I’ll start this article with a billboard-sized caveat: I’m not a published author, so please take this advice with a grain of chicken salt. What I share below is recent feedback (as in, within the last month) from a conference I attended virtually during lockdown. I was given fifteen minutes each with five agents and editors from publishing houses and got to chat about all things querying, the industry, submissions, and what grabs their interest. Some agents/publishers ask for three chapters, others want the first chapter. For the sake of this article, I’ll go with what I was asked to submit for the conference: the first ten pages of my manuscript and a synopsis.
Note: Please forgive my light-hearted approach to what is actually an incredibly stressful and exposing time. I was a basket case on the day of these meetings. I won’t pretend otherwise. This is a big deal! You are handing qualified strangers a piece of your heart and asking for criticism. I don’t take that lightly. Also, I hide behind humour.
They’re not lying when they say you really need to polish the first ten pages of your MS. These ten pages were the basis for each of my conversations, and agents and publishers will make sweeping assumptions of your work based on them (whether rightly or wrongly… but remember in situations when you’re paying for every minute of their time, the agent is always right [http://www.macgregorandluedeke.com/blog/ask-agent-prepare-meet-agent-conference/]).
This is a super daunting task for anyone, and if you’re anything like me, the first ten pages of your story are a giant pain in your rear. You’ve no doubt rewritten them five times more than any other section, and it probably isn’t even the most interesting part of your story—but unfortunately, that doesn’t matter.
Ten pages is ten pages, and I’m a fixer, so here are some practical tips to make these ten pages work as hard as possible for you:
Setting. Is. (Quite literally) Everything.
This was mentioned by every single agent and publisher I spoke to when it comes to samples. The importance of establishing the who, what, when and where seems like a pretty standard thing, but I’ll share some wisdom that was hard learnt: however much setting/placement you think you’ve done, it’s probably not enough. Are you serious, Sarah? You cry. How am I supposed to give them more without delivering a side of info-dumping at the same time? I hear you.
How to fix this:
Show your worldbuilding strategically within your synopsis and opening by using terminologies unique to your story and setting (the example of “faction” from Divergent was given by an agent as a really good way of doing this).
If your setting is current world, present time, use relatable, identifying terms that establish this: country of location, technology, etc.
But I’ve done this. How do I check it’s enough?
The problem with being so close to your work is forgetting, outside of a synopsis/sample pages, agents and publishers know nothing about your story. This goes for beta readers and critique partners: they usually know more about your story than agents will, and so may not be the best litmus test for whether you’ve established setting effectively enough.
How to get past this:
Put your work in front of someone who knows nothing about your story and see what they’re picking up about the who, what, where and when. If the details they return are scattered, inconclusive, or if they’re confused… you’ll know you need to do more.
You’re the voice (yes, I went there)
The next most important thing agents and publishers look for is character voice. Is it engaging? Do they get a clear sense of this character, their problem, and who they are?
But… isn’t this subjective?
Oh boy, yes it is. Even better: agents and publishers know this, and freely admit it. All five gave their opinions, followed up with “but this is my subjective opinion, others may not feel this way”. So, in the face of absolute uncertainty about how your work will be received, how to you try and cover all bases?
Think critically about your sample and get others to help you by asking these questions (Beta readers or critique partners are helpful here):
Do we know how they’re feeling?
Is there a balance of action and internal monologue?
Do we know what they want?
Dat prologue, though…
You know the rumour about how agents and publishers hate prologues? Well, it’s true. But it’s also not true. Am I being contradictory? Yes. And no.
The reason I’m beating around this football-field size bush is because there is no real consensus on whether you should have one or not. The answer is: if you have one, make it worth it—but leave it out of your sample.
IF you have one, I know what you’re probably thinking, because I thought it, too: “But… they want the first ten pages…?” Here is some more wisdom, hard won: even if your prologue is useful, it’s not going to be when they’re reading a sample. If they need concept/plot context, they’ll get that from your pitch or synopsis. The first ten pages is really about showcasing your talent as a writer, putting them in the setting, and getting to know who your character is when the story actually starts.
If your prologue is a change in POV to the rest of your story, or a different time period, you’ll confuse them in two ways: a) who the true protagonist is and b) the when component of the ‘where and when’ part of your setting. If sharing is caring, then take this as a sign I care a whole bucketload, because I’m an overachiever, and my prologue did both of these things to my ever-loving detriment.
So, in an nutshell:
TIP: don’t be like me. You’re welcome.
Another tip: if they request your manuscript, they can read your prologue then.
Final word: if you’re going to have a prologue in your manuscript, make sure you consider these questions: is this truly information a) you need for plot context? and b) you can’t integrate somehow later on in your story? If you’re even a little bit unsure about either of these, you have your answer. Go forth, you prologue-less manuscript writer, you.
We all know that meme: “It’s just a synopsis” “And hell is just a sauna”. We dread the synopsis for a reason: because it’s HARD. Like all worthy things, they don’t come easy, but dear writer, can I pump up your tyres? Finishing a manuscript isn’t easy, either. 99% of people with a story idea never actually finish writing them and 100% of all statistics I spout in this article are probably (definitely) false—but you can see what I’m getting at here: writing your manuscript is hard, and the synopsis is the thing you need to make it all effective. Once you nail your synopsis, the confidence you have about your story goes up ten-fold.
That’s not another fake statistic, by the way. I honestly felt this way. While I’m being real with you about what I did wrong, all the agents/publishers agreed on one thing: apparently, I did the synopsis right. I’ll share some of my tips as well as a few tidbits I picked up on the day:
Have a hook, and open with it. What’s a hook? A hook is a tagline, a quick one or two lines that quickly sum up the main conflict facing your character. Blog articles ‘What makes a good book tagline’ [https://thoughtsonfantasy.com/2016/09/20/what-makes-a-good-book-tagline/] and ‘Loglines and Taglines are different and you need both for your novel’ [https://rwasd.com/2013/06/06/loglines-and-taglines-are-different-and-you-need-both-for-your-novel-by-r-ann-siracusa/] were terrific in helping me understand how to do it.
Don’t be scared to inject your character voice. I attended a bootcamp this time last year hosted by an editor from HarperCollins Australia. One of the things I remember best was her explaining how an effective synopsis was one that sounded like the main character explaining what happens to them. I did mine by pretending to interview my protagonist and going from there.
Ensure clear character agency and arc is present. The synopsis needs to detail the plot, but it also needs to showcase what the character does to solve their problem AND how they change. You can do this by providing a snapshot of the character at the beginning, and then a summation at the end of who they are once the conflict resolves.
Yes, it really does need to be one page. All the agents and publishers agreed: a one-page synopsis is difficult, but it also proves you’re ready to start querying your work. It means you truly understand the story you’ve written and the character that leads it.
Include comparison titles. Including comparison titles do two things: they show that you are well-read in your genre (which hopefully translates that you know what works in your genre and you’ve delivered something that fits), and it also quickly categorises the story you’ve written in their mind.
Condense, refine, condense again. Stuck? Reach out to beta readers or critique partners—people who are familiar with your story as a whole, but are not emotionally connected to it. They can help you pinpoint the key components of your story that should feature in a synopsis, and can also identify areas to condense.
Final tips before I let you walk out the door:
The synopsis is king, but don’t undermine the importance of your pages. Half of the agents and publishers I spoke to read my sample first before the synopsis.
First person and present tense are typically preferred in novels, but…
There are also no rules, because this industry truly is subjective. What you need is an interesting concept—unanimously, this generates interest from agents/publishers, and they can overlook rookie mistakes in your synopsis or sample if they think you’ve got a killer idea.
Watch your manuscript word count. One more time for the people up the back: watch your word count. This is more wisdom, hard won.
It’s 2020. Agents are business as usual, but the industry is not so much. Not many publishers are acquiring right now (apparently), so go slow. Enter literary competitions. Use this time to make sure your manuscript, your synopsis, and your query is ROCK SOLID.
Where to Find Sarah