Friday, March 1, 2024

How to Write a Query, an Outline, or a Synopsis, by Josh Stallings & friends

Q: A query, an outline, and a synopsis walk into a bar, and a writer/bartender has a panic attack. Publishers and agents often want one or all of these thinga-ma-jobbies. Any advice for writers who are flummoxed by how to create them?

A: Truth time, I wrote this question hoping I wouldn’t have to answer it. I have skated by never having to learn how to write a good query, outline, or synopsis. The entire idea flummoxed me. A smart person is one who knows a lot of facts, a wise person is one who knows what they don’t know, and whom to ask for help.

I have been blessed to know many very smart writers and publishing professionals. Here are four brilliant friends who each in their own way tackled these problems and broke them down to simple steps and modes of working. I’ve learned much from them and I know you will too.

From Amy Moore-Benson Literary Agent: 

As an agent – a publishing professional who receives multiple queries a day – the query is everything. And every writer should put the work into getting it right before sending it off. It’s the writer’s one opportunity to get through the door, to make enough of a positive impression to engage an agent, to create a sense of interest and urgency to compel the agent to ask for more. I think of it as the same as the relationship between back-cover copy and a potential book buyer: there needs to be enough plot to make a reader think, “Wow, what next…?” and enough distinctive voice to make a reader think, “I want to experience how this story is told.”


The fact that your query should be professionally conceived is a given. Do your research, know what the agents you are querying are looking for, what they’re selling. Make sure that the description of your work is concise and has a narrative flow, not too long (for me, max two short paragraphs), and that it is infused with your voice, your confident and unique writerly calling card. Only use comps if they’re interesting and accurate, and add something biographical that doesn’t sound like a resume.


An outline or a synopsis are what I turn to after I’ve asked for the manuscript, after I’ve read enough to know I’m interested in the work to want to know where the story is going. They are a necessary part of the process, but for me, they should be straightforward and logical, and should give me the confidence that you know your story.


From Victoria Helen Stone, WSJ bestselling author of Jane Doe. Her upcoming book, FOLLOW HER DOWN comes out June 4th.

I hate writing synopses. Absolutely HATE them. Given free rein, I’ll start writing a book with just a basic idea of where I’m going, because at the beginning, I don’t know these people. I know their backstory and what nightmare I’m going to drop them into, but how they’ll respond? How they’ll think and act out and plan and regroup? I have no idea until I spend time with them.  

Tragically, my publisher doesn’t seem to trust that I’ll (probably) puzzle out the plot eventually. When I’m under contract, they ruthlessly demand blood. And by blood, I mean an outline.  

So here’s my trick: after spending years plodding through ten pages of boring plot points, I’ve started including dialogue. That’s the flavor. The spicy meat of the story. Not point A to B to C, but my actual writing voice and the personality of the people in my head. Instead of describing how the characters react to chaos, I sprinkle in a few exchanges, a few disagreements, some funny asides. This makes it so much easier for me to write, and I assume it’s easier for my editor to read too. 

Now once the publisher has the outline and I get my approval? Well, who’s going to remember the exact story I proposed when I turn in the manuscript six months later? My editor has been living a busy life the whole time. And so have my imaginary friends. 


From Jamie Mason who writes more whydunnits than whodunnits because the why in stories is her favorite part. She is the author of Three Graves Full, Monday’s Lie, and The Hidden Things.

It’s not like writing a novel isn’t hard enough. I understand why we have to write queries. But understanding it doesn’t make me hate it any less.

All the advice I have here for querying probably mostly applies to written queries. It’s the only kind I’ve ever done. In all honestly, I don’t understand in-person pitches for novel-length written material. I mean, it’s great and all if you can conjure up your inner salesperson and put your query material into a competent song and dance. I’m just not much of a performer. Asked to pitch my book out loud and I’m just as apt to swallow my own tongue as getting anything useful out.

It’s always made more sense to me to pitch a page on a page.

But maybe if you get a good query summary written down, you can rehearse it in front of the mirror and find a way to make a short speech out of it.


As far as I can tell, the query serves two purposes: to demonstrate that you actually know what you’ve written, and to show a prospective agent or editor that you’re not a crazy person.

The horrible part is capturing the interest and essence of what you’ve accomplished in 100,000 words in less than two hundred or so.

One thing I’ve found helpful and effective is to go to one of your favorite lines in your story. Something that when you wrote it made you go awwwwww yeah, hell yeah. Revisit it and see if it can be repurposed as an anchor for a recap of what happens in your story. Not all great lines will work, but it’s worth a try. If you can explain what in the story got you to that great line, what was happening in the plot that resulted in that run of seven to twenty brilliant words, you might be on the way to the framework for a query-style summary of your novel.

There’s also a trick that I guess I would call “layering.” But you have to do this one quickly. You can take one straightforward, unadorned sentence to articulate the main problem that incites your plot. Maybe two sentences—absolutely tops. Then come in with the razzle dazzle of how the problem is actually much worse than all that for your protagonist.

Basically, I would say polish the setup and wrap up the query summary with assurances that it all gets resolved to immense satisfaction. Make the problem really sexy and you can exit the query summary with a knowing nod and wink conveying that you sorted it all out by The End, rather than attempting to explain all the twists and turns.

As for the rest of the query—the part where you give the impression that you’re not a crazy person—it’s pretty basic. Don’t compliment your own work. You’ll look like a crazy person. If you have relevant life experience that makes you extra qualified to write the type of story or characters you did, great! If not, don’t try to make it sound so. You’ll look like a crazy person. Probably don’t go on about how much you like to read or how much you’ve always wanted to be a writer. It’s kind of a given and if you make too big a deal of the obvious, you’ll sound like a. . . you get the idea.


A longer synopsis, if asked for, can be less frustrating than a query, but not by all that much. Some of the same sensibilities that work for querying also apply to writing a synopsis. In fact, last time I wrote out a full synopsis, the first two paragraphs were my query summary and then I just fleshed it out, point-by-point, in the rest of the document. In a summary, you’ll have to describe a little more about how the sausage of the resolution gets made.

I think in a query you have to show some flair. You have to do it in “voice”. I guess that’s why I like to use the query summary as an opener for a synopsis, because then you can switch into a more school-book-report style and just explain what happens. That way, you’ll show what you do artistically and then don’t have to reinvent the wheel of your novel to explain what happens in it.


As for anyone asking for an outline, I just have to really, really hope this doesn’t happen anymore. I do outline my work, but for my own purposes and in my own style. If anyone wanted to see that, I might as well send them a paper bag with some onion rings and a few Viking rune stones in it for all they will be able to make of it.

I hope this helps anyone out there in one of these hard parts of this hard business. My heart is with you. Best of luck! 


From Lenore Van Horne, editrix extraordinaire:

I have a super foolproof method for query writing, it’s an easy formula and it goes like this:

Paragraph 1: Your name, title of book, word count, genre, is it a series?, one-two sentence longline. 

Why do we need this? So that the reader (agent, editor, whoever) knows a little bit about it, like if they represent/publish your genre, or if you’ve for some reason written a 200,000 word rom-com…stuff that we need to know before committing further to the project.

Paragraph 2-3: Your mini-synopsis. Hold a sec for how to write this until we get to the synopsis part. But a couple of quick notes. Just focus on the protagonist, their wants, the roadblocks in the way, and the overall journey. No detours.

Last Paragraph (or, the “about me” paragraph): This is just a value-add so if none of these things apply to you, you don’t need this paragraph. Just say thanks for reading, hope to hear back, and go on about your life (riddled with anxiety until they get back to you). If you DO decide to include this paragraph, it should only (ONLY) contain the following:

1) Anything that makes you a “professional writer,” you’ve got an MFA, you’ve published multiple non-fiction journal articles (yes, this counts), you’ve won an award, you have published other books, you are the president of your local writing group…this sort of thing.

2) Anything that makes you an “expert” on your topic. Your book is about serial killers and you, yourself, are a serial killer (hopefully this doesn’t apply). Your book takes place in Spain and you spent 3 years there, drinking wine and communing with Guernica. Your protagonist is a lawyer and your parents were both lawyers and you escaped to become a writer…that sort of thing. 

3) Anything that makes you independently marketable. You climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with Johnny Cash. You won an Olympic medal. Something that if you were being interviewed you could talk about over and above your book. (Hordes of social media followers go in this category, too.)

That’s it. You’ve got your query letter. As an FYI you’ve also got your in-person pitch if you’ve got your query letter. Same dealio, you just sit down and start with, “My name is, I’ve written x book, it’s x words long, and this genre…” and go on from there with your query letter. Just out loud.

Okay, now time for the scariest thing about the submission process: The Synopsis. I’m not joking. This IS the hardest thing for a writer to write. How to condense your brilliant 80k word baby into one page? It’s impossible. So here’s my quick and easy cheat. Pretend that you were up all night reading your own book. It was SO good you couldn’t put it down. The next morning, you’re meeting a friend for coffee and they say, “Why do you look so tired?” And you say, “You have to read this book.” Well… “What’s it about?” Now answer that! First practice doing it with a movie or book you’ve recently read. Record yourself on your phone giving the synopsis to someone else. You’re going to see what you focus on, what you leave out. Then do it for YOUR book. Transcribe what you say. Then polish it a little. That’s all there is to it. 


It’s Josh again, I wanted to thank these four brilliant creatives for taking the time to help educate me and our readers. All of them are busy people who prove what I discovered a long time ago about the writing community, reach out for help and they will reach back. They pay it forward and backwards and sideways. If you have questions don’t hesitate to ask, if I don’t know the answer I know somebody who does. 


Brenda Chapman said...

Brilliant post, Josh - thanks to everyone who contributed. Lots of good advice here.

Susan C Shea said...

Buckets of smart advice! I'm going to share on my Author page and poke a couple of not-yet-published writers to check this out, this and the whole week's worth of advice, which is at least as valuable as an all-day class.

Josh Stallings said...

I keep thinking I wish I had this weeks pieces when I started out. Not the sexiest subjects but really helpfu

Catriona McPherson said...

We had to wait till Friday but finally - a definitive answer!