Write Tips: Writing The Short Query Novel Pitch

Query letters and synopses are the bane of so many authors’ existence, aren’t they? I dread them and find them quite frustrating. They never seem to elicit the kind of enthusiastic response equal to that I get from my writing itself. It’s always disappointing when readers are loving a manuscript but you can’t agents or publishers to take a look. Yes, I know it’s all about numbers (i.e. percenatages) and finding the right match, but still, it’s so much easier when you can let the writing sell itself, but that’s not how the industry works.

Now, there’s good reason for that. By sheer quantity alone, agents and editors just can’t read all the millions of words that people try and put on their desks. A weeding out of wheat from chafe is necessary and there’s not a perfect way to do that. So query letters and synopses remain key elements of getting professionally published. I don’t see this changing for the foreseeable future either.

That leaves writers with one option: we must learn how to write queries and synopses. So I decided to do a series of Write Tips on related topics as I prepare for my latest round. This first one is going to deal with one of the most important but challenging: writing the short query synopsis for your book. You have to hook them in 100 words and get them to want more. It’s really tough to sum up a 130k novel in 100 words. 90k novels, too. But one of the first paragraphs and key paragraphs of any good query, research says, is the synopsis of the book. So, here’s the one I am working on for Duneman, book 1 of my epic fantasy trilogy The Dawning Age.

The Terran Lands, ravaged by wars brought on by men of faith and men of magic. As science and reason replace the now outlawed beliefs, a struggle for control of the new technologies and discoveries threatens the peace again. In the midst of this, a man of faith, Kaleb Ryder, awakens in the desert, left for dead, only to be told his wife and child are missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. With the child’s fate tied to the peace of the Lands, Kaleb’s life is on the line, and he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself. Duneman, Book 1 Of The Dawning Age, an epic fantasy trilogy.

But before we talk about that, here’s where I started and some Facebook comments that helped me get where I am. (And I am still not done.)

In a world transitioning from a war torn age of faith and magic to a peaceful age of science and reason, a man awakens in the desert, left for dead. As he begins piecing back together his identity and his past, he sets out to rescue the kidnapped wife and child who hold the answers he needs. But soon he discovers things are not what they seem—discovering skills he hadn’t imagined he had and evidence that the wife and child are not who he thought. Others are hunting them with nefarious goals and the race is on to see who will get there first. With his life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to uncover the truths about himself and his past and protect his future.

Duneman, Book 1 Of The Dawning Age, an epic fantasy trilogy by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Here are comments from my Facebook page a couple of months back when I posted this.

    • Tim Ward I’m not really one to judge query letters, but it looks like a story I’d want to read.
    • Charles P. Zaglanis I would suggest using their names. Even as an introduction, I want to get a feel for the people in the story. Also, maybe excise the bit that sounds like Total Recall, the movie didn’t do well.
    • Chelvanaya Gabriel Ooooh – I really like the sound of this! 🙂 Might I suggest: “In a world transitioning from a war-torn age of faith and magic to a peaceful age of science and reason, a man awakens in the desert, left for dead and his wife and child kidnapped/missing/lost/gone/taken. Setting out to rescue them, he soon discovers things are not what they seem – his family may not be who he thought, others are on the hunt for them and he possesses skills previously unknown to him. With his life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, the race is on for him to rescue his wife and child, protect their future and uncover truths about himself.”
    • Cindy Koepp Neato! That sounds like one I’d want to read.
    • Jay Werkheiser Here are a few tweaks I might recommend, but bear in mind that I’m no expert on writing query letters! I’d drop “back” from piecing back his identity. You use forms of the word “discover” twice in the same sentence; I would change one of them. Also in that sentence, I would drop “he had” after skills he hadn’t imagined. In the next sentence, I would drop “with nefarious goals” and “to see who gets there first;” I think both are already implied by the context. Like I said, take my suggestions with a large grain of salt; use what you like and ignore the rest! In any case, it sounds like a cool novel!
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt Jay, Chelvanya, helpful thanks. Thanks Tim and Cindy and even Joe. Charles, honestly, which part sounds like Total Recall? I am missing it…
      Also the problem with names is his identity changes over the course of the story. So it’s hard to know which name to use.
    • Chelvanaya Gabriel I like the idea of using his name but I can see why it would be tricky. If you want to use a name, maybe you could use whatever name he starts out with? I feel like using a name works best when the name is unique (even if it is going to change). OR maybe to get that same connection to the story via a name, why not give us the name of the world?
    • Guy Anthony De Marco Any time I see “In a world”, the voice switches to the guy who does voice-overs for movie trailers and I get distracted 🙂
    • Ann Leckie Ditto on using names, at least your MC. I have the same problem with my MC, and I chose one for the query. Which was very successful. I’m in agreement with the “In a world where…” being maybe not the best approach. I also think that “transitioning from a war torn age of faith and magic to a peaceful age of science and reason” is a bit awkward–I had to take a couple runs at it to separate it out. And I’d suggest that it’s information that doesn’t need to be in the first sentence. It should be there, just not right up front like that, IMO.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt ROUND 2: Kaleb Ryder awakens in the desert, left for dead, his wife and child missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and rediscover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from skills he hadn’t imagined to questions about his relation to the kidnapped woman and child. The Terran Lands have transitioned from a war-torn age of faith and magic to one of science and reason where the former are now banned. Now, with Kaleb’s life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris his wife and child missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and rediscover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from skills he hadn’t imagined to questions about his relation to the kidnapped woman and child. <–there’s a contradiction here. You tell us his wife and child are missing, then he has questions about his relationship to the kidnapped woman and child…but you’ve already told us what that is. I’d recommend introducing the kidnapped woman and child as unknowns (and telling us why he cares about rescuing them), then raising the question of how they might be related to him. I think we need to know more specifically what the conflict is and how it relates to the peace of their world and Kaleb’s personal quest to find out who he is.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt The challenge is he starts out believing one thing and so do we as readers, but it gets twisted and changes over the course of the story. How to convey that in a way that won’t have someone who accepted a query feeling deceived is difficult.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt ROUND 2b: Kaleb Ryder awakens in the desert, left for dead, his wife and child missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. The Terran Lands have transitioned from a war-torn age of faith and magic to one of science and reason where the former are now banned. Now, with Kaleb’s life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris I’d say “apparent relationship with the kidnapped woman and child”, and make the things he discovers about his world and himself a little more apparent. Also, if he doesn’t remember who he is, how does he know his wife and child are missing? Is there evidence that’s been planted to make him think that? If he doesn’t remember and doesn’t feel anyhting for them because of that lack of memory, why does that draw him through the story? (these are just questions I’ve got, which an agent might also have. I’m still trying to figure out why his quest has anything to do with the conflict between magic and science, war and peace. Can you tie that more solidly together? At the moment, I can’t figure out why he cares about the woman and child or the transition of the government from magic to science, because what you’ve given is still a bit too vague.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris I’d also just say that all your secrets don’t have to be saved until later. Sometimes you have to spoil the plot a bit in order to show off the main conflict.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt The Terran Lands, ravaged by wars brought on by men of faith and men of magic. As science and reason replace the now outlawed beliefs, a struggle for control of the new technologies and discoveries threatens the peace again. In the midst of this, a man of faith, Kaleb Ryder, awakens in the desert, left for dead, only to be told his wife and child are missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. Now, with Kaleb’s life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris I like that a lot better! I think it explains more. What’s still missing is what this has to do with the peace of their world. What role will Kaleb play?
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt The Terran Lands, ravaged by wars brought on by men of faith and men of magic. As science and reason replace the now outlawed beliefs, a struggle for control of the new technologies and discoveries threatens the peace again. In the midst of this, a man of faith, Kaleb Ryder, awakens in the desert, left for dead, only to be told his wife and child are missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. With the child’s fate tied to the peace of the Lands, Kaleb’s life is on the line, and he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
      Duneman, Book 1 Of The Dawning Age, an epic fantasy trilogy.
Okay, that gives you a sense of where I started and how it evolved. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear in comments. Next we’ll discuss the rest of the query before we move on to the big synopsis.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

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