Tips for Queriers: The Query, the Synopsis, and the First Page

Ten years. That’s how long it took me to get a literary agent.

I began writing my first novel in 2003 and signed with Lindsay Ribar of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in September 2013. Along the way, I queried two other novels unsuccessfully, received piles of rejections in the short story market, and conceded defeat on a novel years in the works. It would have been easy to quit, but I didn’t, and as a result I have a 5-book deal with DAW Books and my debut novel Nova just hit shelves in June.

GIVEAWAY: Margaret is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).

margaret-fortune-author-writer nova-book-cover

Column by Margaret Fortune, author of debut novel NOVA (June 2015,
DAW Books), the first in a 5-book science fiction series coming from DAW

Books. She wrote her first story at the age of six, and has been writing ever
since. She lives in Wisconsin. Find her on Twitter or online.

Getting a literary agent is tough, and I know firsthand what it’s like to query without getting requests. I know how frustrating the radio silence and form rejects can be. If you’re querying, you want to do everything you can to maximize your chances of getting requests. Here are some of my tips for the three main pieces you send out querying: the Query, the Synopsis, and the First Page.

On Queries

1. A statement of fact is not a hook. A good hook contains some hint of the book’s conflict or highlights an interesting plot twist. So read your hook back to yourself. If it’s simply a statement of fact, reword it to add that sense of conflict or intrigue.

2. Write multiple queries. While it’s tempting to write just one and be done, writing multiple queries allows you to try out other hooks and story angles to see which one will be the most effective. You’ve only got one chance to query, so put in the time and do the work. Oftentimes the best idea is not the first one.

3. Query widely. Sometimes it really is a numbers game. I initially queried fifty agents for my novel Nova and received a dozen requests. I was sure one of those agents would offer. Six months later, no one had. I thought about quitting, but instead I queried fifty more agents. I received three offers of representation. Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t quit after the first fifty.

(Never open your novel with a dream — here’s why.)

On Synopses

1.  Like a query, a synopsis is about one thing: Convincing an agent to read your book. Never lose sight of this fact. So when you read your synopsis back, ask yourself, “Would this entice someone to read the book?” If the answer is no, you have some work to do.

2. A lot of writers struggle with the synopsis because they’re too focused on telling every single event. However, a good synopsis isn’t a dry laundry list of events, but a story. It’s like writing your book as a flash fiction, complete with the same tone and feel of your book. Instead of trying to list every single event, just focus on telling the story.

3. Trying to condense your 400-page novel down to 1-2 pages can seem like an impossible task. Rather than condensing the book, try taking your query blurb and saying, “How do I expand this?” You’ll find the task suddenly feels much less impossible.

On First Pages

1. If your opening line is so generic it could be in practically any book, rethink it. A generic opening line isn’t going to do anything for you. Whereas a unique line, something original and tailored to your story, will immediately pull your reader in and get them interested from the get go.

2. Make sure your story is starting in the right place. If you’re opening with a mundane event, such as eating breakfast, ask yourself if this is really the right place to start. And if you do decide it is, find some way to make this mundane scene stand out, whether it’s with snappy dialogue, lyrical writing, or laugh out loud humor.

3. Agents are not required to read the full page, or five pages, or however much material they want with the query. Every line has to buy you the next line; every paragraph has to buy you the next paragraph. So make sure each word counts.

In Conclusion

Sometimes hitting the “send” button on that query can be scary, but remember this: Your chances of getting an agent if you query may be small, but they will be nonexistent if you never query at all. So go hit the send button and best of luck to you!

GIVEAWAY: Margaret is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers’ Conferences:

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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
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the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

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10 thoughts on “Tips for Queriers: The Query, the Synopsis, and the First Page

  1. CarolynFay

    Great piece both for its information and encouragement. I like the idea of writing more than one query from different angles to see which one resonates more. I hadn’t read that elsewhere. Thanks!

    Also, NOVA sounds fantastic– great hook! Putting it on my TBR pile.

  2. wchargo

    I wrote my first manuscript over a 10 year period (in between being a full time mom and working 3 jobs). Someday I will find a Literary Agent to teach me the ropes/ help me submit to publishers to finally get it in the stores. Good luck to you all. God Bless Everyone on their Journey in Life 🙂

  3. writer62

    I self-published my first novel, but would like to use a “real” publisher for the next one. Your article helped explain the terms better than some others. For the longest time, I thought a query and synopsis were different words for the same thing. Then I figured out that they were different, but I still wasn’t sure what to do with them.
    Thank you for this helpful article.

  4. Bop

    Thank you. This was a very enlightening, encouraging article. Reading about your actual experience gives me hope (I’m such a coward!). Also, I’ve seen your book on the shelf and in the book club. You’ve made me curious. I’m going to buy it. Best wishes for your success.

  5. Earlene

    When I have queried agents before, I bought a list which seemed to contain names of agents who represented my genre. Tracking became a problem, but I persevered. Some were nibbles and others never replied. So getting a list of reputable agents seems one of the first challenges. How did you acquire your list? Also I would love to read the answers to the above questions.
    Congratulations on your ‘deal’ and on the publication of ‘Nova’. May we all find the perseverance to reach this goal. I’m 70, something has to crack open soon. E

  6. flocarter

    I particularly engaged myself in your On First Pages tip about starting in the right place. My book presently starts with my grandmother on a train leaving Louisiana seeking opportunities elsewhere. Your tip will allow me to examine other starting places, such as when she met a gentleman on a streetcar who she later married. Or, when a lady approached her with a business proposition. Great tip!

  7. TriciaJoy

    Congrats on your novel and 5-book publishing deal! Your story is encouraging. Great info. Thanks!
    I also would like to know the answer to hkjones’ question. What was your process of sending out your agent queries? Did you alter your materials just slightly as needed and submit one after another? Or did you submit at query a day? How did you keep track of your submissions and responses? Did you have to contact agents you’d queried once you knew you were being considered by someone else?

  8. hkjones813

    One of the most helpful, succinct articles on queries I’ve read. I had a question. You mentioned querying 50 agents, then 50 agents again after the first rejections. Did you send out those 50 queries simultaneously? I have heard that simultaneous submissions to publishers is a no-no, but I don’t know about submissions to agents. I’m a novice writer so this is the kind of basic stuff I just don’t know.


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