Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Art of Summarizing Your Work

Around the Internets it seems to be conventional wisdom that novel writing and query writing require two different skill sets, and an author who is good at one may not (or even need not) be good at the other.

Personally, I disagree with this premise entirely and believe that anyone who can write a good novel can write a good query. But. For the sake of this discussion, let's say that writing a novel and writing a query does require different skill sets and one may not necessarily go with the other.

Well... you need both skill sets.

International bestselling author Jeff Abbott was kind enough to send me just a few of the instances when he has had to distill his work into cogent summaries without the help of anyone:

- "My publisher once asked me to write a letter to the sales force, talking about myself and my book. It wasn't something a copywriter could do. I had to do it. And you want to make a good impression on the sales force--you live and die by sales. That letter is something they can then use in closing more orders for your books.

- Most publishers ask you to fill out a marketing questionnaire, so the publicists can use that in shaping their press pitches. A lot of that involves summaries of your book to different audiences: press, readers, booksellers, etc. Yes, the publicist has read the book. But they want to know what YOU want to stress before they start throwing ideas at you. You have to be part of that conversation.

- Writers are sometimes involved in jacket copy. Not often. But if the copywriter is stuck or having trouble, it's not unusual for the author to take a stab at a rewrite. The few times I've heard of this happening, it's because the copywriter missed on the major stakes of the book for the main character or emphasized a minor point to the exclusion of the focus of the book. Copywriters aren't perfect. No one can know your book better than you do.

- You get a call from a film studio, interested in you writing a treatment or a script for your book. This might come from your agent or they may have read the book. They want you do to a pitch on how you'd do the adaptation. And they want it tomorrow, via conference call. That's a verbal form of a query letter.

- At the Southeast Booksellers Association, they do an event called Moveable Feast--ten booksellers at a table, one empty chair for an author, a few dozen tables. You sit at each table and talk about your book to the booksellers for ten minutes, then move to the next table. Guess what? Your publicist isn't sitting next to you, whispering cues in your ear.

- At a cocktail party in London, me and 25 booksellers met for drinks and dinner. I had to mingle, meet everyone. At that point, the booksellers knew I'd had one successful book in the UK; they wanted to know about the next one. And they want to hear it in your words, not the press kit. They want to make that connection with you. You have to be able to talk about your work, your vision, what makes you you in a brief and interesting way.

- Any number of times, just out socializing, someone finds out I'm a writer and asks what I write or what's my new book about. They want something short and snappy and memorable. I want them to be interested in the book."

Annnnnnd so on.

So the message for the school of "I'm Just a Novelist" -- successful summarizing doesn't end with the query. If you feel like you can't do it, forcing yourself to write a good query is a great way to start.






118 comments:

lynnrush said...

So true. I stink at writing queries and once thought them as separate skills.

It's the same skill, just a slightly different take on it. I mean, who better to write a brief snapshot than the author who knows the story so intimately, right?

Just as long as you have good, brutally honest crit group...you'll be set.

Anonymous said...

And, Nathan, you've given us so many wonderful tips on how to write the query properly, we really have no excuse. Thank you for this version of a pep talk. And now, you're letting us send part of the MS, too?! Your magnanimity overwhelms me.

ryan field said...

I hate doing it...but it has to be done. And it does get easier with practice.

I had to give a publicist a quip the other day, and that was even harder.

Scott said...

I just wrote four large paragraphs on this, and when I previewed I lost it all.

I'd summarize, but I'm too frustrated right now. >:^|

Lady Glamis said...

It certainly is an art, as you state in your title. Thank you for the great advice and tips. And as always, you have given so much information and direction in writing a query that it is only a matter of hard work and will-power to get this all down right. Thanks!

Mira said...

Well, I'm of the school that writing skills can vary. But I think your point that summarizing is a valuable skill for any author to learn is a really good point.

I'm surprised, though, that there aren't more services available to authors. People who hire themselves out to write queries, synopsis, etc.

There are probably some people who really excel at that type of writing, and if it's not your strong point, why not give them the work?

Nathan Bransford said...

Yeah, sorry everyone, Blogger seems to be going haywire with the comments the last couple of days. Back to the old commenting format for now (temporary! temporary!), and hopefully they work it out.

Nathan Bransford said...

mira-

You mean... A writer hiring a writer to do their writing?

RW said...

And I have to be able to do it to be able to actually finish the book itself. To make the work focused and clear -- revised, in other words -- requires that I be able to tell myself succinctly what the story is about. The inability to tell myself what the story is and the fact that the manuscript drags on and on full of beautiful writing without going anywhere go hand-in-hand.

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

UGH. I can easily write a 4 page story, detailing everything, but I just cannot write ONE PARAGRAPH summarizing my novel. Ugghhh yes I know I need to master the art of summarizing.

Damn.

Robena Grant said...

Thank you for this, and a huge thank you to Jeff Abbott. This is excellent advice.
Will try now to post as I've been kicked off this past week. : (

Steve Fuller said...

Ahhh...the old commenting system.

Stevie so happy.

And Nathan, after reading that breakdown on your last post, I am worried about you. Where should we send money?

Bryan said...

That post was great Nathan. See, I knew there was a reason I mention you a lot in my blog!

MzMannerz said...

Reposting a ? from yesterday, because I didn't write it until today so think it got lost in the pile. I didn't see it in the FAQ section and hope I didn't miss it.

If you query an agent and the agent passes, and you have a new project ready and want to query again (having waited at least six months, natch): should you mention that you've queried the agent before?

Nathan Bransford said...

mzmannerz-

If the agent requested some of your work last time: yes. If they didn't: no.

Mira said...

Nathan - did I mean a writer hiring a writer?

Yes, actually. I know it sounds funny, but here's an example. I don't care how much you paid me, I can not write poetry.

Well, that's not true. I can't write poetry that doesn't make people's eyes start to bleed.

So, you could have a writer who was really good at a lyrical narrative style, but terrible at a concise, structured paragraph.

A writer in my writer's group writes amazing fiction. She just started college. Her essays are painful. She can probably learn to write in a formal style, but it will never be her forte.

So, why shouldn't she hire someone who is fantastic at writing in a formal style? For something as important as a book cover, for example.

Anyway, just my long-winded thoughts.

Hilabeans said...

Inspirational.
My two bucks (adjusted for inflation):
Seriously, I think that we all make the summary more difficult than it needs to be. The first iteration of condensing my 10pg outline and 400pg MS into an elevator pitch was, in a word, excruciating. But the more I worked at it, the more I was able to siphon out the good stuff. (disclaimer: not that the rest was bad, just not as important)

After that experience, I’ve learned to start off with the pitch. Any new book idea is shortly followed by a two sentence summary and loose outline. It seems to help me stay on track with the main theme and plotline. I’m telling you, the practice saves a lot of time.

In any case, you always want to be ready with a zinger for that sometimes-contemptuous-always-nebulous question, “So,” (insert skeptical look), “What’s your book about?”

Have you ever wondered... said...

Insightful as always. You seem to be one of the few agents on a list of many I follow who consistently gives valuable info to the aspiring writing. So thank you very much.

Nathan Bransford said...

mira-

Even if summarizing doesn't come naturally to a writer, they simply need to get better at it. You don't have to become a world class marketer and summarizer, just a competent one. To take the poetry example, you don't have to be Robert Frost.

Queries and summaries are just words arranged in the right order. It goes with the territory.

Writers write. Including summaries.

Sarah Jensen said...

I love Jeff Abbott. His advice is wonderful. I believe the name of the new game will be who can promote themselves. We're going to have to get used to know what we write and who we are if we want to make it in this business.

pjd said...

Sloppy writing usually reflects sloppy thinking. If you can't summarize your story in a paragraph, then perhaps you aren't sure what your story is.

I'm not saying it's easy. It can be terribly difficult. But saying you're a novelist who is unable to write a tight summary paragraph is like saying you're a 7-course-meal chef unable to make decent garlic bread.

Kristan said...

Siiiigh. But you're right.

Ink said...

I think a lot us over-worry and over-think queries, but they're much simpler than we seem to want to give them credit for. And I think (as fiction writers) we're already using the exact talents needed for query letters, and we're using them all the time.

When you have backstory elements in your story, what do you do? If it's a key element and super important to the novel you could use a "show" technique like a flashback. But in a novel you can't do this all the time (or even much of the time) without seriously overworking the technique. Most of the time you use a bit of exposition to explain something. And you don't want an eight page explanation (which would kill the fictive dream and likely be dead boring), but rather something as tight and pithy as possible, something both sharp and inobtrusive. You gotta slide that stiletto in carefully...

So, you find the heart of that information, the elements the reader needs in that particular moment, and add a hint of the rest, a bit of intrigue that makes the reader want to know more... and which they'll get only by reading onward. This sort of summary with a hook seems, to me, like one of the basic techniques for making a narrative work. And whether we think about it consciously or not we probably do it quite a bit. All you have to do for a query is translate the technique over.

What are the facts the agent needs to know right now? And what are the hooks they need to get them wanting to read more? This, to me, is pretty basic exposition, something we all likely do as we go about telling little stories within the big stories. If you can write competent exposition you can write competent query letters.

I think the problem is we writers worry too much. A query letter! Oh my God! Everything's riding on this! We build the pressure up, overthinking our stories and what agents want... when we should just be telling our story. Just tell it (Yes, I've seen too many Nike commercials).

Anyway, that's my take. Green tea and relaxing massages all around!

My best to everyone,
Bryan Russell

Ashley D. said...

I think Blogger needs to stick to this commenting format! When they changed it, I couldn't EVER comment on your blog! I would get everything typed out but my word verification wouldn't show up, which, obviously, prevented me from posting.

SO frustrating!

So, in case they switch back and I am left unable to comment again, let me take this time to say.. Thanks, Nathan! For taking the time to share all of this very useful information with us!

I haven't gotten to the query stage yet but I know that the information on your blog will be a tremendous help!

Eva Ulian said...

Wise words indeed- every single one of them should be cherished by every author! Excellent post!

MzMannerz said...

Thanks for your answer to my earlier question, Nathan.

***

I am reminded of cover letters and resumes. With few exceptions, regardless of the job you seek, a solid cover letter and resume are necessary. It's a general skill anyone wanting to enter the professional job market must hone. Perhaps the same is true for queries - short format summaries may not be a writer's thing, but they need to hone the skill anyway.

Laura D said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you Nathan! I totally agree that writing a query is the same skill as any other writing. Marketing through writing should be a dream for writers. I don't know why there is such cold feet over querys. It's a chance to put yourself out there and shine.

Mira said...

Nathan,

Okay, I'll concede this one to you. You have good points. It doesn't have to be fantastic, just competent.

And there's definitely value in learning a new writing skill, even if it doesn't come naturally.

But please, please, please don't encourage me to write poetry. Having people sign that 10 page indemnity disclaimer before they read my work was terribly onerous. And it doesn't look like it will stand up in court, given the terrible pain and suffering my poetry inflicts.

No, the world is a better place if poetry and I both respect the mutual restraining orders.

Whirlochre said...

Querying is the nightmare I get to straddle in the next few months and I'm not looking forward to it at all.

In principle, I'm in agreement with you that writing is writing, but I do find the consolidatory work more difficult than throwing ideas at a page or (heaven forbid, if I'm let out for the night) a person.

JES said...

If you're one of those who manages to squeeze in an hour or two of writing a day, no matter how fired up you are about the WIP you're going to come up with days when your fingers just hover over the keyboard. Nothing happens. The Muse sits in the corner, filing her nails and whistling softly, pretending you don't exist.

At such times, use the hour (or two!) to write and rewrite and re-rewrite your summary, or your query, your cover letter, or any of the dozen other things that agents and editors seem to want aside from the work itself. If you re-do them a half-dozen times over the course of six months it'll be a lot harder to kid yourself into believing, ...but I just can't WRITE queries/synopses/whatever.

And as somebody up above said, you'll understand your own work a heck of a lot better!

Josh said...

Nathan, this was a great post, because I don't know how many of us know about all of the other work authors have do to make their book successful.

Its seems to me that the only reason people are against summarizing their work is because its too tough/hard, and I just don't get that.

We have all put so much work into learning how to write, being diligent at finishing our books, editing and reediting. Why wouldn't you want to learn the skills necessary to query, and summarize your book, help with selling your book to booksellers, so that your book can be successful? And if you don't care about your book being successful, then why are you trying to get it published anyway-- post it online and invite people to read it.

If you were told, "Hey I will publish your book if you can write me a good summary?" Wouldn't you jump at that chance?

Anonymous said...

pjd is exactly right. It may be hard to admit, or something one doesn't want to work on, but outlining, pitching and querying sharpen your story, forcing you to look at the plot and characters in a critical way.

I didn't get this truth until I finished my third manuscript. The first two meandered around a plot, sort of, and I found it impossible to summarize them. While putting everything into one paragraph was still difficult, the third one showed real growth on my part as a writer.

Nathan, your blog is invaluable to me as part of 'learning the business of writing'. No one said it would be easy (in fact, all I've heard at conferences and workshops is expect it to be really, really hard), but your blog tells me from an insider what to expect and how to present myself professionally. Thanks

Heather said...

I think the whole "I can't write a query" think is just a cop-out. I bet most novelists could write a much better summary of someone else's novel than of their own. It's easier to see the big picture when you're not married to every word and detail. Because let's face it, when you spend hours, months, years of your life squeezing a novel out of your brain, it's hard to let go of any of it. And that's what summarizing is -- it's letting go of the nonessential details to distill your novel down to its essence. But I agree with Nathan that it's something writers need to be able to do, not just for queries, but for the sake of the writing itself. If you're so in love with your own words that you can't let go of them for a summary, how will you ever be able to murder your darlings?

Melanie Avila said...

Excellent post.

I agree that writers need to be able to summarize their work - if they want to be published and be successful. If they don't want success badly enough, they can stop trying and claim it was too hard.

*shrugs shoulders*

I choose the first option. It's not easy, but it's what you must do to make it in this industry.

Just_Me said...

I suppose that's something to work on while I edit. My current WIP does not have an easy tag line, several other books I have as pot boilers do.

When you're in the middle of the book and all of it is important to you as the author it's hard to focus on just the main points.

Anonymous said...

At a cocktail party in London, me and 25 booksellers met for drinks and dinner. I had to mingle, meet everyone.

Me ???????

Vancouver Dame said...

I've been working on my query and synopsis as well, and this post is very timely for me. I find Jeff's advice very realistic and helpful, and he reiterates what you've been saying, Nathan.

In order to start the process for myself, I tried summarizing each chapter, then condensing that writing and then stepping further back to see if I could pinpoint the highlights of the story as I saw it. I'm nearly finished, and I'm refining the summary each time by trying to zoom out more. This 'stepping out of the story' is a good way of seeing if the storyline flows well.

Business writing skills require you to focus on what you're offering (the story), and why someone should be interested (what the story is about - condensed).
Excellent post, Nathan, and thanks for having patience with your blog fans. BTW - what's happening with the changed format for comments??

Loralee said...

Not to nit pic but it this good grammar?

"At a cocktail party in London, me and 25 booksellers met for drinks and dinner."

Shouldn't it be 25 booksellers and I?

Rick Daley said...

I look at writing a novel vs. writing a query letter with this logic: a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square.

Producing an interesting premise succinctly in 250 words or less is much different than expanding that premise into 60,000 to 150,000 words of compelling plot and /or literary greatness.

It is much more reasonable to assume that the writer who can produce the greater volume can also produce the lesser volume (a square is always a rectangle), but the writer who can produce a lesser volume may not be able to complete the longer work (a rectangle is not always a square).

I do not assume that query writing should be effortless for any writer, though. It takes time and practice. The more I struggled with paring my story down to 150 words (better yet, one sentence), the more I thought about what the story is really about, and I gained new insights into my own work. If you don't fight it, it can be very beneficial.

I agree that a successful writer - defined as one with widespread distribution and readership - needs to be proficient in both the long form and the sort form. It’s simple economics. The supply of writers who have the dual proficiency exceeds the demands of the market, leaving very little chance for the lesser skilled writers to persevere.

For formal publishing, the short form is query writing. For self-publishing, it’s blogging and other means of marketing and self-promotion. For either, it's necessary.

Bane of Anubis said...

Bryan, you're right that writing a query is easier than most make it out to be, but I think you hit the nail on the head about "worrying" compounding the stress. We send out queries into the black box ether and if we're rejected, we don't know why --

was it written poorly? Did the subject not appeal to the agent? Are our credentials not up to their snuff? etc... We have no way of knowing, usually, and that's what makes queries so "hard" to do, IMO...

So, queries are somewhat easier to write than most people make out, but the psychological barrier of the unknown rejection will always make them very difficult to do.

Nathan Bransford said...

OK, grammar people, it's a blog post.

Anonymous said...

Can I have Jeff Abott's career? London, movie studios, sales forces, bookseller associations, all swirling around my book?

Also, can we start banning commentors that continually point out insignificant grammar mistakes on blog posts? Hello? Talk about not seeing the larger picture... HE'S the BEST-SELLING author, YOU are not... :)

Dave Wood said...

Summarizing used to give me a lot of trouble. Then I learned to write a quick bit of jacket copy when I first started working on a project. It helps to do it when the idea is fresh and fun. Then it's there to re-inspire me when my writing hits a slow spot, and it helps at query time too.

K.S. Clay said...

I agree. Writing is writing. A lot of people (not just writers) like to give excuses and say they "can't" do something, usually because it's difficult because they're not used to doing it and people seek the path of least resistance. Now, if there's a great fiction writer and they say they "can't" write a query letter, or a poem, or something else, I'm going to say they're lying through their teeth. It might take them longer, not being used to writing in that style, but they can do it.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that a lot of writers see novel writing as enjoyment and will thus spend a lot of time trying to get it right. The same people see query writing as a job and sludge through it as quickly as possible. The best examples I've seen of query letters were ones that seemed to me as if the writers approached them with the same attitude toward creativity as their novels. I also think that the kind of summarizing you have to do in a query can help with the novel itself, or at least it does for me. When I sit down and summarize the story I have to decide what's important. Then looking at that I have priorities. I tend to take those priorities back to the novel (but maybe that's just my style since I tend to continually rework a novel summary, similar to that which will go in the query later, throughout the entire process of writing the novel).

Wow I'm long winded today! Maybe I should work on summarizing my comment.

Heather said...

For me, the art of summarizing actually helped me to see that I needed to simplify my plot a little. I figure that my trouble summarizing the story was a sign that maybe I was trying to do too much... and I was right.

[enter rewrite phase here]

I actually suggest to my writer friends now that they take a stab at writing the query BEFORE they enter the rewrite section of their process. It really helps you to put the book into a larger perspective.

clindsay said...

Great post!

Joy said...

Nathan, you sound like me, a former English teacher, trying to convince my teenage students that they're actually going to use their English skills once they leave school and enter the "real world." Over and over I'd come up with examples of when their grammar and writing skills would come in handy--even if they worked on cars or in construction--but most of the time I felt my words were falling on deaf ears. It wasn't until my students graduated, got jobs, and were "in the real world" that they realized what I said was true, and then it was too late.

I hope more "I'm just a novelist's" hear and take your words to heart before it's too late to realize, hmm, maybe I should've listened to Nathan sooner and started working on my synopsis skills.

Stephanie said...

Great points! The only reason it's ever a problem with me (and other writers, I'm sure) is just simple stage fright. It's knowing THAT is the one thing all of the agents and editors will see. That makes me procrastinate writing it more than the book itself.

That said, I think I do pretty well. I keep getting compliments in my rejections, such as, "While I found your query intriguing..." Okay, maybe that's just a fancy form letter, but it makes me feel like maybe I'm on the right track!

Anonymous said...

How's this for a summary? :)

"In 1941, 14-year-old Jay Johnson was forever scarred when he witnessed his mother’s brutal mauling by the neighbor’s pet chimp. Seventeen years later, Jay finds himself working for the newly formed NASA and is excited to be at the forefront of space exploration. That is until the newest member of NASA shows up. Ham is a two-year-old chimpanzee that NASA hopes to send into space. Jay is charged with helping to train the animal and finds that the years have not lessened his fear of monkeys. Now Jay finds himself stalked by fear and is faced with a hard choice. He can find a way to overcome his fear once and for all, or he can leave NASA and let the space monkey win. Jay has never been a quitter and though space monkeys may haunt his dreams at night he resolves they will not rule his day. The monkey may win a few battles but it will not win the war."

Arron Ferguson said...

I didn't get a chance to comment on the last post of yours due to the Blogger site's hiccup.

I found that previous post quite informative (pertaining to how the $$$ pie is cut up) - thank you for posting this information!

I come from the technical writing world where it's writer -> editor -> technical editor/technical reviewer -> proof reader -> publisher -> book seller.

In my experience, technical book royalties are anywhere from 8% to 15% of the net sales (minus returns, freebies, etc.) and a technical writer is fortunate to have a book with a "shelf" life of about two years (if lucky).

Anyways, I see this current topic debate not about query letters and manuscripts but whether or not a writer is expected to be part businessperson as well.

I see a parallel in the graphic arts and versus fine arts fields where graphics artists take the perspective that a business sense is an integral part of the career choice whereas fine artists are usually apposed to any of what transpires after the work has been created.

Anyways, thanks for the information.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

As a technical writer, I spend my days creating some of the most boring crap on earth. But every day, for 8 hours, I get to practice getting to the point—quickly and succinctly—through my writing. The skill comes in handy when composing a synopsis, an “elevator speech” about my project, and even my stand-up comedy act. Becoming a tech writer was one of the smartest decisions I made. But the content? zzzzzzz…

Dara said...

I think writing a great summary takes lots of practice, especially having it in one or two paragraphs. It'll be easy to some and to others, it will be as painful as pulling teeth without Novacane. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, though I think I'm probably closer to the painful side :P

But it's a neccessity in this industry. I just try and focus on the end result.

Crimogenic said...

Nice post, Nathan.

Some of us might not be good at query writing, but my thought is that if a writers sticks with it, he/she will eventually get better at all. Now the key is that a writer gets back at writing novels each time he's done with the last one.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

Interesting insights - thanks for sharing a different perspective.

Indeed, I was just speaking to a friend who works in large-scale concerts' build and promotion, who was commenting on today's ticket prices. He said, it used to be that the concerts were promotion for an upcoming album. Now, with so little money to be made on single tracks / digital sales, the concerts need to bring in money for the artists.

So to be commercially viable artists, and like it or not, looks like we all have to get good at these other skills, the pitching, the mingling, understanding the different needs of different groups as Jeff explained.

The challenge I find, can be accidentally focusing all your time and energies on that part which can be so interesting to learn, and not doing enough writing.

Julie Weathers said...

Nathan, I'm really glad you brought this up.

Query letters are hard for me. Even so, it's something a person can learn. There are no excuses for not doing so. In fact, the query letter process revealed something to me about m WIP I didn't realize. My WIP has strong mystery elements. As such, I needed to disperse some of this information a bit differently and spread out the clues.

I think a lot of writers have aha moments when they write the queries, so it's even a good practice for that reason.

Aside from that, there are lots of opportunities to use the "query" mentality, as you say.

Thanks for bringing this to everyone's attention. Perhaps now, some people will stop ranting about the query process and focus their energy on writing one.

JJ said...

Nathan,

Great post. Thank you for this.

I agree that both skill sets are of course necessary, yetI also think that the differences between the two are relevant, if only to remember that summarizing and selling your work may not come naturally.

Being a good writer and story-teller certainly helps the process, but part of what you're getting at seems to be that one must look at query-writing and summarizing as a skill that needs to be learned. And learning, of course, entails putting in many hours before perfecting the skill. Thus your accurate insight that "I'm just a novelist" is simply a refusal to learn and grow.

I'm sending out my novel now and find myself chipping away at my query and synopsis every day. What works and what doesn't reveals itself with each new draft. It's writing, sure, but it's a whole new way of writing that I'm perfecting step-by-step, draft-by-draft. Which is fun!

yvettesgonefishing said...

This answers my question. I'm not a good writer. Oh well. I wrote an entire book that must be crap because I can't get the query right. I spent three years as a copywriter, cramming all of an advertiser's hopes and dreams into a :60 spot, and somehow can't get my book summed up in a 300 word query or a single page synopsis. On to something more geared to my abilities.

lotusgirl said...

I think we can write good queries when we know what the agents want and expect in a query. That's why your blog has been so helpful. There was a post from Jodi Meadows this past weekend that was particularly helpful in knowing what to include in a query. I really appreciate that kind of thing.

L.C. Gant said...

Great post, Nathan. Jeff Abbott made some excellent points about the ways summarizing can come up in daily life. Most of his examples never occurred to me before.

I find that the better you know your story, the easier the query writing process becomes. I start writing query letters while my WIP is still a rough draft; it's a great way to help me stay focused on the main concept.

If you're really struggling to write a query, it may be a sign that you don't know your story/characters as well as you think you do, and that you need to rethink things.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I always assumed the query was to demonstrate efficiency of words. If the author can't do a tidy, interesting job of summing up their story in 250 words, who says they'll be able to do a tidy, interesting job of any given paragraph of the novel? Both pieces of writing are strongest if they use the fewest words to the maximum effect. Same with any marketing copy or two-minute-long discussions of the book. It's not unfair to ask an author to summarize; it's just making sure they have the skills to be worth an attempt at publishing.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan,

I really appreciate the insider information from both you and Jeff Abbott. Thank you! This is why I love the Internet: the information is out there, and we have immediate access to it. I once thought that query letters should include everything about my work of fiction and writing credentials, including the kitchen sink; but, recently, I’ve found it great fun to craft tighter query letters. I enjoy the challenge. I like stretching myself as a writer, writing to all kinds of specifications. Recently, I’ve participated in writing contests in which a handful of random words are assigned, and writers incorporate them into the best flash fiction they can write. At the other end of the spectrum in terms of length, I’m also writing a novel. It’s good practice at honing one’s skills. I’ve been impressed for some time now with the TV show Lost because the writers are skilled at writing amazing dialogue within multiple genres, developing both realistic character arcs and tight plot, and incorporating meaningful symbolism and literary allusions. Here’s an article about the breadth and depth of their writing feats. In my opinion, the writers for Lost are among the best of the best, and that has brought great success to the show.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we need a definition of what you mean by 'good query'.

Does that mean the writing follows good rules of grammar.

Does it mean the author actually gets full or partial requests.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Abbott's PANIC is well worth a read. Wonderful writer and great guy.

Terrific post.

D.

Litgirl01 said...

Wow...there is more to this publishing thing than I ever dreamed. ;-) Thanks for the helpful info!

Anonymous said...

I think that there is a LOT of focus on the query in the agent and publisher blogs I've been reading and wanted to pass along how I'm tackling it as a first time novelist.

Before I wrote a single page of the book I'm now writing, I wrote a query to help me focus my thoughts. What's the central hook, resulting conflict and challenges that arise from this conflict? Why is it interesting?

I then created an outline in spreadsheet format listing each chapter, its title, the central conflict for that chapter, and the result that navigating or resolving this conflict has on the story or main character (often another conflict, or a scenario leading to another conflict ... leading inevitably to the next chapter).

As I write, I make sure that I stick to my plot points as I go flesh out each chapter. It keeps me focused on the task at hand and avoids embarrassing digressions into complicated back stories or flights of writerly fancy that don't evolve the plot.

After that it's just a matter of connecting the dots. The query, which started off the whole process, is my 'elevator pitch' and touchstone. I keep coming back to it to ensure I'm staying on track.

And it was surprisingly easy to write ... just imagine you are the voiceover in the movie theater summarizing the summer blockbuster ... "In a world where ... [begin your summary]."

scott g.f. bailey said...

When I wrote my first query (and next half dozen as well), I approached it as a horrible task I was being forced to do against my will, and I hated it. Most of what made it horrible had nothing to do with the craft of writing, or my knowledge of my own novel. What made it so hard was the feeling that my future writing career depends on how well I present myself in this single letter sent to a total stranger. "It's just going to sound stupid," I told myself in a fit of self-doubt. Which mindset is, you know, total bollocks, and I got over it. Only this morning, yes, but still I got over it.

The thing about summarizing is that, it's just summarizing. As writers, we do this all the time in our work: narrative summary. It's a skill we already know and use. Think of it this way: if, in your novel, one of your minor characters asked another of your minor characters, "What's going on?" I am sure you could find a one-paragraph summation for that second character to give the first.

Laura said...

Love this post. Thanks so much! Just wanted to say that for some reason I'm great at the one sentence "pitch" and the 50 word blurb for my novels, but not so great at the synopsis, getting better though.

One thing I thought I'd throw out there is that entering a contest really helped me learn how to blurb better. In one case, I was chosen for an honorable mention award and the generous judges blurbed my submission on the award. Very helpful to me in terms of learning how to summarize. And, it can be helpful if maybe you ask a critique group to blurb your book after reading it. Interesting to see what they see or pick up from the story.

Recently, I needed to send 2 page synopsis to a contest for one of my novels. This was excruciating for me, but in the writing the focus of my ending became clearer.

So, it's great to get better at summarizing my work because I've learned so much in the process.

Happy Mardi Gras!

Mark Terry said...

Over the years I've interviewed dozens of authors, some of them bestselling authors. Here's something I've really noticed: the bestsellers have given some thought to how to talk about their book.

David Morrell was great because he had a one to two sentence pitch, then he said, "And I've got a longer one, in case you want that." I said I wanted to hear it and he gave it. In other words, David was prepared to provide an elevator pitch or a longer, more detailed pitch. He'd spent time on it. He'd written them down, worked on them, and thought about when and how to provide them.

A month or so ago I talked to a fairly new author, interviewed him, and asked the standard, "What's your book about?" question. The guy rambled and rambled and rambled. I don't doubt it's a pretty good book, but as someone basically doing him a favor (I write profiles for this particular pub as a volunteer, it's a give-back kind of deal), I was getting annoyed. Because he was making my job harder.

SO: make your agent, editor, publicist, media people's lives easier.

Martin Willoughby said...

Words fail me, bur for the sake of a comment I'll say this: These are the best reasons for doing queries yourself.

I'm a convert and now fear it far less.

Kristi said...

Overall, I agree that queries are challenging; however, I think that if you cannot distill the essence of your book into a short paragraph, then it actually might reflect more of a problem with the book itself rather than the query.

Speaking of queries, Nathan...any plans to do any more query critiques in the near future? Just wondering and thanks again for your time in blogging for us.

Stuart Neville said...

I don't know what anyone else's experience in this is, but I wrote the jacket copy for my book. The idea of anyone else doing was never raised by me or my publisher. They just asked for a summary, and that was that. It's on the back of the ARCs I just received today.

Scott said...

I always summarize my story as I go. It keeps me on point, and the more I do it, the better I get. In fact, when I get the initial idea, I lay it out in a blurb and see how it feels; kind of a sketch before digging into the clay.

Don't put it off, folks. Do it from the beginning and your story will thank you for it.

benodect v. 1. to genuflect before something supremely good or beautiful, often impulsively.

Rick Chesler said...

The ability to encapsulate your novel in various short forms (blurbs, pitches, loglines, synopses, storyboards, etc...) is indispensible. Helps to have a 1-liner, a 1-paragraph, and a 1-page description always ready to go.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'll say it until I'm blue: write your tag line and query BEFORE you write your book!!! Makes the whole thing much easier!

Karen said...

This was VERY helpful -- thank you. Suddenly I realize why it's important for me to ALWAYS have the quick and hooking synopsis in my mind. I can't think of how many times someone asked me, "What's your book about?" and my answer is, "Well . . um . . er . . ." Not so good.

Lupina said...

Lupina is an aging hippie whose 250,000 word novel on a hermaphroditic genius is about to be mass-marketed. But when every copywriter and PR person at her publisher's is killed by a hot-air balloon explosion at the corner Starbuck's, she must blurb alone. Her Nicorette-chewing, neo-minimalist editor locks her into a basement ladies room with a laptop,
a coffee pot and a refrigerator filled with Bento Boxes, and gives her 24 hours to create a scintillating summary or forfeit her contract. Lupina grapples with blurber's block, dyspepsia, and a semi-paralyzing brain hemorrhage as she fights the clock, giant sewer rats and a lecherous third shift janitor in her sweat-soaked quest for 200 perfect words.

Sorry, that just came out.

Eric said...

To quote one of my old professors:

"There is no thinking except in the writing. There is no writing except in the rewriting."

This applies, I think, to everything: poetry, novels, query letters. You write and rewrite until it is right.

Roland said...

As a writer about to delve into self-publishing, I've sobered to the fact that I haven't escaped the synopsis by a long shot. Instead of thinking about how to pitch to agents and publishers I'm losing sleep over how to pitch directly to the readers on Amazon, how to pitch to blogs that review books, what to put on the jacket, basically how to sell the book all by myself because I'm my own marketing department.

Anita said...

I love this post. Not only am I regularly asked about the book I'm trying to get published, but also about the gazillion books I recommend in my column. I can now describe any book I've read in about 10 seconds flat, with enough detail to impress on particular readers an idea about whether they'd enjoy the book.

Jen said...

Nathan, regarding your new submission process - I am assuming that including the first 5 pages does NOT negate the need for a well-written query?

How likely are you to ask for a partial on a really crappy query if the first couple of pages are OK?

Fellow writers -

Gosh, so much stress over so few words!

Perhaps what would help if you are having trouble would be to start learning other forms of writing. Try doing essays, articles and the like. Because you haven't encountered difficult until you've written 10 x 800 word articles on vacuum cleaners in one day. True story!

Mira said...

Lupina, that was funny.

I want to do one.
-------------------------------

The gunman's hand was steady. The expression on his face was stony. The resolve in his right eye was steely.

On the other hand, the wild, crazed, lunacy in his left eye was spooky.

"Do it," he waved the gun in her face. "Write it. Write that query now."

He took a drag on his cigarette. "Write it good, baby. Write it hard, and write it fast. Pound it, baby. Pound it out for me."

He stopped. His steely eye blinked. Then his spooky eye blinked. "Make me forget any query but this one, baby."

He raised his gun. "And if you don't, you can kiss that book of yours good-bye. Capice?"

------------------------------

Okay that's all I got. But, in my defense, I'm really not very good at writing romance.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dorinda Ohnstad said...

I think it comes down to the fact a lot of writers don't see marketing as part of their responsibilities. Query letters, and the other situations pointed out by Jeff Abbott are ultimately just marketing your work. The sooner that writers understand marketing is part of their job description as an author, the better. The query letter then becomes a welcome tool in that direction.

Colorado Writer said...

Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

Anne said...

Wow. I had no idea so many people have this much difficulty. I have to say, it's nice to know I'm not the only writer guilty of an 'ummm...' when asked what her book is about!

Dawn said...

I'm shocked, but that last example of someone finding out I write and asking me about my work has happened. I found myself hesitating and stumbling in trying to describe one manuscript and outright embarrassed by the subject of my second one. I enjoyed writing them; I love them; they're my babies, but I fell short of being excited and confident when explaining them to a stranger.

Chris said...

For what it's worth:

I found that Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT has a section that has been extremely helpful for me when it comes to summarizing the book. For the record, I find it's helpful to write the summary before I even write my outline, so I know where I'm going. Sure, the summary may change as I write, but then I can revise the summary to keep up.

Of course, I still haven't ever had a query that resulted in published fiction, so what do I know?

Patti said...

Touché

Arjay said...

I'd take a shot at every one of those PR encounters. Sounds like a great opportunity and fun at the same time.

jimnduncan said...

Oh, how true that is. Nice post, Nathan. And...as today is the release day of my wife's lovely debut paranormal romance, A Taste of Magic, I shall shamelessly plug away here for here, and encourage all to go check out the book at her author site:

www.tracymadison.com

Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Even unpublished authors find themselves in situations where they must provide quick summaries - beyond the query letter and a formal pitch. It happened to me at a dinner at a regional conference. An agent asked me what my book was about. I was glad I'd prepared an elevator pitch (and yes, I got a request).

When you get a call offering representation, the agent will likely ask you about the next book. Again, you need a short blurb.

After you sign, you may need to provide a short synopsis for one or more proposed follow-up books and a bio as part of the submission package. Trust me, you'll be glad you've honed those query/synopsis skills.

terryd said...

Thanks for this post, Nathan. Perfect timing.

My agent asked me to write a 1-2 paragraph summary of my novel, and I managed to write it today.

Anonymous said...

You spend lots time defending your profession. Stand on mountain top and receive the existential cries of a world gone mad. SAVE US from this humdrum you cannibal of capital! Make us free!

Vic said...

Hi Nathan,

I've followed the discussion about query letters with interest. I appreciate your point about query letters being just another skill we need to acquire, however it is my belief that more people than agents realise are getting help (paid or otherwise) with their query letters - despite claims to the contrary.

So I guess I'm wondering in your opinion how many query letters end up being a true reflection of the work?

I'm also curious (and I can't believe no one else has asked...) you mention that the new system is 'soooo much better for you as well'; I'm wondering why? Have any of your decisions to reject/ask for a partial changed based on seeing the actual opening five pages with the query letter?

Do you believe the query quality still reflects the quality of the work, even when you do see the sample pages?

Cheers,
Vic.

Anonymous said...

Fear of the reasoning behind the rejection,fear of the unknown, to me it's easy to see why the stress, especially for an new "author". I have never started a new job and been expected to know exactly how to do every aspect of it. Heck,we even have to be told not only where the bathroom is, but at some jobs when we are allowed to use it. Marketing myself as an author was a learned skill, not a knowledge I was born with. The more you are exposed to publicity the better you handle yourself. I can remember stumbling over words, my confidence was learned. Dang, some people still make me nervous and stutter, but there are fewer and fewer that do. It was mentioned several times that everyone gets better with each query they write; of course they do. The stress comes with the knowledge that if you don't get that precious query right it can ruin your shot at the agent and it can be over in less than sixty seconds. Do you change your query not knowing the reason for the rejection or do you send it out again, maybe it just wasn't their cup of tea? Even more stress comes from reading the opinions of several different agents on what they are looking for; especially when you see a query bitten to shreds. I feel for new "authors" and Nathan I admire you for opening a door to them by allowing them to paste 5 pages with their letter. Maybe you will start a new trend.

Jo said...

I don't have problems writing queries. I've written dozens of them. What I can't figure out is which ones are any good. This one has my voice, but that one tells the story, and another defines the characters nicely. Getting it all in one query is what's killing me!

Anonymous said...

Jo,
If your like most people, what you can't figure out is which letter needs to go to which agent.

Aaron Stephens said...

A thought that comes to mind why writers have a problem with queries is the brevity of it.

Some might find it difficult to sum up a 100,000 manuscript in a one page letter. Practice makes perfect, though, when learning the process of query letters.

The query and pitches are just as important as the manuscript/novel. You can never leave your guard down when at parties, bookstores, or any place.

Great blog post, once again.

Newbee said...

I too was unable to post yesterday due to site issues. It felt like an early Christmas present to me...(or birthday, since that's closer) It was very exciting news! Thanks.

As far as summarizing the work and selling it, I'd say it is my strongest point. Marketing, looking at data, using the data for ways of improvement. All are right up my ally with twelve years of retail managment under my belt. I have won every sales contest I have ever been in and plan to keep it that way.

I got the story...it's in my head. (Well 108 pages are done) I just have to get the rest all down and it feels like it's going to take forever...(Still on just the first draft)...(sigh...) It's coming though.

Thanks for the post!
Jen

blooker said...

Problems like movie treatments, jacket quotes, and so on, I NEED!

Jinx said...

I look at the query letter as practice for all of the above. The more times I rewrite the query letter, the better it becomes. Eventually, I'll send more out.

Thanks for posting this! Good points, all of them.

Shruti said...

After you get a call from the publisher it's HURRAY!, but then starts the rollercoaster.

Lilly's Life said...

I agree, it's hard to effectively summarise any piece of writing, no matter what its purpose.

Strangely, I've always found lawyers to be particularly talented at this. People are time poor and need to be hit between the eyes to encourage them to delve further.

If only I could convince myself of the merits of brevity. I need a lot of practice to learn how to STOP. My blog posts are way too verbose. And show a measure of my problems. Interesting post, thank you. It will encourage me to try harder.

Anonymous said...

So the aim of the game here is to be popular at parties.

Well, that counts me out. Time to ditch this and take up gardening; at least I'd be good at being a (wall)flower.

terri said...

Sigh . . . lately summarizing is all I do. You see, I am a lawyer, currently defending our family company in an intellectual property lawsuit.

I have to reduce a mountain of case law and business documents into a 10 - 20 page cross-referenced document that starts with a two-paragraph 'statement of the matter before the court'. Double-sigh. Reducing three years of litigation into two paragraphs. Also, all needs to be written in an interesting and engaging style to catch the eye of a very overworked and jaded clerk.

You think queries and partials are bad? How about having 100 legal briefs land in your inbox every day . . .

I think of every brief as the ultimate query. I need to impress and persuade an audience of one, the one with 'judge' in front of his name. Actually, make that two, because of that darned clerk. So, I think of the clerk as the agent and judge as the publisher. Gotta impress the clerk first because the judge often follows their advice.

The ultimate flattery? Not just a decision in your favor, but when the judge/clerk team lifts big chunks of your brief to include in their written opinion. So far, I am a much better writer than my opponent and the decisions have all gone my way.

verify word? 'erstes'

Sounds vaguely legal, but then everything does to me these days.

Marjory Bancroft said...

Nathan and all,

Hate to eat my words in a national forum, but eat them I must.

I always said writing and queries/synopsises are separate skill sets. Then recently I learned here about authonomy.

Nathan, gloat away. I have studied authonomy and guess what. The quality of the blurbs posted there is directly related to the quality of the mss. No question.

I hate it when empirical evidence proves me wrong. The bottom line is that while these are separate skills sets to some degree (a novelist is not a copywriter) they are overlapping skills sets and Nathan's right. We're stuck with this. We HAVE to do it.

Bottom line I guess: practice, practice, practice. Think of writing as the symphony, and queries or synopses as arpeggios and scales. No fun, but fundamental. The payoff is enhanced technique and calibration--ending in sales.

We hope.

GuyStewart/DISCOVERCHURCH said...

*wild cheering from my stands*

Roland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roland said...

I always wonder how someone like Larry McMurtry or David Sedaris approach the summary when their books are more character-driven than plot-driven. Even tougher, how do you sell a highly thematic work like a novel by William Vollman?

A lot of the sample queries I see online are for genre fiction. It's much easier to summarize, say, Salem's Lot than The Ice Shirt.

How would McMurtry have queried Terms of Endearment if he wasn't already a best seller?

I'm sure the authors listed never had a problem, but you have to admit that their books don't really fit neatly into the query formula Nathan provides here.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Bradsferd,

Hi my name is William Faulkner and I work nights at some stoopid job. I wrote a book about this crazy hick family who has a mommy that dies and then they go on a wacky adventure trying to bury her stinky corpse. I am soooo existential it would blow your mind. I write in big words small sentences. Eat shit and die.

Taire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ego said...

I'm late as always. Wrong timezone.

Writing short stories to a word limit - usually 2200 - is great practice for query writing. It forces you to be pithy and concise.

It's great practice for novel editing too - if you HAD to remove a quarter of the words from your novel, would you miss them?

For those of you who hate writing queries I suggest trying a short story. An added benefit; you will have completed something. Your confidence will be boosted, and you can try to sell the story, or send it to those idly curious friends who would never finish your novel.

Roland said...

Just to emphasis my point:

Aurora is the kind of woman who makes the whole world orbit around her, including a string of devoted suitors. Widowed and overprotective of her daughter, Aurora adapts at her own pace until life sends two enormous challenges her way: Emma's hasty marriage and subsequent battle with cancer.

They had to toss Emma's cancer into the synopsis to make it more dramatic even though it's not an integral part of the book (the first lump is discovered in the last 20 pages... the cancer is basically the surprise ending).

Now, I think that's a pretty good summary of Terms of Endearment, and it's on the book jacket so you have to assume that McMurtry had some part in it. But if he was an unpublished writer and that's the only synopsis he gave in his query, would that be a form rejection? Be honest.

Julie Butcher-Fedynich said...

ROFL...naked Kindle

Hahaha my verification word is defib- laughed so hard I must have had a heart attack.

JohnO said...

Bravo again, Nathan. Thanks for showing us just-a-novelists why we have to go out and promote.

Jean Reidy said...

So true, Nathan. Another terrific writing exercise for summarizing your work is answering interview questions. Practice interviews with creative questioning (I had a creative crit buddy make-up sample questions for me)forced me to think about and summarize my books for a variety of audiences and from several different directions.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with the premise that writing good summaries and writing good novels should reflect good writing skills in equal ammounts.

Case in point:

I hired a freelance editor to edit my first novel. It was deemed amazing, promptly passed to a very reputable agent in Hudson, New York, and I landed this agent without ever writing a query letter. Wow. I was stunned.

Now, since my first novel is part of a five-book series, after I landed this agent, I had to write a summary for every novel in the bunch so I could pass them along to publishing editors and help my agent sell the darn thing.

I wrote four different series summaries and I hated every single one of them--they were terrible!
While I didn't need editing help with my novel, I definitely needed help creating good summaries. I literally had to sit down, talk the ear off my freelance editor, and then together, we created the series outline.

Furthermore, it took a team effort to create the query letter to send to publishing editors! Seriously, this process took three freakin weeks! We just finished today so started reading through the blog postings I missed while I was going through this process. When I stumbled across this one, I just had to throw my two-cents in.

My advice to anyone that's having trouble summarizing their novel is to get help! There's no doubt in my mind that you can write a good novel and fail to write a good query letter--especially if you've created a complicated series, a complicated world, a complicated tangle of character conflict, and every little thing in the series needs a complicated explanation!

It happens! Heck, it happened to me! If I had no choice but to query agents, I probably wouldn't have gotten past the query letter gate.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

It sounds to me like you didn't lack ability, just practice.

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