Carole L. Glickford (WA State Book Award Winner for Swimming Toward the Ocean) maintains that the book most writers publish first is often not the first book they write.

With a first book, most of us don’t have all our ducks in a row: broad platform, adoring fans with disposable income, blurbs from famous writers. But anyone can learn how to create a good synopsis.

  • The Hook: 25 words or less. Designed to spark  interest in full manuscript. Don’t try to sell the whole story. (25 words could include marketing tie-in, and comparisons to recent books that sold well.)
  • Bonus Points: blurb from respected author;
  • The Expanded Hook: opens up The Hook, just enough.
  • one more graph describing (get this) just the first 70 pages; and
  • a final, short graph posing a question that establishes a compelling interest in the rest of the book. Literary writers: do not end a single sentence with a question mark. Infer the question through language.

This first time I tried to sell the first book I wrote, I sent over a hundred queries. Maybe 150. I sent five at a time. 35-40% asked to see the full manuscript. No one signed me.

  • A number sent a form rejection with a hand-written note scratched at the bottom. (Take as a sincere compliment whatever they write on the return. Especially if you sent over the transom.)
  • A few asked to see anything I re-wrote, or wrote new.
  • Most gave the reason as: “I could not muster the enthusiasm needed to represent this material in this difficult market place.”

Which really hurt my feelings. The first time. By the seventh or so, I was starting to see it as de riguer for a mid-90s No.When the agent who ultimately signed me gave me her first No, she gave me a good critique of why. I saw that something was working in the first 25 pages that failed in the remainder.

I stopped sending out. I hired a private editor, and then put my bottom in a chair and my fingers on a keyboard. I ran it by the editor again. She said it still needed work. I begged to differ and sent out again.

I started with a short list of agents who had asked for the entire manuscript. Bingo. The subject line of the e-mail read: An Offer of Representation. I had a nice day.

It was October of 2001. The country was occupied with other than first novels by un-famous writers. In addition to the first attack on American soil since 1941, I was up against the whole “Soooooo Oprah/mid-90s” quality of the theme. Then again, maybe the editor I hired had been right.

Bless her heart, my agent stuck with me. Responses were good. Great, even.

  • “I was extremely impressed with Alle’s voice when I read her sample material, and I wasn’t disappointed when I read the entire novel. It hit me with real emotional force and power. This is just the kind of literary gem that can get lost on (publisher’s name) list. I do think that this book could do very well at a house with a more literary bent.”
  •  “Hall is clearly a gifted, evocative writer, and I was at times both horrified and fascinated by the lyrical narration.”
  • “The writing is hypnotizing.”

Those were the nice days. There were other days:

  • The inevitable: “Difficult market and what-have-you.” “Too dark for my tastes.”
  • The confusing: “Loved the writing but the plot didn’t stand up.” “Great plot but the writing is uneven.” “Can you write something funny?
  • The needlessly painful: “Simply could not muster up the … “ By the early ‘oughts, could they not have come up with a kinder No? Perhaps, Not for me, thanks.
  • And my absolute favorite: “Don’t worry, (name of agent)! We will find a project to do together!”

So pleased for agent. Agent dropped me. But not before I got an excellent re-write of my cover letter. See that hook? The expansion? The wrap up that sets up the question driving the rest of the book?

  • The idea of the cover letter is not to sell the whole book (although you must do that, as well).
  • The idea of the cover letter to get them to read the first pages.
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