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Summarizing Your Novel: The Query Trenches Part Two
By Hannah Fergesen
Hey guys! Hannah here. Last month, I posted some tips on little ways to take your query out of the blah zone. JJ and Kelly also posted an awesome podcast on the query process.
When giving query advice, a lot of us take for granted that you'll know what we mean when we tell you a query must have a short synopsis of your story. We also take for granted that you'll figure out how to do this in 300 words or fewer. I'd like to talk a bit more about what goes into creating a good, cohesive summary that will entice an agent to read more in just a few paragraphs.
You've probably seen a lot of advice that tells you a good query is comprised of a hook followed by a summary of your story, ending with a bio and a few sentences on why you chose the agent you are querying. Structurally, this is sound. But when you have a sprawling epic with many perspectives, or even a quietly complex contemporary, it can be tough to know how best to distill your story into a summary that makes sense.
What I usually see in the slush is this: a summary that goes over many of the big points in the plot but rushes through due to lack of page space and direction. The agent reading might miss key plot points, or have no idea what that made-up word is. Maybe the summary began too deep into the story, and the agent is confused by the list of events. These questions are distracting for a query reader, and can bring them out of a query quick.
So how do you summarize your novel and do it well? We have a tendency to think we must somehow shove the entire plot into this tiny space. But that isn't actually the case. The best summaries (even the sprawling, epic ones) contain these: your inciting incident, your main conflict, the plan, and the stakes.
Before we get into the summary, let's talk about the hook. There are two reasons why your hook is so important. Number one: It's the hook! Okay, that one is obvious. It's designed to give agents a peak into your character that entices them into reading more. Number two: if done well, it should help you cut huge swaths of fluff from your summary.
A good hook tells us about the character and the conflict in one go. I'm taking this example of a hook from Erin Bowman's post Querying: The Do's and Don'ts (thanks, Erin!), to show you what I mean:
Gray Weathersby is counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday with dread, for in the primitive and isolated town of Claysoot, a boy’s eighteenth is marked not by celebration, but by his disappearance.
We know who the main character is, we know something personal about him when the book opens, and we know what his conflict is going to be. I'm intrigued to keep reading.
Next: What is an inciting incident? This is that moment when the status quo is no more, and the character is forced to take action. This is a step I often see skipped in queries, resulting in a strangely disjointed summary.
Figure out what the inciting moment is for your character, and tell us about it. For example, a precious jewel is stolen from a museum—this is the catalyst for the Private Eye to enter the picture and solve the mystery. Or, your protagonists loses her job and instead of applying elsewhere, chooses to fulfill a dream and travel the world. Tell me about the moment when everything your character thought she knew is turned on its head.
Now that your character has been called to action, tell us what needs to be accomplished. This is where you flesh out your conflict. We don't need each and every detail; just enough to show us what the protagonist must overcome. The P.I. must now solve the mystery of the stolen diamond—but a nefarious gang will stop at nothing, including murder, to prevent it from happening. And, the more the P.I. digs, the more he unearths about a political conspiracy (give some detail on that conspiracy) attached to the diamond theft. The World Traveler has all of her money stolen in a foreign country. The hostel where she was staying burns down with all of her worldly possessions. Maybe she, too, stumbles into a political conflict she knows nothing about.
So what are your characters going to do about it? They have decisions to make. These decisions are informed by the stakes. For a lowly P.I., getting in the middle of a nefarious gang AND a political conspiracy might not be worth it. So tell me why he gets involved anyway. Is he blackmailed? Does he have a personal tie to a person or plan within the gang or the conspiracy? Tell us why he MUST solve the murder, and what is at stake for him if he doesn't. For the World Traveler who has lost everything, tell us how she plans to get home, what she must sacrifice to do it, and what happens if she fails. Is her father dying back home? Is her sister getting married? Is her house set for demolition? Why is it important for her to overcome this conflict?
A note on fantasy: it's very tempting to try and give all the backstory about the world, its magical systems, its government, or its religion. These are things you've worked hard on - your story is not the same without these elements. But if character IS story (and it is), then the most important thing is to make us understand your character's struggle at the most basic level. Leave the made-up words and the complicated hierarchies out of the query.
When you look at the summary in this way, you can see that even sprawling epics can be broken down into short summaries. These components make up the heart of the story, and that's what an agent wants to see in a query.
I hope this has been useful! If anyone is interested in a Part Three, let me know below!