- Write your query letter
- Write your synopsis
- Prepare your first three chapters
Your query letter is your first date. Your synopsis is your best weekend away. And your partial manuscript is an engagement party – a dress rehearsal for the real thing. If you get all three correct, it will lead to a marriage contract.
A first date is about putting your best foot forward. The same goes for your query letter. You want to show up looking smart, not in your oldest pair of jeans with your shirt tail hanging out.There’s that old saying, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression.’ It’s never been truer than for your first shot at a publisher or agent. Make sure your query letter is as polished, slick, and engaging as you can make it.While you’re still sussing each other out, a first date usually involves a drink or a coffee — it’s short, it has a purpose. Do we like each other? Is there any potential for a match? For the same reason, keep your query letter to one page.Start with a punchy description of your novel – one or two lines. If you can do it in less than 50 words, that’s good. If you can nail it in 25 words, even better. Don’t forget to call out your title and your genre.You can include an intriguing question. For my book, I may use just such a hook. What if a one-night fantasy turns in a terrifying nightmare for a perfect couple?You can also ‘shorthand’ the concept of the novel using other current publishing or pop references. When people ask me what my book is about, I often say, ‘It’s Fatal Attraction with a couple.’ It may be a bit lazy, but it does get the point across quickly.You can also make a bold statement, something that really anchors the story in the imagination. Some examples I’m playing with: If you’re in an open relationship, be careful who you let in.Once you’ve got the reader hooked, you can give one or two more paragraphs that tease out the plot conflicts, character struggles, and even a bit of the setting.Finish off with a brief author bio. Here you can briefly mention your writing credits and ambitions, but it’s also a good idea to give the editor or agent a glimpse of who you are away from your writing desk. A flavour of your personality.
If you’ve ever been away for a weekend, romantic or otherwise, you know you can only really take one small suitcase or travel bag. And it’s the same with your synopsis – you want to fill this two-page document only with the essentials of what you need.Writing a synopsis is a tricky business. If I can go back to that travel bag for a moment. If you try to stuff too much in it, when you get to your destination, all your clothes will be creased, even a bit jumbled.And if you pack to little, you’ll be walking around in a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers all weekend – not your best look either. So… what do you ‘pack’ into your synopsis?Well, the essentials to start with. Something about the characters to start - name, age, profession, looks. In my synopsis, I describe my antagonist quickly. Monty (20), varsity dropout, spends his days at gym, nights drifting around Cape Town’s nightlife.Next, you need to give the basics of plot. Here you can focus on the six indispensable plot pivots we spoke about in a previous blog. Perhaps just a line or two on each – from the inciting moment to the climax and ending. (Yes, even the ending: this isn’t a teaser, it’s a summary.) Spend some time refining and sharpening these.Once you have these packed, you’ll see how much room you have left. And you can fill in the spaces between each plot point or pivot. And fill only bits you need to build a bridge between those main storyline elements.In my story, for example, I have a subplot about Jenna’s career – but I won’t waste space in my synopsis with this because it doesn’t relate to the main storyline.Once you’re done, read the synopsis aloud. Go through it with a red pen. Take out every word you don’t need. See if you can shorten paragraphs into one sentence. You’ll work hard at getting this right – but it’ll be worth it.
Your first three chapters are a taste of things to come. Provided an editor or agent liked your query letter and synopsis, this is your chance to really impress.Your first chapters should contain a few crucial elements if they’re going to capture the attention of an editor and, later on, the reader. You need to show what the world your main characters live in. And not just the setting but the moral, social, sexual, political etc. world they live. How will readers identify with them? Are their fears, struggles, desires universal?By the end of the first three chapters, you should have included your inciting incident. Maybe your novel has a hook right on page one, or maybe you build up slowly to a moment of change — but there has to be something or someone for your main character to pursue or escape.Don’t be too nervous about committing to these chapters. They’re not going to the printers tomorrow. This is the engagement party – not the wedding.Some authors have many other drafts after their novels have been submitted and accepted. And that’s exactly what you want from an agent or editor.A good agent or editor will be able to give you advice and work with you to make your book better and more marketable.
- Write the opening hook of your novel as a Tweet (maximum 140 characters)
- Talk about what your book is really about to yourself. Record your voice. Listen to it a few days later. How can you make your pitch stronger?
- Create a synopsis for the last movie you watched or a book you read.
- Challenge yourself to cut at last 10 per cent from your first three chapters.
- Consider using an appraisal or editorial service to help you polish your submission.
Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!
If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.
Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 46: 3 Lessons On Theme, Character, And Plot
Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 45: How To Find A Top Literary Agent
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