially when — and give yourself some extra Brownie points if you caught this — Expansive made the classic Millicent-baiting mistake of referring to his work by the redundant phrase literary fiction novel. (All novels are fiction, right?) Besides, everyone knows that ol’ Pointy is a woman, and thus should be addressed as Ms. McGettoitson.

Equally damning, all of that analysis of structures and themes is going to read like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of writing in a query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince an agent that this is a story she should read. Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that.

So how would I advise Expansive to go about revising this query? Well, for starters, I would encourage him not to name so many characters in his descriptive paragraph. Not sure why? Okay, here’s pop quiz: without looking, how many can you name?

That’s the maximum he should keep. He could also make the descriptive paragraph more compelling by concentrating on the overall story of the novel, rather than enumerating as many perspectives as he can in that short a space.

Those are the big fixes. While he was at it, I would urge him to make that first paragraph a touch less off-puttingly pretentious in its phrasing. I would also advise him to throw out the second paragraph altogether.

And every multiple-perspective lover’s hand shoots into the air. “But Anne, the first thing almost any aspiring writer will say if asked to describe his multiple-perspective novel, or even first-person narrative, is something like, ‘Well, there are eight points of view.’ Are you seriously suggesting that he should suppress that information in his query?”

In a word, yes. Few professional readers would consider the narrative voice choice the most important thing to know about a book, after all.

Why? Well, think about it: how could voice choice alone possibly help Millicent decide whether a book’s plot might interest her boss? As anyone who has ever read fiction manuscripts for a living would be only too glad to tell you, there are excellent multiple-perspective novels; there are lousy ones, and there are a million different gradations in between.

Ditto with every other perspective choice. At query time, it’s just not a significant issue. It’s not as though agents are very much given to strolling into the office first thing in the morning, yawning, and saying wistfully, “You know what I’d really like to read today? A first-person narrative. Yep, that would really hit the spot. Got any of those on hand, Millie?”

Not going to happen. If the narrative choice works on the page, great, but the only way Millicent can possibly tell if it does is to — wait for it — read the manuscript. Which, by definition, she’s not going to be doing at the querying stage.

So why not let your exciting perspective choices be a pleasant surprise at submission time? Concentrate instead in the query on getting her to ask to see the manuscript.

Which leads us right back to AM’s query-editing problem, doesn’t it? She’s in luck: the only part of a query letter that could possibly require a multiple-protagonist novel to be handled differently from a single-protagonist one would be that pesky descriptive paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about.

#4 on our must-include list, in other words.

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing the descriptive paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent into asking to see the manuscript. Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query, right?

Right? Hello? Please don’t tell me that we’re heading into another minute and a half of silence.

To be fair, if you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Many writers new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot to representing the book. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal she hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor and thus could reasonably be expected to attract book-buyers by name recognition alone — the assumption that it should renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder. The sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this far more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:

an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. As a fringe benefit, the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant-in-a-dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, so that’s a pretty jaded response. Also, the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make for a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take a gander at what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly.

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed Uncle John and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to read the manuscript.) See how quickly the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is nevertheless the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s comeliness, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the small army of protagonists and their initial conflicts. Had the movie buffs out there noticed that I haven’t yet gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. That started two-thirds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, completely excising Lee and transforming Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a shame, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally, and pronto. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel might be, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in his place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference between them. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts.

As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how Adam intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other perennial faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise. As is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story up front; be detailed, but leave Millicent curious to hear more.

Is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Why, that’s the advice I gave Expansive, wasn’t it? Allow me to tailor it to this case.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative, right? (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and describe that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than most omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person?
The point of the query is not to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a fringe benefit discovered at manuscript-reading time, Expansive.

Before anyone hops onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me give you another example of why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms. Tell Millicent a compelling story instead.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” Expansive and his ilk concede reluctantly, “I plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

But whatever you do, don’t make her guess what your book is about it. As I can tell you from experience, prying basic information out of a recalcitrant conversational partner is just no fun. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, Part VIII: Millicent! Let us in! Millicent!

angry mob2

A quick announcement before I launch into today’s installment of Queryfest, aimed specifically at writers between the ages of 18 and 30 seeking some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC). The deadline for Narrative Magazine’s annual 30 Below Story Contest is October 29th. Entry is limited to young adult writers — that’s writers who are themselves young adults, folks, not YA writers — and delightfully, there are some actual cash prizes not only for the top few entries, but for the finalists as well.

They will also consider all entries for publication, and my, is the range of what they are opening to publishing broad. Quoth the contest’s organizers:

Narrative is calling on writers, visual artists, photographers, performers, and filmmakers between eighteen and thirty years old, to tell us a story. We are interested in narrative in the many forms it takes: the word and the image, the traditional and the innovative, the true and the imaginary. We’re looking for short stories, short shorts, essays, memoirs, photo essays, audio and video stories, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. The editors of Narrative have published the works of many new and emerging writers, who have gone on to become household names, and we continue to look for and to encourage the best new talent we can find.

So you might want to consider checking it out, ECQLC-seekers. Fair warning, though: there is an entrance fee.

Back to the topic at hand. Every time I devote a few weeks to a serious examination of all things query-related, I hear from many, many would-be queriers whose first (or at least second) reaction is to glance at the sheer number and length of the posts and back away quickly, clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum.

So if you have stuck with it so far, congratulations. Queryfest is not for the faint of heart, but then, neither is querying. Currently, it’s as hard as it has ever been for a first-time writer to catch an agent’s eye. The combination of a rise in home computer ownership, coupled with a slow economy, have caused the tide of queries pouring onto Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day to swell from its usual flood to something akin to a tsunami.

Hey, it’s tough out there. The why I have been urging you to take a hard, critical look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, unbound manuscripts, and, of course, query letters, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” (Alternated with, of course, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of your query as part of an implacable daily onslaught on Millicent’s defenses? It’s no accident that she keeps burning her lip on lattés — her task can be so repetitious, so seemingly endless that even Sisyphus occasionally glances up from that immense boulder the unkind gods sentenced him to roll up a hill for all eternity, only to see it roll down again as soon as he reaches the top, mops his weary brow, and murmurs, “Wow, am I glad that I don’t have Millicent’s job.”

Contemplating how many queries she might have read prior to yours — not to mention the mountainous piles she may have to peruse between the thirty seconds she can devote to your letter and when she can go home for the day — can either be deeply depressing for a querier. Yes, it’s a bit intimidating to consider that the chances of a randomly-selected query’s leading to the book in question’s being picked up by a great agent and sold to a good publishing house fall somewhere between getting accepted to a top medical school and being hit by lightning while holding an umbrella. I remember thinking when I sold my memoir, gee, I’m about to get published, I’m a woman with a doctorate, and I’m ambidextrous. Statistically speaking, I’m about as likely to exist as a purple gorilla.

Just because something is unlikely, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen; there’s a vast difference between difficult and impossible. As I like to tell discouraged aspiring writers early and often, the only manuscripts that have no chance of getting published are those that just sit in a drawer or on a hard disk, unqueried, unsubmitted, and unseen by the literary establishment.

In case I’m being too subtle here: don’t let the intense competition keep you from trying. You might just end up being the gorilla with the all-over mauve highlights.

Don’t underestimate how much doing your homework about what a good querying entails improve your changes, either. Just think of what a high percentage of queries either do not contain all of the necessary information, or are improperly formatted, or are downright rude, mistakes you intrepid souls working your way through Queryfest are unlikely to make. Nor are your queries likely to be among the unfortunate many that substitute hard-sell tactics for description, picking an agent’s name out of a hat for serious research into what the query recipient represents, or a vague, rambling paragraph about what the book is about for the one- or two-word book category already in use by the U.S. publishing industry.

Feeling luckier already, aren’t you, Jungle Jim?

You’re also, if you follow my advice, going to separate yourself from the crowd by not forcing your book concept into a boilerplate that a third of the aspiring writers out there happen to be using at the moment. You wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. And that’s bad for aspiring writers, because generic queries are among the easiest to reject: not only are they comparatively unmemorable — a boilerplate account of even a thrilling plotline tends to fall a bit flat — but your garden-variety Millicent finds them somewhat insulting.

And not merely because so many cut-and-paste operations intended to update old queries for reuse end up in disaster. Even when the address and salutation match AND end up in the right envelope, recycling the same query for every conceivable agent renders it effectively impossible to make sure your query ends up on the right desk.

Oh, it could happen, but so could Millicent’s coffee cup being hit by a meteor. Want to wait around to see if it happens, or would you prefer to make the effort to improve the odds?

No, but seriously, folks, the way that most first-time queriers approach figuring out whom to query is close enough to random that it’s surprising that they ever hit the right target. It just doesn’t make sense as a strategy for making a decision vital to the success of your writing career: if you don’t do individual research on each agent’s likes, dislikes, and placement record, how can you possibly know that any given one will be the best fit for your book? You don’t want just any agent to handle it, after all — your manuscript deserves the professional assistance of an agent with a proven track record of (and concomitant connections for) selling books like yours.

Agents are not generalists, any more than writers are: they specialize. That means, in practice, that a writer is unlikely to find such an agent by the simple (and unfortunately common) means of doing a web search on agents + {insert book category here}. Or by the formerly most popular alternative, snatching one of the standard agency guides off the shelf at the nearest bookstore, flipping to the index, and making a list of every agency that lists itself as representing that category.

While neither is a bad first step toward tracking down the ideal agent for a particular book, you must admit that neither is exactly a fine-tuned agent-seeking instrument. Yes, limiting your efforts to only those agents who represent manuscripts in your category is a necessary first step toward finding the best agent for your work — chant it with me now, campers: one of the most common reasons queries get rejected is being aimed at an agent who doesn’t represent that kind of book — but as many a query-fatigued aspiring writer can attest, it can result in a long, undifferentiated list. How does one decide whom to approach first?

Based on the comparative popularity of agencies whose names begin with A, B, or C, as well as those beginning with W, Y, or Z, my guess would be that most queriers simply proceed alphabetically — or in reverse alphabetical order. The fact that the D-V agencies tend to see fewer queries would indicate that embracers of this approach often give up in frustration before they get very far into their lists.

In the face of this undeniable reality, you can’t really fault Millicent for regarding the lack of a clear statement of why a writer selected her boss off a list of agents representing that book category as evidence that he might not have done his homework, can you? Most of the mob beating on the gate at any given moment is made up of homework-avoiders, after all.

Which brings me to the other primary reason for striving for an individual voice in your query letter: to Millicent, a well-written, personalized letter that describes a manuscript in clear, enticing, market-oriented terms is — wait for it — professional. As in exhibiting the minimum level of performance for getting her stamp of approval.

That means, in practice, being specific. And yes, I know that’s hard, in a document must contain a an extremely brief summary of your book.

Therein lies the problem, often. The first thing most aspiring writers learn about a query is that it should contain a description of the book it is hoping the agent will represent. (Okay, the second thing: the requirement that a query be a page or less is quite widely known.) To the first-time querier, that can sound an awful lot like you have only a page to summarize a 400-page manuscript!

That’s ridiculous, of course — a querier has only a paragraph (or two, at most) to describe her book. Less, if the description isn’t particularly interesting or doesn’t make the book seem like a good fit for either the agent to whom the query is addressed or the current literary market.

A 1-page synopsis is where that writer has to summarize her 400-page book. Note the distinction, please: it’s vital to your sanity while composing a query — or trying to keep it under a single page, for that matter. In fact, I feel an aphorism coming on:

broken-recordA query’s descriptive paragraph describes the manuscript; a synopsis summarizes it. The query presents the premise and central conflict (or, for nonfiction, the subject matter and central question), while the summary gives a complete, if brief, overview of the plot, including some indication of its resolution.

Why is being aware of this distinction vital for a savvy querier’s sanity? Because if you try to summarize the entire plot of your book in a query letter, you will drive yourself mad.

And, frankly, you will annoy Millicent. We may see why all too clearly manifested in the generality-fest that is average descriptive paragraph:

THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL tells the story of boy meets girl set against the turbulent backdrop of the type of war aptly described as hell. Although Dwayne and Mimette initially don’t click, circumstances throw them together and they fall madly in love. Through confronting numerous obstacles, they come to know themselves better and learn important life lessons before finding their very own happy ending.

Quite the a cliché-fest, isn’t it? That isn’t always the case with a too-general descriptive paragraph, of course, but the two often go hand-in-hand. As far as Millicent is concerned, they can keep on walking hand-in-hand right into the sunset, just like Dwayne and Mimette: her job is to look for original stories.

Which THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL might be, for all we know. But how on earth could Millicent tell, given the vagueness of this description?

Aspiring writers with a bit more knowledge about how agencies work may veer off into another type of generality, the lit class description. It tends to run a little something like this:

THE NUCLEAR FALLOUT WITHIN is a classic political thriller written in a literary fiction voice. Told in the first person from four different and conflicting points of view: a handsome protagonist (Senator Lance Manlison, 38), a brainy yet uninhibited love interest (Dr. Bambi-Pearl Dignityfree, 23), an odious antagonist (Snarly Weaponwielder, 52), and a deaf-mute unrelated bystander (Cheapdevice Smith, 13). Deftly alternating between these distinct voices, the narrative draws the reader into a beautifully-described world of intrigue, power, and intense introspection.

Both of these examples are probably factually correct statements about what occurs in the book, but that’s really beside the point at the querying stage. “What specifically are these books about?” Millicent is left muttering. “And why aren’t either of these writers using the scant space afforded in a query to demonstrate that they know how to tell a story? Are they under the impression that how they write doesn’t matter?”

I can answer that one, Millie: at the querying stage, that’s precisely what most aspiring writers do think; many regard the query as little more than an annoying-but-necessary piece of busywork, rather than an opportunity to show that they can write. But they’re wrong: the goal here is to stand out from that teeming population of queriers by coming across as a good writer with a good, marketable story.

The idea of your writing being judged solely by how you construct a single-page letter is making some of you squirm, isn’t it? “But Anne,” wiggle worms everywhere protest, and with good reason, “I’m a novelist. My gift lies in expressing myself at length. Why would any agent who represents book-length works allow, much less instruct, his trusty Millicent to make snap judgments about books without reading them?”

I sympathize with your feelings, but that agent cannot afford to: remember that tsunami of queries washing over Millicent’s desk? If she had to read even the first few pages of every single one of those manuscripts before ruling out those that are out of the question, she would constantly be swimming through an ocean of required reading.

Can you honestly blame her for draining the pool a little by rejecting the vague and the publishing world-inappropriate book descriptions on sight?

Most descriptive paragraphs don’t go to either of these extremes, of course; many are combinations of both, with perhaps a sprinkling here and there of detail. That’s not all that astonishing, given the comparatively scant attention most query-writing classes/seminars/online discussions seem to devote to the part of the letter where Millicent is most solidly within her rights to expect your writing to shine.

Hey, every writer can talk compellingly about his own manuscript, right? It’s the rest of the query that really matters, doesn’t it? And if the query reads just like what the writer has seen online, it has to be fine, doesn’t it?

Apparently and unfortunately, no, on all counts. I feel an aphorism coming on: the overwhelming majority of descriptive paragraphs are not sufficiently descriptive — a real shame, because the descriptive paragraph is the querier’s single best opportunity to make the case that her manuscript is unique. Preferably in the a voice similar to the narrative voice of the book.

Does that gargantuan gulping sound I heard out there in the ether mean that two-thirds of you with queries already circulating just realized that they did not do justice to the storytelling magic of your manuscript? Or did you think the point of the description was to make your book sound identical the most recent bestseller? Or — and I suspect that this is going to be the more common gulp-generator — were you previously unaware that the descriptive paragraph (and the query in general) is a writing sample?

On the off chance that it was any of the above, I’m going to drag out the broken record player again:

broken-recordEverything an aspiring writer submits to an agency is in fact a writing sample. Since the agent of your dreams is new to your writing, it’s only reasonable to expect that he will use your query letter, your synopsis, any requested pages, and even your e-mails and cover letters for submissions as bases for evaluating your writing ability. These are literate people; they expect good writers to express themselves well 100% of the time.

At minimum: spell-check everything before you hit the SEND key. Proofread everything — preferable in hard copy, as it’s easier to catch typos and logic problems that way. If you don’t know the difference between its (belonging to it) and it’s (a contraction for it is), or how to make a word plural (hint: almost never by adding an apostrophe + s), learn it. And if you have any doubts about your own grammar or proofreading abilities, run, don’t walk, to someone whose skills are impeccable.

But most of all, use your query as an opportunity to demonstrate to Millicent that, in addition to being charming, literate, and creative enough to come up with a great premise, you can tell a story well. Specifically, the story of your book.

Generally speaking, summary statements are not the best way to pull this off. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad generalities (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life’s most common challenges.), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (This is a fiction novel with great writing based on a true story.) will be sufficient to pique an agent’s interest. All of these tactics are problematic, because a vague query will sound just like a good two-thirds of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle.

Or, as she likes to put it: “Next!” But the news is not all bad here, campers: our Millie has a pretty good eye for spotting the rare purple gorilla.

When a query is simultaneously unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. That means, in practice, that for a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

How so? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing that’s been lurching about Geneva lately could possibly be his houseguest. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F’s assigned gate-keeper, Igor, to open the door, he’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying the secret laboratory where his master dabbles in revivifying the dead, right?

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to leap off the page at her, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the vast majority of the angry mob’s attempts to knock down that door.

Okay, so maybe that analogy was a trifle forced. Very few of the agents of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latté, right?

broken-recordA good agent typically receives in the neighborhood of 800-1500 queries per week — more, if the agency makes it easy for aspiring writers to submit pages online with their queries or happens to fall at the beginning or end of an alphabetical listing. In the face of that constant barrage, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. The generally-accepted figure is 98%.

Starting to make more sense that I’ve been pushing you to concentrate this hard upon a page of writing that isn’t even in your manuscript? I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and ask yourself a few more probing questions before you pop that puppy in the mail. To prepare yourself properly for this level of analysis, take a moment now to read your current draft in its entirety and aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course.

To stop the protest already halfway out of your mouth: I don’t care if you reread (or wrote) it yesterday, or already today, or fifteen minutes ago. Do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem. Haven’t you been paying attention?

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time. Millicent has good reason to regard queries as miniature Frankenstein manuscripts.

And if you don’t read it ALOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN ITS ENTIRETY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

Now that you’re thinking of your query as a writing sample, let’s take a quick foray back up the page before we move on to that pesky descriptive paragraph.

(15) Does the first paragraph of my query show that I am a good writer, as well as convey the necessary information? Does it get to the point immediately? Or, to but it a bit more bluntly, if I were an agency screener with 200 other queries on my desk or in my inbox, would I keep reading into the descriptive paragraph?
This may seem like draconian questions, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through all of those queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if its first paragraph rambled? Or if, heaven forfend, it contained a typo or two?

Oh, you say you would. But honestly, would you?

It’s worth revisiting the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. That’s another reason I favor paper over e-mailed queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(16) Is my descriptive paragraph short, clear, and exciting to read? Have I actually conveyed what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, aspiring writers get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or, as we discussed above, they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the letter should never be longer than a page, that strategy tends to result in a missive that neither presents the book’s story or argument well nor leaves room for the necessary other elements of the query.

So what should you do instead? Limit the scope of what you are trying to achieve to making the book’s premise or argument sound fascinating.

How might one go about that? Well, for starters, buy yourself some space by axing the lit class terminology: this is not the place to talk about protagonists, antagonists, or plot twists, at least not using those words. Ditto with introductory statements like ALTERED REALITIES is the story of… or SIMILAR FANTASIES tells the tale of… If the opening paragraph has done its job properly, these kind of clauses are never actually necessary.

Second, concentrate upon presenting the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation. A time-honored one-paragraph descriptive structure demonstrates why the lead is special in the first sentence or two (utilizing parenthetical age references to save space), devotes the second sentence to the plot’s central conflict, and the third to what’s at stake for the protagonist. As in:

Photojournalist Nana Angelopoulos (27) is far from an inexperienced traveler: her passion for documenting vanishing wildlife has brought her face-to-face with more charging rhinos, furious rattlesnakes, and irate, weapon-brandishing game wardens than even her worried mother (Irene, 56) can remember. Yet now that her favorite preserve is going to be sealed off from human contact forever, she has abruptly begun having panic attacks the moment she steps on a plane. Has the shutter come down permanently on both Nana’s career and the endangered red pandas she loves?

For a character-driven plot, you can focus even more closely on the protagonist. Try opening with your main character’s hopes and dreams, moving on to the primary barriers to his achieving them, and then wrap up by telling Millicent what he stands to win if he overcomes those obstacles — or what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. For example:

All retired paleontologist Sven Olafson (87) wants is a little peace and quiet, but who could relax with intrepid junior explorer Tammi Butterfingers (11) constantly digging for dinosaur bones in his back yard? Or twin grandsons borrowing in his stone tool collection to reconfigure the neighbors’ treasured marble birdbath? Or, worst of all, a malignant postman (Marvin, 62) determined to drive Sven from the only settled home he has ever had outside of a dig site?

Either structure will work for memoir, of course: treat yourself as a character in the book, change the pronouns to I, and tell Millicent what happened to you. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For other nonfiction, just set out the central problem of the book and give some indication of how you plan to address it. If you want to get fancy, toss in a sentence or two making the case that the problem is important, and to whom:

Sasquatches once roamed North America freely, but thanks to human overpopulation, few living children have ever even seen one. Once-mighty herds are now reduced to just a few square acres next to a Bigfoot preserve in southwestern Oregon. Ironically, just as human needs have nearly wiped out these magnificent beasts, human needs may save them from total extinction: new research indicates that molted sloth hair may be the long-sought cure for male pattern baldness. Begging the question: is the recent establishment of megalonychid-shaving factories a triumph in the fight against extinction, or merely vanity-induced animal abuse?

Reads like a well thought-out argument, does it not? What you’re doing here is not generalizing — you’re winnowing down the story to its essential elements. That’s doable, even in just a few lines.

When in doubt, err on the side of brevity over completeness. Remember, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline more of the plot.

But do make sure it sounds like a great story or fascinating argument on an important subject. As in a pitch, the first commandment of querying is thou shalt not bore — and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we both brief and interesting simultaneously?” In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words; it’s still a great strategy. Why not spice things up with details that only you could devise, described in lovely language? If you’re feeling even bolder, why not try waking Millicent up a little?

(17) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
What makes a book description memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not merely its overall arc, but also its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details she’s not likely to have seen before.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict; subplots, while perhaps integral to the book as a whole, tend to water down the storytelling impact of a descriptive paragraphs.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into Millie’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle Démodé, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, a sociopath prone to torturing innocent kittens in his spare time, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle Démodé. She’s emotionally unavailable, however: on the rebound from a ten-year marriage with sociopathic bassoonist Serge, she scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say cliché-ridden.

How does a writer know when to say when on the specifics? Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a blistering flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses different a problem for Basil: he has never been directed by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground and left two dozen musically-minded six-year-olds agape in horror. Basil’s father never got over the debacle, and Basil…”

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a second descriptive paragraph, and we still don’t know what the central conflict of the book is!

Contrary to popular belief amongst queriers frightened by the prospect of having to talk about their manuscripts in marketing terms in Paragraph 1, what makes a descriptive paragraph great is not its ability to show how similar the book is to what is already published, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché — or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t.

In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got, purple gorilla? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them. But as you do, don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the premiere of Author! Author! Interviews: a chat about literary fiction with Bellwether Prize winner Heidi Durrow

Welcome back, campers! How was your week? Mine was, as predicted, hectic, but the niece is married, the dishes washed (no mean feat, considering the family produced a five-course sit-down dinner for the wedding reception), and we are now living on leftovers.

How stressful was it all? Well, let me put it this way: my doctor offered to write me a note to excuse me from all of this ostensible frivolity.

But off with the shackles of the past — on to a monumental new development in the ever-evolving Author! Author! community offerings. Today, I am delighted to bring you the first in what I hope will be may in-depth conversations with wonderful recently-published authors about not only their books, but also the art and craft of writing itself.

You know, the kind of chat that writers find fascinating, but disillusions non-writers and those who would prefer to believe that good writing simply falls from the heavens into the author’s mind, with no actual work involved.

In this series, I’m going to be talking with these authors about the actual work of writing. I’m very excited about this, not only because I suspect that these conversations will prove inspirational and educational to members of the Author! Author! community — and to that end, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall forward them to the authors — but also because, frankly, when a book comes out, 99% of interviewers will ask precisely the same set of questions.

All of us who read author interviews are familiar with the standards, right? So how did you get the idea for this book? Is this novel autobiographical? How did you get started writing in the first place? Did you always want to be a writer — as opposed to, say, a fireman? Are any of the characters based upon real people? What’s your next book about? No, really, what part of this novel is based upon real life?

It’s all fun and interesting for the author the first dozen or so times, but after that, one begins to feel that one’s part in the interview process could very adequately be played by a tape recorder. Nor is this phenomenon new: I spent a large part of my childhood and adolescence helping science fiction author Philip K. Dick prepare for interviews — oh, you thought that established authors didn’t rehearse? In what sense is an author interview not a public performance? — and believe me, in any given year, we could count the original questions interviewers asked on the fingers of two hands.

Believe me, we longed to be able to start counting on our toes.

So part of my goal in this interview series is to allow good authors more latitude than they are generally allowed in literary interviews — because, let’s face it, what is likely to interest other writers about a book is not necessarily what will fascinate other readers. These interviews will be by writers, for writers.

Are you picturing yourselves chatting with me when your first book comes out? Excellent — you’re in the perfect mindset to enjoy my January 11, 2011 conversation with the exceptionally talented Heidi Durrow, author of the recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, now available in paperback.

If Heidi’s name sounds familiar, you’ve probably either been perusing Best Books of 2010 lists or were hanging out here at Author! Author! in recent months. For those of you who missed my glowing tribute to what I consider the best debut of last year, allow me to introduce you to a writer I believe is going to be remembered as one of the greats. Take a peek at the publisher’s blurb:

Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Durrow book coverRachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.

Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African-American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.

This searing and heartwrenching portrait of a young biracial girl dealing with society’s ideas of race and class is the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice. In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John,Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, here is a portrait of a young girl—and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.

The book has developed something of a cult following amongst lovers of serious literary fiction. How much do its fans respect it? Well, let me put it this way: when I first discovered the novel in a wee bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky, the clerk nearly knocked me over, so eager was she to rush to my side to recommend the book.

Apparently, that enthusiasm was catching, for by the time my plane was over the Rockies, heading home to Seattle, was already raving about the book to everyone in the seats near me. Flight attendants will remember that as the time two of them sidled down the aisle to ask, “Um, why are all of you talking about falling from the sky? Flying is perfectly safe, you know.”

The intriguing mystery of just how and why an entire family fell from a Chicago apartment building’s roof — yes, veteran interviewers, based upon a real-life incident — may be the unusual premise of the story, but the core of the writing is centered upon the growth and development of incredibly real-feeling characters.

As I mentioned before, Heidi pursued character in a completely original manner, calculated to delight those intrigued by the interesting use of language: via punctuation in dialogue. THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY depicts social class and intellectual development through such subtle nuances in the characters’ speech patterns that at first, I kept having to re-read lines to make sure I was not imagining it.

I wasn’t; it’s one of the most brilliant uses of dialogue I’ve seen in years. (And trust me, I read a lot of dialogue in any given year.) Join me, please, for a discussion of it, conducted at the ever-fabulous Third Place Books, just north of Seattle.

A quick technical note before you click on the video: my apologies for the background noise; the Author! Author! staff did not realize that the microphone would pick it up so well, or that it should have been placed a trifle closer to Heidi. Turning up the volume on your computer before you start watching might prove helpful.