Writing the Query Letter Synopsis

query letter synopsisA few weeks back I published a post about sending out a successful query, with a few thoughts on what I thought I did right. One of the main things on that list was spending time on my query letter synopsis to make it as good as it could be.

Since then, a couple of my regular readers (you know who you are) have been encouraging me to share more, to be more specific and post the actual content of my query. I hesitated, because it feels really personal for some reason. I guess it’s personal in the same way that my story is personal, and I’m still adjusting to the idea of it going out into the world.

The Query Letter Synopsis

But I get why it’s of interest. I did a lot of research as I was getting started (check out this article to get started) and I certainly benefited by reading what other people were willing to share of their queries. So today is the day. And even though I cringe to do it, I’m going to share the many iterations of my query letter synopsis along with the thought process I went through to arrive at my final version. My sincere hope is that it will help others out there who are writing their own queries.

Here goes…

Take 1:

I started by writing without too much self-editing, because that’s how I roll with pretty much all of my writing.

Here’s what I got:

142 Ostriches is the story of 22-year-old Tallulah Jones, who wants nothing more than to get out of her small, desolate town in the Mojave Desert. Just weeks before she is scheduled to leave the family ostrich ranch for a job in Montana, Tallulah’s grandmother dies and leaves her the sole inheritor of 142 ostriches. To her extended family’s disappointment, she decides to sell the ranch, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. As Tallulah does everything in her power to force the sale through, the fragile stability of her family, which has for fifty years been predicated on ignoring unpleasant truths, begins to crumble. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must face the reality of her grandmother’s suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, and her uncle’s deeply buried anger.

Things that work:

  • The title is front and center.
  • The setting of the Mojave is given early on, as is the family ostrich ranch.
  • My main character is introduced by name, along with her age and her greatest desire.
  • I explain the barriers to what she wants.

Things that are weak:

  • It’s wordy (“who wants nothing more,” “dies and leaves her the sole inheritor,” “does everything in her power”), and all of these phrases edge on cliche/boring.
  • It’s missing one of the key components of the story which is the question surrounding the grandmother’s death.

Take 2:

142 Ostriches is the story of 22-year-old Tallulah Jones who inherits her grandmother’s ostrich ranch in the Mojave Desert. Desperate to get out of their desolate small town, and having already been offered a job in Montana, Tallulah decides to sell the ranch as quickly as possible, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. As Tallulah does everything in her power to force the sale through, the fragile stability of her family, which has for fifty years been predicated on ignoring unpleasant truths, begins to crumble. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must face the reality of her grandmother’s suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, and her uncle’s deeply buried anger.

Things that are working:

  • Better words (desperate, desolate, thwarted, predicated) replace wordy phrases.
  • I get the question of grandma’s death in there at the end.
  • It’s 20 words shorter.

Still not good:

  • It would be good to get the question of grandma’s death in there sooner, because in the story that intrigue starts on page one. It’s not a side note.
  • It misses the fact that my main character is not a stranger to the ranch. This is her home. It would be a very different story if she were a city girl who inherits an ostrich ranch.
  • The second half is still kind of wordy and cliche.

At this point I sent it to a couple of trusted writer friends (who know my story) for feedback, so Take 3 actually gets longer as I try to work in ideas at their suggestions.

Take 3:

142 Ostriches is the story of 22-year-old ranch hand Tallulah Jones who inherits the family ostrich business after her grandmother dies under questionable circumstances. Desperate to get out of their desolate Mojave town, Tallulah decides to sell the ranch as quickly as possible, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. While guarding the secret of the missing eggs, Tallulah does everything in her power to force the sale through, while her family descends on the ranch like vultures. When Tullulah’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in a decade, arrives days late for the funeral and wreaking of cheep rye, the fragile stability of her family, which has for fifty years been predicated on ignoring unpleasant truths, begins to crumble. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the reality of her grandmother’s almost certain suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and her own aching loneliness.

Things that are working:

  • Got the “questionable circumstances” of grandma’s death in there at the top.
  • I added the fact that my main character takes a deceptive tact in trying to hide the fact that the birds have stopped laying eggs as she attempts to force the sale through. This gives a better sense of what she is doing to clear the hurdles in front of her.
  • I like the “pull her head out of the sand” line. It is a story about ostriches, after all.
  • There are more details about the family, but…

Not working:

  • It’s too long again.
  • Even though the I like the imagery of vultures, it seems like too many birds for one synopsis.
  • The “to take control of her own life” feels cliche.

Take 4:

22-year-old ranch hand Tallulah Jones wants nothing more than to escape the desolate desert town where she has lived and worked with her grandmother since she was a girl. But when her grandmother dies under questionable circumstance, Tallulah finds herself the sole inheritor of the family ostrich business. Still hoping to build a life for herself away from the ranch, Tallulah quickly arranges to sell her inheritance, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. Guarding the secret of the missing eggs, Tallulah endeavors to force the sale through while her extended family descends on the ranch. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the 50-year legacy of a family in turmoil: the reality of her grandmother’s almost certain suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and the 142 ostriches whose lives are in her hands.

Things that are working:

  • I like that last line, where I explain the title of the book.
  • There are some good verbs in there: escape, guard, endeavor, descend.
  • I’ve got the main plot points covered.
  • It matches the tone of the book.
  • I’m thinking I’m close but…

Not working:

  • Still hate that “take control of her own life” line. Ug.
  • Not sure about introducing her as a “ranch hand” in the first line like that.
  • The setting of the ostrich ranch has been pushed to the fourth line. Not good.
  • It’s still a little longer than I’d like.

At this point I was ready to say “eff it,” good enough, but my husband (what would I do without him?), encouraged me to dig in and get to where I was genuinely satisfied with it. So, deep breath,

Take 5:

142 Ostriches follows 22-year-old Tallulah Jones, who wants nothing more than to escape her life as a hired hand on the family’s ostrich ranch in the Mojave Desert. But when her grandmother dies under questionable circumstances, Tallulah finds herself the sole heir of the business just days before the birds mysteriously stop laying eggs. Guarding the secret of the suddenly barren birds, Tallulah endeavors to force through a sale of the ranch, a task that is only complicated when her extended family descends, threatening her ambitions and eventually her life. With no options left, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the 50-year legacy of a family in turmoil: the reality of her grandmother’s almost certain suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and the 142 ostriches whose lives are in her hands.

Final tweaks:

  • I cut 12 words to get it down to 138 words, which will fit nicely into a query letter.
  • The phrases “just days before” and “suddenly barren birds” give a better sense of the urgency of story and the tight timeframe I use in telling it.
  • The phrase “threatening her ambitions and eventually her life,” hints at the fact that this is a story that goes beyond family squabbles. Shit gets serious.
  • I rewrote “take control of her life” into “with no options left…” Because that’s where a story should turn. She doesn’t step up because she’s all so eager to take control of her life. She steps up because she fucking has to.

So there you have it.

It would have been much easier to leave it as it was after the first pass, but I’m glad I pushed myself through the iterations to a version I’m satisfied with. It took hours of work, over multiple days, because walking away and getting some distance was definitely part of the process.

It’s not easy, but neither is writing a novel. You can do it.

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5 Responses to Writing the Query Letter Synopsis

  1. H. M. Turnbull April 23, 2018 at 12:59 pm #

    I’m sure this will be very useful if I ever actually manage to finish a book.

    • April May 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm #

      Good luck! And never surrender!

  2. Joel Davison March 16, 2018 at 1:03 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your path to a great query letter, April.

    One thing’s for sure: I want to read your book!

    • April April 5, 2018 at 6:33 am #

      Yeah! Stay tuned. I’ll let you know when you can get a copy. Cheers!

  3. Bryan Fagan March 15, 2018 at 6:39 am #

    Finally! It only took me and a handful of others to bug you about this. 🙂

    For me, writing a query is harder than writing a book. You are forced to sell in less than a page. Unlike you I did say eff it. My mind simply could not wrap it’s muscle around this crazy thing.

    Thankfully my editor could and she did a bang up job. Far better than I could ever dream of.

    I’ve learned two valuable things from this crazy world you and I have stepped in to:

    1) Write the best query you can. Seek help from others. Or in my case – seek help and have them write the damn thing.

    2) Be patient. One day your query will catch someone’s eye and give you a chance and a chance is all we’re asking for.

    Thank you, April. You are proving that hard work has its rewards.

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