Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What the heck are queries good for, anyway?

...never mind synopses!

This is a question I see all the time on the writers' forums I visit.* I'll even admit, I used to ask such questions myself. "Isn't it possible to be a great story writer and a bad query writer?" "How is that fair?"

It's true - queries require a totally different kind of skill from novels. When you dive into a novel, you're putting yourself in the story, seeing where it goes, pushing deeper and deeper. When you write a query, you're trying to find the four things that are the most important for catching an agent or editor's attention. These are four things I got from a query workshop with Donald Maass at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, and they are:

1. protagonist
2. conflict
3. setting
4. something unique

Once you have them, you've got basically two or three paragraphs to capture an entire 300 or so pages of wonder and detail.

Here's what I've learned, though, over the years I've spent writing, querying, and trying to get published. The query says some very important things about the story.

Funny enough, if you read a query, you can see really clearly how an author understands the overarching structure and content of their story. In my experience, I've found that the skill involved in creating a query is extremely similar to the skill involved in creating story macro-structure. Here's the way I'd summarize it:

If you know how to write an effective query, then you know what your story is about.

This may sound odd, since of course we all know what our stories are about. But if we are able to step back and capture the essential compelling conflict of the story in one paragraph, very likely this means that that component, the story's backbone, is strong and pulls people through the novel as well.

Similarly, synopses are hard, but if we can get people to enjoy them by putting elements of voice and motive and consequence in them, then we can show an agent or an editor that we recognize those elements of our own work and we know how to put proper emphasis on them.

Learning how to write queries and synopses hasn't been exactly fun, and it's been hard. But I feel like I've learned a lot about writing a better novel at the same time. In fact, some time ago I wrote a query for a book I haven't even written yet - just to test whether I'd correctly identified the right person to be main protagonist, the correct primary conflict, the proper setting, and something that would make this book unique. It's already helped me to envision how the story outline will look - which is a great help, since this book is going to be really complex - and at the same time it's helped me to feel more confident that the novel will one day be ready for submission.

So I encourage all of you to think through your queries, and your novels, at the same time. Consider the query a necessary part of the process of testing your story's readiness.

Then, go for it.

*Analog SF, Asimov's SF, Absolute Write, Backspace Writers


  1. I'm just starting another crack at novel-writing. I hadn't thought of writing a synopsis ahead of time. That's an interesting idea! I am trying to outline this time which is a new experience for me.

    Regarding synopses, I came across a method that I found very useful: http://www.writing-world.com/publish/leblanc.shtml

    You make several passes, starting with one sentence, then one paragraph, then one page, then full. The advantage to working up instead of working down is you really have to decide what's important. If you can boil it down to one sentence you have your core theme. Then as you build it up, it helps you decide what's really vital to the story which can help you focus your efforts.

  2. I agree with this, totally. Taking things out is the hardest, so working down from maximum complexity means endless iterations of removal. Starting with the bare minimum and working up is more efficient time-wise, more effective and also more pleasant.

  3. Thanks for this post. I've been working on a synopses which has gone from sawdust dry to 'hey- this is interesting but does it make sense?'. I think this will be a very useful way to frame this work, to make it meaningful and interesting.