Cover Letters Comments

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Book Synopsis

By: Kristin Hanes
on Wed October 28, 2009, 14:38:47

When news reporter Isabelle Martin witnesses tradegy while on the job in Seattle, she decides to drastically change her life. She moves to San Miguel de Allende Mexico, and leaves her boyfriend and job behind. It is in this quaint, mountainous city where she’s confronted with two things she fears the most: falling in love, and horses. She must also conquer her past, and her family’s prejudice toward Mexicans. Isabelle’s move abroad, meant to avoid the hardships of the news biz, proves to be one of the most challenging times of her life.

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: Shannon
on Wed October 28, 2009, 14:52:27

Yikes, I feel like I need a couple shots of tequila before doing this, but since I’ll be doing this in front of live people in January at the conference (eek, now I REALLY need alcohol) I’m going to go with the baptism by fire method and give the synopsis for MY book.
(Brace yourself, I’m really bad at this–back in film school my teachers were always saying, “oh, you CAN write!” when they finally read actual pages of my scripts and I can only assume that was because my pitch pages were total crapola)
I could not do it in one paragraph–my plot is incredibly complex, and I’m more than a little wordy (in case you haven’t noticed.)
Okay. No more stalling. *deep breath* Here goes…
“Sophie Foster doesn’t know she isn’t human. She’s always been different–her IQ is off the charts and she can hear people’s thoughts and move things with her mind–but she always assumed there was a logical explanation. It takes a mysterious teal-eyed boy and a gadget that looks suspiciously like a magic wand to show her the truth–elves aren’t tiny, pointy-eared, shoe makers like she’s been led to believe. They’re a superior race. Brilliant. Powerful. Almost immortal. And she’s one of them.
Being an elf has some major advantages: cool powers, unimaginable riches, and, for the first time in her life, friends. But it also means being separated from her human family, living with new guardians, and starting over at an Elvin Academy, where everyone else is years ahead of her. Sophie struggles though each new challenge, clinging to the hope that she’s finally found somewhere she belongs. If only her human past would stop coming back to haunt her.”
Sadly, that only covers the first half of the book (the rest focuses on her discovering the mystery behind her past) but I stopped there because it’s already too long.
I don’t know what you’re going to do with that (obviously I write very different books from yours) but feel free to critique the crap out of it. I need all the help I can get.
And now, I need a drink!

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: Barry
on Wed October 28, 2009, 16:17:15

@Kristin: Is this your own book or someone else’s? You don’t say, so I’ll assume it’s yours.
Prepare yourself. I am going to be bluntly honest.
The major problem with this synopsis is that it lacks oomph. There’s no feeling of conflict. You TELL me what the conflict is, but I don’t feel it viscerally, which is what I need if I’m going to go further with it. You say Isabelle is afraid of falling in love, but she had a boyfriend in Seattle. Did she not love him? If not, why was she with him? Why have a boyfriend AT ALL if you’re afraid of falling in love? Why is she afraid of horses? Why does moving to Mexico force her to confront either of these fears? The last time I checked, there is no Mexican law requiring one to ride horseback or fall in love.
As you can see, I have a lot of questions…and not the right kind, not the kind that make me want to read further.
You also say that this is “one of the most challenging times” of Isabelle’s life. Well, a reader wants to know about THE most challenging time. That’s what a story should be — the most, the biggest, the best, the worst, the toughest, etc.
Your language is very clinical — “decides,” “change,” etc. You need to make it emotional.
Oh, and Mexico isn’t “abroad.” 🙂
Now, I don’t know anything else about your book, so what I am about to write may or may not fit your story. But it should give you an idea of what a synopsis should contain — conflict, characters in opposition.
Witnessing a tragedy while on the job compels Seattle reporter Isabelle Martin to uproot her life, ditching a loveless relationship to move to Mexico. There, in a quaint, mountainous city as she struggles to conquer her own past and heal herself, she is broadsided by the two things she fears most: The first is horses, bred on the nearby ranch, and unavoidable in this small town. The second is falling in love…with Juan, the handsome ranch-hand. The move to Mexico, meant to soothe the hardships of her old life, soon proves to be the most challenging time of her life.
I took out the bit about her family’s prejudice because… Well, she’s in Mexico and they’re not, right? So, the worst thing they can do is call her up and yell at her…and she’s big girl. She can hang up the phone. Now, if she’s going to MARRY a Mexican, that’s one thing, but you never give a hint in that direction. In short, the synopsis (even as I’ve rewritten it) needs MORE. I know that seems counterintuitive since the whole point is to keep it short, but it needs more tension, more conflict. We still need a sentence of two explaining why she’s afraid to fall in love, why the horses are a problem, and what makes all of this so challenging. (If the horses bug her, why not move to another town? Didn’t she know there were horses here before she moved?)
Synopses are tough. No doubt about it. You’ll probably write and re-write your synopsis as many times as you write and re-write your novel!
I hope this helps!

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: Barry
on Wed October 28, 2009, 16:27:58

@Shannon: Put down the tequila and take your critique like a grown-up. 🙂
First of all, you say your plot is “incredibly complex,” but I don’t see that here. If that’s because you stopped halfway through, well… That’s a problem. For one thing, a complicated plot is probably not just complicated in the second half of the book. For another thing, no one is going to read the first, slow half of the synopsis just to get to the complicated part.
I would get rid of the bit about what elves are NOT. I don’t think anyone thinks that when they think of elves these days anyway — I know MY first thought was Legolas!
Anyway, you don’t even need your first paragraph. That’s just you introducing the character and honestly, in a synopsis all we need is name, rank and serial number. I would do this:
“For Sophie Foster, discovering that she’s actually an elf has some major advantages: cool powers, unimaginable riches, and, for the first time in her life, friends. But it also means being separated from her human family, starting over at an Elvin Academy, where everyone else is years ahead of her.”
There. That’s your opening. You’ve established your basics.
The rest of it is problematic. It doesn’t actually SAY anything:
“Sophie struggles though each new challenge, clinging to the hope that she’s finally found somewhere she belongs. If only her human past would stop coming back to haunt her.”
What does that mean, she “struggles through each new challenge?” What challenges? Why are they a struggle? Where is the plot complexity? Where are the other characters, the friends, the enemies, the frenemies? What is she trying to achieve? What stands in her way?
I don’t know anything about your book, so I can’t give you specifics, but I’ve made up the following as an example…
“At first everything seems perfect, but then Sophie’s human past comes back to haunt her, as the human and elven worlds threaten to collide. Sophie finds herself torn between her two lives, even as she is conscripted into joining the King’s Eleventh Elven Brigade/Lethal Elimination Regiment (or, K.E.E.B.L.E.R.), tasked with hunting down and killing humans who’ve trespassed into elven land…including the human family that raised her!”
Anyway, that gives you some ideas. You want to raise the stakes. That’s something editors talk about in novels, but it goes for synopses,too.

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: Shannon
on Wed October 28, 2009, 16:54:51

See! I told you I was bad at this! Synopsis writing is my biggest weakness. Anyway, I love your changes and I DON’T understand why my brain can’t think like that. Grrrr.
Will try to follow your thought process as I revise and add the real plot details. (Oh and LOL on the Keebler joke! I needed that.)

Book Synopses

By: ericshanower
on Wed October 28, 2009, 19:59:02

I did both exercises, Barry. Thanks for your time and thoughts.
1. For nine long years the Achaeans have fought the Trojans before the walls of Troy. Now Agamemnon, leader of the Achaean forces, seizes a war-prize–the slave girl Briseis–from Achilles, greatest of the Achaean warriors. Furious at this shame, Achilles withdraws from battle, letting the Trojans gain the upper hand. When Achilles’s companion Patroklus is slain by the Trojan warrior Hektor, Achilles casts aside his humanity and embraces fury, wreaking devastation on human and god alike to brutally butcher Hektor. Only a meeting with Hektor’s grief-stricken father, Priam king of Troy, can restore to Achilles a connection with his own humanity.
2. The dark and chilly world shy twelve-year-old Samantha Cullum finds behind the paint on her bedroom wall is no place to be stuck. Even worse, the dark queen of this strange world of eternal night insists that Samantha is her daughter and must fulfill her destiny–a destiny Samantha wants no part of. When Samantha discovers that a world of eternal light lies just beyond the veil of darkness, she braves a desperate flight for freedom. She eagerly joins the winged horses of the light world in their fight to obliterate the darkness before discovering that the light world has its own different sort of darkness. With no way to get home, Samantha must choose either the beautiful light world where hate is a way of life or the creepy night world that wants to suck her in forever.


By: Barry
on Wed October 28, 2009, 21:22:20

For those of you who don’t know… Eric Shanower is a New York Times bestselling graphic novelist. I don’t know what I can help him with. 🙂 But I’ll give it a try.
I actually like both of these a lot. We all know the story of the Trojan War, of course, but I like how your synopsis humanizes it and focuses on Achilles’s emotions as a juxtaposition to the war. This is a good lesson for us all: No matter how epic and complicated your story, remember that the human scale and the human emotion is what drives the reader’s interest.
The second one is really intriguing to me. Is this for a graphic novel or a prose piece?
I would make some minor, nitpicky changes. Just things to adjust the rhythm of the text. You might be able to chalk these up to personal preference — I’m not 100% convinced my changes are better. The only quibble I have at all with this synopsis is at the very end. I understand that the night world is “creepy,” but I guess I would want something more foreboding to provide more of a Morton’s Fork. Right now, the light world is a world of hate. All we know about the dark world is that it’s dark and creepy…but Samantha’s mom is in charge, so maybe it wouldn’t be TOO bad. For all we know, it’s a dark, creepy place of LOVE. (There’s a “destiny” Samantha must fulfill, but it doesn’t have to be a BAD one, just not up Samantha’s alley.) I made something up in my version, but obviously it would change depending on the ultimate disposition of the dark world. I guess what I’m saying is this: If it’s a question of being miserable in the light world or miserable in the dark world, it seems like she might as well flip a coin. But if each one is miserable in different ways, then that makes for a more dramatic decision. Does that make sense?
My version:
“There’s a dark and chilly world behind the paint of Samantha Cullum’s bedroom wall. It’s no place for a shy twelve-year-old to be stuck, but the dark queen of this strange world of eternal night insists that Samantha is her daughter and must fulfill her destiny–a destiny Samantha wants no part of. When Samantha discovers that a world of eternal light lies just beyond the veil of darkness, she braves a desperate flight for freedom. Along with the winged horses of the light world, she battles to obliterate the darkness…only to learn that the light world has its own different sort of darkness. Trapped with no way to get home, Samantha must choose between the beautiful light world where hate is a way of life, or the creepy night world that will steal her very soul.”
And now I feel like I should let Eric see MY query letters!


By: Kristin Hanes
on Thu October 29, 2009, 10:22:56

Thanks so much for the advice!! I totally needed it. I see what you mean, and how I need to provide more details. I’m a broadcast news reporter by trade, so I tend to try to fit the most basic details into 30 seconds 🙂 I need to expand a bit and give more storyline. Again, thanks, it’s great food for thought.

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: ericshanower
on Thu October 29, 2009, 17:17:53

Thanks, Barry, for your time and expertise. I appreciate your feedback. The original synopsis I posted is for a prose fantasy I’m working on, definitely not a graphic novel. I’m still writing a first draft and although I have a detailed outline, the second half of the story is still pretty flabby. I’m still floundering around a bit with it. Without you knowing that info, your feedback has pointed directly to the flabbiest part. How valuable the objective eye!

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: Barry
on Thu October 29, 2009, 20:06:28

And no, ladies and gentlemen, I did NOT pay Eric to say that…! 🙂
Glad I could help!

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: Gilbert Osche
on Fri October 30, 2009, 20:06:15

“I could’ve told you who I was. Like you, I had thoughts and dreams. I had wants and needs. I was born into a world where everything you could ever want is there for the taking. I thought that this world was all that there is.
Don’t kid yourself.
I, Johnathan Freemantle, can tell you that there is more to this existence than you can ever know. I know from experience, that there are worlds beyond this. I have visited such a world. I have seen it’s monsters, it’s unforgiving sound-scape, and it’s many mysteries. Still don’t believe me? Then sit down for a little while. I’ll tell you all about it…”
I hope that’s good. Seeing as I’m typing in a tiny little box, I really don’t know how much I’ve given. Hope it’s good.


By: Barry
on Sat October 31, 2009, 11:58:49

The problem with your synopsis is that it doesn’t tell me anything about your book. It just tries to evoke a feeling. From this snippet, your book could be a fantasy novel, a sci-fi novel, a sort of psychedelic experience novel, a reawakening, a slice-of-life novel about someone losing his mind, anything. Hell, it could even be nonfiction.
Generally, you don’t want the synopsis in your query letter to be “in character.” You want to be straightforward and strong. Right now, I have no idea what your book is about, other than someone claims to be able to show me the truth about existence. So, it could be The Matrix or it could be a New Age-y self-help book or anything in between.
Right now you’re just evoking a feeling. But no one will buy or represent a book based on having a feeling evoked. They need to know — in concrete terms — what this book is about. What the reader will get out of it.
I suggest you take a good long look at your book and re-read the comments here, as well as the links I posted above, especially the one to Lisa McMann’s query for her book. I think they’ll help.
Good luck!

book synopsis

By: Erin Whalen
on Wed November 25, 2009, 14:06:42

Here’s the five-minute synopsis of the young adult novel I’m working on. Its working title is, “Curse of the Cannibal Woman. I’ve just about finished the second draft so have already started thinking about cover letters and synopses so I stumbled across your blog at the perfect time!
“When 15-year-old Sadie Douglas is forced to move with her family from downtown Vancouver to a cookie-cutter subdivision in the small, hick-infested town of Mission, BC, she thinks her life can’t get any worse. Then children in her neighbourhood start disappearing and Sadie has a series of terrifying run-ins with the monster responsible. But when she tries to tell people that Dzonokwa — a creature out of Indian legend — is turning the children into trees that only she can see, nobody believes her. Nobody, that is, except for the mysterious old man who isn’t really a man at all…
The old man reveals himself to be the god Raven and agrees to help Sadie defeat the monster and save the children — but only if she marries him. Sadie is faced with a choice: does she turn a blind eye to the missing children and try to carve out a life for herself in her new home, or does she sacrifice herself for the common good?”
… Thank you very much for offering your critiques on our synopses, Barry. And please do be ruthless — constructive criticism is so much more helpful than a simple pat on the back.

Re: Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

By: Barry
on Wed November 25, 2009, 14:52:42

@Erin: Remember – you asked me to be ruthless…
The big problem that I see here is that most of your synopsis sounds like a thousand other novels: Kid moves from city to hick town; weirdness ensues that only Our Hero can resolve. It’s just not fresh. I’m not saying your STORY isn’t fresh — it’s just that the way you’ve presented it falls flat.
I like the detail that Raven will help, but only if she marries him! That’s a new angle I’ve not seen before. I would really emphasize that. Lead with it, if at all possible. But also think of other ways your story is different from the run-of-the-mill “new kid in a haunted town” stories.” How do the people in the town cope with these missing kids? They clearly don’t believe it’s a supernatural phenomenon, but what ARE they doing about it? How does that impact Sadie’s life and experiences?
You want to stand out with your synopsis. Now, I don’t know anything about your book, but I would try something like this:
“There’s a grove of trees in the small town of Mission, BC that only 15-year-old Sadie Douglas can see. Only Sadie knows that these trees were once children, taken from town and transformed by the monster Dzonokwa. Fortunately, Sadie can save the kids, with the help of the Indian god Raven. All she has to do, Raven says, is marry him…”
Something like that. I don’t know. Try to front-load the unique stuff. The tree thing is cool and spooky and, again, new to me.
Does that make sense? Good luck!


By: Erin Whalen
on Thu November 26, 2009, 14:14:54

Thank you, Barry! Yes, ruthless is exactly what I wanted and needed. I will take your suggestions to heart. Much appreciated…

Last time I swear

By: Erin Whalen
on Thu November 26, 2009, 17:06:25

Hello, Barry. It’s Erin again. I took your suggestions to heart and, building heavily on the example you provided, came up with this revision:
Towering old-growth trees are appearing from out of nowhere in the Chilliwack neighbourhood of Valleyview Estates. Only 15-year-old Sadie “Too Tall” Douglas knows these trees were once children, taken from their homes and transformed by the Cannibal Woman, Dzonokwa. As the saga of the missing children plays out in front of a horrified international audience, Sadie is forced to accept the help of the Indian god, Raven, who says he’ll get rid of Dzonokwa and turn the trees back into children-—but only if Sadie marries him.
Thanks once again, Erin