How to Write Queries, Synopsis and Proposals

Selling you writing in 13 weeks, supplemental post 1, part 1

We will not teach you how to do this!

We will not teach you how to do this!


How to pitch and query.

No, we don’t mean we’ll teach you how to propose marriage, though if you need help of that kind, read the first proposal – by Mr. Darcy – in Pride and Prejudice and then make sure you don’t do that.

However, I promised a supplemental post to my 13 weeks series, about how to approach traditional markets, should you decide to do so.

I don’t know if my experience is normal — since I came from so far outside the field that I came from another country, culture and language – but I spent eight years unable to submit any of my stories, because while I knew how to write the stories themselves, I was in the dark on how to write those strange things “queries” and “proposals” and “synopsis.”

Then one day at a writers’ group meeting I asked a published author next to me how one did it, and – after looking at me like I’d taken leave of my senses – she showed me.  On the back of an envelope.  In five minutes.

Which was handy, because a year later, when I met an editor at a workshop, she asked me to send her a proposal.  And I did.  It was the proposal for Ill Met By Moonlight, which sold to that editor three days after I sent it.

If you’re trying to go the traditional route you will come – perhaps you’ve already come – up on these words “query” and “synopsis” and “proposal”.  If you attend conventions you might also have need of a magical thing called “pitch” or “elevator pitch.”

The only two houses – that I know of, though it’s possible there are still some in Romance and/or mystery – that take submissions in the form of a full manuscript are Baen and DAW (though I heard rumors TOR did, or was intending to.) All the others will have either a line saying “No unsolicited submissions” or “send query”  Or “Send proposal”.

So, let’s start with how you magically turn your submission from “unsolicited” to “solicited.”

This usually involves attending a convention or workshop also attended by the editor you wish to work with.

Sometimes being an editor at a writers' conference must be like being the fox at a fox hunt.

Sometimes being an editor at a writers’ conference must be like being the fox at a fox hunt.

Now remember that at conventions – or at least it used to be this way – editors can feel very much like they’re surrounded by people wishing to talk to them about their new books.  The one thing you don’t want to do is appear like you’re crowding them or pushing them into a corner, or in any other way forcing yourself to their attention.  But you do want an opportunity to talk to them.  What to do, what to do?

Some conventions/workshops (more the workshops) allow you to pay for the privilege of a few minutes with an editor or agent.  I don’t know how effective this is. The only time I did it, the proposal was requested, but I got back a standard rejection saying the agent didn’t represent that genre, so I got the impression the whole thing was a bit of a scam.  On the other hand, I have friends who have managed to sell from such sessions, so perhaps I just didn’t have any luck.

Another way to get to pitch is to attend enough conferences and be perfectly polite and good natured around the editor in question, until they get comfortable with you.  Then, it is quite likely – this has happened to me twice – that the editor will give you an opportunity to pitch a story idea at them.  The standard opening for this is “So, what are you working on now?”

These “pitches” that are solicited in that way are the briefest form of summary for your story. They’re often called “elevator pitches” because they sometimes happen in elevators.  Imagine you enter the elevator on the eleventh floor, the publisher asks you “So, what are you working on?” and you have to the lobby to pitch.

It helps to imagine it this way, because you don’t want to go on and on and on, and make the editor’s eyes glaze.

Ways not to start a pitch “Well, you know, there’s this thing with the girl.” Or “This woman, she’s crying and he says—”

I’ve heard newbie writers start pitches in just that way, and I could see the editor’s eyes glaze over.  No, you want to have your pitch ready, and focused.  The initial pitch should be a line or two and make reference to movies (because you can be fairly sure that the publisher/editor will have seen a popular movie) or a classical book.  Modern works might or might not have been read by the publisher.

If the editor's eyes glaze over like this, stop talking

If the editor’s eyes glaze over like this, stop talking

The thing is to take the most superficial resemblance to the movie.  For instance, my pitch for Ill Met by Moonlight was “It’s Shakespeare in Love meets The Godfather on mescaline.”  Now, there is no mob in the book, but the younger son of Titania and Oberon tries to hire Shakespeare to off his brother, which is what I was going for.  Also, the juxtaposition is catchy.

An effective pitch for a novel (which I don’t intend to write) would be “It’s like Ender’s Game, with mermaids.”  Or “It’s like War and Peace meets Starship Troopers”  Or “It’s like Agatha Christie meets Brideshead Revisited.

The resemblance between these elements could be quite tenuous.  Say the one with Ender’s Game and mermaids, it could just mean that it had children warriors and a threat from above (humans, perhaps) that the mermaids were preparing to fight.  Everything else could be completely different.  This is just a way to get your chosen editor’s attention and get him to ask for more.

For instance, I’m told that the initial pitch for Star Trek was “covered wagon to the stars” – note there’s nothing about Mr. Spock or Klingons or anything. Just the bare bones.

That’s what you want to get to with your book, and you might want to pitch it to friends and neighbors and your spouse, until you get it perfected so that when the moment comes and you’re nervous as heck, you don’t blow it.

So, say, the editor has said “So, what are you working on?” and you say “Oh, it’s Blazing Saddles meets Murder on the Orient Express.”

If the editor say nothing or just says “oh, how nice” or something, you are not to continue. Going on will just lose you all that good will you’ve been accumulating.

However, if the publisher says “tell me more” this is when you get a chance to do sort of a verbal query.  You should have this prepared as well.

There’s no way, not even for you, that I’ll be able to come up with a verbal query for something that’s a cross between Blazing Saddles and Murder On The Orient Express.

So let’s try something different.  You just told the editor “It’s like The Avengers crossed with Independence Day.”

It's like Independence day crossed with The Avengers, with a touch of Real Housewives, set in Icecapades, on Dune!

It’s like Independence day crossed with The Avengers, with a touch of Real Housewives, set in Icecapades, on Dune!

And the publisher says “tell me more.”  Take a deep breath and remember the description you memorized.  This is a really bad time to start with “there are these elder gods and then there is him, and he—”

Let’s say your story is an invasion of the Earth by either the elder gods or something that resembles the elder gods, which is why you chose those two comparisons.

To get an idea what a query sounds like, you should read the backs of books. A query is basically that except it reveals the end.

So, your verbal query (with a minimum of uh and um, at least if you rehearsed) would be something like, “In the near future, the Earth is encircled by flying saucers. We don’t know if they came for good or ill.  Then we discover that the creatures in them are, or claim to be, Norse gods, and have the power to control humans even as they attack us and attempt to exterminate us. It soon becomes clear their plan is to reduce the population to a manageable size that can be enslaved, just like in ancient times.  This is when a group of daring geeks discovers a lost piece of their technology” – since this is supposed to be Norse gods, that piece could be, say, under the ice near the North pole. – “Using it, they back engineer the way to destroy the invaders’ superior tech and stop the invasion.”

If you’re lucky, once you say that, the editor will say, “Um… sounds interesting.  Send me a proposal,”  or “Send me an outline” or “send me an outline and three chapters.”

It used to be that they then handed you their business card, which you sent in clipped to the first page, so that the mailroom knew the proposal was solicited (Ah, that magic word, see?)

I understand now it’s not needed and there are different protocols, since most things are done via email.  At any rate when the editor says “send me—” you have crossed a magical threshold.  Your proposal/outline/sample chapters are now solicited.

And if you stay tuned, my part of two of this post will teach you what those mean and how to send them in.