Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Query to Manuscript: "It's Not Me—It's You"

by R.C. Lewis

I've been reflecting back on the querying trenches lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about the query for my first manuscript. Like most everyone else, my first try at query-writing was accompanied by a lot of hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing. How am I supposed to fit all this in? How will this make sense if I don't explain all the background?

(A word of hope: I actually got to the point where I kind of enjoy writing queries now. I even wrote a fake one for my current WIP before I started just to zone in on things.)

With that first manuscript, I hammered out a decent query over on the AgentQuery Connect forums. More experienced writers gave their nod of approval and said, "Let that bird fly and see what happens."

A lot of nothing happened.

I went back to the drawing board, started from scratch, and wrote an even better query. Punchier, more compelling, with my MC coming through much more clearly. Again, the nods of approval. Again, I sent it out to see what happened.

Lots of requests happened. I think at one point I had seven fulls out at the same time.

All came back as rejections.

A couple of years and several novels later, I've realized something. My query was trying to tell me something that whole time. The biggest problem was always pinning down the conflict in a compelling way, one that made an agent say, "Ooh, gotta read that and see how it plays out." Even with the query that had some success, I think it was due to presenting interesting characters and an interesting premise. The conflict was in a supporting role.

That's how it was in the manuscript, too. Really, the conflict sucked.

Okay, it wasn't super-terrible. It wasn't even something the rejecting agents called me out on. (Rather, it was the victim of lots of "I just didn't love it enough.") But it wasn't strong and decisive and focused. My plot was half-heartedly slapping when it should've been punching through cinderblocks. I couldn't pin down the central conflict in my query because my novel didn't entirely have one.

No query—no matter how brilliant—could save me from the issues in the manuscript.

This won't always be the case. Sometimes you struggle to write a query because it's just a new skill you haven't mastered yet. Sometimes a query fails on its own merits, while the manuscript is stellar. (In which case, retool the query.) Sometimes a manuscript gets rejected for purely subjective reasons that only mean you haven't found the right agent (or the right time) for that project.

But if you're having a hard time writing your query, allow for the possibility that the problem is in the story itself, not the modern torture we term "query-writing." Listen to the feedback you get on your query and ask yourself, "Is that because I handled it poorly here in the query, or because the fundamental root within the story is problematic?"

It's frustrating to think you're done with a novel, ready to embark on querying, only to discover you need to go back into major revisions. Maybe even a total rewrite. But sometimes it has to be done, and we end up with a better story—and better experience—for it.

Has your query ever tried to tell you what's wrong with the manuscript? How were you able to tell the difference between query-problems and novel-problems?

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—sometimes in sign language, sometimes not—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. That may explain why her characters don't like to be pigeonholed. Coincidentally, R.C. enjoys reading about quantum physics and the identity issues of photons. You can find her on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at Crossing the Helix.


JeffO said...

I've been thinking this with my first MS for some time now. It's not an especially happy thought, that's for sure. said...

I have been stressing over the query letter lately, but you are right. If the MS isn't any good, even a great query isn't going to help. Great post.

Debra McKellan said...

I was working on querying when I still had a ways to go, though I didn't know it at the time. I've been hearing "slow it down, tell us more about this," so I have to delve in deeper before I can jump back into the trenches of querying again.

Lisa W. Rosenberg said...

This was absolutely the case with my first novel. I couldn't pin down the hook, essentially because my book was about too many things, all sort of muddying my plot. Had to rewrite the whole book--literally throw most of it out and start from scratch to come up with a decent query.
Lots of work, but such an important learning experience!

efjace said...

I think this is what happened to me in my earlier versions of my current WIP. I had a prologue that was NEEDED (oy) and the query letter couldn't seem to pick a focus between that and shifting into the actual conflict. It also suffered from Generic BadGuy Syndrome. The Badguys were badguys cause...they could be? They really had no reasoning for doing what they did. Once I looked at things from their POV, it really opened up a lot in my story. (Which has naught to do with queries but because of those early query fails I really took that WIP apart.)

Laura Lee Nutt said...

The first query I sent out failed, not because of an issue identifying the main conflict, I think, but because I hadn't actually pinned down who the true antagonist was. I kept going back and forth between two villainous characters, but neither of them were actually the antagonist. In truth--and it took me a year to realize this--the antagonist was actually the most virtuous person in the book. At the time, however, I couldn't mentally put her in that role because, "But she can't be the bad guy. She's too nice." In actuality, she was the one who most directly opposed the protagonist's goals, thus making her the antagonist. Because I didn't realize this, I think my query flopped.

Thanks for the insight!