Friday, April 15, 2011

The Query Quandary

by R.C. Lewis

Mention queries, and writers of all ages sprout a few more gray hairs. The first rule of #AskAgent chats on Twitter is No Query Questions. I used to think there was no such thing as a writer who looks forward to writing one or an agent who adores slogging through hundreds of them to find a few gems. Turns out Cat likes writing them, just not sending them. So there's at least one out there. But not many, I bet.

No one (or almost) really likes them, but I get why they fall under the "necessary evil" category. And it's not like there aren't resources out there to help—enough blogs to overload anyone's browser, for starters.

Even with all that help, we struggle. After doing my best to help critique several queries on AgentQuery Connect and overhauling my own query for the umpteenth time, I thought about what makes it so difficult. Boiling a novel-length plot down to a couple hundred words isn't easy, obviously. But what—above all else—stands in the way?

They say the devil's in the details. I contend that the devil's in determining the depth of the details. (How's that for alliteration?)

Boil down the plot too much, and you get something like this:

An orphan boy discovers he has unexpected power and is the Chosen One who must battle ultimate Evil.

Could be Harry Potter. Or Star Wars. Or possibly dozens of other fantasy works.

More often, though, I think we tend to go to the opposite extreme, thinking every nuance of the story is essential if the agent or editor is to understand the plot. Try this (exaggerated) example:

Milton Dauntless, a shy thirteen-year-old boy with a faithful Chihuahua-Corgi mix named Gargantuar, discovers his parents, Darwina and Ted, weren't killed in the famous So-So Steakhouse food poisoning scandal of '99 as he'd been told all his life by Grandma Gertie. In fact, his father was killed by the evil vampire lord Vladindeath, who has secretly ruled the underworld ever since defeating the werewolf clans seven hundred fifty-two years ago. As the sole survivor of the powerful Dauntless clan, Milton must now learn to harness the power of the Crystal of Purity, find out what happened to his mother when she escaped the bloodbath of her husband's murder with her long-lost brother Sherman, and defeat the vampires once and for all.

(Okay, that was kind of fun.)

That one is obviously bogged down in excess detail, including irrelevant backstory and too many names. (I have a related post on my blog on the issue of Name Soup.)

Here are some of my conclusions, and I hope others will add to them.

Get Enough Detail
  • The whole point of the query is to show an agent or editor what makes your story stand out from the others. Part of this can be through voice. But these days, if you're writing about vampires or angels, for example, you've got to show your unique twist.
  • Make it memorable and leave them wanting more. Again, the point of the query: get a request for more material.
  • Include details that are snappy, quirky, or unexpected ... without belaboring the point.

Don't Overdo the Detail
  • R.C.'s Personal Rule of Thumb: Anyone who won't be mentioned by name again in the query shouldn't be named at all.
  • Avoid backstory. Plenty of time (and more creative ways) to incorporate it into the manuscript itself.
  • Axe details that can leave the reader saying, "Why should I care about that?" For example, knowing all of that about Milton's dog doesn't really tell us anything substantial about the character (except maybe that he has a silly sense of humor when it comes to naming pets) or the plot.

It's a thin line to walk between too much and too little. No wonder so many of us find it so difficult.

Do you have any pointers for finding that perfect balance?



Mindy McGinnis said...

Great post, RC - and you make an excellent point. I think those details are exactly what can sink/swim a query. Pointers for balance.... well - I guess the basic rule of "Show don't tell" applies here too, you've just got less room for showing. Ex. "Shy, awkward Bob has a hard time talking to girls." Well - drop those first two words, and you're fine :)

Calista Taylor said...

Nice post! I'd add "keep your focus on the main character and what's at stake for them". Too often it's easy to get into a blow by blow of events when the real story is how it all affects the main character and what they have to lose.

Sophie Perinot said...

Spot on. Thinking of my query as "book blurb" or "movie trailer" really helped me. I could actually HEAR one of those weird, deep voice-over voices reading the copy from my letter when it was ready to go.

Josh Hoyt said...

This is some great information. It is so important to get enough information out there but not so much that it is overwhelming.

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks for commenting, guys. I think this is one of those things that seems obvious in theory, but the execution is the killer. (Uh, weird unintentional pun there.)

Richard said...

You make a lot of good points. Most of us struggle with queries, but reading and commenting on other people's queries on AQC has given me a better perspective on the process and the purpose of the query. Critiquing others' queries is a worthwhile endeavor.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! Finding that balance is HARD, but so important. You need to tease that agent into wanting more.

I agree with Richard - critiquing/helping others is a great learning experience. It's helped me enormously too.

Leslie Rose said...

Nice bite size pieces to shine up ye olde query. Thank you. Loved your alliteration. The only thing I dislike more than writing a query is the enigmatic synopsis. EEK.

R.C. Lewis said...

Definitely agree, Richard and Jemi. Trying to figure out WHY someone's query doesn't feel quite right has taught me so much.

Leslie ... oh, my, the synopsis. Worthy of a boot camp all its own.

Andrea Mack said...

Getting the right amount of detail is so important, but it's so hard to do sometimes. Thanks for your useful post!

Julie Musil said...

Such an excellent point! I had my query critiqued, and it lacked detail. It was all so vague, and once I read it from an outsider's point of view, I realized the critique was dead on.