In his book On Writing Stephen King talks about mailing the manuscript of Carrie to Doubleday. He didn’t send a query. He did happen to have a friend at Doubleday, which is probably why he mailed it there instead of to another publisher. That was in the early seventies, and things have changed.
If you do happen to have a friend at a publishing house, you could try your luck at simply mailing in the manuscript. Most of us aren’t in that boat. When I began pitching The Swan Harp, I started by looking at what agencies wanted to see. They want one, two or all of the following.
1) A pitch or query letter
2) A synopsis
3) Part or all of the manuscript
The third requirement is the easy one – you have the manuscript, and whether they want the first ten pages, the first three chapters or the whole thing, you can send it. From personal experience I’ll tell you that it’s still a scary moment when you put that sample, or that whole manuscript, out there. I don’t think of my stories as my children, but I do know that I’m deliberately offering something fairly intimate to the judgment of strangers. Of course, nobody forced me to go for publication, so I say to myself, “Suck it up and get on wi’ t’ job”.
The synopsis – the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version, if you like – should be easy too, no?
Um, no. The synopsis of my second draft took me three days and two critiques to write. That seems like a lot of work for a 600-word piece, but in fact it’s probably the minimum. I’m a fast and technically accomplished writer. I also write flash fiction, in which you learn very quickly to pare the story down to its essentials and then make it read like a real story. In other words, by the time I came to write the synopsis of The Swan Harp, I’d had five-plus years of this kind of work. It still took me three days and two critiques. I used Marg Gilks’s excellent and incredibly helpful article on writing a synopsis.
A synopsis gives the core of your novel – characters, setting, conflict, resolution – in five hundred to six hundred words. It has to hit that balance between too much information and not enough. (One of the problems with mine was the number of characters.) It’s probably the second thing the agent will read, always assuming he or she gets through your pitch letter without tossing it at paragraph one.
The pitch letter is crucial. There is no way I can tell you everything you need to know about writing a perfect one, so I’m simply going to refer you to Katharine Sands’s excellent book Making the Perfect Pitch. I bought a copy and spent over a week reading about fiction pitches alone. I read and re-read and digested and went back. At the end of that, I spent two days writing a pitch letter.
While I haven’t got an agent yet, I do have the interest of one, which is leagues ahead of where I was before I began pitching. If I do get an agent, believe me I will ask what, precisely, decided her or him to give me a shot. I’ll pass that information on, too.