It's query-writing time!
I hear that groaning. That wailing. That gnashing of teeth. I also know not everyone is having that reaction, but the majority? Yeah, probably.
What is it about writing queries that makes so many writers want to forget they ever set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)? In my time critiquing queries and writing (and revising, and rewriting) my own, I've seen certain reasons come up several times. Often, there seems to be something behind the protest—a misconception of what a query is, what it does, and how it fits our role as writers. I'll try to address some of the common ideas.
But I can't condense my 90k-word novel to 250 words!
Good! You shouldn't. A query is not a summary of your whole novel. Save that for the synopsis. (And even then, you're not going to include everything.)
Our task is not to squish the whole story into one page. It's to entice. A query is bait.
Dammit, Jim, I'm a
doctor novelist, not a salesman!
A query is not a smarmy, slick, hard-sell sales pitch, so don't try to make it one. Stating in the query that this is the most amazing novel ever written, and if the agent doesn't act now, now, NOW they're going to miss out ... yeah, never a good idea.
At the same time, what's wrong with "selling it"? This book is your baby. Who better to convey its awesomeness? My parents aren't salespeople by any means, but the way they talk me up to people, I look pretty amazing. When you love something, "selling it" should be natural and sincere. A query is a vehicle for us to show the awesome.
I have to include all this background, or the story won't make sense!
No, you don't. A query is not a primer for your novel. Remember what I said above about not condensing the whole story? About how the query is bait? Think fly-fishing. What goes into those fancy little flies-that-don't-look-very-insect-like-to-humans? Someone had to learn how to make them, obtain supplies, actually make them, prick themselves a few times on hooks, and learn how to properly cast the fishing rod. All of that is critical to the desired end-result of catching a fish.
The fish doesn't need to know about all those steps. A query is sleek and efficient, despite the agony, trial-and-error, and days/weeks/months it takes to craft it.
I can't say what it's about without giving away the whole story!
Yes, you can. Have I mentioned yet that a query isn't a summary of the whole thing? That a query is bait to entice?
For my latest manuscript, I made a concerted effort to arrive at a nice high-tension turning point right around page fifty. That way, any agents who read partials first would (hopefully) be dying to see what happened next and request the full. When I went to write the query, I realized that tight first fifty was all I needed to focus on, with just a hint of why that turning point was going to bring a big mess of uh-oh for the rest of the story.
Incidentally, for the synopsis? Yeah, giving it away, baby. No holding back.
Queries are an instrument of the devil and are good for nothing but torturing us!
I know there are times when it certainly feels that way, but I believe there's value in the query-writing process. Even if you plan to self-publish, you'll need to write a book description or jacket copy that does essentially the same job. The more I embraced a positive attitude toward queries, the more cohesive and well-shaped my stories became. The query informs the story just as the story informs the query.
A query is not evil. A query is a tool you can tame, making it work for you.
It's okay if there's a little teeth-gnashing in the midst of the process, though. We're only human, after all.
What's the biggest roadblock you run into when writing queries? How have you gotten around it? What aspects do you continue to struggle with no matter what you try?
R.C. Lewis teaches math to deaf teenagers by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. You can find her at Crossing the Helix and Twitter (@RC_Lewis).