Of Synopses and Query Letters

Today’s post is somewhat late because I’ve worked most of the day on a two-sentence synopsis for a query letter for my “baby-in-the-wall” novel. Who knew summarizing 83,000 words into two sentences would be so hard. I mean, I’ve been to several query letter workshops and panels at various writing conferences, so how hard could doing a summary be? A lot harder than I thought.

I will add, I’m having some help from an instructor from a workshop I took this year. He’s doing the shopping to agents, but he needed a summary from me, as well as a writing bio. So here was my first iteration:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative brings a secret from the past into the present and forces the novelist to confront what she has denied about her  life.”

I thought I should have some other eyes on it, so I posted it on the Facebook page of my online writer’s group, Shenandoah Valley Writers, and after some back-and-forth and some really good suggestions, I ended up with this:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”

That took the most part of the morning, but I was pretty satisfied with it. Even then, I let it sit for a while, decided it was pretty much perfect, then sent it off to my workshop instructor. A few minutes ago, I got an email from him, indicating he had “tweaked” the summary a bit, and here is what he did:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”

Subtle edits in both latter versions but effective. Now, in just about every workshop I’ve taken about query letters, the agents have indicated they want to know genre and word count, the two items my instructor edited from the first sentence. However, he is someone who has dealt with a wide range of agents, so I trust his instincts.

I’m giddy that one of my manuscripts is getting sent to agents, but I’m also trying to temper my excitement. Nothing at all could come of this, but I’m beyond honored that this instructor felt strongly enough about my manuscript to give it his personal attention. I frankly have no clue how to repay that–not that he’s expecting remuneration–but as I said to someone today, the list of people to include in the acknowledgements section of the novel is growing long.

We writers are very often a solitary lot. We lock ourselves into our writing spaces and occupy worlds of our own making, our company only the characters we’ve created. And yet, it turns out the writing is the only solitary part of the process. Being published in the traditional manner means you leave your cozy, self-made world and venture into reality, a reality replete with editors and agents and proofreaders and copy editors, all of whom are working with you to make your novel a success. That’s exciting, well, happy-dance-inducing, but it’s also daunting and, not to mention, a little scary.

Still, I’m all for the process.

Let the Querying Begin

This, the first full week of the new year, I go down a new path on the journey to publication–querying an agent. Yes, I hyperventilate a bit at the thought.

Well more than a decade ago, I thought I had a manuscript in good enough shape to query agents. Armed with my copy of Writer’s Digest’s guide to literary agents, I made a careful selection of about ten who accepted work in my genre (historical thriller), who would look at the work of unpublished authors, and whatever other criteria I thought would make us a good match.

Since these were the days before electronic submissions and Submitable, I dutifully made ten copies of the first thirty pages of the manuscript, and I wrote a query letter (based on samples I’d seen in Writer’s Digest and other writing magazines) individual to each prospective agent. I prepared ten self-addressed, stamped envelopes with the correct postage and ten envelopes for each query package, again with the correct postage. The clerks at the Kingstowne, VA, Post Office got to know me well.

The now-ex and I spent a Saturday morning stuffing said envelopes, and we were rather giddy as we trekked to the Post Office and dropped them in the mail box. The now-ex was always very supportive of my writing–seeing as how a lot of my non-fiction had bolstered his career a few times–but he was also good at bringing me down to earth when I needed it. “Don’t expect an answer from anyone on Monday, or Wednesday, or Friday,” he said. “You said yourself, these things take time.”

Good advice, which, of course, I ignored when I eagerly checked my mail box upon returning home from work each day. I think it took about two weeks for the first reply to come in–of course, blah, blah, be happy to represent you, blah, blah, blah, for a fee.

I was a novice in the getting fiction published market at that point but not so ignorant to know that agents who expect fees up front are not being ethical. I went back to the literary agent “bible,” and this particular company did not indicate that it wanted an up-front fee. I tossed the response and considered it a rejection.

Of the ten queries I sent out, I got responses from six, all rejections. Of them, only two used the SASE to return the manuscript sample. Those two arrived within a day of each other, each with a hand-scribbled “No Thanks” at the top of the page. Both had a note: one said, “Like your writing, hate the concept,” and the other said, “Love the concept, dislike your writing.” Helpful. Not.

That exercise was so ego-bending–but necessary–that it put me off querying until now. However, I look back on it and realize it happened just the way it should have. That manuscript was in no way ready for anyone’s consideration and, in fact, has gone through so many revisions and reorganizations it’s unrecognizable as the draft I thought was a gem.

Time passes, I’ve educated myself better about the querying process, and now it’s time to try again. I have, however, been to enough agent panels at writing conferences to know it’s all subjective. It all depends on the agent’s mood on a particular day, whether he or she has had a fight with a spouse or child, whether he or she has had a spate of great queries or horrible ones, and many other conditions the writer has no way of knowing.

In other words, it’s a crap shoot. An agent described it that way at a “First Pages” workshop I attended last year, and it was a relief that an agent was so honest about the process.

So, why bother? Well, because I want to give traditional publishing a good chance before I go completely over to what some would characterize as the dark side of publishing. I have published on my own three collections of short stories, mainly because I know querying a collection of short stories, and in particular genre short stories, is almost a guaranteed rejection. My novels, however, are a different matter. I want to give them a try at traditional publishing.

This year, then, will be the year of the Query Letter. I’m not going to do a ten-agent blast mailing this time, mainly because most queries are now electronic, but I am going to do a lot of careful research and select two or three at a time to query. And this time, I do have a manuscript, which has gone through two revisions and my critique group, in really good shape. It’s not the one from all those years ago, which morphed into a trilogy (I know; yikes), but it’s one I’m proud of and willing to toss into the consideration pool.

You won’t ever win the pot unless you roll the dice.