Friday, October 17, 2014

Query First? The Query as a Plotting Tool

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Most writers know that after they've written their novel it's time to write their query. But I've found that writing the query before you start the novel is a great way to make sure you have the core elements needed for a solid story.

For those I just sent into sheer panic, never fear -grin-. I'm not talking about an agent-worthy query, just something that sounds halfway decent and nails your protagonist, antagonist, inciting event, story goal, conflict, stakes, and how the protagonist wins. Because if you can't specify those seven things before you start your novel, you're very likely going to run into problems at the halfway mark, if not sooner.


Because something needs to drive your protagonist, and thus drive your plot. That's the story goal, the core conflict, the big bad problem your novel is about. For my novel The Shifter, it's Nya's need to save her missing sister. To solves the novel's problem, Nya needs to save her sister. Plenty of other problems occur along the way, but that's the driving force behind everything that occurs in the novel.

It's also where the stakes come from.

Uncertainty about the stakes is where a lot of novel ideas fall flat. (And why they stall in the middle.) You have a great premise, a solid inciting event, great characters, but you haven't figured out why all this matters yet and what will happen if your protagonist fails. Once you get past the opening events, you're not sure where the story goes. Nothing is at stake for your protagonist during the middle to drive them on and give them hurdles to overcome.

Not knowing what constitutes a win is another problem area that can stall a plot. Some writers prefer to see how the story turns out organically, and that's fine, but it helps to have an inkling of what "win" means to the protagonist, even if it's vague. "Stop the bad guy from doing what he was doing" was mine (I used a name and specifics, of course, but that would give away the book).

For example, let's say we have a love story set during the zombie apocalypse, with Bob as our protagonist. Bob's goal is to survive the zombies and find a way to leave his wife, Sally, so he can be with Jane, the woman he loves.

A win for Bob is, "survive to live happily ever after with Jane." We don't need to know more than that at this time, be we know that he needs to act in ways throughout the novel to bring about that resolution. That's part of the core conflict -- the love triangle.

(Here's more with This Query On? Identifying Problems in a Novel)

Let's break it down and write a query for Bob and the Zombies to make sure we have all the pieces needed for a solid story.

Protagonist: Bob

Antagonist: Sally

Inciting event: Zombies crash through the front window one morning

Story goal: Survive the zombies and find a way to be with Jane.

Conflict: Bob wants to leave Sally for Jane, but he needs Sally to find Jane and survive

Stakes: The lives of Bob, Jane, and Sally

How they win: Bob leaves Sally and lives happily ever after with Jane

Not a bad start. Chances are, your inciting event will be more fleshed out, since how the book starts is probably more clear in your mind. So lets add a nice conflict that's integral to the story.

Inciting event: Zombies crash through the front window one morning, just before Bob tells Sally he wants a divorce.

A query for this novel might look like...
Bob knew asking his wife Sally for a divorce would be hard, but he never expected zombies to crash through the front window before he could say more than, "Hon, we need to talk." Now he's running for his life with Sally instead of running to his new life with Jane, like he'd planned.

But Bob isn't giving up on happily ever after. He just needs to figure out a way to convince Sally that going to save Jane is best for all of them. Especially since Sally's long-standing membership with the NRA is coming in so handy, and without her guns and ammo, Bob would wind up as an appetizer long before he got to Jane's house. Of course, if Sally finds out he's leaving her, she might do worse to him than eat his brains.
This starter query gets the gist of the novel across. I know where my conflicts are coming from, who my players are, and what they all have to do. The story will evolve as I write it, and when I'm done, I can either toss this aside and start fresh, or use this as a jumping off point to write my real query.

What's valuable about a starter query, is you have total freedom to write whatever pops into your head, so it's an easy way to think up conflicts and stakes. I made up the NRA angle as I wrote this, and the fact that Sally is the one with the survival skills Bob needs to save Jane. That all came about because I thought, "gee, what conflict could we do here?"

Of course, now I have to write Love in the Zombie Apocalypse. I mean, I have a query now, right? I might as well use it.

Do you write your query before you write your novel?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I actually did write my query first before I started a redraft of my novel (with MAJOR plotting overhauls) and that helped tremendously. I thought I was the only one who did this. Great tip!

  2. I do this too! I actually enjoy writing queries. It helps me set the tone and focus on what I'm going for. That way if I get muddled in the middle of the story I can read the query and (hopefully) get back on track.

  3. I've never heard anyone say this before, but it makes sense. I posted a link to your post on Twitter.

  4. You know, this plot isn't half bad lol Romantic horror comedy haha! But yeah, you're right about writting the query first. It helps. Did that too. Cheers!

  5. LOL, why thank you. My husband keeps telling me after all my Bob posts I HAVE to write his story one day. Maybe that'll be my blog's first anniversary present to readers!

  6. Wow until now I thought I was a lonesome weirdo in the writing query first habit. I wrote queries out for an entire eight book series before I started writing it. It helps me focus =)

  7. You are not alone :) In fact, it looks like a whole lot of us do this!

  8. I would totally read that book if you ever made it! It sounds a little Shaun of the Dead. Man, they should have used that plot for 28 Weeks Later to make it a little personal.

  9. I've done this too. Sounds like we're not so weird after all.

    And yeah, I really want to know what Sally's reaction is to Bob telling her he wants a divorce.

  10. I did this with my current WIP on a lark, and found it enormously helpful. Glad to see others are finding this to be a useful technique!

  11. Wheee! So dang funny! I loved your turn of phrase!My mind was giving me all sorts of images when I read your last line regarding Sally: "...she might do worse to him than eat his brains."

    Ha! I actually don't care for zombie books/stories, but Bob and his quandry have been growing on me the last year or so. So its proof of good writing that you make me want to pick up a book in a genre I don't care for, that hasn't even been written/published.

    Janice, you ROCK!

    This was an awesome example. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Yeah, I often write my query when I'm only about 5,000 words into the story, since I'm a pantser, that's about enough story to figure out who the main characters are and what they want.

    I find it really helpful just to keep those core elements in mind while I'm figuring out the rest of the story

  13. I didn't write a query before starting at all, but I did jot one down after I finished my very, very rough draft, knowing I was going to do a ground-up rewrite. I had such a hard time figuring out how to present all the bits and pieces I thought were totally 100% vital... which actually just showed me how confusing and unfocused the story was. I figured out which conflict would make for the smoothest query and in my rewrites I made THAT the focus, with all those other pieces acting as the obstacles instead of conflicts of nearly equal weight. Needless to say, my second draft is much, much smoother. :)

  14. As soon as I read this I opened up a Word document and wrote a simple query. I feel a lot better for it now. Thanks! :-)

  15. The synopsis is also easier to write before the first draft. And it helps to stay in line, not to add many details that will come up when you're writing the first draft, and to brainstorm about the main plot points and turns and twists ;)

  16. I never thought of writing the query first? Sounds like an even better way to plot-plan than outlining. A very concise and to the point means to the novel end.


  17. I've attempted to write my query at several points during my story. And it has helped sometimes, and other times it seems to make writing the story worse.

    But yes now you do have to write the zombie story ;) I just think you should change their names lol

  18. Interesting method! I'm adding this to my Weekly Round-up!

  19. Anne, some day I'll have to write this book ;)

    Jenny, it's a great technique :)

    Amelia, thanks! I actually found a series that is totally in line with this. The first book is called "Married With Zombies." Three out so far and they're just plain fun. Quick and easy reads, too. You might want to check those out! (I'll convert you to the zombie side, bwahahaha)

    Monkey, that's interesting. I can totally see that working, as you know just enough to see where the story could go, and the query helps clarify that.

    Becky, that's what happened to me with my first novel (and part of the reason why I do queries first now). Glad you found a system that works for you

    Zoe, Awesome! You are most welcome.

    Juliana, so true. I also use my rough synopsis to brainstorm ideas. I can let an idea run its course and see if it goes anywhere.

    Jen, it works well because it forces you to find the core conflict f the story. If you have a premise novel (all idea, no plot) that shows up REALLY fast. You can't write the query at all.

    Dani, hehe yep, if I ever do I probably will. This tip won't work for everyone or every time, but it a handy tool for when it's needed.

    C0, thanks!

  20. This is awesome because for the last month I've been staring at the first couple chapters of my current WIP, totally in love with them but stuck on how to proceed. I know where I want the main characters to get to, sort of, and will try writing a query to see if taking that different perspective helps me move the whole thing forward.

  21. Good post. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder suggests that before you write the book, write the logline (basically one sentence about what the book is about).

    So your idea is a good one.

  22. I wish I had done this.. I wish I had known what a query was when I sat down to write! I'll definitely be doing this for future projects.

    I think I'd probably try to draft up an outline first, and then see if I can write an engaging, successful query from the outline, and THEN write the book.

    Okay, gotta go revise my query again. I'm going to figure out how to properly convey the story of my book sooner or later! :)

  23. Ahahaha, I love it! :D Yes, you totally have to write it now. I'm getting on your case about it until you do, Janice... ;)

  24. Thanks so much for this very helpful idea and particularly for the examples! Solid examples make it so much easier to translate to your own writing!

  25. Reading this made me feel as though you have been looking over my should as I write my WIP. Like a few others that have commented, I too have a beginning that I like with interesting characters. One of my biggest problems is REALLY knowing who my antag is. That challenge alone has left me in a "stuck" place. I will try this query/book jacket exercise and see if some magic happens.
    Once again Janice, great post. AND thank you sooooo very much for using examples in your posts. Your way of "showing" and not just telling is very, very helpful.

  26. I've only just discovered your blog, Janice, and have been devouring the older entries. All wonderful writing advice!

    I agree with what you say about writing the query first - it's a great way to crystallise those loose plot ideas that perpetually zip around the brain. I'd actually been doing that since I discovered the Query Shark blog about a year ago, and it's good to hear I'm not the only one doing it.

    Now, I'm off to look at older posts.

  27. Funny, I blogged about pretty much this myself last week! I figured, everyone tells you not to write a query until you're finished with your book, but what if a query would help you understand your book better?

    I wish someone would write the Bob/Sally/Jane zombie novel...

    Question: what if a book has multiple perspectives or interwoven plotlines? Should you focus on just one main character/plotline for the query? Or if you included them all, how would you go about that? :P It seems hard enough to get the basic plot down already.

  28. Liv, this should help with that. Getting stuck like that is a big red flag that you have a great premise,. but no story yet (protag with a problem to solve). The query will force you to find that conflict and thus that plot. Good luck!

    Sharon, great book. I write a log line before every story as well. Id I can't, I know I don't have enough to write the book yet.

    Paul, you can start with the next book :) Your process sounds like a good one, and writing the synopsis will help you figure out a lot beforehand.

    Julianna, hehe, I really do. Though Jessi Peterson pretty much did it for me with her Married With Zombies series.

    Susanna, most welcome!

    Marti, not knowing the antag can stop the whole story, and it would be almost impossible to write a query (or the book) without it. You might try thinking about who can gain from your story problem, or who might be in your protag's way to getting whatever they're after. Think conflict. Keeping my fingers crossed for you :)

    Jo-Ann, welcome to the blog! Good to have you. Query Shark is a great resource. You really get a great sense of what works and what doesn't by reading her analyses.

    Laura, great minds think alike! This is actually a repeat from 2009, but I find it so useful I like to bring it out from time to time :)

    It depends on how many POVs you have. If it's just two, you can try doing one para per POV, then one that shows how they connect to the core conflict. If more than two, I'd suggest picking the two most critical to the core conflict and skipping the rest. Or if there's one stand-out clear protag, just use theirs. It also helps if you stick to the core conflict only, and ignore any subplots. Conflict, stakes, inciting event trigger.

  29. I wish I read this post before I sent my query to an agent yesterday! Will definitely use it to revise what I have.

    Is there a difference between what is pitched in the query and a synopsis? Does a synopsis not belong in the query?

  30. Writer Librarian, yes, and no. A query is just enough to tease someone into reading the book. It's a lot lot cover copy, but with the details revealed not kept vague (readers want to be surprised, agents need to know specifics). It usually covers the inciting event and the basic core conflict and stakes.

    A synopsis is the summary of the novel's plot. It covers the whole story, including the ending. While you won;t cover every single detail, you will capture the major plotline, and potentially a subplot or character arc. (depending on long a synopsis it is).

    The goal of a query is to make someone want to read the book. The goal of a synopsis is to show you know how to plot a novel and show there's enough story there.

    A query is NOT a brief summary of the entire book. (this is a common first query writer mistake) You don't have to sum up the whole thing in two paragraphs, just the setup and what it all matters. (And by setup I mean the opening to the inciting event, not the backstory)

  31. I haven't written a full query before a first draft before, but I've written a short summary and one-liner, which was helpful, so I could see why writing a query before you jump in could be useful. Great tip! I might just try it out next time I start a new WIP. :)

  32. Ok, I love how clear and concise your story elements are. They're not new to me, but stated in that order and phrasing they make a lot of sense. Not only will I be using them, I will also be using them with my students! Thanks!

  33. Ava, good luck if you try it! I've found it very helpful.

    Mrs. Silverstein, thanks!

  34. I too did a quick query before a major rewrite and wondered why I hadn't done it before the first draft. It really helped me focus the story and I came up with some great ideas in the process.

  35. Connie, it's a shame so many hate queries, because this really is a great way to find your story. Glad it works for you, too!

  36. I love you all, but you are a bit on the warped side. Who loves to write a query? I despise that evil little letter. Still, this panster is trying all the planning, although at times it is like pulling a fingernail out with pliers. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating...a little. :0)

    For me, I usually allow the novel just to breathe itself into existence and see where it goes. For NaNoWriMo, I didn't think that was a good idea. The problem I have is that at times I feel overwhelmed by all the STUFF I am supposed to know already. I am taking deep breathes and pushing on.

    I am writing my query, but I think this one isn't QUITE as bad because it can totally suck - without an agent or anyone else seeing it. Relieves some pressure.

  37. Rubianna, it can certainly be overwhelming, so try not to worry about all that stuff and just take things one step at a time. :)

    These queries should be easier because the goal is just to identify the main points of your novel. If no one but you even understands it that's fine. It's like the quick pitch you'd tell your friend when they asked what your book was about. You can do it!

  38. Thanks, Janice.
    You confirmed I'm on the right track. I always write a rough query first.

  39. Tracy, they're so helpful. :)

  40. Thanks for the reminder! I have multiple titles I'm deciding among for NaNoWriMo, and attempting this would help me isolate which one to do that I might, well, actually manage to finish in a month when I'll be as busy as I know I'll be next month. ^_^

    1. I find it very helpful when I'm deciding what to write next, so I hope it's just as helpful for you.

  41. As a screenwriting now doing a novel, I began by doing what we call a "logline" in the movie business. It's a one word "teaser" of sorts that sums up the story in an engaging way--it's that "ten second elevator pitch" you're always told to have ready in case you bump into a big producer or director or actor at a conference or festival. It's also usually the first thing you put into a script query, after a one-sentence "bio." I've found that If I can do that, I know I'm ready to write. I also do a one-paragraph story summary, just to test it even further. That, too, goes into those query letters. Works very well!

  42. I need to read more about Bob.Plz write a book about Bob. :)

    1. Hehe, one day I will. I've used them too much as examples and they deserve their own novel.

  43. Yes, I know this is years later, Janice, but I have to tell you what a help this idea is! Just started Camp NaNoWriMo for 2016, and I spent all last month pre-planning and trying to arrange my plot. This is for a 2nd novel in a series, and I know roughly what's going to happen. I've been having trouble, so I've been trying all sorts of hints like this.
    THIS ONE IS MAGIC! I found out right away where the problem is, now I just have to work it out. I stalled out on the story goal and conflict, hadn't realized I didn't have it clear enough in my mind. Thanks so much!
    BTW, I had an epiphany the other day while working on my story, and thought I'd share in case it helps someone else. You know how they're always asking, "What does your character want?" That was always a problem for me. My character "wants" a lot of things. The epiphany? All those wants are important, but they're for the Normal World. The REAL question is "What will your character want WHEN IT HITS THE FAN?" Forget the lightbulb going on, call those Hollywood spotlights!

    1. No problem :) They're here when ever someone needs them. Glad it was helpful!

      I do this with every single book I write. I even do it with my ideas to see if they're enough for a book.

      Oh! I love that. May I use that in a post? What a great concept.