The Query – or Taking a Story Down to it’s Core

So, you know what comes after edits and revisions of a manuscript? Edits and revisions of the synopsis and query.

Whether Plotter or Pantser

I’ve been told, several times, that the synopsis should be written before the story. If you can do that, I highly suggest it. However, since I’m not a plotter, but a pantser, writing the synopsis ahead of time would be like plotting the abduction of my muse. The fun part of writing, the creative part – for me at least – is in the discovery. When I start to write, I have an idea of where I’m going. Blips of scenes flicker in my mind, in flip-book form. From there, I develop the meat of the story.

Months later, when the story is complete – and polished – I try to write a two-paragraph query and both a short and long synopsis but find myself overwhelmed by all of the intricate plot twists, emotional discoveries and settings. The query and the synopsis are supposed to ‘tell’ (not “show”) your story in a compelling yet succinct way. A way that clearly showcases your voice and your story’s tone. You can think of the query and synopsis as relaying an event to a friend. You’d hit the high points, string out the suspense of it, keep them interested without bogging them down with details. That’s what you want in your query and in your synopsis. You want to hook an agent or editor with the high points, showing them the entire work without showing them the ENTIRE work.

What’s your story about?

It seems like such a simple question to answer. And no doubt you can. But can you do it in twenty seconds or less? I couldn’t. I found even my own eyes glazed over when I tried to tell my story.

We must be creative artists when we write the story but marketing pros when we sell it. It’s hard to switch hats like that.

I approached my first – hundred or so – attempts at this backwards. I had just finished revisions and figured I’d never know the story better and so writing the 1-page query and short-ish  (2-3 page synopsis) should be easy. Or should I say, ‘easier’?

For the Synopsis and Query – Tell Don’t Show

I started at the beginning and wrote. Soon, I was caught in the story’s rhythm. Writing the query and synopsis in glorious detail, only to remember that wasn’t the place for it. My poor muse slumped. She’d been giddy. Guiding me through, reminding me of ‘moments’ so compelling, to me, that they just had to be included in this selling tool.

I resorted to bribery and promised my muse a new story. I tossed a thought out there and she ran off with it, trying to figure out how to work that idea into 300 pages of colorful language and gripping scenes.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

I also did the dishes, the laundry, the vacuuming and grocery shopping. And then I sat down to write. My goal? One sentence. From the “Snowflake Method” to “Pitch University“, I’ve always heard about breaking the story down to one sentence. I could not imagine how to do it then found help in the form of examples from Nathan Bransford‘s fantastic site.

Using his examples as a guide, I went through several drafts of my ‘one-line’ pitch until, finally, hours later, I had it. If you can break your story down to it’s raw form – which, for me ,turned out to be the idea that prompted the story in the first place – you can find your one-sentence pitch. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not easy. Maybe, though, it’ll get easier with time and practice.

Meanwhile, that one sentence grew into one paragraph. That paragraph being the way I’d tell friends and strangers about my story. Just enough detail to cover the main plot and leave them wanting more.  From there, came two-paragraphs, with more emotion, more mood and a touch more detail. Those paragraphs are for the query.

It took hours to write those lines. You’d think after hours of work you’d have more to show than that, yes? But if it took months, maybe a year or more, to write the story, shouldn’t it take a decent amount of time to market it properly? I rushed through my original query, thinking I just had to give a basic idea of what my story was about. Now, I realize it’s not simply what it’s about, but specifically and succinctly what happens, why and what’s at stake for your characters.

I’ll repeat – it wasn’t easy. I’m sure I’ll be banging my head on the keyboard next go-round. But now that I’ve invested the time the query needs and deserves, the process finally makes sense.

What’s next now that the query is finished? The synopsis. Let the head-banging begin. 🙂

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