The Art of Querying: Blurbs + Pitches + Synopses—PART I

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this post. (This was my first podcast episode and after the fourth one, it evolved into a writing advice + interview podcast, featuring interviews with unpublished writers, published authors, and industry professionals to help connect writers and demystify the publishing industry!)

I’m pretty sure not one day has gone by since I started my author Twitter account where I haven’t scrolled by someone talking about pitches, blurbs, or synopses. How challenging they are. How they don’t know what they’re doing. And I think I might be one of very few writers who enjoys the process! (Glutton for punishment? Maaaaaybe! 😂)

That’s not to say I don’t find them challenging. Of course they are—you’re trying to squeeze tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of words into a tiny 280-character pitch, a 150-200-word back cover blurb for queries, and a 300-600-word (sometimes up to 1000) synopsis. The very thought of it is daunting.

When I first started down the road to querying, I said to myself, “Self, how the hell are you going to make this happen?!” So I researched, and that’s really all I had to go on. I hadn’t yet established myself in the writing community, had no writer friends, so I had no idea how much more was out there and how helpful it would be.

Fast forward a few months (AFTER I sent out copious amounts of really shitty queries 🤦🏼‍♀️), and I’d begun making writer friends and learning more about the craft by attending conferences and webinars, signing up for live query panels, taking classes, etc. What did that do for me? Well, among other wonderful writing-related things, it opened my eyes to what agents want to see in queries—and what they don’t want to see. It allowed me to improve my query- and pitch-writing skills, which ultimately resulted in getting agent likes on pitches and requests for partials and fulls for my completed manuscripts.

It’s an exciting thing to be in the querying stage! I know a lot of writers don’t like it; it’s scary, it causes anxiety… but as with anything in life, I always say this: the key to overcoming that stress and anxiety and fear is having confidence in what you’re doing. (Similar to what P.S. Literary Agent Cece Lyra says re: ambition vs anxiety!) And how do you gain confidence? By obtaining the knowledge and experience. Knowledge + experience = confidence. And when you feel confident in what you’re doing, it shows in your writing.

knowledge + experience = confidence

I started this blog post thinking it would be great to get all three items in it. But there’s too much important information to skimp on just to make the post shorter. So, I’ve decided to make it a three-part blog post. This one will focus on queries and the book cover copy (blurb). The next one will focus on pitches. And the last one will focus on the dreaded synopses.

So, let’s start with writing the blurb. The blurb is the back cover copy, the write-up about your book (sans spoilers!) that will entice readers to buy it. There are many reasons people buy books, but if your blurb is boring, they’re not going to want to read it. This is also what the agents see in your query. It’s their first look at what you’ve got to offer the publishing world, so you need it to be as strong as possible when seeking agent representation. You’ve only got about thirty seconds to impress an agent, so make it count!

There are essentially five+ components to a good blurb (and thanks to one of my favourite agents, Cece Lyra at P.S. Literary for these!). Incidentally, they all start with S’s:

  • Short
  • Specific
  • Story-forward
  • Stress & Strain
  • Spark curiosity
  • Structured (bonus)
  • Simple (bonus)

You want your query blurb to be short and to the point, using specific details that are essential to the plot and keep it moving forward. Keep it about the main plot and don’t worry about side characters and a B story. Don’t name too many characters, and don’t focus on world-building in the blurb. You want to use powerful words that spark curiosity, but you also want to use the KISS method: keep it simple. Don’t be too flowery with your words. Tension and voice must be present in the query so the agent gets a sense of the stress and strain your main character is going to experience in the story. Using sharp specifics in your query blurb can help cut down on the word count.

Remember: a typical query should be between 250-350 words in total. That includes your opening paragraph (usually where the meta data is) and your bio paragraph (usually at the bottom).

Many agents prefer the book-cook-hook method of query writing (some refer to it as the hook-book-cook method, but it means the same thing), which means you introduce your book first, then you talk about the story and really hook that agent into asking for pages, and then a bit about yourself. And if you don’t have writing credentials, don’t worry! That’s ok. You don’t need to have a long list of publications or an MFA or even any kind of English degree. Anyone can write stories—it just takes dedication, determination, passion, and perseverance to finish those stories and polish them to the point where they’re ready for querying. It takes time, effort, and learning. Never stop learning! No matter how much knowledge you possess about writing, there is always more to be learned. There’s never a point where you can say, “yep, I think I’ve finally learned all there is to know about writing,” because it’s an ever-evolving world.

So what does all of this mean?

It means you want to amp up your story as much as possible without giving away spoilers. (Save that for the synopsis!) How do we do this?

Start with the meta data. This is the information about your book’s title, word count, age category and genre. It also typically includes comps so the agent has a general idea of tone, theme, storyline, etc. Stick to two comps, and make sure you’ve actually read the books. You can also use a movie, tv series, or even a song or album (or even the artist!) to comp to (but use at least one book). Be creative! But show what you’re taking from each comp and how it applies to your story. You can also personalize this paragraph just a bit according to each agent to show him/her/them why you are querying. What about that agent makes you think you’re a good fit for their client list? And what makes you think they’re a good fit for YOU and your story?) Do you have a connection on Twitter? Mention it. Do you attend their writing webinars? Let them know how much you appreciate their knowledge and insight. Did you read on their MSWL (manuscript wish list) that they like certain story elements in a certain genre that you have in your manuscript? Mention that. But keep this paragraph small. Make sure you capitalize your manuscript’s title and italicize the comp titles. It makes a difference in readability and follows the standard format for this paragraph.

Next is the blurb. Stick to one-two paragraphs if you can, or a maximum of three. The key is to highlight the most important aspects of your story. Make sure your MC is in a pressure cooker situation to get that tension high. Use strong words that portray the tone and voice of your writing style and the theme of the story. Use emotion in your blurb. (That is to say, use wording that will elicit emotion.) You want that agent to connect with your MC, and emotion is the way to do it.

Exercise: Take a sheet of paper and a pen. Write down a few words that describe the themes and emotions in your story and the tone it represents. Also, what are the key plot points that make your story unputdownable? Then take 5-10 minutes and brainstorm words that coincide with those themes, emotions, and tones. Take another few minutes to find synonyms for those words. Choose the strongest, most enticing options, making sure they’ll flow nicely and make sense in your summary, and then go forth and write your blurb!

Pro Tip: Write your query BEFORE you actually draft. When you get that idea, when the excitement is pulsing through your veins and you can’t wait to start outlining and get to drafting, THAT is when you want to write that blurb. It’s when you have all the exciting main ideas for the plot, the ones that are going to thrill and hook and create curiosity, before it gets cluttered with allllll the other (still important but not front-and-centre) details of the story. Because the clutter is what you want to keep OUT of the query, and it’s really hard to see the forest for the trees once you have the entire manuscript completed.

Now, don’t fret if you’ve already completed your manuscript and haven’t even started on any of this stuff. You can still do it—you just have to have laser-sharp focus on your story so you can pick out only the things that are absolutely essential to the plot.

The other super important thing is you need to have fresh eyes on your work. If you’ve never queried before and you haven’t gotten some feedback (ideally a few people in the writing community), I promise you: it’s not ready. It’s imperative that you have a trusted critique partner who can read your blurb. Get their opinion on it. Ask them these questions:

  1. Do you understand the plot? (Have them summarize in their own words.)
  2. Is there tension? Do you feel anxious for the MC?
  3. Do you connect with the MC and understand why he/she/they must Do The Thing?
  4. Are the stakes high enough? (Tension, tension, tension!)
  5. Does it spark your curiosity enough to want to read the pages?

So. In your query blurb, you want to do these things:

  • Introduce your MC with age and a descriptor; mention a flaw, misbelief, or struggle
  • Allude to their secret
  • Introduce MC’s status quo or norm and what the MC wants in life
  • Introduce the catalyst or inciting incident that’s going to propel your MC into a different world or set of circumstances
  • Introduce an antagonist or major obstacle that’s going to disrupt that norm but give it a twist so there’s tension. The more twisty it is, the hookier your blurb will be.
  • What threatens your MC by the choice to accept their path?
  • Mention those high stakes—what specific things does your MC stand to lose?
  • Give a specific (but not spoiler-y!) detail about what will happen
  • End it with a jaw-dropping line if possible—something that will absolutely make the agent say, “YES! I need to read this!”

Things to stay away from:

  • Rhetorical questions—it’s usually going to be the most obvious choice, and if it’s not, then why does the story even exist?
  • Flowery language—use powerful words and cut back on the word count
  • Too much description of the world or characters
  • Too many characters being named—stick to the essential characters
  • Not enough voice, tension, emotion
  • Not enough plot
  • Mentioning the themes—they should be apparent in the blurb (and of course in the pages)
  • No content warnings. If there’s sensitive content, please warn the agent. It is genuinely appreciated by all (this goes for CPs, too)
  • Telling the agent this is “the next big novel” or that “you’re going to love it” or “it’ll give you all the feels.” A) those are awfully big shoes to fill as a debut novelist, and while it could eventually be true, you don’t want to sound over-confident, and B) an agent doesn’t want to be told how they’ll feel about your story.

Below are two examples of query letters. (Click to enlarge.) On the left is my query that has so far gotten me four full requests and three partial requests. The one the right is my query for my current WIP (not yet finished, so that means not yet queried). The blurbs are my book cover copies, which is what I have in my novels section on my website. Can you point out all the above elements in each of them?

And just for shits ‘n’ giggles, let’s take a look at my first-every query, shall we?

Go ahead, get your laughs out. I’ll wait.

But do you see the difference? I used a question personally addressed to the reader right off the bat. At that point, the agent wouldn’t yet have any idea what the book was about, and that’s all they care about. My thought behind it was to evoke curiosity or fear, but without investment in the plot or character, who cares? I didn’t even have the right genre because at that point, I’d just written a book and that’s all that mattered. I didn’t realize how important placing your manuscript in the correct genre is. There are no stakes in the blurb, there’s no tension, no emotion. No threats, no content warning. No powerful words. Just a bunch of vague hibbity-jibbity that not even a fairy godmother could transform.

The point is, it was my first query. And I sent it out. And it got rejected… (I would be shocked now if that ever garnered anything other than a rejection.) But since connecting with so many other writers in the writing community who are in all different stages of their writing career, I built friendships. I gained knowledge. I found out about classes and courses and conferences and webinars and podcasts and writing retreats. I found out about websites and tools and I’ve learned and grown since then. And that’s the best part about the writing process—the friends you make and the knowledge you gain along the way. And then, sharing it with other writers who are where you once stood to help make their road a little less bumpy. 💜

Most of us have dumpster fire query letters like my first attempt above. But by putting the effort into learning how to do it properly, we can completely change it into something that works.

Quick Tip: Be courteous and professional. A query letter is like a cover letter for a job (even though it’s you that’s “hiring” the agent!) and your resume is the manuscript. In *most* cases (and there are always exceptions), you don’t want to get too quirky and ask questions and be sarcastic (i.e. invoking the voice of your character). Show the agent who YOU are. What is your author voice?

And one last thing: with any tips you read (including this post) and feedback you receive, take what works for you, and leave the rest. I’m going to go ahead and use everyone’s favourite word and say that the publishing world is very subjective. It really is. What one person loves, another is going to dislike. You’ll always get feedback on your query no matter how much you revise it, because someone will always see something that they think needs changing. At the end of the day, you need to be comfortable and confident with what you’re sending out into the world. Learn what you can, get some feedback, apply what resonates with you to your work, and shoot for the stars. You will never know until you try. And you also learn and grow by trying.

You can listen to all these things and more right from the experts by tuning into The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast! Hosted by author and creative writing instructor Bianca Marais, Cece Lyra, and fellow agent Carly Watters at P.S. Literary, the podcast features a Books With Hooks segment each week where you can hear critiques of query letters and first five pages. How awesome is that?! The episodes also feature interviews with amazing authors and industry professionals. There’s so much to learn from listening. I highly recommend it! (AND their second Writer’s Retreat is happening the last weekend of September 2022 with an INCREDIBLE line-up of authors, industry professionals, webinars, chats, prizes, and more! Check it out here (info coming soon) and don’t wait to register!

Good luck in your query journey! And if you want an extra set of eyes, I offer an array of editing and query package critique services, which you can read more about here.

Tips are so greatly appreciated! If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, your tip can help me continue to provide more content!

PART II will be coming up shortly: PITCHES. Stay tuned!

Published by kathleenfoxx

Author of domestic thrillers and gothic horror.

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