A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about queries, giving the tips and tricks I learned from the 3+ years of querying that led to signing with my agent (yes, from a cold query!). Today, I thought I’d post about what I find to be the hardest part of the query: the synopsis.
(Most of what I’m going to write here applies to novels – boiling down 40,000 – 100,000 words to around 150 is no easy feat – but the core of this can apply to a story-based PB as well. For more info on writing PB query synopses, check out this post by Mary Kole, over on her kidlit blog.)
Let’s start by stating the basics. Your query synopsis should be written in the third person, present tense – no matter what tense/POV your ms is written in. The query synopsis should NOT give away the ending of the story because the whole point is to hook the editor or agent into wanting to read more. Think of it as a movie trailer: if the ad gave away the end, what would be the point of watching the film? (Note: the query synopsis is different from a story synopsis, sometimes requested by agents, in which you do detail the entire story, including the end – I may write a post on that in the near future.)
You also want to keep your query synopsis to two to three paragraphs, maximum.* And, the major query synopsis rule: NO rhetorical questions! (1. Because agents get them a lot. 2. Because their answer to your question might not be what you want them to say. ie. “What would you do if giant spiders ate your brother and took over your school?” “Bake them a cake.” “Faint.”)
I also suggest when you’re finished your synopsis, to get a friend or CP who isn’t familiar with your story to read it and see if it makes sense.
But most of all, I think every good query synopsis should contain the 4 Cs: Character, Conflict, Consequences, and Choice.
Character: The essential part of every story. In a query synopsis for a MG or YA book, you typically introduce your main character (MC) by listing their age, and a detail or two about them. Listing their age up front helps the agent or editor know what age group your book is for (especially if you’re putting your book title, genre, word count, etc after the synopsis, which seems to be the preferred method these days*). When it comes to describing your MC, make sure you’re not falling back into clichés, or generic information. You want your character to stand out. Saying “Sixteen-year-old Madison is the most popular girl at school” or even worse that “Carol Liu is just an average twelve-year-old” does nothing to make your character unique. But saying “sixteen-year-old Madison is a shoo-in for prom queen, but she’d rather spend the night playing video games” or “Twelve-year-old Carol Liu spends her time day-dreaming about horses while pretending to do her homework” creates a much deeper impression.
Conflict: What is it your character is trying to do, and what exactly is stopping him/her? The conflict could be anything from an evil wizard bent on killing him/her, to crippling self-doubt. Whatever it is, we need to know in the query.
Consequences: What happens if the MC doesn’t succeed? Will the world end? Will your MC be laughed out of school? Again, be specific, and try not to devolve into clichés. Don’t say “it will set off a chain of events that could spell the end of life as Arun knows it” – that could mean anything from him getting kicked off the soccer team to him being turned into a hamster. Be specific. “If Arun can’t figure out who’s sabotaging his dad’s bakery, his dad will lose the business, and they’ll have to move in with Stinky Uncle Om two hundred miles away from all his friends.”
Choice: Okay, this is probably an optional one, and not every story is going to lend itself to this structure, but if you can include a choice your MC has to make, where both options are equally bad, you’ll definitely make the agent/editor want to keep reading to find out what happens. For instance, “Chantra has two choices: trade her life for Elon’s, and become the Emperor’s latest concubine, or walk away to live alone in freedom, knowing she doomed her true love to an early death in the mines.” (Okay, these are kind of cheesy examples, but you get the idea.)
So, there you have it, my tips for a query synopsis that will leave ’em wanting more.
*Of course, every agent/editor is different. If the one you’re sending to has a preference, definitely customize your query to their standards.