Around the Internets it seems to be conventional wisdom that novel writing and query letter 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 letter.
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.
Need some help summarizing? Here’s another post that might help:
Need help with your pitch? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: Die Dorfpolitiker by Friedrich Friedländer
After you get a call from the publisher it’s HURRAY!, but then starts the rollercoaster.
Lilly's Life says
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.
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.
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 says
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.
*wild cheering from my stands*
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.
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.
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.
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 says
Hahaha my verification word is defib- laughed so hard I must have had a heart attack.
Bravo again, Nathan. Thanks for showing us just-a-novelists why we have to go out and promote.
Jean Reidy says
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.
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 says
It sounds to me like you didn’t lack ability, just practice.