Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #3: The Synopsis

In order to enter Pitch Wars you need two things: a completed manuscript and a query letter. But if you read last week's post on queries, you'll notice I mentioned there's a third thing that could be requested by potential mentors after they've read your submission. That third thing is...a synopsis.


Yes, the dreaded synopsis. It's practically a 4-letter word in the writing world. They're notoriously difficult and writers everywhere balk at the idea of having to condense their beautiful novels into a few paragraphs of factual prose that give away the ending. Tell us authors we have to write one and we'll go all April Ludgate on you.


As much as you may hate the prospect of writing one, if you're serious about getting published, you're going to need a synopsis sooner or later. Last year when I entered Pitch Wars, all four of the mentors who requested additional materials from me also requested a synopsis. Now, some of them also specifically said to send it only IF I had one, and no mentor is going to reject a stellar novel over a mediocre synopsis (after all, we're here to help you improve these things), BUT it's a really, really good idea to have one prepared. Why? Because 1) It shows you've taken the time to research what it requires to query a novel and you've come prepared, 2) There's a chance that requesting agents in the agent round will want a synopsis as part of their submission guidelines, and 3) Writing a synopsis can help you spot potential problems in your story and give you the opportunity to fix or strengthen those areas before submitting.

But why do some agents request a synopsis?

Agents get hundreds of submissions in their inboxes every week. Your sample pages are going to give an agent a glimpse at your main character, voice, and writing prowess (and hopefully hook them with all those things), but a synopsis gives them a more detailed view of your story, plot, and character arc before they commit to reading through your entire manuscript. Not all agents request them, but it's better to have one and not need it, than be scrambling to write one once it's requested, or to limit your querying options to only those agents who don't specifically list them in their submission guidelines.

How long should my synopsis be?

The answer — it completely depends on the agent you're querying. The general rule of thumb is 1-3 pages. My suggestion? Create a one-page synopsis (this will be perfectly fine for Pitch Wars) and only go longer if the agent's guidelines state they want a longer version. Now, before you panic about the prospect of having to write two different synopses, it's important to remember that when writing a one-page synopsis, it should be single-spaced, but when you move to multiple pages, it should be double spaced. My synopsis for FOLLOW ME was one full page (just under 600 words) single-spaced. When expanded to double-spaced, it becomes two pages. So if an agency specifically asks that your synopsis be no less than 3 pages, chances are you'll only need to add one more page, or 300 words or so.

What should my synopsis include?

Your main character, sidekick/love interest, antagonist, inciting incident, main plot points, climax, resolution and ending, with your MC's emotions, reactions, and character development sprinkled throughout. The general rule of thumb is to name no more than 3 characters, and to identify everyone else by their role (mother, co-worker, teacher, etc.). Now, I freely admit I broke this rule and named 5 characters in my synopsis for FOLLOW ME. But as with all writing "rules" I learned the rule first, then made sure I had a firm reason for breaking it: It was important that agents knew who my MC's mother was, and my MC's mother and brother play a crucial role in my story's climax and I hated how wordy and cumbersome it was to keep repeating "her mother" and "her brother" throughout the last paragraph. 

What are some basic tips for writing a good synopsis?

A synopsis should always be in third person present tense, even if your story is written differently. Leave out backstory and subplots. Be sure to use active voice, and avoid wordiness and unimportant facts. Strip your language down to only the most essential details. For example, instead of saying... 

On a hot and sunny afternoon, Marge goes to the beach to relax and take a swim, and while there she witnesses an argument between two strangers. Later that night, while watching the evening news, Marge is horrified to see one of the strangers' faces appear on the screen beneath the scrolling words "DEAD BODY FOUND WASHED UP ON SHORE."

...pare it down to the bare essentials:

Marge goes to the beach and witnesses an argument between two strangers. Later that night, she discovers one of them has washed up dead on the shore.

And remember, a synopsis isn't meant to be flashy or oozing with voice. It's meant to give the basic facts and show the story arc. Wow the mentors (and agents) with your sample pages and stick with the basics when it comes to your synopsis. 

What's the magic formula for actually writing this thing?

Here's the deal...I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, I'm going to direct you to my absolute favorite synopsis-writing formula of all time: HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS over at Pub(lishing) Crawl (also my favorite writing blog name of all time). There may not be one magic formula to rule them all, but in my opinion, this one is pretty dang close. It's the one I've found the most helpful, and the one I used when I wrote my synopsis for FOLLOW ME. Not only does it take you step-by-step through creating your own synopsis by using question prompts, in bonus nerdy brilliance it uses Star Wars as an example.

Now that you're ready to tackle the dreaded synopsis, take a deep breath. You can do this. And you're totally entitled to celebrate with pie/chocolate/wine when you're finished.

But just in case you need it...

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #2: The Query Letter

Important Preface: There are lots of different opinions about what makes a great query letter and in what exact order you should present the information it contains. This is what worked for me. The most important thing is to always follow the agent's/agency's/contest's submission guidelines. After that, it's a matter of learning and applying the basic rules of a strong query...and then not stressing out too much over a vague definition of perfection. :)

To enter Pitch Wars, you'll need two things: A completed manuscript (which we talked about last week) and a query letter. (There's also a third thing that may be requested later by potential mentors, but we'll get to that next week.)

First the basics: What is a query letter?

A query is a cover letter for your submission. It tells agents (and Pitch Wars mentors) what your book is about, your book's basic information (age group, genre, and length), and a little bit about you, the author. All of this should be contained to one page, single spaced (typically 3-5 paragraphs), formatted with no indentations and double spaced between paragraphs (like this blog post).

Now let's take a closer look...

The Salutation

Always personalize your greeting. Seriously, this is SO important. I see agents mention ALL THE TIME that they would much rather receive a query addressed directly to them than an impersonal "Dear Agent" or even worse, "To Whom It May Concern." When querying, you should be researching each agent, looking at their wishlists and bios and submitting to those you feel would be a good fit for your manuscript. Never query an agent (or mentor!) without first making sure they represent your age group and genre. Addressing your query to a specific agent helps show that you've taken this step. Also, triple check to make sure you've spelled their name properly before you hit send.

"But what about Pitch Wars?" you ask. In cases of contests like Pitch Wars (or the odd literary agency) where you submit one query to a group of people, rather than one specific person, you can still personalize your greeting with something like "Dear Pitch Wars Mentors" or "Dear [Name of Agency]."

Note: I know some people address their queries to the agent's first name, but I always preferred to use Ms. or Mr. [Last Name]. If I received a reply asking for additional materials, and the agent began with "Dear Ashley" and signed with their first name (which happened 100% of the time, in my experience), then I would use their first name for all future correspondence. 

Opening Paragraph

I always preferred to start my queries in one of two ways:

Option 1: Tell the agent why you're querying them specifically. I only did this if I had a reason that went beyond "You represent my age group and genre and you seem like a super cool person." For example, if you've met them at a conference, if they've posted a specific #MSWL, tweeted a want that fits your manuscript, or if you have a referral from one of their clients. If you don't have a super specific reason, or you're subbing to a contest like Pitch Wars, that's okay. There's another option.

Option 2: Jump right into your book's summary. 

Summary

This is where you showcase your story. Think of it as the back-of-the-book blurb. A good formula is to introduce your main character, place them in the setting, add the inciting incident that thrusts your MC into their journey, the obstacle in their way, the role the sidekick/love interest/antagonist plays, a pivotal moment when the conflict increases, and what is at stake if your MC can't overcome the obstacle.

I always preferred to limit my summary to two paragraphs, but sometimes you may need three. If your summary is longer than three paragraphs, you might be including too much information. Keep it short and punchy! The first sentence or two should hook the reader and pique their interest, but whatever you do, don't start with a question. Agents hate rhetorical questions in queries. :)

Here's my successful query for my MG fantasy, FOLLOW ME, showing how I included the points mentioned above: 

Twelve-year-old Alivia Hart [MC] knows what no one else would ever believe: The woods took her mother. Now the forest [SETTING] is calling to Alivia with two words whispered on the wind..."Follow me." Alivia tells herself the voice is only in her imagination. But when a letter arrives from the Rose Grove School for Girls, [INCITING INCIDENT] Alivia must decide which she's more afraid of--a dull life of proper education, or the mysterious wood?

Deep within the trees, cats can talk, white rabbits wear waistcoats, and the tea is sweet [SETTING]. But Alivia soon encounters a darkness seeping through the moss and golden leaves. [OBSTACLE] A darkness laced with family secrets and controlled by a woman intent on continuing a bloodthirsty reign. [ANTAGONIST] As Alivia battles the evil that threatens to destroy both her and the forest itself, [INCREASED CONFLICT] it becomes clear victory will not be won within the wood. In order to rescue her mother [STAKES], Alivia will have to travel to the land beneath the Wondertree and fight not just for her family, but for a crown.

The most important component of your summary is stakes, stakes, stakes! Agents (and mentors) want to know who your MC is, what they want, what stands in the way of what they want, and what will happen if they can't overcome that obstacle. Also, don't give away your ending! The whole point is to entice the reader into wanting more — in this case, you want the agent/mentor to be intrigued by your premise and move on to your sample pages.

The Facts

Some people prefer to open their query with this information, I prefer to place it after my summary. The internet has plenty of examples of both, and both are acceptable options. Wherever you choose to put it, you'll need to include your book's title, word count, age group, genre, and (if you have them) comp titles. For example: [TITLE] is a [#]-word [age group] [genre] that will appeal to fans of [COMP TITLES]. If you have other specifics about the book that you want to highlight (for instance, if it's a retelling of a certain folktale, or immerses the reader in a specific culture) you could include that in this paragraph as well. 

A note regarding comp titles: You don't have to include these. If you do, try to use recent titles published in the last 2-3 years and resist the temptation to compare your novel to blockbuster hits like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. Also, don't call your book "the next" anything.

Your Bio

This should come at the end of your query and, like comp titles, is completely optional. Don't feel like you *have* to come up with qualifications or interesting things to say about yourself. If you do choose to add a bio, it can include publication credits (no, you don't have to call yourself "unpublished" if you don't have any, or state that this is your first novel), education, career, professional writing organizations you belong to (like SCBWI), contests/awards you've won, etc. But keep it short and sweet; don't end up with a bio that's longer than your summary — always make sure you talk more about your book than about yourself. 

Now for my personal opinion on bios: Sometimes this part of your query can feel like the most difficult, especially if you don't have a writing degree or previous publications but you really want to include something. Or maybe the agency you're querying specifically asks for a bio to be included with your submission. What then? Some will say that if you don't have some sort of credentials don't include a bio at all unless you can say something relevant to your book. HOWEVER, I feel that it's perfectly acceptable to include a short one- or two-sentence snippet that gives a glimpse of your personality (something I think is nice to include even if you do have credentials to list). For example, my query bio opened with "Mom by day and writer by night, I am a firm believer in the restorative power of tea and baked goods." So I say go ahead and include a bit about yourself, or mention what inspired your story, like a trip to a certain location, or a personal experience. When it comes down to it, it's highly unlikely an agent that is interested in your book based on the rest of your query is going to get to your bio and say, "She listed nothing relevant to her story! REJECT!" 

Closing

Finally, I think it's nice to close your queries with a simple expression of appreciation, such as "Thank you for your time and consideration." Then you can sign off and include your contact info (mailing address, phone number, email) underneath your name.

Once you've finished writing your query, it's a good idea to pass it along to a CP for further edit suggestions or even just a friend for proofreading. Another pair of eyes is always a plus before you hit send!

A final note for Pitch Wars participants: 

It's easy to stress over your query letter. Boiling the essence of your story down to two or three paragraphs can make you want to tear your hair out. But as I mentioned in last week's post, mentors aren't looking for perfection. We do want to see that you've taken the time to learn the basics of what should go in your query BUT we can always work on improving it if needed. Do your best, focus on making sure that your MC's stakes are clear, and from there hook us with the writing and voice in your sample pages. 

And with that, I leave you with a message from Motivational Fox.



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #1: Get Your Manuscript Ready!

Who's excited for Pitch Wars???!!!



If you don't know what Pitch Wars is, it's a contest in which writers submit a query and the first chapter of their completed book in the hopes of snagging a spot with a mentor in a two-month process that culminates in an agent round. (More details here.) I was a mentee in 2015 and I'm so excited to now be a middle grade mentor! To help and encourage all you Pitch Wars hopefuls out there, I've created a series of blog posts with tips on getting yourself and your manuscript ready to submit (because you should definitely, DEFINITELY submit). And since you can't enter Pitch Wars without a book, that's where we're going to start...



Pitch Wars is open to any writer with a finished manuscript. But it's important to note that there's a big difference between a first-draft manuscript and a multi-draft, revised and edited manuscript. It's not enough to have a story that makes it from the opening sentence to "the end." You want all the words in between to be at their best.

"But—!" you say. "Isn't that the point of Pitch Wars? Aren't you supposed to help me fix mistakes and make my book better?"

Yes and no. 



While mentors aren't looking for perfection, we are looking for preparedness. We want to help you take your novel to the next level, help you learn new skills, and come out with a manuscript that will — hopefully — catch the eye of the agents participating in the agent round. But teams have just two months to so. Which means a short window of time to discuss and make the revisions and edits that will give your manuscript that extra sparkle and shine. So yes, Pitch Wars will help your book be its best, but you'll have a much better chance of being selected as a mentee if you've done the proper prep work.

What does that mean?

It means you've gone through multiple passes — a second, or third, maybe even fourth draft — paying attention to good storytelling methods, checking your spelling and grammar, ensuring you have strong characters and a well thought out plot. This not only gives you a stronger story that will catch a mentor's interest, it also tells prospective mentors that you understand, and are willing to put in, the hard work that comes with creating a solid book. 

Revisions can be a lengthy process, and one that continues through every step of your writing career. My Pitch Wars manuscript went through several drafts and revisions before I entered it in Pitch Wars last year. I'd sent it to several CPs (critique partners) and taken their comments into consideration. I was confident that I had done my best to prepare my entry. And when I was selected as a mentee, my amazing mentor, with her fresh eyes and excitement for my story, had new ideas and suggestions to help make it even better. And when that revised version snagged me my agent, my agent had a few more suggestions for making it EVEN BETTER. The point is, multiple drafts and edits and revisions and are a way of life for a writer. Whether we like it or not.




THE GOOD NEWS:

There are TONS of resources out there to help you get your manuscript ready for submission. Pitch Wars creator Brenda Drake's blog, the Pitch Wars Mentor blog Writing With the Mentors, and the 2015 Pitch Wars Mentee Blog To the Shelves are great places to start. There you'll find tips for everything from setting and voice to action and tension. If you're looking for CPs and/or Beta Readers, check out local writing groups (your local library might host one), connect with other writers on social media (#PitchWars is great for this!), put the call out on Twitter and check out other hashtags like #amwriting, #amrevising, and #CPMatch to find others who write in your age group and genre who are looking for partners.

Now for the pep talk...




It may seem overwhelming. You may be questioning your sanity and your decision to enter this contest (and be a writer in general), but your story is worth the work and extra effort. And the really cool thing? The writing community is a family. We're here to cheer you on and support and encourage you as you turn your messy words into a beautiful book. I'm so excited to read your submissions this summer, and I know the other mentors are, too. YOU CAN DO IT and trust me, you'll be glad you did.

Looking for more tips? Check out Part 2: The Query Letter.