Posted by Angelica R. Jackson
Decided to re-run a few of my most popular posts while I'm on hiatus:
In this post, I'm going to share some of my early attempts at query synopses and loglines, as well as my recent versions (for The Query Post, Part One: The Resources, please go here). I'll also try to reconstruct some of my thought processes, with the warning that my mind pretty much operates like a Super Ball bouncing around in my head. So brace yourselves--this is going to be a bumpy ride!
I made the usual rookie mistakes in both the query and the submission process, the most glaring of which made my query two printed pages long. A lot of the agents I was querying in that batch wanted to see a 1-page synopsis as well, so I "cleverly" combined the query and synopsis into one unit. If memory serves, the meat of the query (or the short synopsis that is supposed to follow the hook) was about six very wordy paragraphs long. Yikes--and yet, I still got partial and full requests from it, so it wasn't a total loss.
And I said there would be examples, so here is the riveting (ha!) opening paragraph of that very first full synopsis:
At the death of her father, Isabelle Brandt is left stranded in Spain. Abandoned by her companion/chaperone, she next loses her place in a respectable boardinghouse. She joins up with a wealthy widow returning to the States with her two maids and a horse. They secure a cabin on the ship Empyreal. During the voyage, Isabelle grows close to the widow, Doña Catherine, and makes a friend of the ship's carpenter. The rest of the crew, however, turns out to be "blackguards" and the Doña is assaulted by the captain himself. The women are threatened with rape and murder, and it seems only a matter of time before the threats will be carried out.
You may have noticed that there is a lot of telling/passive voice in that paragraph, and it's not until the last sentence that something exciting actually happens. However, you may not have the good fortune to have an agent stick with it past the first lines, so you need to grab (and hold) their attention much earlier than that.
So my attempt to jazz it up for the query looked like this:
In the year 1850, her father's suicide leaves nineteen-year-old Isabelle Brandt stranded in Spain. She must find a way home to the States before her money and options run out. She counts herself lucky to share a cabin with a wealthy widow on the ship Empyreal---but luck turns to danger as the Empyreal's crew plots rape and murder.
Still a little awkward, but I was getting better at condensing by sticking to the main plot, and not including all the extra details and subplots. With the help of a few go-rounds on Absolute Write's Query Letter Hell, I ended up getting six overly-long paragraphs down to this:
As a child, Olivia Herald encounters a malevolent spirit that is beyond any that she had perceived before—one that is so strong it can take physical form and harm the living. After that traumatic experience, she turns her back on her powers to communicate with the dead, fearing any contact with the spirits will expose her to further peril.
Years later, Olivia inadvertently creates an entire ship's worth of sinister spirits by causing the destruction of the Empyreal. The crew was not entirely blameless; after all, they had just raped and murdered her companions, and intended to do the same to Olivia. Escape was her only option, and she couldn't have predicted that the fire she starts as a diversion will doom the Empyreal and its crew.
But now the ghostly crew wants retribution, and so do the authorities. While the prospect of a death sentence hangs over her, Olivia must rekindle her abilities to speak with the dead for the final reckoning with the vengeful Empyreal's crew.
Note that this is where the character's name changes. But by trying to change the focus, and adding some backstory and tying it back in, the "inadvertently creates an entire ship's worth of sinister spirits" and other phrasing actually seemed to create more confusion than clarifying things. While trying to shorten it further for a verbal pitch, I discovered that I actually seem to do better with brief versions like this:
In 1851, Olivia Herald sets a ship afire while escaping its murderous crew—dooming the Empyreal and all hands aboard it. Now their ghosts want retribution, and so do the authorities. With the prospect of a death sentence hanging over her, Olivia must reclaim her forsaken abilities to speak with the dead for a final reckoning with the vengeful spirits. If she fails, she could lose her soul and the way back to the man she loves.
Everything is in there: the backstory, the inciting incident, the stakes, the romance, the villains--I'm really proud of this pitch. And when I used it in Pitch University's first Pitchfest*, it got a full request right out of the gate. But just when I thought I had the perfect pitch to serve me for a while, a pitch contest came up where I needed a one-line pitch like this:
Olivia Herald accidentally sets a ship afire while escaping the same fate as her murdered friends; her attackers went down with their doomed ship, and now the spectral crew wants retribution, forcing Olivia into a final reckoning with her haunted past.
Semi-colons are my friend in one-line pitches, but I try not to abuse them too much otherwise. And then, contests with Twitter-length pitches came into vogue:
Charlotte Doyle meets Blossom Culp: Olivia accidentally sets a ship afire, dooming all hands aboard--now the ghostly crew wants revenge.
But unlike queries where I can track requests and rejections, I've never been chosen in one of those one-line or Twitter pitch contests, so I've been unable to judge how effective they really are. Nevertheless, they are a great tool to help you get to the heart of your pitch, and if I'd known this method earlier I could have saved myself a lot of trouble!
Starting with the one sentence and fleshing it out from there truly energized the synopsis, too, and my current version of the opening is:
As a child, Olivia Herald finds that spirits can be demanding, but are mostly a comfort—until a skeptical teacher at her boarding school locks Olivia in a haunted room, and the young girl learns not all spirits are harmless. After coming face to face with the terrifying apparition, she rejects her talent to speak with the dead, fearing any contact with them carries the threat of losing herself to possession.
Years later, at seventeen, her father's death abruptly strands her in Spain. To get home to the States, she joins a wealthy widow sailing to Boston on the ship Empyreal—but the voyage turns deadly when her traveling companions are raped and murdered by the Empyreal's crew.
And for a peek at my current polished query (plus a lot of other people's queries), go over to Melodie Wright's pitch contest; mine is easiest to find by searching for "Vasty" with the find function in your browser. Update: My query earned me a full request with Tricia Lawrence in this contest!
And that's the last one--this post is getting long enough to fill an ebook. So there it is, a glimpse into how my query and synopses have evolved--or distilled, as the case may be. Hope this proves helpful to other writers, and that you're able to skip some of my mistakes!
*For more insight on my refinement of my pitches at Pitch University, see my Pitch Evaluation Lab with Adam Friedstein (be sure to read the comments) and the "Before and After" Pitch Evaluation Lab with its comments.
P.S. (as if this post wasn't long enough) Drafting this post was pretty eye-opening; one thing that was amazing to look back on was the shift from agents wanting paper submissions to wanting almost exclusively electronic submissions. Somewhere around 2010, you could hear the trees heave a collective sigh of relief (and my wallet felt the difference, too--postage was getting expensive, especially when you got a request to mail them the entire manuscript).
Also, after so many revisions, it feels like my book is completely different than it was a few years ago when I finished the first complete draft. But looking at my queries from that era versus the one I use now, the actual "bones" of my story have stayed the same. The main character's name (and even the title) may have changed, but the main plot points were there.