Query Letters, Synopses, and Samples: Tips From Penguin (Canada) Editor Adrienne Kerr

On August 8 and 9, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop presented by Adrienne Kerr, Commissioning Editor, Commercial Fiction, Penguin (Canada). In advance of the workshop, we each submitted a query letter, a five page synopsis, and a five page excerpt from our novel; in other words, just the sort of package one would submit to an editor (or agent) in hopes of being asked for a full manuscript.

The following is my summary of Adrienne’s advice to us, written with her permission (but not reviewed by her).

Note: She did not address proper formatting, but it goes without saying that the documents should be in standard format (letter, manuscript, etc.), subject to any specific guidelines of the publisher or agent.

Choosing an Agent or Editor

A quick way to find a suitable editor or agent is to pick up books similar to yours and read the Acknowledgements pages. Usually authors will thank their editors and agents, and you can simply take down these names and go from there. Another resource is Publishers Marketplace, which contains lots of information about books that have been purchased, by whom, and for how much. This allows you to specifically target agents and editors who might be interested in your book.

Query Letter

The purpose of a query letter is to intrigue, compel, and convince, and it should be written in a clear, concise, and confident manner. Editors are busy and looking for any reason to reject a submission; a poorly written letter is reason enough.

The most important part of any query letter is the tagline. This is the single sentence that pitches your book, and should have a compelling and emotional hook. If a writer is unable to reduce the appeal of a book to one line, an editor might suspect the book lacks focus.

Next most important is a one paragraph summary of your novel. This should read like jacket copy (Adrienne suggests reading a lot of jacket copy to get an idea)–it doesn’t give away the ending, but entices the editor to read more. It introduces the premise and major character(s) and builds confidence that this is a book the editor should buy. Use strong, active verbs and exciting language. Think: search engine optimization. How would readers find your book using Google? What key terms would they punch in? Your pitch should include these. It shouldn’t read like a synopsis or contain too much detail.

The query letter should also place your novel in the market, by comparing your book to other, published books. Pick one or two bestsellers (but not record-setters like Harry Potter or Hunger Games) to help an editor figure out what sort of novel they’re dealing with. It doesn’t always have to be, “This book is like [name of bestseller] meets [name of bestseller],” but could also be something along the lines of, “…similar to [name of bestseller] in scope, and having a strong unicorn-conservation message like [name of bestseller].”

Aside from the foregoing, your query letter should detail any publication credits, awards, and favorable reviews (if you have many, pick only the best few); names of relevant affiliations and memberships (e.g. SFWA); your occupation, especially if it’s related to the type of book you’re writing (e.g. a high school teacher writing YA, or a historian writing medieval fantasy); names of any workshops and conventions you’ve attended, as well as any respected instructors you’ve studied under (again, if there are many, list only the best ones); social media addresses, including websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.–editors like to know you’re accessible and reaching out to potential readers; the word count of your novel, and an indication of whether it’s complete and/or part of a series; and whether the submission is exclusive.

If you have dual citizenship, state this, as it might open up additional marketing opportunities.

A structure that was suggested by a workshop attendee, and endorsed by Ms. Kerr, was the following:

  1. Long pitch, including the hook and summary;
  2. Comparison pitch, positioning your novel in the market;
  3. A listing of your credentials and credits; and
  4. Call to action (i.e. what you are seeking from the editor or agent).

All of this should be no more than one page. Yes, it can be done.

Synopsis

Synopses aren’t fun to read. They’re dense and do the opposite of what good stories do: they tell. Everything. Don’t be coy; there are no secrets, surprises, or cliff-hangers. Spill the beans. But do so succinctly and with as much clarity as possible. Get the essential characters, conflicts, and plot elements in there, but leave out extraneous detail. Have sympathy on an editor who’s seeing your book for the first time. Less is generally more.

A well-written synopsis will often be re-purposed by an editor (or agent) for things like marketing pitches and jacket copy. This makes an editor’s job easier and gives the author a direct hand in the process.

Sample

Aside from being nicely written on a line-to-line basis (i.e. grammatically correct, error free, showing rather than telling, etc.), a good sample should establish a concrete, evocative setting, introduce at least one compelling character (but not too many), contain a gripping conflict, and leave an editor wanting more.

Your query and synopsis might intrigue an editor, but it is the writing sample that will sell them (or not).

So, in summary, your job is to be brief, clear, and compelling—easy, right?

Any other tips to share? I’d love to hear them.

And many thanks to Adrienne Kerr for putting on such a great and informative workshop.

Trackback URL

  • Tim Reynolds

    Terrific advice, Erika! Thank you for sharing the highlights of Ms. Kerr’s workshop. This is exactly what I needed to read, when I needed to read it.