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A Novelist’s Necessary Evils

[1]There are plenty of great things about writing and publishing novels. But today, I’m not here to discuss any of them.

No, today it’s time to talk about three of the necessary evils a novelist deals with along the way. While these aren’t the only three tough tasks we have to tackle, they’re the ones I’ve heard writers decry most often as they work on their journey toward publication.

You need to write a query letter (ugh). You need to write a synopsis (ouch). And you need to be able to sum up your entire novel in one simple sentence (how?!).

So since each of these is a necessary evil, I thought I’d address a) just how necessary and b) just how evil each one is for the average writer. Let’s begin!

The Query Letter. How necessary? 9 out of 10 if you’re seeking traditional publishing; if you’re going the indie route, make that a 0 of 10. How evil? Mmm, let’s say 7 or 8 out of 10 for most of us.

Look, query letters are tough. But the job of the query letter isn’t to describe your entire novel. It’s just to whet the appetite of the agent to ask for more. If you can frame out what makes your novel especially intriguing, include any special credentials that show why you’re the right person to write it, and leave the agent wanting more, you’ve pretty much got it covered. Easier said than done? Absolutely. A necessary part of the process for hooking an agent? Pretty much totally, unless you happen to hook someone in a pitch session at a conference, and even then, you’ll probably want some kind of query/cover letter to re-introduce yourself when you send your materials along.

The Synopsis. How necessary? Maybe 7 out of 10. How evil? Yeah, that’s a 10. It’s the most.

The only time I’ve kind of enjoyed writing a synopsis was when I did it before writing the book, and even then, it was a long way from fun. It can be brutal to fit 400 pages of novel into 10 pages, 5 pages, or even one page of highlights and make it make any kind of sense. But it falls into the necessary category for those of us lucky enough to sell not-yet-complete novels to our publishers. It doesn’t rate higher on the “necessary” scale because there are plenty of people who have written, sold and published novels without getting anywhere near a synopsis. But some agents require them along with query letters. Some agents and publishers use them in the sale of foreign rights. And as I noted, if you’re selling on proposal, a synopsis is almost always part of that proposal; the publisher wants to know where the novel is headed.

One Sentence That Sums Up Your Novel. How necessary? 10 out of 10, no matter what route to publishing you plan to take. How evil? Could be a 5, could be a 10, depends on you and your book and your attitude.

I know writers push back hard on the idea that a single sentence can sum up an entire book, and yes! It’s impossible. But like the query, the sentence isn’t meant to describe or capture the novel in its entirety — it’s meant to give the listener enough information to figure out if they want more. And at the beginning, that listener could be an agent, but you need this sentence for a thousand other purposes along the way: for an agent to use with editors, for publishers to use with their sales force, and above all, for websites/marketing materials/bookstores/libraries/all-and-sundry to use with readers. At a party, you might be able to answer “What’s your book about?” with a 10-minute diatribe that includes all the major character names, themes you want the reader to take away, the challenges you encountered in research, etc etc — but once your book’s in a bookstore (God willing and the creek don’t rise), you can’t be there in person anymore. A great sentence can be there to represent you instead.

Q: How have you handled the necessary evils of becoming a published novelist?

About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.