Pitch-Query-Synopsis

I have attended three recent sessions that discussed the query/synopsis process.  Several friends have asked for a summary of what was taught.  The conferences:

  • The Writer’s Digest pitch conference (Minneapolis, February 11, 2017)
  • The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza (online evaluation of query letters, February 28, 2017)
  • The Loft pitch conference (Minneapolis, April 7-8, 2017)

Several terms of art were thrown around.  They aren’t discrete … the pitch is a verbal query, the log line often appears in the query/pitch, and so on.  From shortest to longest, they are:

  • Logline:  Few words (5-10) summarizing the book, often giving the hook.
  • Elevator speech:  30-60 seconds of speech (2 floors on a slow elevator) – 80-90 words
  • Blurb:  The back cover copy.  Fiction varies from 100-200 words.
  • Query: 200-350 words in total; central paragraph 100-150.
  • Pitch: The verbal version of the query. Usually three to four minutes (300 – 350 words), including a short bio. My pitch sessions were 8-10 minutes long, including feedback from agents.  Half the agents I pitched listened through my prepared pitch; half made it more a conversation. I was glad I had memorized the pitch

The four items above are closely related.  They’re all a hook into the story, a concise introduction to the main character, the stakes, the conflict.  They’re all business documents, not literary fiction.

  • Synopsis:  The plot compressed into one, two or five pages. This is not a marketing piece, but a succinct telling of the story.  Covers the plot and, while not a literary exercise, it should also expose your voice.  (Good idea to have all three sizes.)

I will concentrate on the query letter, since it seems to me to be the central piece from which others (except synopsis) are developed.  One thing I heard plenty:  query and synopsis take a different set of skills than writing.  They are designed to capture the interest of agents or publishers in a short letter or a brief conversation.  If you capture interest, they will ask you for some or all of your manuscript … that’s where they will get a chance to see whether you’re a great writer.  The query is not primarily a demonstration of your writing skill.

Pitch/Query

Advice as to how to query varies quite a bit.  The best short summary was from Laurie McLean (Fuse Literary) at the Loft conference:

The query consists of three paragraphs:

  • The hook: The first paragraph makes the agent want to read the book. If you have any personal connection, note it.  You need the title, genre and the word count, too.  And the book’s hook:  One sentence that captures the story (or more properly, the reason the agent should read on).
  • The book: This is most often the back cover blurb of 150-200 words. It exposes the main character and the stakes.  The protagonist needs to appear in the first sentence, the stakes by the 2nd or 3rd.  Can include the antagonist (if there is one), but little or no backstory.  Show secondary characters or secondary plot elements at your peril.  Do not start this paragraph (or the hook paragraph) with a question.  Several agents note that’s a cliché these days.  Don’t expose the ending.  This paragraph is to get the person to want to read the book.
  • The cook: The reason you should write the book. Include a very short bio, relevant publications, education.  Comparable works if not included earlier.

There were quite a few variations on this.  Some agents would allow splitting the book part into several very short paragraphs.  The comps are very important, but there was no unanimity on where they should appear. The hook can migrate from the first paragraph to the first line of the second (book) paragraph if the first paragraph is includes a lot of personal  info (“I enjoyed meeting for a beer and conversation … You asked for the first fifty and wanted me to remind you of the struggle at cliff’s edge.”  Bad example, but one of my queries will have that kind of information because the agent asked for it.)  If you’re writing a blind query, be sure to read the agent’s web blurb, but an extensive quote from the website (“I noticed your interest in hyperactive zombie-driven literature with literary flavor”) is not a good idea … it gets you a point or two for reading the web and loses you a point or two by emphasizing you have no connection to the person.  On bio, keep it brief.  The bio is a vetting device, the statement of why you should write the book.  Publication in magazines or literary journals show that somebody thought you were a good writer.  On the other hand, if you’re writing literary fiction, your authorship of a manual on fertilizer application should not appear.

Of the various advice discussions I’ve seen, the Loft’s on pitch is among the best.  (The advice applies to queries, too, since a pitch is a verbal query letter.)

(excerpted from a Loft e-mail on pitch preparation):  What is a pitch?  (It) is your chance to entice an agent or editor to want to learn more about your project. So a pitch should not necessarily be a plot synopsis of your project, rather it is a tightly concentrated summary of the conflict and main character driving your work. The why should I care? of your book. Moby Dick is then not the tale of a whaling excursion gone awry; it is the tale of one captain’s relentless and obsessive pursuit of the unattainable.

A pitch for Moby Dick would not start by summarizing the beginning: “Ishmael boarded the whaling ship looking for adventure and uncertain where this journey might take him.” Instead, it would get to the heart of the conflict in Moby Dick: “When the whaling captain looked into the ocean water, ISHMAEL knew his captain saw the Devil gaze back. He knew he could never stop, no matter the cost.”

You might be able to write something better, but you get the point. Less plot summary, more heart of the work. Your first sentence or two needs to grab an agent’s or editor’s attention and never let go. You also need to leave them wanting more, so you don’t need to share the ending, but by the end of your pitch, they should want to know where it all leads.

Synopsis 

The synopsis is a technical document, not a marketing piece.  The idea is to capture the story accurately within the page limit.  Different agents are specific about how long synopses should be, so you will end up with several.  Steven Salpeter (Curtis Brown) gave the best definition of synopsis at the Loft conference:  Cover the plot, character, and stakes using 3rd person, present tense, active voice. You should hit all the major plot points, but the synopsis is not an outline.  It should capture the flavor and tone of the book.  In a longer synopsis, you should mimic the pacing of the book.  Beware of including too many characters.  Secondary characters and plots dilute the main subjects of the synopsis, which are character arc and plot structure.  The synopsis should be a good, clean descriptive work that also shows off your voice.

Some resources:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/successful-queries

http://www.thebookdoctors.com/  Their book on the business process is the best I’ve read.

http://queryshark.blogspot.com/