Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mulling over queries

I think queries are about a hundred times harder than novels to write. First there's just boiling down your story to a few sentences. But then there's the spin you put on it. It's like having a loom with threads strung from one end to another. Each thread has a weight on it that you can move up and down. Or, if you like, it's like guitar strings depressed at different frets. All the same strings, but changing this changes the pattern, changes the tune, gives you a different impression of what it's all about. And I'm convinced that every single person you ask to read it will want a slightly different tune. Sometimes this is to your advantage, because you can stress slightly different aspects of your book to appeal more to different people you may be querying. Sometimes it's frustrating, like if critique suggestions turn it into an entirely different story than you ever meant to tell, or if they strip out all the voice you wrote into it, or substitute the critiquer's own voice. That's the hard part about queries (and about critiques in general)--sussing out the things that will make your writing stronger versus the things that will just make your writing different.

But aside from that issue is the issue of getting the right information into your query. I used to think that a query should be mysterious, not give away too much, and therefore make an editor/agent HAVE to request to read on. Well, you do want that response, but a vague, mysterious query won't do it. You have to give away some of what happens in the book. Not the ending, no--but you HAVE to specifically talk about something that happens on screen, in the active running action of the book. Miss Snark had one model of the query on her blog (she said there were many ways of writing one, and this was just ONE way--so don't get tied into fitting it exactly):

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

So basically, the first two lines are about defining your main character, what s/he wants, and what the opposition (human or otherwise) is about. People usually do pretty well here. At least, I find this part a little easier to write. How much attention you put on this depends on the kind of book you have (slice of life vs. high action, etc.). But all this is setup/backstory. It is not enough to end your query here. You can't just include this and then a mysterious line about the genre or danger or whatever.

The part that gets harder, though, are the last two lines. I think what line 3 means is that you have to actually reveal the specific action your character takes that starts to complicate things. Maybe that could be the inciting incident, what sets of the motion of this story (as opposed to the backstory/setup). And the last line? That would be the complications of taking that action, the next choice/situation it forces on the MC, and the possible complications resulting from that second action.

See? No spoilers--we aren't anywhere near the end of the book yet--but there's still an open-ended situation to intrigue a potential reader. It lets you know the genre and the specific plot of this book--as opposed to all the other books in this genre. So if you can figure this out, I think your query will be ever so much stronger.

Then you can send it to your critiquers, who will all have a different take on the tune, and worry about the first part all over again.


Ronald L. Smith said...

I just finished my query for a YA I am going to send out. I totally know where you're coming from. When I had doubts, I just went back to the formula that you see everywhere-- the same one you quoted from Snark.

I often tell people a query is not a synopsis. I tell them to think about the themes of their book. Is it about war? Love?

And think of the pitch, too: a teenager searching for a magical stone is pursued by the forces of the dark.

Here's another way I keep on track:

When sixteen-year-old Frank meets High School Senior, Julia, he feels an attraction like never before.

But little does he know that Julia carries a mysterious secret. She is the reincarnation of Medusa, and will stop at nothing to add Frank to her thrall of slaves.

Will Frank find out her secret and deliver his fellow classmates from the clutches of this modern-day Medusa? Or will his growing attraction to her put him at risk, too?

Medusa's Revenge is a 70,000 word YA...

Hey, I just made all this up in four minutes. Maybe I should write this story. LOL.

There's so much we want to tell in a query but we have to reign ourselves in. Too much information is a killer, and so is not enough.

The main thing is Conflict. What does your character want and what obstacles are in her way.

Ok, sorry about the long rant. (I think you know all this anyway!)

Great post. And good luck with your query!

*slinks away to write Medusa's Revenge.

Rose Green said...

Thanks for the good wishes! Yeah, I think you're right on the conflict/themes for the query (which definitely makes it different from the synopsis, which I think is more about plot points--in an interesting and succinct manner, to be sure...)

Sometimes I think it might be easier to write the query before the book. So good luck with Frank and Medusa there! :)

Andrea Mack said...

Queries are so challenging! I blogged about this subject earlier this week. I'm still working on getting those last couple of lines right.