Friday, January 8, 2010


By Sylvia Baumgarten

If you were a gorgeous model, and were looking to snag a big contract, you wouldn’t send an agency a photo that showed you in hair curlers and bunny slippers. If you were a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, you wouldn’t turn in a thesis filled with erasures, crossed-out words and a few coffee stains. In short, whatever your talent in this competitive world, you’ve probably learned that it doesn’t count for much unless you make a good first impression.

It’s no different with writing, whether or not you’re published. At every step of the way, that first impression of each new book is what speaks for you.

A good query letter is often your first introduction to an editor or agent. You want her to read your material and think you’re terrific, but most of all, you want her to think you’re a professional. Remember, that writing is a business, not a hobby. Your query letter should be friendly without being chatty; it should be short, business-like and to the point. Three or four paragraphs is plenty for a query letter. The editor or agent doesn’t have time or patience for more.

If that seems like a tall order, let’s take it one step at a time.

First, do your homework. Have a solid, well-thought-through synopsis and a clear idea of what your book is about, whom you want to target, what line, what editor, what agent. The Romance Writers Report from RWA, Romantic Times, and other romance publications can give you some idea of who might be interested in your particular material.

Next, let’s format your query letter. It should be typed not handwritten, single-spaced, a business format with your address, recipient’s address and the date.

“Dear Miss/Ms./Mr. So-and-So.” Unless you’re a personal friend of the recipient, no first names please.

First paragraph: “It was very helpful to meet and speak with you on whatever-the-date. I appreciate the time you spent with me. As requested, I’m sending you the synopsis and three chapters of MAKE ME RICH AND FAMOUS, the book I discussed with you that day.” (Editors meet lots of people. They welcome a reminder of who you are and where you met.)

If you haven’t met the agent or editor, you might begin instead by saying: “I understand that you are particularly interest in books about Blah, blah, blah…, so I’m taking the liberty of sending this along to you.” Or you could say, “I read in Romantic Times that you’re interested in….” etc.

Second paragraph: Describe your work. This should be a short paragraph. Think of it as an advertisement and stress the most interesting elements of your book. If you’re querying without sending a synopsis (and some agents and editors want just a letter first), you can expand the description of the book to a short couple of paragraphs. “MAKE ME RICH AND FAMOUS is about a woman who writes an instant best-seller and meets the man of her dreams at the same time. The conflict between love and fame forms the heart of the novel. It is set against the glamour of the New York publishing world, and the mysterious splendor of Korea, where the book is printed.”

If you have publishing credits, or professional affiliations and awards as a writer, the next paragraph is the place to put them in. But only if they’re significant. If you've had several articles printed in the PTA bulletin, or in your company's newsletter, it doesn’t count. And she’s probably not interested in what you did for a living before you started writing. Unless, of course, you’ve done something really exotic like sky-diving over the Andes and that’s the theme of your book! If they buy the book, you’re a P.R. man’s ready-made dream and an easy sell for the talk shows!

Skip your personal bio as well as your non-writing professional one. The editor doesn’t care if you’re the Mother of the Year, Miss Congeniality, or the life of the office party. She wants to know if you can write. Period. If nothing in your background is helpful to her appreciation of you as a writer, leave out this paragraph entirely. This isn’t the place to stroke your ego. Believe me, she won’t notice an absent biography. She would, however, notice the amateurishness of someone who writes: “I bake cookies for the office staff and I volunteer at the local hospital on weekends, where I get to work on my novel on my laptop.”

Close your letter with the sincere hope that she finds some merit in your material, and thank her for taking the time to look it over. A brief salutation (nothing cute –“Yours for passionate romance” is definitely out!), “Yours truly,” or “Sincerely,” will do very nicely, and then you’re done.

A few Don’ts:

     Don’t say: You’ll love it.

     Don’t say: It’s a terrific book.

     Don’t tell her how long and hard you’ve worked.

     Don’t start discussing things like title changes or pen names, as though you expect a $50,000 check by return mail.

     Don’t add a mushy family bio, a list of your favorite romance authors, or a sexy publicity photo of you in or out of costume. (Yes, writers have all done these things!)

     Don’t include suggested art work for the cover or back cover blurb. You haven’t sold your book yet.

Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (with enough postage) if you want your material returned to you. Expect to wait two or three months before you get a response. In the meantime, don’t bug the editor with phone calls. If you don’t hear from her after several months, drop her a note, reminding her (politely) of when you submitted your material.

You might want to include a self-addressed stamped postcard if you want to be sure that the editor received the material in the first place. These days, editors are less fussy about multiple submissions than they use to be, but it’s probably a good idea to tell her if you have submitted this material elsewhere.

Now, let’s tackle the synopsis.

It should be about 4-5 pages long, setting forth the story of your book. Keep it simple and clear. Bring in only those points that are important to an overall understanding of the book.

Start with a few sentences about your setting and theme. Elaborate on the setting only if it’s important. “A farm in Kansas and a magical land” will do nicely for THE WIZARD OF OZ. We don’t need to know about Uncle Henry’s pig sty or the poppy fields. Similarly, use the shortcut of clichés, if necessary, to nail down your theme. “MAKE ME RICH AND FAMOUS shows how love conquers all—the success-driven heroine realizes that her fame and wealth are valueless without the devotion and love of the hero.”

Next, introduce your two main characters, describe who they are, what they do, and what they are like—including age, physical description, or marital status, if those things are pertinent to the story.

Now, tell your story. Cover the key points of plot and character without too much superfluous material, few adverbs or adjectives, and only enough description to further the reader’s understanding of the story. Summarize the key scenes and omit the rest. Make sure those scenes are interesting and further the development of the plot. (“They have an impassioned and frantic sexual encounter” is a perfectly acceptable stand-in for what may be 15 pages of steamy sex.)

Tell the WHOLE STORY. Introduce your characters as they appear in the book; suspense, plot developments and revelations should correspond to their introduction in the book itself.

Since a romance is concerned with relationships, you should also indicate as you go along the conflict between the hero and heroine, and where the gradual changes in their characters appear. For us to care about these people, emotional growth is vital; you should indicate that as well. Show us how each major conflict is resolved. Tell how the story ends, both the actual climax and the emotional changes. This may seem obvious, but there are some writers who don’t tell the whole story, and end their synopsis with the smug comment “You’ll have to read the manuscript to find out how the book ends.”

All of this isn’t easy to do. It means you have to know the broad outline of your book, to analyze the scenes and their value to the whole, to understand your characters and their motivations, and to put all of this into direct language that an agent or an editor can quickly understand. But a plot synopsis is your major selling tool, and if you can’t produce one that makes sense, no one will be interested in even a cursory look at your manuscript, even if you write like a dream.

Incidentally, the plot synopsis, unlike the book, is always told in the present tense. Like a manuscript, it should be typed, double-spaced and paginated consecutively. You should also indicate the approximate word count of your book.

One more point: Don’t staple your synopsis or chapters, or bind them in any way. Send them – loose pages – in a box or with a rubber band around them, and don’t put “Copyright by” on the cover sheet; it’s not professional.

Incidentally, and as a bonus, you’ll find that the discipline of writing a plot synopsis helps clarify and define for YOU those fuzzy areas that you hadn’t considered before, and sharpens your understanding of your own work.♥

Sylvia Baumgarten is a multi-published author and RITA finalist, who writes under the pseudonyms of Sylvia Halliday and Louisa Rawlings.


  1. Great advice, Sylvia, and best of luck to all of you out there getting ready to make your submissions to editors and agents!

  2. Sylvia-- great examples. Very much "show and tell." And, just what I need to get started. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Sylvia. I'm printing your advice in hardcopy and putting it in my notebook. Elizabeth Palladino

  4. Listen to Sylvia People... She knows what she's talking about.
    As usual she have given valuable advice that you can only get from the best.
    Kudos on a wonderful article Sylvia.


  5. Excellent article Sylvia! Right on the money. Boy did I need brushing up on the query and synopsis process.

    Wonderful woman...wonderful advice!!!


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