With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, I figured it was a good time for as re-run on this post. Even a rough query can be incredibly helpful when you want to write a novel, fast.
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 they win. 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 be driving your protagonist, and thus drive your story. That's the story goal. This is the big bad problem your novel is about. For The Shifter, it's Nya's need to save her missing sister. So to win the story goal, Nya needs to save her sister. Tons more stuff happens besides that, but that's the driving force behind everything that occurs in the novel. It's also where the stakes comes from. If Nya fails, her sister will die.
Uncertainty about the stakes is often 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 protag fails. Because of that, once you get past the opening events, you're not sure where the story goes. Nothing is at stake for your protag to fill the middle and give them hurdles to overcome to win.
Not knowing what constitutes a win is also a problem area that can stall you. A lot of writers like to see how the story turns out organically, and that's fine, but you should have an inkling of what "win" means. They face some problem and have to solve in in some way, even if it's vague. "Stop the bad guy from doing what he was doing" was mine (though I actually had a name and what he was doing in there, but that would give away the book).
For example, Bob's goal is to survive the zombies and find a way to be with Jane that doesn't involve him letting his wife, Sally, die. A win for him might be "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 I 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 that doesn't involve him letting his wife, Sally, die
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 gets rid of 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 clear in your mind. So lets add a nice conflict there 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.Okay, this isn't going to win any awards or anything, but for a starter query it 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 this starter query, is that you have total freedom to write whatever pops into your head, so it's a easy way to think up conflicts and stakes. I just now made up the NRA stuff, 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.