Assumption: You’ve polished your manuscript to a fine glow. You’ve had it critiqued by a group of writers versed in the craft of writing, not just your spouse. If this is not correct, stop reading right now and work on it!
Before you even start thinking about querying an agent, you have to think about your work. You know, that big, sprawling, four-hundred page document that you have languishing on your hard drive. We’re going to work on this like a maple sap run in February: go from the big stuff down to the concentrated essence.
Format. Is your work in Standard Manuscript Format? I sure hope so! I have read manuscripts from a variety of writers, and I can tell you this: no two are formatted alike. I can see why agents and publishers get foamy mouths when they talk about formatting. Check out Shunn’s Standard Manuscript Format, and spend a day or so putting your manuscript into a standard format. I’ll cover why later. For now, just trust me on this. Oh, and if you like Standard Format pre-digested, take a look at my Reference Library and download a Word Document where I’ve already done the hard work for ya.
Attachments. Agent queries are as different from one another as two people in a crowd. This one just wants a pitch. That one wants the first five chapters of your manuscript. This other one wants a 1000 word synopsis. The one over in the corner wants a pitch and a 400 word synopsis. And the best find of your search wants the first fifty pages. How do you keep all of this squared away? Simple. Break it down into three entities: samples, synopses, and pitches.
Samples. Agents occasionally ask for Manuscript samples. Sometimes with the original query, sometimes as a ‘partial’ submission. You never, ever want to be in the position of receiving an email from the agent asking for the first three chapters, and realizing you have not done the final edit on them. Worse, having another email come in and ask for the first fifty pages. Why? If you take two weeks to get the partial back to the agent, she’s processed another three hundred submissions, and will have great difficulty remembering yours. You have to have these things ready!
Create samples for your first: three chapters and a different sample for your first five chapters. Create separate samples for your first twenty-five and first fifty pages. Most agents aren’t exact about the end point of numbered pages requests—if you need another page or two to finish a scene that ends at page fifty, they won’t reject you if you send them an attachment that runs to page fifty-two.
When I was creating my synopses, I stored the originals in their own folder, called ‘Masters’. Why? Every agent works differently. Some want .rtf files, others want .pdf, or .doc only, no .docx. With all the variants, and given that Word can convert from .docx to any of the above, it’s just easier to open the Master document, then Save As the variant needed.
Synopsis. Synopses are concentrated boil-downs of that four hundred page tub of sap you’re sitting on. Pitches are more like the dollop of syrup you put on your pancakes. The longest synopsis I’ve seen requested is a 1000 word synopsis (about five pages). For me, that was relatively simple: I just took my plot outline and put a little meat on it. Once you have your 1000 word synopsis, carve it down to a 700 word (about three pages) and a 400 word synopsis (about two pages). Save the documents with the word count in the filename, so it’s easy to differentiate one from the other. After the synopsis, it’s time to write the pitch.
Pitch. Right after I finished this work, I found a couple who call themselves The Book Doctors. Pretty catchy, I thought. They were hosting an event called Pitchapalooza. Think American Idol, only instead of singing, you pitch your book. Most excellently cool! One minute to pitch, exactly. OK. That’s about 200 words, minus. I looked at the four hundred pages of my manuscript…how do you condense 100,000 words of deathless prose into 200? Argh!
That is why I advise every novelist: when you first get an idea for a novel, write it down. Immediately. Sure, it might change before the story is done, but that single idea, be it a phrase, question, statement, or concept, is as small as the idea will ever get.
But if you, like me, didn’t do that, take your four hundred word synopsis and boil it down to two paragraphs. If you want to know precisely how to craft a pitch, there are a bazillion websites out there on how to do it. Personally, I would recommend that you start here, read the pitches, but most importantly, read the commentary from The Book Doctors. They’ve been doing online Pitchapalooza with NaNoWriMo for a few years, so search their site (and NaNoWriMo.org) for their feedback.
Got all that done? Great! Now you’re at the end of the beginning. Next up, finding that agent!