Love That Synopsis

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Friday night at the SCBWI Writers’ Conference, I sat on my balconey looking out on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City, contemplating my consultation with Krista Marino of Random House Childrens’ Books, coming up the next day.

I’ve been revising my third novel, Morning of the Mermaid, the story of the first mermaid. At my first SCBWI conference, three years ago, when I thought the manuscript was pretty complete, I was told that actually it needed to be “taken to the next level.” It took me a couple of years and the writing of Alex Bullied before I figured out what that level was and how to reach it. Since finishing Alex, I’ve begun a complete revision of the mermaid book. I submitted the first ten pages and a synopsis to be critiqued at this year’s conference. I wasn’t expecting much, but thought perhaps she would let me know if I was headed in the right direction.

Then a thought occurred to me — had I changed the synopsis to reflect the changes in the story? I couldn’t remember. I know I sent the pages in a hurry. I’d waited until the last minute of the deadline. And the synopsis and I — well, let’s just call a spade a spade — are not on the best terms. It seemed likely I’d botched the synopsis. I hate being anything less than professional, but it seems I’d done just that. I could have gone on my laptop to check, but I decided to let the crap fall where is may. It was too late to do anything about it.

I sat there a bit longer hating the synopsis.

It’s a common feeling. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t hate the synopsis. We complain about it, agonize over it and search relentlessly for the magic formula to write a good one. They are a necessary evil. But we don’t have to like them.

Or do we? I had an epiphany. What if I decided to love the synopsis? Change your mind, change your life, right? What if I entered into the writing of a synopsis with the same joy, the same determination to have fun, as I do when writing a story? Why not embrace the process? Why not enjoy it? Would that not be reflected in the finished product?

The internet is full of advice on writing the synopsis. Every writer’s, agent’s or editor’s website has tips. Every writer, agent, or editor has probably written an article or given a talk on the synopsis.

The amount of information can be overwhelming. And yet, we continue to read, hoping we’ve finally found The Answer. I say, take it all in. Read it all. Make notes. Try it all. And enjoy it all. Love the synopsis.

One of the workshops I took during the conference was all about this subject. There was sensible advice about format: it should be in twelve point font, one page, single spaced (approximately forty lines at a twelve point font will fit a page), written in third person, present tense, and the first mention of a character should be in ALL CAPS.

Here are some of the tips given at the conference:

* Focus on the primary plot, no subplots

* Summarize each chapter into no more than two sentences.

* Link all the best sentences in a single, chronological block of text.

* Revise the block of text for length and clarity.

* Read each finished draft aloud.

So if you are not already full to the brim of synopsis advice, this is a good start. Let go of those bad feelings about the synopsis. Start fresh with enthusiasm and confidence. You can do it. I hope I can. Stay tuned.   

Rejection

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We all have that dream, right? You know, the one where your query gets an immediate response, with a request for the entire manuscript. A week later that Big Agent in NYC wants to represent  you.

Yes, that dream.

That dream actually happened to me, with my first book, Riding On The Wind. I was so green at the time I didn’t realize what a miracle it was to have an agent accept the book on only my third query. Now, this was not a Big NYC Agent. It was smaller, The Bookstop Agency in Orinda, CA. That didn’t matter. The Call came, with the agent on the other end, telling me how her assistant had insisted she read my manuscript and how it “made” her weekend. She was excited about my book, how great was that?

Pretty great. Unfortunately, I learned about rejection after that, when no publisher bought the manuscript. There were a few close calls and some very nice rejection letters, but no sale. Soon after, I attended the Maui Writers Conference and in a workshop, when I asked about sending the book out again, I was told that it was too late. Even if I changed the title, no one would look at it now. It had done the rounds. So I self-published.

I don’t want to self-publish again. I want more readers.

The reality is we’ll all get our share of rejections. Sometimes it seems we may be getting someone else’s share, too. My first experience encouraged the dream. My second and third, not so much. Now I’m on my fourth book, the best so far, I believe. And my first round of rejections have arrived.

I was initially ambitious about querying. I promised myself I would send one a day, at the very least. That was two months ago and I’ve sent four. I’ve been distracted by travel and company and my son and editing another book, and, well, life. It happens.

Now we’re deep into summer and we’ve always heard this is one of the worst times to query, the other being the Winter holidays. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

I’ve received two rejections. Maria Caravainis of the Maria Caravainis Agency had to, unfortunately, report that she did not feel sufficiently enthusiastic about my project to pursue it further. She regretted the impersonal nature of her letter but they just don’t have time to respond personally to all the queries they receive. She did appreciate the opportunily to consider my work and wished me much success and pleasure in my writing.

Then Michael Bourret of the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management thanked me for letting him look at my materials and asked forgiveness for the form letter. However, the volume of submissions, etc. , etc. The project I described does not suit their list at this time. He, too, wished me best of luck in finding an agent.

I really believe Alex Bullied has what it takes — I could be wrong — but I’ve only had these four queries out since I had the book professionally edited.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, received sixty rejections from agents. She kept going back and rewriting. The fortieth told her, “There is no market for this kind of tiring writing.” She kept rewriting. Number sixty-one was the charm.

Agatha Christie spent five years collecting rejections. Two hundred rejections for Louis L’Amour until Bantam took a chance on him. My reading life would have been sorely lacking if Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, had given up after her twenty-five rejections. Twenty-four for Nicolas Sparks’ The Notebook (not my cup of tea, but can’t argue with success). Stephanie Meyers only suffered through fourteen rejections before placing Twilight with an agent.

I wonder if each of these authors, and all the others, too many to mention, went back, as Kathryn Stockett did, and rewrote, making their books better. That is my plan. I will figure ten agents may not be wrong and I’ll take another look at the manuscript then. So I have six more queries to send with two who have not yet responded.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Stay tuned.

Query Eye for the Writer Guy

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Today I sent four queries to four agents at four agencies. It took all day.

I had my ducks in a row: my manuscript has been professionally edited, as has my query. My synopsis is a one-page quick read. I have a website on which I sell my first two, self-published books and I have this blog, which, so far, comprises my platform. I have a list of agents who represent children’s literature.

All I had to do was send the query, right? Nope. That’s where the time comes in.

This is my process…

I choose an agent from my list and go to their agency’s website. This is the place to start. Agents move around all the time, so it’s best to make sure they are still at this agency. I once sent out a dozen queries ( for a previous manuscript), back when it was all done snail mail. I had used the Writers Market to find the agents. When I got one envelope returned to me with DECEASED scrawled across it, I knew I had to sharpen my research.

By the way, when choosing the first agents to send to, I always start at the top, with the agent I would most love to have represent my book. Someone suggested sending to lower level agents to test the waters. That doesn’t make sense to me. I am sending a book that I think is ready for agents and publishers. So why not start with the most desired? if a smaller agent loves it and wants it, do you tell them no and figure a bigger agent will love it as well? Maybe. But, to me, that seems unprofessional. My list starts with the biggest and works its way down.

Since we’re on this subject, I also caution any new author against premature querying. Once again, to test the waters, sending in a query that is not right, not finished and querying a book that still needs editing, is foolish and can burn bridges. Don’t do it! Spend your time on perfecting the book. Don’t send it out until you honestly think it has reached that perfection: no grammatical or spelling or punctuation mistakes. Proof it several times. Don’t do anything to take an agent’s attention away from the content, which should be brilliant. It’s called an invisible manuscript.

Okay, so I go to the agency’s website to begin the research on the particular agent. I subscribed to Publishers Market so I can check the recent book sales of this agent and agency and if the books are similar or radically different from mine. I get on my Kindle and buy or sample the books. This is a great tool. I can preview the books, reading several chapters, or buy the book outright, just because it looks like a good story. Doing this tells me what appeals to this agent. If the agent has a blog, I read it. Follow them on Twitter.

Now I can personalize my query and show the agent I’m invested. I can suggest how this book could be marketed.

All of this clicking and reading takes time. It’s amazing how much. But with something this important, there’s no cutting corners. You only have the one chance to make a good impression.

Once I have all those ducks in a row, I check the agent’s submission policy. Always do this. Some agents are not taking on new clients. Some will only accept submissions from people who have been to a conference the agent has attended or through contacts. Those that do take unsolicited queries will tell you exactly what they want in a submission (some want only a query letter, some want pages, some want a synopsis. It can be different for each) and how they what the work submitted (by mail, or electronically, sometimes with a form to fill out). Whatever they ask for, it’s important that you ALWAYS BELIEVE that they mean what they post. Do not second guess. Do not think this applies to everyone but special you. Do as they ask. Be professional.

There you have it. That’s how I do it. And just because I haven’t succeeded at it yet, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It means I haven’t been ready enough or had a good enough manuscript. Yet. Alex Bullied could be the one. I asked a couple of writer friends what their processes are and here’s what they said:

“1) buff query 2) research markets 3) find out requirements 4)complete package 5) send query 6) record the submission 7) wait 8) go on to next query 9) repeat as necessary.”

One word on multiple queries — do it! All agents expect we will query more than one of them at a time. If we didn’t, with the sometimes months of waiting for a reply, it would take years to sell one manuscript.

Another friend said:

” I look at a list of a thousand literary agents, but click on AGENCIES, rather than the AGENTS. Then, going agency by agency, pick one that takes my kind of work. Then look at website to be sure agent is still there, is still accepting queries and how he/she wants to be approached.”

Are you detecting a theme here? There really isn’t that much variation on how to query. Having said all this, you never know what is going to catch someone’s attention and certainly there’s room for querying outside the box. If you do, or have, please write and tell us what  you did and how successful it was.

The waiting begins on the four queries I have out there. Some say six weeks, some three months, some say if I don’t hear from them in six months, I can consider that a rejection.

Gosh, isn’t this so much fun?

But maybe, just maybe, i will get a request for the full manuscript. And maybe I will get The Call. Rejections are always by mail (mostly email) but an acceptance will always be by phone.

On to the next four queries, and the next four and so on.

Good luck to me. Good luck to you. May you receive The Call. Now, go write a really good story.