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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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