Friday, February 7, 2014

Writing a Query Letter - Part 3: General techniques

In the first part on writing a query I summarized what a query is. In Part 2 I laid out how I wrote my query. Now I'd like to lay out some general tips that might help people out as they're struggling to master what seems like should be a simple task. (Don't worry if you find writing queries hard - it is. It's a big challenge to summarize a 90,000 word story into 250 words, while explaining what happens, showing who your character is, and doing it all in a way that's compelling, interesting, and unique).

Scratching Head What I've found to be the hardest parts, and what I've seen most people struggle with, is how to include the voice of the character and how to get the right level of detail. You absolutely need to get people to care about your character as an individual. And it's hard to know what to squeeze in such a small space, without getting lost in minutia or being cliche and meaningless. Here's a few things that helped me out.

Start with the generalities and cliches. Go ahead and keep it vague. Writing it out that way often helps you find your overall story. It's a coming of age story for a boy who feels awkward. It's a detective novel where the mob and corrupt police made life hard on a bitter old cop. Most story ideas are not unique in broad strokes. The truth is, they don't have to be. People like to read those stories and agents like to sell those stories. But after you have the general, try to include your unique twist. The boy feels awkward because he can read minds. The cop is embittered because his brother runs the mob and the victim was his best friend. When I tried to start with the specific of my story, I lost that big picture that connects everything, so going the other direction worked to get me where I wanted to be.

Don't worry about voice at the beginning. I think it's okay for your first draft query to sound like a summary. She did this. Then he appeared. Then this happened. Lifeless descriptions actually help you pick out what is truly key to the plot and essential to make a mini story in the query. If something isn't important, it doesn't belong in there. But once you have the actions listed, then you need to personalize them.

Two techniques that help bring in voice:  first, try to write the description as your character would describe it. If the action is Howard finds out he was adopted, how would he explain that to his best friend? The people I thought were my parents have lied to me my whole life. I'm not their kid. I don't know who I am. Just change it to third person: he had been lied to his whole life and no longer knew who he was.

The other thing that really helped was to list out the character's emotions during the action. Howard might feel: lost, confused, betrayed, hurt, angry, or any other number of things. Try to pin down what you want to express for his character - what is part of his arc. If the story is about an angry young man, go with that. If it's about his search for his birth mother, maybe the betrayal is what leads him away from his adoptive parents. Having a list of emotions helped me see which ones really mattered and I tried to use that in the description: The betrayal of his parents was the last straw. Howard needed to get to the truth if he ever wanted to know who he really was.

Magician Worldbuilding is another tough area to find the right amount of detail. All stories need it, but speculative fiction needs more. How much to include? How to explain it simply? Start with the fact that the agent doesn't know anything about your world, so don't assume they understand what you mean by 'magic' or 'future'. Lots of words have different meanings in different contexts, so you need to spell out that people cast spells and dragons fly in the sky, or humanity has colonized the galaxy and faster than light travel is possible.

But you don't spell these out for their own sake. You only need to include what is necessary for the story you're telling the query (which is going to be a smaller story than your book). Mention magic, and the type of magic, but how it's used or how it affects your character: Rengar would have to steal the blessed sword from the meanest wizard in the land; If Jetto couldn't stop the alien armada before it crossed the outer colonies, the earth itself might fall. Lay out your story first and then work the world around it. Try to give an accurate picture without needing too many details. Spaceships = good; anti-matter engines that bend the fabric of space time and allow spheroid hulls to cross up to nine parsecs instantaneously = bad.

On the other hand, make sure to include something that really sets your world apart. If your vampires sparkle in the daytime, that's new. If your magic is based on peanut shells, that's different. Again, work it in the folds of the story, but make sure you get it in there. In my case, I have aliens who are stronger/more evolved than humans. That's nothing new. But they don't age and they've been on earth for thousands of years, taking on roles that made them famous historical figures. That's a little different. So I was sure to mention that it was the real life Achilles who helps my hero when she needs it. Ideally, you want the reader to think: I haven't seen that before. That could be interesting.

One thing that helped me was making a list, kinda like I did with the emotions. But this was a world-building list. I used bullet points to highlight what things made my world the world that it is: aliens who don't age; lived on earth for thousands of years; were historical figures; stronger than humans; use flying suits and advanced technology. Again, you don't want to list them off in the query, but you can then find ways to work them into the story you've built.

Finally, get feedback. It's so hard to be objective with your own writing, especially when you know your world and character so well. You understand what you mean by magic without any explanation. You think it's so cool that you have a plausible explanation for how werewolves could actually exist. But if you get someone else to read it, preferably someone who hasn't read your book, they'll pick out the things that don't make sense and are too detailed to be interesting.

Partying Writing a query is a necessary thing if you want to get an agent. Don't think of it as a hurdle, think of it as a chance to learn more about your story and how to write in a way that grabs the reader. Sometimes problems in the query will even point out problems in the book. Starting on the query while you're working on the manuscript is a great way to help them both shape up and not to leave you beating your head against the wall when you've finished that great novel but have to wait to send it out while you finish up your query. So learn to enjoy the process and you'll be having fun the whole time. Good luck!


  1. Thanks so much for writing these posts! It's really hard to find query posts that break things down into steps that are actually helpful. :)

    It's so true that problems in the queries could indicate problems in the story. I always try to work on my query while I'm still working on my story so I don't think I'm finished only to realized I'm not.

    1. It's definitely a good idea to work on the query while working on the book. Both of them help each other, and if you're frustrated with the one you can try the other out for a while :)