Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Query Quandary

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 haven't yet come across a writer who looks forward to writing one or an agent who adores slogging through hundreds of them to find a few gems.  (If you're out there, give a shout.)  [EDIT: Cat likes writing them, just not sending them.  So there's at least one out there.]

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.  (See my earlier musing 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?


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Update: School's Out!

The end of the school year was a little crazy.  I guess that's what happens when you agree to help some deaf kids edit the music for the graduation video and you have to pack up your entire classroom because the front half of the building is being renovated next year.  Oh, yeah, and finals ... I can't forget finals.

That's all in the past now.  Summer's here, and I can focus almost exclusively on writing.  (YES!)  Fingerprints is looking better than ever after I finally rewrote the longstanding opening.  Still waiting on agents.  Echoes (the sequel) has been through some solid rounds of editing and feels a lot better than it did when I drafted it.  The third book in the series is underway and getting some momentum now that I can spend more than an hour at a time on it.

To keep busy, I wrote another short story and submitted it to the Science in My Fiction contest.  Results due July 21st.  Submitting the earlier story to some other places.  A friend pointed out another contest I might consider, if I can write a story under 2500 words in the next month.

All this happens when I'm not getting sunburned helping my parents work in their backyard.

If I need a break from writing, I'll spend some time brainstorming ways to get revenge on the student who dropped a water balloon on me at Field Day.  Cue the supervillain laughter.