Thursday, May 17, 2012

TTYU Retro: 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. Juliette, this is one of the few things we consistently disagree on. :) In an ideal world, writers and artists will have a balance of analytical and intuitive skills, and thus be able to, as you put it, understand the overarching structure and content of their story. In The real world, I there are writers--I know several--who can turn out very high-level work and yet lack the mental, and/or emotional, disposition required for a good query. I'm borderline in this area myself.

    I respect the fact that you're writing an essentially motivational post here, but IMO after many years of considering this area and the continuum of writing, agenting and publishing, I'm strongly of the opinion that the standard query process with its often ironclad requirements is essentially a brute-force filter, something ... it works, but poorly, like those fishing nets that, though marvelously good at catching fish, kill a good few dolphins in the process.

    All this said, I wish I could think of better ways for harried agents to find those rare diamonds in the slushpile. But when you read of (as I did recently) a very high-profile agent stating that if a writer can't write an outstanding query letter then he's simply not interested in them, it's hard not to believe that the system is very, very broken.

    1. Dario, it's intriguing that you say you disagree with me, but I see more agreement than anything else.
      1. That query writing and novel writing are different and some people struggle to do both.
      2. The query process is not 100% successful at picking up good works (from the writer's point of view, mostly, but probably also from the editor/agent's to a certain extent)
      3. It's hard to think of a better alternative.

      Here's where I'd quibble. First, there are practical reasons why high-profile agents might consider query writing a good skill for an author - authors can be called upon to write multiple versions of queries as well as back cover copy, and I'm sure it's a help if they know how. Second, it's clear that the system has problems, but it's run with those problems for a long time, and calling it "very very broken" implies that it can't function at all. Maybe the current changes will end up affecting the screening process, and maybe they won't. What I see most of the time is that the new trend in self-publishing let's people take the easy path of condemning it all and opting out. I'm pretty sure that's not a door that all my readers would want to close.

  2. (Ugh--edits needed but impossible, so sorry for the broken syntax. I was in a hurry!)

  3. 'queries'?

    What is a 'query' in the context of novel writing?

    Is this something I'd need to write in SQL?

    (I am serious, I have no idea what a 'query' is in this context.)

    1. lxndr, it's the one-page letter describing your fiction novel that you send to an agent or editor to open the discussion of whether they'd like to publish it.

  4. So here's a somewhat reassuring sidebar from agent Rachelle Gardner:

  5. This is a really thought-provoking and useful post. I'm going away to write a query of my latest wip to see if I've got the right grasp of it. Thanks, Elizabeth.