Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Q & A workshop

These are questions from some of the writers I have worked with and my replies. Here you will find a great deal of useful information about how to write a book, whether you are writng a novel or a nonfiction book. Included are many fiction writing tips and grammar help. Check back again to read new Q&A’s.


Q. Literary agents are telling me that they liked my writing but that they just didn’t “get excited about” my novel. What should I do?

A. If Max Perkins, the famous Scribners editor, had submitted his final draft of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel to five other editors, I’m sure at least one of them would’ve said the same thing. You’re going through the same tortures of the damned that all writers experience. Part of this painful process is dealing with human beings in what is ultimately a subjective game of likes and dislikes, of acceptance and rejection. Some gentleman prefer blondes; some like redheads. Most of the critics hated The Great Gatsby, for example, and its initial sales were disappointing. John Grisham’s first novel was declined by 15 publishers and 30 literary agents.


When confronted with a new book ms., everyone in the literary marketplace is forced to answer the same question: Can I sell this book? Literary agent: Can I sell this to one of several editors I know? Editor: Can I sell this to my editorial board? Editorial board: Can we sell this to the public? Obviously, this is a tougher question to answer in some cases than others, and all too often it’s a real crapshoot, as any publisher will tell you.


Does your novel need more work? Yes, I’m sure it does. Many novels are rewritten over and over again. The version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that we read today is the third all-new draft (not bad). Amy Tan sweated through more than 20 rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. Unless you want to shelve your novel, considering it just practice, an exercise in acquiring your chops, and a valuable learning experience (as many new writers see their first or even first few novel mss.), and go on to something else, then I’d say that you have to make the best of what you’ve got, run with it, and see what happens. Maybe the story or the plot or the characters aren’t as strong as others you could invent, but if you feel generally positive about your novel, then spruce it up as best you can (with more professional editorial help, if possible) and submit it to the marketplace. That’s the moment of truth, and that’s what every writer has to do. That’s what Steve King did with his first novel ms.—and his second and third and fourth, until Doubleday finally accepted number five (Carrie).


I suppose I should have said, “Don’t get me started.” Other writers have asked me about the same predicament since I launched Thayer Literary Services in 1997. I hope my comments will help guide you in your decision-making process. I’ll add only this: Don’t rush it. In fact, don’t rush any part of the process—the writing, the learning, the self-editing, the rewriting, the market research, the development of marketing materials (especially the query letter), and the e-mailing of your query letter to agents.


Q. What do literary agents want today?

A. Hard to say. What they want today may be different from what they wanted yesterday or what they may want tomorrow. Much depends on the vagaries of the market—what’s hot and what’s not—and what the agent thinks he/she can sell. To find out what different agencies accept, you can start by reading Writer’s Market. You will find, however, that many agencies list a gazillion categories of fiction and nonfiction, as if they want to cover all the bases, but they all have just a few preferences. Usually it's better to visit their website and read their current wants and instructions carefully. You can find e-mail and website addresses in the Writer’s Market listings.Tip: Don’t call them on the phone. They hate that. See this page: What do agents want?


Q. How do I write a synopsis of my novel?

A. First of all, you need to know what not to do when you’re writing a synopsis of a novel. Unless you’re writing this overview for submission to a particular agent or acquisitions editor who has specific length requirements of his/her own, your best bet is to stick with some general guidelines.


To begin with, you don’t want to make the common mistake of writing a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow chronological essay about the events of your story, because then the synopsis will be too long and detailed. You want to write just enough for an agent or editor to get a feel for the type of story you have written, for the action in your story, and for its characters and conflicts. They don’t want to know what happens in every chapter; they want a concise summary.


How concise? A reasonable rule of thumb is to write one single-spaced page of synopsis copy per 100 pages of your manuscript (but in its final form the synopsis should be double-spaced). For example, if your manuscript contains about 100,000 words, then divide that number by 250 (the approximate number of words you should have on each page), which translates to 400 pages. Divide that page count by 100 and you get four—the maximum number of single-spaced pages for your synopsis.


Another option (the one that I prefer) is to write something even shorter—a one-page précis of your book. Shorter than that is even better. This is a very short story of the story that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end in a few paragraphs. Writing a very short and a longer synopsis is another reasonable course to consider. If an agent or editor asks you for a more detailed summary, then you’ll have it all ready to send.


Boiling down a long and complicated story this much can be a challenge, but remember that you need to summarize your plot/story (the beginning, the middle, and the end) in only one short paragraph in your query letter. Writing that crucial paragraph can be a good place to start developing a concise synopsis, because you can use that brief summary as the first paragraph of your synopsis. This graf is a general overview and a quick introduction to your book. After that, beginning with the second graf, move from general concepts to the more specific elements of your story, focusing on your characters, what they do, and what happens to them.


Keep in mind some things that all agents and editors want to know, including:


• What is the story about?

• What is the problem?

• What is the catalytic event (the action that gets the story going)?

• Who are the main characters?

• What do these characters want?

• Why do they want it?

• What stands in the way of their getting it?






Format your synopsis the same way you do your manuscript: double-spaced lines; 12-pt. Times New Roman font; at least one-inch margins; page numbers; and running heads with your last name and the book title. You may justify the right margin if you want to, which will give you a little more space, but remember that your goal is to use as few words as possible. 


  • Write in the third person, using present-tense verbs.

  • Don’t talk about subplots or secondary characters unless they are major secondary characters and their subplots are so closely related that you have to mention them in order to explain the main plot.

  • Don’t include physical descriptions of your story people unless they have significant character “tags” that are important to the plot (like extraordinary strength or beauty or a deformity). So if a minor character happens to be a Mongolian dwarf who has some key information, you should mention that.

  • Remember that you’re writing the synopsis for an agent or an editor, not a reader, so don’t withhold important information or use cliffhangers as a way to create suspense.

  • Keep the writing simple, factual, and as tight as possible. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as much as you can.




Ernest Hemingway

A final point to consider: You should also know what one working agent has said about synopses. In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend), Noah Lukeman says:


"Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines; instead, we skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then we’ll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is discarded."


That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? I think Mr. Lukeman speaks for many other literary agents and editors in this regard. Nevertheless, the synopsis is important enough to be included with your query submission, even if it’s not nearly as important as the writing in your novel manuscript. No matter how good your plot may sound in outline form, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.



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