The Query Letter and the Synopsis—What Makes Them Effective (and Why Writers Hate Them!)

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

I recently attended the PNWA Writers Conference as one of the official “book doctors,” and the one common denominator that each author remarked on was how much they hated writing their synopsis. (By the way, a good time was had by all at the conference. And most importantly, the continental breakfast served every morning at the conference center was ­deeeee-lish!) We didn’t even get into the query letter, but most clients I work with moan and groan about that one too. I’ve mentioned the basics of the query letter before, but considering the ire and angst this letter and the synopsis often bring, I felt it was a topic worth revisiting in more detail.

As everyone who is serious about getting published knows, the query letter can make or break you. Is this fair? No. Is it reality? Yes. I have probably read thousands of query letters and synopses over the years (OK, some of the synopses I just skimmed as my eyes would glaze over after the fifth single-spaced page. More on that later.). So I feel that I am a bit of an authority on the basics. So here are they are: begin by giving the title, word count, genre (literary, memoir, historical adventure, suspense novel, vampire sci-fi Scottish romance), and a succinct sell line describing the novel. After that, give a paragraph or two (short!) about the plot and then wrap it up. Give a sense of tone and character, as appropriate. End with a paragraph detailing your education, your profession (But only if it improves your platform. In other words, include the fact that you’re an attorney if you’ve written a legal thriller, but there’s no need to mention that you’ve stocked shelves at Wal-Mart for ten years. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it doesn’t bolster your platform unless you’ve written a non-fiction whistle blowing account of the horrors of Wal-Mart’s flogging of employees.), and related, past writing experience. Do not tell the agent that you have fifteen other completed manuscripts sitting on your shelf. This does not show you are dedicated to the craft, it screams, “I can’t sell a novel!”

And remember, you are selling your novel in the query letter. So you want to give an overview, not every single plot point. But on the other hand, you don’t want to be so vague that you only have lines such as, “This novel of love and loss follows one woman as she confronts her demons, memories, and a past she cannot escape.” This says nothing specific and could be the query letter for hundreds of books. Most importantly, you want your book to sound unique, different (have a hook), and most importantly, saleable! Think of the letter as a persuasive advertisement for your novel and for you, the author. End the letter by letting the agent know that the full manuscript is available and thanking them for their time and consideration.

In addition, I always recommend doing research on writing query letters. If you simply whip one out in a few minutes with a smug grin on your face, knowing that your novel is so fantastic that someone would be crazy not to read it and a query letter is just a formality—you know who you are, Mr. or Mrs. Know-It-All—you will inevitably blow it with agents. If an agent (or editor) isn’t intrigued by the letter, he or she will not read one single word of your life’s work. No matter how good the manuscript is, an agent will not turn to page one if the query letter doesn’t speak to them. Period. Agents and editors are simply too busy. So do your research and make it count. Edit, revise, get opinions, and then send it out. And don’t forget to spell check and address your query to the right person—you don’t want to send your memoir to an agent who specializes in historical paranormals...unless you really are a time traveling Irish fairy.

Now then, the synopsis—the bane of an author’s existence. Yes, they are hard to write and keep to one page (Sometimes, agents allow two pages. I recommend having both versions.). Yes, one page! How can I possibly condense my incredible novel into one page? Too much happens! It’s too brilliant to possibly explain in only a few lines. Perhaps if I could schedule a thirty-minute presentation in person with the agent, I could properly describe the opus. Trust me, I know how hard it is. I wrote jacket copy for almost ten years.

Remember that a synopsis is essential so that an agent can know the full plot without having to read all four hundred pages. So you must learn how to break your book down. It’s good practice for pitches at conferences as well. The most important thing to remember is that in a synopsis, you are not selling your book—that’s what the query letter is for. The synopsis is a plot breakdown with details. Details. Did I say details? Details! You’re describing the book scene-by-scene. OK, scene-by-important-scene. You don’t need to include the going to the bathroom, walking down the street, thinking about life scenes. Focus on the “moving the book along” plot points. Name characters, include action, and always tell how it ends. There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a detailed synopsis, only to have the author end with the line, “And finally, the main character discovers the secret to the mystery and who the murderer is.” Aaarghhhh...was it Colonel Mustard with the wrench in the library or Professor Plum with the rope in the kitchen? I must know!

To summarize—as in a query letter, not a synopsis—you are selling the book in the letter. Give the pertinent plot details, of course, but also include a powerful, succinct overview and sell line. The synopsis is comprised of specific, scene-by-scene plot points. The synopsis is not an overview—it’s all about the details. Yes, creating these two items can be very challenging, but as Charles Caleb Colton, the oft-quoted English writer, said, “To write is what is worth publishing, to find honest people to publish it, and get sensible people to read it, are the three great difficulties of being an author.”

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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