A friend at Random House sent me a galley of the forthcoming Margaret Atwood novel (happy Mother’s Day to me). It is the third in her Maddadam trilogy that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which most humans have succumbed to a plague. Those who remain are not having such a good time of it.
I loved the first two novels; the second more than the first. I read them out of order because when the first book, Oryx and Crake, was published (despite my admiration for the Atwood oeuvre, and despite my adoration of The Handmaid’s Tale) I did not think that a dystopian novel would be my cup of tea. As a grown-up, it seems that I’m more inclined toward bleak cautionary tales with real-world settings. Of course I was wrong, as I often am, about my teacup. The Year of the Flood won me over and sent me to the library the next day in search of the previously passed-over Oryx and Crake, and I’ve been waiting for book three ever since.
Even so, I nearly did not make it past the second page of Maddadam. Upon opening the book, I found a detailed, multi-page synopsis of the first two books—ostensibly provided as a service to get first time readers up to speed. I dutifully started on my refresher course and found it such hard-going that I began to doubt that I’d ever liked volumes 1 and 2 in the first place. Eventually I gave up and just started the novel—which had me spellbound in no time. But even the august and somewhat offbeat Margaret Atwood is not especially good at crafting a compelling plot summary.
I relate this as a cautionary tale of the non-apocalyptic variety. Authors, do not attempt a comprehensive summary of your project in your query letters, especially if your book involves genetically modified beasts like wolvogs or pigoons or fantastical names/kingdoms of any stripe. Instead, think about hooking your agent, hooking your editor—and then include a terrific first chapter. I guess there are agents out there who don’t want a sample chapters along with the query, but rest assured that I (and my DGLM colleagues) do.