As I look ahead to having an actual completed novel—which isn’t a case of counting my chickens before they’re hatched, I don’t think, but rather anticipating what’s to come—there are a few things I have to do that are deceptively difficult. For the most part, they all revolve around one basic question:
“What’s your book about?”
That’s a fair enough question, and one any writer worth their salt should be able to answer (and answer well) in a sentence or two. Believe it or not, that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Take my near-completed novel (which, by the way, has the tentative title Snakebit):
It’s about Jimmy Ray Day, a repo man/enforcer-type guy who works for a crooked car dealer, who’s given a hit to carry out, but he botches the hit in the worst possible way and finds himself on the run from his boss, headed to Mexico with a duffel bag full of cash and cocaine, where he meets a gorgeous (and possibly mentally unstable) young woman who he falls for hard and fast.
Technically that is just one sentence, but it’s a humdinger of a run-on, and that’s just the first half of the book, neglecting to mention anything that happens from that point forward. After spending months (on the conservative side) writing 60,000 + words, trying to summarize it in a few paragraphs or a couple of sentences is pretty hard to do.
But I have to figure it out, because like I said at the beginning, that’s what’s coming up. You have to be able to hook people, make them want to read the book, in a sentence or two—that’s called the “elevator pitch.”
You get it, right? Like, you step onto an elevator and someone else steps on with you (let’s say a forty-something woman in crisp business attire). You exchange pleasantries and you mention you’re a writer (since all writers are so naturally outgoing), and she says, “Is that right? I’m an editor at XXX books.” The elevator starts going up and you realize you have until she gets off the elevator to sell her on your book.
You need to have something ready, something you can say without going, “Okay well…so, there’s this guy, right? He’s like, a criminal, but not really a bad guy, you know? So anyway, this thing comes up, and he doesn’t want to do it but he knows he has to…but he messes it up, and…”
No. You need to spout out a couple sentences that explain who the main character is, what the conflict in the story is, and why it’s compelling.
Then, along with the elevator pitch is the dreaded query letter. A query letter is a one page letter that you send either to publishers, editors, or agents to convince them that your book is awesome and you are awesome and everything you do is awesome (in other words, a completely factual document).
Part of the query letter is listing any publishing credentials, which, luckily, I have a few (although I could stand a few more, ya hear me editors who currently have my submissions?). But the most critical part is the synopsis, where (you guessed it) you spend anywhere from one to three paragraphs explaining what your book’s about and making the person reading the query letter want to read (and therefore, publish or try to publish) your book.
Luckily, there are more articles about and examples of query letters than you can shake a stick at. Also, my second novel (tentatively titled Liberating Oz, BTW), whenever it’s finished (I’m trying to stay realistic and just stick with an end of the year goal), has a much simpler plot and a much clearer hook, so I don’t think that one will present the same challenges.
And so, while I try to rectify a short story that’s a great idea at its core but just isn’t working for some reason, prepare to start a second draft of Oz that’s basically a rewrite, and wait for feedback from Snakebit’s beta readers, I’ll also be looking at query letters, maybe hammering out a draft or two of them, and looking for publishers to send them to.
You writers out there—do you have any trouble summarizing your work into a quick hook? What’s been your experience with query letters?