How’s Your Writing Going?

When I was 25, I met a friend for coffee on one of her infrequent visits home. After being inseparable as kids, we eventually drifted into our different lives. Hers seemed glamorous to me: she’s a debutante who attended an Ivy League school, then traveled abroad to pursue other degrees. She drives the most expensive sports cars and vacations all over the world. When she called and told me she was in town, I couldn’t turn down the chance to catch up with her.

I knew we wouldn’t be able to meet long because my 11-month-old son would be up from his nap soon. I was so happy to see her – and impressed with myself for losing all my baby weight and then some – that I never thought how plain I would look in my jeans and t-shirt next to her designer outfit. I never thought she’d care to know what I’d been up to. What was there to say? I’m a mom. After catching her up on baby news (which doesn’t take long when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have kids), she asked about my writing.

Writing? What writing? Oh, wait, you mean how I thought getting a degree in English would set me on the path to bestseller-dom? While I kept up with my daily journal, my fiction had gone the way of the dinosaur. I wouldn’t call it a slump. It was just that I was busy and happy not writing. After I missed the “published author” mile marker on the highway of my life, I moved on to “starting a family” and didn’t look back. Yes, I still wrote, but it wasn’t the kind of writing that kept me up at night.

And that was so not how I had envisioned my life – to be unpublished and happy. By the time I was 13, I knew that I wanted to make a living writing novels. I had no inclination to get a regular job and write after hours. I wanted to provide for my family through my books. And I was naive enough to think that I could go to college and get an English degree, and somehow, I would be in that perfect position to fulfill my dream.

Here’s what I often imagined: a home office overlooking a fenced-in backyard, where my future, well-adjusted children would run around and play, allowing me to work in peace. And then we would go out for ice cream and a movie, and we would take vacations whenever we wanted, and if my husband decided to get a job, it would just be because he wanted to, not because we were dependent on his salary.

Obviously, I had no idea what being a parent or an adult is really like, much less how the publishing world works.

But by 25, I was well aware of the perils of the publishing world. I’d already received rejections from literary agents. I’d even gone through a period when I thought maybe I couldn’t write. Maybe I would just be an editor, but I got over that when I realized that I simply hadn’t found my voice yet. After I did, I found joy in writing again. But I still had nothing to show for it, other than the title of “Editor-in-Chief” for a fledgling literary journal.

My entire writing “career” has been full of these ups and downs. I do actually make money as a writer, but it’s certainly not enough to buy us the house with the big yard and to keep my husband from having to work. It’s my lack of steady employment that makes him have to work so hard to pick up my slack. Part of me wishes that I’d gone to work for a newspaper or local magazine or even a small publisher. I would be able to carry more of the financial load, although that’s not at all the kind of writing that feeds my soul.

Yet despite being married to a starving artist, my husband believes in me. That doesn’t mean he thinks I’ll make millions, but he’s always my first reader, and even though he protests that he never knows what to say, I can always trust him for an honest opinion. The book that I’m shopping around right now is the best thing I’ve ever written, but just because it’s the best thing I’ve produced to this point doesn’t mean it’s perfect – or anywhere close to the best thing out there.

Amidst editing and querying and doing a whole lot of work that could amount to a lot of nothing, I finally asked him if I should even bother. I’d been gearing myself up to ask for several days. He loves me, but he’s not afraid to give me the painful truth. He told me it’s a good story, and he wants me to get recognition for it (although that in no way guarantees anything about getting it published).

Then he asked me if I would quit writing, even if it wasn’t any good.

While I would certainly quit wasting both my and the literary agents’ time by querying, I would never quit writing because it’s my outlet.

I still have that dream of making a living as a novelist. I still want to have a positive answer when I meet with a friend for coffee. If she were to ask me this week how my writing is going, my answer is that it’s great. I’m editing a story I love and that I know has potential. It still needs work, but maybe someday…

Here’s a quote from Sylvia Plath that I found earlier this week:

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

I have the guts and the imagination, but I also have self-doubt. It’s what made me ask my husband if all this was worth the effort. It’s what makes me cringe when someone looks at me expectantly, like, “Well, you wrote a novel, why isn’t it in bookstores yet?” I think self-doubt is healthy because it makes us look honestly at ourselves. It’s only harmful when it turns into a loss of confidence; then it’s apparent in your writing and your outlook and can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. What self-doubt should do is help us re-evaluate our goals and adjust them to be realistic.

I think the enemy of creativity is really regret. Getting to a certain point and wishing you hadn’t done what you’d done. While I sometimes wish I’d done something to augment my position, I certainly have never regretted writing. If my stories never see the light of day, at least I was happy creating them.

***

Before you go away thinking that my sweet friend didn’t understand me at all and didn’t care about my life, let me tell you her response to my lack of stellar news. She said, “But you’re a mom.”

She said it with admiration and almost reverence. Yeah, I’m a mom. And quite often a writer mom. Like I said, no regrets.

Just When I Thought I Was Done…

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time!           –C.K. Webb

 

English: Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 o...

Editing (manuscript fragment from chapter 14 of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man/photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

You guessed it. In the midst of querying, when I’m supposed to be done editing, I’m still editing. As a friend once told me (and I’ve heard it echoed by numerous other writers), you will always find something you want to fix with your manuscript.

I thought I was done; truly, I did. After all, I put my novel through a lot. Before I let anyone lay eyes on it, I edited out the embarrassing first draft kind of garbage that no one needs to see. Then I distributed it to beta readers. The feedback was incredible, allowing me to make more much-needed changes.

Amidst these changes, I signed up for a workshop with a team of literary agents, in which I had the opportunity to really work on the first 10 pages. After all, the first 10 pages may be all anyone ever sees if they don’t compel people to keep reading.

So I got my criticism, swallowed it even though it tasted bad, and I changed my book some more. One comment was that my manuscript was much too long, so I cut over 30,000 words. With a new ending and lots of proofreading under my belt, I figured I should quit procrastinating and start querying.

Nowadays, the majority of literary agents ask for a sample of the manuscript. The most common request I’ve seen is for the first 10 pages, although the odd agent wants 20 or the first three chapters. (Some even ask for the entire manuscript, bless their hearts.) The theme seems to be that they want to see a significant enough chunk to get a good feel for how the rest of the book will (or won’t) flow.

I was a little stumped when I found an agent who only asked for the first chapter. After I cut and pasted that one lonely chapter into my e-mail query, I realized that it wasn’t an adequate representation of my story. Without the next few pages to go with it, the pacing was too slow, and it ended in a bad place. I had edited it down from a much longer first chapter. Also, when I was concentrating on 10 pages, I didn’t pay much attention to how the first chapter ended because the first 10 pages went well into chapter two. I should have made sure that chapter one had an enticing ending. You know what the last word of that chapter was? “Okay.” Which is not okay, unless you’re John Green.

Thus began revision number four.

A couple years ago, while querying a different novel, I decided that I would make absolutely no changes (unless I found a typo) on my manuscript during the querying phase. I sent out 10 at a time, and it wasn’t until after each round of rejections that I looked over my query letter and manuscript for ways to improve.

This time, I’m making corrections as I go. Never have I made so many changes from one query to the next. If an agent happens to like the version of my book with an anticlimactic ending to the first chapter, I have that version saved. But I’m not going with the status quo anymore. I will not sit around and say, “Oh, it can wait.” It could be that the agent who’s right for me is the next one I query, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to send a chunk of my book that I know I can improve.

Painful? Yes. And I love editing. But it’s hard to think, I’ve done all I can do, only to look back and see that you didn’t.

This likely means more drastic cuts for my book. I’ve already come to the realization that I may have to trim it by another 10,000 words-plus in order for anyone to even give it a serious look. Do I think the word count alone should be the deciding factor over whether my manuscript it rejected or accepted? Absolutely not. (And I’ve climbed on that soapbox before.) But I also think that it would be a mistake to grow complacent.

So it’s time to continue cutting, revising, and searching. The right agent is out there, I know it. It will just take a more vigilant search than last time, and I have to be willing to do my part to earn a contract.

How to Choose Your Future Literary Agent

I wish it were as easy as reading a list of potential agents and picking out your favorite. Unfortunately, the agent has to pick you back. But if that happy day of acceptance ever does come, you don’t want to have that sinking feeling that of all the agents you queried, this really wasn’t the one you wanted. You want to be excited about everyone you’re querying, and it’s a lot easier to achieve this goal now than ever before.

Back when I first started querying, it was a lot harder to research potential agents because many of the agencies didn’t have websites. I would buy a copy of Writer’s Market and look for the agents that were interested in young adult, juvenile, or children’s lit (middle grade didn’t even exist back then). Some of the well-known agencies listed their big-name clients, although most didn’t. And often the list of agents was far from complete. I would just have to take a stab at it, with no idea if my story was at all appropriate for the person I picked. Those days, I figured that if I stirred up any kind of interest, I would be happy and call it a day with my search.

I think that’s why I was so eager to sign on with my former scammer agent. I never considered that an agent might not be right for me. But after ditching the scammer and looking for legitimate representation again, I decided that I might want to research the next steps. If I were to luck out and land a real agent, what would I expect? What I found kind of surprised me. Not about the publication process but about the courting process.

You see, rarely does an agent send a “Sign on the dotted line – I’ll represent you, and we’ll make millions!” response to a query. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened (although if it does, beware). I’m just saying that an agent may want to see more of your manuscript but then get cold feet. Or – Lord help us – several agents may be interested, and then you’re faced with the daunting job of choosing. Although a positive response is a great alternative to an outright rejection, it doesn’t mean you’re done with the querying process. Only now, the ball’s in your court. It may turn out that only one of these people you thought you liked is really the right fit. It might be that you don’t like any of them and have to keep looking. Kind of depressing, but you don’t want the wrong person representing the fictional world you’ve worked so hard to create.

If you’re building a list of agents to query, the tools are out there to help you find a great match, and I’m going to give you a couple examples of how I’ve used this information to narrow my search. I am strictly giving my opinions of the following agencies. What looks good to me may look horrible to you, but I’ll try to explain as best I can, so you can make an equally informed decision.

First, check out The Bent Agency’s website (click here). Simple but appealing (to me, at least) with bright colors and a stack of books. But the copy is what shines; it certainly sounds as if they’re enthusiastic about their authors. And not only that – enthusiastic for submissions, too. Each agent has her or his own page, and of all the sites I’ve checked out recently, these have the most personable bios. I know exactly which of these agents I would like to have a cup of coffee with. One even has an invitation to her blog. These aren’t people sitting in a tower, looking down on the masses of unpublished wannabes. They’re real people, and they’re not afraid to mingle with us other real folks.

Contrast this with Sterling Lord Literistic (click here). Sterling Lord is the actual name of one of the agents. His parents must have known he would go on to have an agency that would represent the likes of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, not to mention famous children’s books, such as Corduroy, The Berenstain Bears, and Fancy Nancy. SLL has a gorgeous website. It screams, “Professional! We know what we’re doing! We’ve spent big bucks on our marketing, and you’ll see why when you read our author list!”, but it can also be a little off-putting. From their submissions page: “Sterling Lord Literistic is highly selective in offering representation to writers. We receive an extraordinarily large number of unsolicited submissions and can seriously consider only those with merit.” Sounds kind of like, “You’d better think twice before you waste our time.”

Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Maybe I was also a little bit rejected by them two years ago. (But I do give them props for actually mailing my rejection via SASE rather than making me guess.) That didn’t stop me from looking at them again. After all, they have new agents on staff, and if you’re seriously looking for an agent, then you know that your best bet to get your foot in the door is usually with an agent who is trying to build his or her client list.

The problem is that while The Bent Agency’s list of agents made me feel all cozy and warm and encouraged, the deeper I looked into Sterling Lord Literistic, the more I realized I was out of my league. Sure, to be represented by them would be amazing, but none of their bios really spoke to me. I may be able to put on a good front, but I’ll always feel like a toddler walking in my mom’s big-girl shoes with these kinds of people. Maybe they speak to other authors who will go on to sell millions of books, but not this girl.

I would still love to sell millions of books, by the way, but if I ever do, I want my agent to be someone that I feel I can be myself with. It’s one of those trust your gut instinct kinds of things, and I’m at the point where I don’t want to waste my time querying someone who doesn’t excite me.

So I’m being picky. I’m using the internet as a tool to delve deeper and deeper and find the agents with whom I hope to connect. (I’m also vetting them on Preditors & Editors – don’t worry! Do yourself a favor, and always check reviews of literary agents before querying them.) Instead of looking for agencies that sell big name authors, I’m looking at agents who are enthusiastic about what I write. I’m looking at agents who are maybe a little quirky and have a sense of humor and who don’t know exactly what they want because they’re willing to have their minds blown by something totally unexpected. (Not saying that’ll be my story, but I do like that kind of agent.) I’m looking for agencies who take a chance on new authors that I’ve never heard of before. Who knows – maybe one day I’ll be one of those authors.

It’s liberating to feel that I have this choice. It’s also nerve-wracking and scary to put myself out there and not know if what I’ve done is good enough. But it makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing for my story, which at the end of the day, is finding someone who cares about it as much as I do. For everyone who is looking for representation, I suggest that you settle for nothing less.

For a great place to start, check out Writer’s Digest‘s Editor Blogs/Guide to Literary Agents (click here). You’ll find all kinds of helpful articles, as well as the bios and submission info for new literary agents.

It’s Query Time

Sometime between 2004 (when I first started querying literary agents) and now, there have been drastic changes in the publishing industry. When I first started, e-queries were a no-no. In fact, they were hardly mentioned on agents’ websites (if they had websites). I snail mailed every query with an SASE, which I wasn’t guaranteed to see for months, if at all (which always drove me nuts – I paid for the stamp, so please send it back). Very few agents accepted simultaneous submissions, and every query how-to that I read stressed the author bio part. Like the more creditability you have, the better your chance of landing an agent. So if you’re unpublished, good luck.

For a while, I didn’t change anything about the way I queried. I took time off to have a baby. Then I wasted almost two years with a scam artist for an agent (read about that here). After that, I didn’t much care for agents for a while and quit looking.

Then I immersed myself in the world of e-publishing – writing articles online for people I’ll never meet in person, publishing e-books that will never be printed. I felt up to braving the sea of rejections again and began researching query letters, figuring that I had to do something different than before.

Lo and behold, many of the “standards” of query submission from ten-plus years ago are now the exception rather than the rule. Most agents prefer e-mail submissions, and only a handful ask for exclusive submissions. In fact, more than one agent I’ve read about has said exclusive submissions are ridiculous because you could easily spend years and never get anywhere. Well, I’ve been there and done that.

With all this talk about querying, you can guess what I’ve been up to lately. Yep, I finished editing my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel (again), and I began looking into agents this week. Querying is one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the agents and imagining how great it would be to work with this or that one. Except that imagining is as far as it’s ever gone. (The scammer that I had met exactly zero of my expectations, but I was so enthralled with the idea that I HAVE AN AGENT that I kind of pushed all that aside.)

As I’ve heard various agents say numerous times, it’s not the query that wins the contract but the book. The problem is, of course, that if you bomb on the query, your book may never even get a cursory glance. So I’ve always felt that pressure to write the perfect query letter. I’ve done my best to make them personal. But not only did I have exactly zero positive responses last time I queried (no surprise), I didn’t even get responses from the majority of them. One was an agent with whom I’d worked before. I queried her twice. Nada.

So this time, after stressing more than I should have about what to write and how to write it (and coming up with a great hook but forgetting to write it down), I went online to brush up on Query Writing 101. There are more good resources out there than I can count. Many of them agree on the basics (like the order of the paragraphs doesn’t matter, but when you do talk about your story, it better have a great hook), and they usually give examples of both good and bad queries. The bad ones are great (read one here). Not only will you laugh at the sheer stupidity of some writers, but the number of real, terrible queries gives me hope that one of these days, I may stand out from the masses.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many good queries you read, you can’t just switch out the words that apply to your book and call it good. Every writer and every story is different. I remember feeling hopeful when I read Stephen King’s On Writing because he uses a great query example, but I could never make that format work for me.

The absolute best resource I have found for writing queries is in literary agent Mary Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the writing process for middle grade and young adult writers. But as an agent herself, Kole does her readers a favor and devotes an entire chapter to query do’s and don’t’s. She also gives an example of a real query letter that worked, with lots of commentary about why.

The part that helped me the most is the section in which she boils down how to write the novel summary by answering five questions. I’ve done this exercise with two novels now, and not only does it show where your story has holes (if you can’t answer the questions easily), but it also gives you an easy way to summarize and not go on for pages and pages. Even if you don’t write kidlit, I would recommend this book just for the query chapter.

So I wrote a basic query for my novel that I will customize according to the agents I choose. I cannot stress enough that reading submission guidelines is an absolute must. Not only do you want to make sure you send exactly what the agent wants, but sometimes one agency may want you to include something in your query that you haven’t used before. This happened on my latest query. The agency wants to know why I’m the best writer for this book. It gave me the opportunity (although a very brief one) to explain how my story came to me.

It also seems that literary agents are less concerned with your credentials (for instance, some say that you should minimize publications that aren’t related to what you’re querying). Of course, if you’ve won an award, that’s always good information to have on your side. What they would rather hear is that you have a good grasp of your market. Although they don’t come out and say it, I believe this is because writers are expected to do more marketing than ever before. And if you don’t know your audience and what they like to read, you have little chance of selling your novel.

At the same time, it’s an absolute no-no to write a wizard book and then send a query saying you’re the J.K. Rowling of the next generation. I scanned my bookshelves and was surprised to find a number of non-Harry Potter books that had elements similar to my own story. My husband even made a great suggestion about a book with a character who shares some of my protagonist’s strengths. More than ever, the idea that you need to read voraciously in order to write is very important.

So that’s what I’m going to do: read, write, edit… and query. Wish me luck!

Haunted by My Story

November is so close it’s almost scary.

It was just a few weeks ago that I was surprised by October’s arrival, so how could I let November sneak up on me, too? Lots of important things happen in November: Thanksgiving; Christmas shopping; several important birthdays, including my elder son’s; two clients’ book projects are due; a slew of writing assignments for a new client…

And the month-long time-gobbler that is both daunting and exciting, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Last year, I participated for the first time, and I will say again and keep on saying that it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. In fact, I think it’s the best writing I’ve ever produced.

The goal this year is to at least match the enthusiasm and success of last year – or surpass it.

For the early part of this year, I wasn’t worried about NaNoWriMo 2014 because I was still finishing my 2013 novel. In early July, I produced 10 copies for beta readers. And then what typically happens when I’m busy with one project – I had a great idea for a new novel.

If you keep up with my blog, you’ll know that I decided to hold off writing, saving that new story for NaNoWriMo this year. But as my beta readers started giving me their critiques on my 2013 NaNo novel, I realized I wanted to edit it and write the sequel for NaNo this year. (And don’t worry about my new novel idea – I wrote a few important scenes and took plenty of notes for when I’m ready to start up with it again.)

I figured that it would be easy to edit last year’s book by October and even start querying literary agents again, saying, And if you like this, I’ll be working on the sequel in November.

Except that if today is the corner, then November is right around it, and I’m not done editing the first book yet.

Forget agents – I’ve got to finish this book in order to be able to properly start the next one. There’s nothing that says I absolutely have to start with the opening scene. If I feel like it, I can start with the last one (and yes, I already know what it will be – a cliffhanger leading up to book three, hee-hee). But I so want to start with confidence. That, and I don’t want a lot of editing to slow me down. 50,000 words in one month is a lot. Granted, I wrote 80,000 last November, but they say that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, so…

If only I’d written the first book perfectly to start with, right? But that would make me a magician or a novel goddess or something, which I am not. Or if I am, someone forgot to tell the big publishing houses because I’m still waiting for my million-dollar advance.

Instead of dreaming about gross improbabilities (or impossibilities if I don’t get myself in gear), I need to do both stories justice. The ending of book one was so hard to nail, but talking with several of my beta readers helped cement what I need to do to make it more satisfactory, yet leave readers hungry for the sequel. Now I’ve just got to make that happen, so I can pick right up where I left off on book two. By Saturday.

Picture me biting all my fingernails at once.

So I’m posting a tad earlier than usual in order to fully immerse myself in last year’s novel, and I hope that the next time I crawl out of my writer’s hole to blink at the sun, I will have nothing but positive results. And since sharing goals is a great way to stay on track, here they are:

  • Finish editing book one (soon!)
  • Get it under 100,000 words (I still have 3400 to cut – eek!)
  • Write seamless transition from the first to the second book
  • Write 14,000 words by the end of November 7th

Like I said, it’s daunting and exciting. And did I mention terrifying and exhilarating? Time to go to bed so I can indulge in a few NaNo nightmares.

Happy writing!

Ditch the Prologue (For Now)

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

In January, I wrote about my quandary over whether I should keep the prologue of my middle grade novel or scrap it. (Read that post here.) At the time, I decided it could stay. After all, the very literary agent and author who brought this issue to my attention read the opening of my book and said it was a strong start. I figured it would be silly to mess with a sure thing.

Content with my decision, I honed my query letter to a quirky perfection and sent it out to the masses. I received rejections, which I expected. What discouraged me, however, was the number of agents who did not respond at all. It’s normal to a point, even for agents to throw away SASE’s, but even the agents who invited writers to query again if there was no response didn’t respond to my reminders.

It’s hard to face the truth sometimes, especially when it meant that the book I’d poured myself into for ten-plus years didn’t even merit a “no, thank you.” And I did everything I was supposed to, following submission guidelines to a T, never sending attachments, the whole bit. The only thing that left was the story itself: something had to be wrong with it.

I mulled over this issue a lot but felt too discouraged to sit down and make any more changes. And I’ve been busy, too. But while I’ve gone about my life, the whole prologue or not issue has continued to percolate. You see, when I first wrote the book, there was no prologue, so I should be able to go back and just cut it out, right?   But the thing my readers liked when I added the prologue was that is answered some of their questions while still keeping the characters in the dark. My problem became: if I go back to starting with Chapter One, how will I keep my readers happy? I don’t want to bog the story down with too much background information up front. Prologues are great for plunging readers into the world of the story. On the flip side, they’re notorious for hiding very tedious first chapters.

I’ve considered my favorite books and the methods their authors employ. Michael Crichton’s books often have introductions as well as prologues, sometimes involving characters that don’t appear at all in the greater book. They do pack an early punch, but he had a knack for introducing facts in a way that don’t interrupt the story. Now, I am no Michael Crichton, so I should probably not write a prologue just because he did.

Stephenie Meyer, author of The Twilight Saga Collection, also uses prologues, and although I love her books, I can see how her prologues are literary devices, meant to pull readers in. To be honest, I read them but immediately forgot about them. They are poor teasers that really do not add to the story.

When put in that light, I suppose prologues are somewhat expendable. Or even if they’re not, people may read them as such. I don’t want to turn off an agent by having the word “Prologue” at the beginning of my novel.   Which is where Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) comes in. Often, prologues pre-date the story with an important bit of backstory, so when this particular book opens ten years before the rest of the book, it could easily be labeled a prologue – yet author J.K. Rowling calls it “Chapter One” instead. This makes a difference, although it’s a subtle one: by calling it the first chapter, I think that Rowling makes a statement about how readers should approach the story. In essence, she says, “Listen up! The story is starting.”

Hmm… I wonder if this works on literary agents, too.

Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m going to simply change “Prologue” to “Chapter One” in my own book and have done with it. There are still some prologue-y things about it that need to change, which include making a smooth transition into the next chapter, along with spreading out any possible info dumping to make it more palatable. I have my work cut out for me. But after letting my novel sit so long, I think I am ready to make these difficult changes and send it out again. Maybe it will grab someone’s attention this time.

One of My Least Favorite Things

Rejection

Rejection (Photo credit: amanda farah)

I usually don’t procrastinate, unless it’s on a personal project with no hard deadline. Then I become a pro. Like querying literary agents. Yes, I finally did it (two rounds this year, actually), but I could have started a month earlier. I figured no one could reject me if I didn’t submit any queries. Once I made peace with the idea that my inbox would soon be filled with little pink slips, however, I got to work.

I didn’t submit willy-nilly, though. The agent has to be pretty enthusiastic about young adult lit (lukewarm doesn’t cut it), but even some agents that represent young adult aren’t interested in sci-fi or fantasy. After I went through my new copy of Writer’s Market, highlighting or crossing out, I went back and narrowed my list (checking every one on Preditors & Editors first – read why here). For the first round of submissions, I didn’t want to do a lot of work. Well, that’s not quite it. Writing a query is a lot of work, which is what last week’s post was all about. In one page, you have to introduce yourself, tell about your pertinent publishing history (if any), explain why you like the agent, and then say enough about your book to make an agent interested enough to ask for the rest of it. And just in case there’s some literary agent grapevine where they compare notes and giggle about the stupid mistakes authors make, I tried to make each query slightly different. I skipped over agencies that requested exclusive submissions. Those will go last because the response times can sometimes take months. I also skipped those who requested mailed submissions because, well, I was being lazy. And I temporarily ignored those pesky agencies that can’t live with a query and sample chapters, the ones who actually want a synopsis of the whole novel.

When it comes to writing, I’ll take a novel over a synopsis any day. There is little harder for me to do than cram a summary of my tens-of-thousands-of-words story into a tiny space – oh and by the way, make it catchy, too.

I knew I would have to do it eventually. As much as writing a synopsis is like pulling teeth, I didn’t want to take the chance of submitting to those agencies without one and offending them, nor did I want to avoid them altogether (and a potential, although not likely, sale). Besides, during the almost-two-year period when I contracted with a scammer agent, my first assignment was to write a synopsis, anyway. The scammer forwarded five articles with tips about synopsis writing. Even if the articles wouldn’t write the synopsis for me, I figured they would give me a clear direction. Ha.

The direction turned out to raise more questions than answers. Of the five articles, there were at least three different ideas about how to format a synopsis and the proper length. One stated that some people go by the rule of one page of synopsis for every twenty-five pages of manuscript –but went on to say that that’s probably too much for most agents and editors. (Questioning my agent didn’t help; she was absolutely clueless – didn’t the articles give me enough conclusive info? I should have started running, then.)

I did the best I could, and only after my synopsis was critiqued did I find out that my agent needed it to be under two hundred words. Um, that’s quite a departure from one page of synopsis per twenty-five pages of manuscript (especially considering my manuscript was over three hundred at the time).

When I read someone else’s manuscript, there are certain things that I expect, that I believe most editors and agents expect, too. There are the general things that matter, such as double-spacing, using a legible 12-pt font (like Times New Roman or Courier), one-inch margins on all four sides, name and contact information somewhere in the header, and a heading with name and title on any pages after the first. Page numbers are a must, and I prefer a word count, although I’ll let it slide if it’s included in the cover letter. Although not following these universally expected guidelines isn’t enough to make me reject a story outright, seeing crazy fonts in a lot of different colors, for instance, will make me less friendly toward the manuscript I’m about to read.

So when it comes to synopses, is the same true? To me, it doesn’t really matter if the title is in all caps or if a character’s name is capitalized the first time it’s mentioned – especially considering these were two points that seemed very important in some of the “helpful” articles I read and not worth mentioning in others. In my opinion, if an agent has such specific expectations, they should be spelled out in the submission guidelines. Or I could just play it safe and write my synopsis half a dozen ways and submit them all, just to cover every possible formatting opinion. I couldn’t possibly be rejected for doing that, could I? Well, yes, I could, and I have rejected people for writing like insecure idiots. Two things drive me nuts: the person who should write “there” but uses “their” and “they’re,” too, because he can’t figure out which is right and the person who doesn’t trust that the words are getting the message across and resorts to excessive italics, underline, bold, and two or more paragraph styles to make it look interesting. At that point, I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t care enough about the craft to learn how to write properly.

So here I am, wondering if my synopsis (which looks okay to me) shows me as an author who is not ready for print. Unfortunately, rejection slips are never so specific. I’m sorry, Ms. Cotchaleovitch, your synopsis was so poorly written that I could not stomach the rest of your submission. But there is some consensus out there. A synopsis does need to be short. Sorry, wordsmiths. I am one of the wordiest people out there, so it’s hard for me to swallow that one, too. But you don’t want your synopsis dumped in the slush pile because it looks like a short story (or worse, a novella). More important than the length, however, is that it has a catchy opening (the hook), and that it is clear and concise. Trim all the fat – extraneous adjectives, adverbs, and interjections such as this one – from your synopsis, and when you think it’s lean enough, go back and trim some more. It’s not necessary to name every character and outline every subplot. What gets the protagonist from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end)? If it doesn’t follow that path, save it for the story (and make doubly sure it really belongs there, too). Then have someone read it. Joe Reader is fine. It helps to get honest feedback from someone who knows nothing about the story. It might hurt, but it’s better to hear the bad news from a friend and fix it before you send it out.

I dug up my old synopsis, but since leaving the scammer agent two-and-a-half years ago, my novel has undergone two revisions, and it was almost useless to me. Actually, what helped me most was going back to my query, reading my brief description, and elaborating from there. Then I cut and cut and cut some more until I got it a little shorter than two pages. Then into cyberspace and the mail my queries and synopses went. Now, my fingers are crossed.