Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Guest post by Joanne Kennedy

Every endeavor, no matter how pleasurable, requires discipline.

Take dog ownership. Every kid wants a dog, but few realize how much work is involved. While it’s easy to love a dog and play with it, it’s not much fun when Muffin misbehaves, and nobody likes cleaning up the poop.

Novel writing is similar in that the beginning phases are fun. Writers get to unleash their imaginations, creating fascinating characters and sending them off on quests for love, treasure, and self-realization.

But when the novel’s done, the trouble begins. If you want to sell it, you’ll have to write a whiz-bang query letter that leaves an agent eager to read your synopsis. When he does, you want your story to grab his attention from the start and hold on like a pit bull with a beef bone.

Coming up with clever query letters and compelling synopses are the writing equivalent of picking up the poop. But with a little discipline and knowledge, you can make the job a whole lot easier.

For starters, let’s define the purpose of each endeavor.

A query letter is a one-page letter introducing yourself and your writing. It should include a short, intriguing sentence or two about your plot and characters, along with your previous writing credits, if any, and your qualifications and/or reasons for writing this particular book. It’s also a good idea to explain why you chose this particular agent.

A synopsis is a summary of your plot from start to finish. It should introduce all the main characters, define the conflict at the heart of the novel, show evidence of a theme that relates your story to the larger world, and showcase your unique voice.

Every weapon you brought to the writing of your novel, from your fascinating characters to your sense of humor, should be displayed in a shining array in both documents.

When reading query letters, agents look first for a strong conflict, so in a query letter, your goal is to intrigue the reader. It’s a good idea to begin with a simple statement of your protagonist’s goal, motivation, and conflict. For example, X wants to do Y, but can’t because Z. Once you have that down, you can start embellishing the idea with details that make your novel truly unique.

In a synopsis, you have to do more than interest the reader; you want to satisfy him by telling the whole tale from start to finish. It’s not an easy task. Even the most compelling story sounds idiotic when you compress it into two or three pages. And if you include every detail of the plot, you’ll spend so much time moving characters around, it’ll read more like a chess match play-by-play than a future bestseller.

The key is to view the synopsis not as an accurate plot summary, but as a marketing piece. Its true purpose is to prove you can offer all the qualities an editor looks for.

• Characters readers want to spend time with
• A unique and compelling voice
• A strong conflict with high stakes
• Depth of emotion and page-turning tension
• A satisfying, resonant ending

Like dog ownership, it’s harder than it looks. Trying to control your narrative is like walking a brace of excitable poodle dogs. Each pup represents a turning point, and the leashes are the plot threads.

At the beginning of your outing, the leashes fan out in an organized way. But if you pay attention to any particular dog, it gets excited, running around in circles, tangling its leash with all the other dogs. Soon, the plot threads wrap around your legs in a hopeless tangle and you fall, bound and helpless, overwhelmed by the complex net of your story.

The key to successful dog walking is discipline, and the same applies to writing your synopsis. Begin with a bare-bones outline that details your story’s inciting incident and all its turning points, along with the ending. Then, cut that outline to the bone. Which events can you delete without interrupting the flow of the story or confusing the reader? Be ruthless, and you’ll soon find yourself with a manageable outline.

Next, turn your outline into serviceable sentences. Then, you can start to rewrite, smoothing out the syntax and changing humdrum phrases into vibrant descriptions. This is the time to show off your writing skills, but remember you have to be brief.

Once you’re done, it’s a good idea to turn both documents over to someone who knows nothing about your story. Ask your reader: Does the story sound interesting? Are the characters likeable? Does the plot make sense?

Be ready to make changes once you have feedback. It’ll be good practice for working with the editor you’ll win when you send out that beautifully groomed, well-disciplined query letter and synopsis to an agent who can see the future champion in your newly subdued story.


Want to learn more? I’ll be teaching a workshop on Crafting Your Query Letter and Synopsis at Novel Writing University at the Laramie County Library on Saturday, January 30, 2016. 

The workshop will include templates for synopsis writing and other hints and tips. 

If you attended previous sessions of NWU, you’ve already met my friends and co-conspirators Amanda Cabot and Mary Gillgannon. As three published authors with very different approaches to novel writing, we’ll be offering a one-day workshop from 10:00 to 3:00 focusing on selling your finished novel. 

Other topics include Choosing the Perfect Agent (Mary) and Contract Negotiation (Amanda). There will be a question-and-answer session at the end, and writers of all levels of experience are invited to attend.

Joanne Kennedy is the RITA-nominated author of eight contemporary western romances, including Tall, Dark and Cowboy, One Fine Cowboy, and the Decker Ranch series. Her next book, How to Wrangle a Cowboy, will be released in February.

Joanne lives at the Wyoming border in a pint-sized paradise that supports wild things ranging from mountain lions to ermine. She shares her home with a fire-fighting fighter pilot, two dogs, and an irascible cat. The animals are relatively well-behaved.

Joanne can be reached at her website, joannekennedybooks.com, her blog, joannekennedybooks.com/readers, and on Facebook at Joanne Kennedy Books.


  1. Leave it to Joanne to mix dogs and writing. Great post!

  2. Informative and entertaining, just like her presentations at the 6-week NWU I sat in on a little over a year ago at the library. I'm looking forward to learning more from her and her co-conspirators at the one in January.

  3. What a wonderful post! I have never heard a better description of how to write a synopsis well! Thank you!

  4. I'm almost ready to start writing my synopsis and query letter, so this is exactly what I needed to know.


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