THE END. The words stared back at me from my screen. An entire year and I finally made it. What next? I noticed a local writing center, Writer’s Atelier, was offering a class to help prepare your submission package for literary agents. My manuscript was nowhere near ready but there was no way I wanted to let this opportunity pass me by. I knew the basics of my story, even if the book itself needed a major overhaul in revision.
So the real question was, did I have enough of the story to write my query and—cue the ominous music—my synopsis?
The class was broken up into four weeks, each week with a different focus: query, synopsis, first page, and final package. I would have to watch a lesson online and submit my assignment for the week, a draft of the corresponding piece of the submission package. I told myself that even if I wasn’t fully ready with my material, I would be learning content for the future.
The instructor for this particular class was Lori Goldstein, author of Becoming Jinn, a YA contemporary fantasy series published by Macmillan. Lori is also a freelance editor with years of experience in the publishing industry.
Begin week one, as I resurrected my front-row-seat, copious-note-taking, former student self. This week was focused on writing query letters and mastering the perfect pitch. The lesson was full of excellent examples, including Lori’s own pitch from her first book, and a thorough step-by-step of how to complete the other parts of the query. After reading the pitch examples I thought, “Oh this will be easy. I already know my premise and what the conflict is in my book. This should only take a couple hours.” I let the words of the lesson settle into my brain over the next couple days, running through some possible lines for my 250 word pitch when my mind ran into a brick wall, a three story, six-foot-thick, brick wall. My story is a fantasy romance. How do I convey the essence of my book in a you-need-to-read-this way without fully describing the fantasy world? Without even partially describing it?
My “two hours” turned to three, then five, then seven. How is it possible to spend that much time on one page of writing that doesn’t contain any new material? After considerably more time than expected, I sent in my assignment, crossing my fingers.
When my query was returned, the screen lit up with track changes. Not reading a word, I immediately closed my laptop and left the room.
This book is ridiculous.
My ideas are ridiculous.
I’ve wasted a year of my life.
My former student self then tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me that I needed to suck it up and continue with the class. The wonderful thing about this class was that I would get a chance to edit my assignments and turn them all in together during the last week for another review. This wasn’t the end. I had a chance to fix it. I just needed to put on my big girl pants and open that laptop. My eyes scanned over the comments, realizing none were criticizing, and in fact there were several positive notes, along with small edits, and yes, big changes I would need to make. Lori’s guidance was extremely helpful, constructive, yet gentle.
My first mistake was that I didn’t ground the pitch enough in the world to make the whole bit make sense. So I didn’t get around that giant wall. I also put a spoiler in there. Only the first 25% of your book goes into your pitch. Whoops.
After reviewing my query, I set it aside to edit during the last week for resubmission. Now it was on to my synopsis. Deep breaths. I had the basic plot written, even though I needed to cut out an entire POV among other things. In fact, it should be easier for me to only focus on the main plotline since everything else would be shifting, right?
I kept my first mistake fresh in my head as I wrote my synopsis—I needed to ground the reader in my world. Ground, ground, ground. Got it. And this time I didn’t tell myself it would only take two hours. As I began writing, I realized that I also needed to figure out the main driving factor in my plot. The more I tried to connect all of my events under one line of motion, the more I realized how much I needed to streamline my novel. (The best news about this was that my story wasn’t finished, wasn’t even close to finished. A whole new page of notes appeared on my revision document, the most helpful notes I had written so far.) I did my best to capture what I had in my story already and what I was going to change, but I knew my synopsis was a mess, just like my manuscript. I revised it and revised it over and over, knowing it was still a confusing jumble of events, much like a scraggly alley cat on the page.
I finally hit a point where I couldn’t look at it anymore. I hoped Lori could summon some of that Jinn magic from her books and transform my synopsis into a majestic Persian cat, something worthy of a Fancy Feast commercial. Or just a standard house cat would do, too, at this point.
Once again it came back, track changes lighting up my work like fireworks on the Fourth. Once again I snapped my laptop lid closed and left the room.
This book is ridiculous.
My ideas are ridiculous.
I’ve wasted a year of my life.
With another tap from my former student self and my big girls pants back on, I opened the document. The first comment was damn-near heartbreaking, but not about the actual content. I wrote everything in Google Docs and their auto-formatting wasn’t the size or font a writer would use for submissions. Turns out my scraggly alley cat was actually fairly obese—my synopsis was two full pages. I would need to do some serious cutting. Reading through the rest of Lori’s comments I saw her many points of mass confusion and realized I over-corrected based on the feedback from my query. I added too much of the world, too much grounding. There was some delicate balance of “just enough” I wasn’t hitting. Why did I decide to write fantasy again? This class was turning out to be harder than I ever could have imagined.
I set my overweight synopsis next to my underweight query to be edited later. It was time to focus on the meat and potatoes, my first page. I knew I opened my book with the right scene but the work would be in really making it deliver. Then after watching my video lesson, I realized the importance of my opening line. Mine was a bit flat, to say the least. I hadn’t really thought about it when I first put my fingers to the keys. I just wanted to get the story down. But I know that first line is make or break for agents and, more importantly, readers. I revised and edited the rest of the page first then went back to that monumental task of creating my hook. I started writing possible first lines in a list, trying out different options, going different directions. I wrote a page and a half of first lines and picked the best one.
Lori returned my first page without many changes in content, mostly in the order or my lines, including that first one. She actually liked my third line as an opener. She also showed me how to break apart the rest of my first paragraph and move the lines elsewhere, making my pacing more exciting.
Using those comments and the others from my previous assignments, I prepared my final submission package. I felt much more confident in the quality of the work the second time around, even if I chewed my nails down working on it all. I knew my query/synopsis/first page weren’t quite “there” yet, but with this class I was much, much closer. I now understood submission expectations better and even had personalized feedback on my work. A bonus perk of this whole process was being able to stand back and look at my novel, realizing with greater clarity what I needed to do for revision. My story really wasn’t that ridiculous after all. I would highly recommend this class for anyone in the revision process, as well as anyone who has finished that monumental step and is ready for submission.
And now my former student self is reminding me it is time for me to get to work on that revision…
Arielle Haughee writes from her home in Central Florida where she raises her two boys. She writes in a variety of genres including flash fiction, fantasy, memoir, creative nonfiction, and blogging. Check out her website at www.ariellehaughee.com