Tuesday, August 18

Query Week: Step Two: Now, How Do I Make This Sound Better?

Yesterday we looked at how to identify the pieces for your query and wrote a rough paragraph to get started. Today, we're going to start whipping that sloppy paragraph into shape.

We had one brave taker yesterday who offered up a sample, so let's dive in.

A good format for a query is to introduce the protag, tell a little about them, show why they're in the right place to have something happen to them, and show the inciting event that launches it. This is usually your first paragraph. The next paragraph introduces the core conflict and shows how the inciting event has now made a mess of the protag's life. It then says what they have to do to fix things, why it's bad, and what they have to lose if they fail.

Sam Davis, a fifteen-year who finds a mysterious map in his mother’s old suitcase decides to follow it and is catapulted into a magical world he and his friends soon learn is dying along with its Emperor who live in Caylestis, a magical world only accessible through a vortex. Sam recently lost his mother in a tragic accident and felt completely lost until he and his two friends set out to save the Emperor who is dying since Faras the flying horse was taken by Deimos. Only Sam is able to rescue Faras and he must do so secretly and quickly or he too will die.

One of the first things we want to do is take this foundation and make it sound more query-like. So we want to use an active, present tense third person voice, regardless of what POV the book is written in. We also want to show the protag with a problem, and the stakes of that problem. Transitions between thoughts is another key factor, as well as showing how all of these things link together and build off each other.

An effective opener for a query is introducing the protag and showing why they're different, or why they have a problem in the first place. From this sample, I see that Sam is feeling lost due to the recent death of his mother. He has the ability to save another life (that of the Emperor) by finding and rescuing a flying horse. Since the horse is key to solving the problem, that's something we'll probably save for the end of the query. We want to set up the conflict first to get agents interested in the problem before we say what has to be done to solve that problem.

Our first line might look something like this: (please bear in mind that this is going to be very rough since I know nothing about this novel besides this one paragraph. It'll be up to the author to fill in the correct details in their own voice and style)

Still reeling from the death of his mother, fifteen-year-old Sam Davis is [doing something that requires him to search through his mother's suitcase].

We want to introduce the protag here and show why he's in the right place to have something happen to him. The "right place" in this case is likely going to be emotional since it involves the death of a parent. But it might be something external that he needs or wants.

My suggestion for the author here, would be to pick something that will show Sam's emotional state as the story opens, and the problem Sam has that connects the death of his mother to the situation he's about to find himself in. Sam is feeling lost, so there might be a "searching for something lost" theme you can play with. What is Sam feeling and needing that would put him in the right place and frame of mind to take the first step on this journey? Because the next step is literally finding the map that takes him to the magical world. Something is going to make him take that step, especially since he's going to have to risk things after taking it.

Next, we want to introduce the map.

He finds a mysterious map and [something to show why this map would compel him to follow it].

Since following the map is critical to getting him into the magical world, Sam needs a pretty good reason to do so. A grief-stricken boy is probably not going to just wander off on an adventure, so odds are, something about that map will (or at least he thinks it will) help him deal with the grief of his mother or the problem he's facing as the story opens.

Sam also needs a way to follow the map. I could find a map of France, but there's no way I'll be able to follow it. But if it was a map of a place I knew and could get to, I'd be in a much better position to act. So I'm guessing the map has a connection to what Sam knows, which is why he felt he could follow it in the first place.

This will transition to Sam making the decision and taking that all-important step into the inciting event. Making a choice is key, as this shows your protag being proactive and driving their own story instead of reacting to outside forces and being a pawn in the tale.

[Motivated by the connection to the map] Sam decides to follow the map [for an emotional reason that suits his story goal]

This line will set up your protag's goal and motivation for the first part of the story, and likely hint at the larger goal as well. Sam has a problem he's trying to solve, he thinks this map will help him solve it in some way, so he follows it to accomplish that. making the goal personal to Sam helps increase the stakes. Readers care about things that matter and affect the character.

Normally, I would say this is where things go horribly wrong, but I see from the starter hook that Sam needs to meet up with two friends before they can all embark on this trip. This is a good place to start introducing some conflict, so these friends might be an obstacle to his goal.

As Sam [reaches or gets close to the spot on the map that will catapult him into Caylestis], he encounters his two friends [who do something to interrupt what he's trying to do].

These friends now get to make a choice to help Sam, because they all need to be together when the event happens to transport them. They need good reasons of their own to act, so you can spend a little time to show who they are and why they'd help Sam.

Sam tells them [what he's trying to do and why], and they [offer to help him or try to stop him.]

Depending on how the story goes, the friends might not be up for whatever Sam has planned. They might be trying to stop him when the magical event occurs. But occur it will, as that escalates the story to a whole new level and sends us into the next paragraph of the query.

Suddenly, [something happens that transports these three to Caylestis].

Now the characters are all where they need to be for the rest of the story to continue. It's time to show the core conflict of the novel and what the protag has to do to solve the problem. I imagine figuring out where they are and getting home is going to be high on the list, so dealing with their emotions after this event is a good way to transition into the next paragraph.

Sam and his friends [react to what has just happened to them and make a plan to act]

Since Sam's goal for following the map has just gotten smacked sideways, he'll have a new goal in mind, and this is where you'd show the gang deciding what to do next. This is going to lead you directly to the problem of the dying Emperor and the missing horse, since that's what's needed to solve the book's problem. Of course, you don't want to just abandon the original goal, so what Sam does in this world will probably also help solve that original problem as well. He needs to go on this adventure to solve his problem.

They [do whatever will put them in position to learn about the horse], and wind up [with a huge problem on their hands that can only be solved by going after the missing horse]

This puts the gang on the path of the novel's core conflict. What they have to do is clear, and now it's time to find out why.

But there's more to this than they think, because [here's the twist that starts with Sam being the only who can find the horse and ends with Sam dying if he doesn't find the horse]

This is a pretty big stake, so Sam really has to solve this problem and find that horse. Saving the Emperor is nice, but since Sam has no clue who this person is (I assuming), saving him won't have as much drive as saving himself will. Also showing why saving the Emperor is important will up the stakes even further. This isn't just about Sam anymore, it has bigger consequences if he fails.

We've ignored the bad guy so far, Deimos, and we need to get him there as well, since he's probably the one who took the horse or is doing something bad to the Emperor and maybe even Sam.

To make matters worse, [introduce Deimos and show why he's throwing a wrench in everyone's plans and being the bad guy he is] because [why he's doing all this and what he hopes to gain by it].

Showing how the antagonist is going to muck up the protag's goal helps shows the core conflict and where the obstacles of the story are going to come from. You want to show that this isn't an easy task, and it'll be worth the reader taking the time to read the story.

Finally, it's time to wrap it all up with a tease that sums up the core conflict and makes someone want to know how this all turns out.

To [find the horse and save lives], Sam and his friends must [do whatever the big thing is they need to do] before [Deimos does whatever he's doing to keep Sam from winning] or else [the big bad thing happens that no one wants].

And that's it. You end up with a template that looks like this:

Still reeling from the death of his mother, fifteen-year-old Sam Davis is [doing something that requires him to search through his mother's suitcase]. He finds a mysterious map and [something to show why this map would compel him to follow it]. [Motivated by the connection to the map] Sam decides to follow the map [for an emotional reason that suits his story goal]. As Sam [reaches or gets close to the spot on the map that will catapult him into Caylestis], he encounters his two friends [who do something to interrupt what he's trying to do]. Sam tells them [what he's trying to do and why], and they [offer to help him or try to stop him.] Suddenly, [something happens that transports these three to Caylestis].

Sam and his friends [react to what has just happened to them and make a plan to act]. They [do whatever will put them in position to learn about the horse], and wind up [with a huge problem on their hands that can only be solved by going after the missing horse]. But there's more to this than they think, because [the twist that starts with Sam being the only who can find the horse and ends with Sam dying too if he doesn't find the horse]. To make matters worse, [introduce Deimos and show why he's throwing a wrench in everyone's plans and being the bad guy he is] because [why he's doing all this and what he hopes to gain by it]. To [find the horse and save lives], Sam and his friends must [do whatever the big thing is they need to do] before [Deimos does whatever he's doing to keep Sam from winning] or else [the big bad thing happens that no one wants].

Chances are, after you fill out the details you're query is going to be a bit long, but that's okay. The goal at this stage is to get the info down in more detail and show the flow of the story from an emotional and goal-conflict-resolution standpoint. We can start working on combining things and tweaking for the best punch once we have all the right pieces in place.

For those following along, here's a template of your own to work with:

[introduce the protag] is [tell a little about them] who [why they're in the right place to have something happen to them]. They [what leads them to the inciting event] where [the inciting event happens.]

They [react to what's happened] and find themselves [how the inciting event has made a mess of the protag's life]. To [fix this problem] they must [the main thing that needs to be accomplished to win] before [the bad guy does what he needs to do]. If they don't, [why it's bad, and what they have to lose if they fail.]

6 comments:

  1. Janice - you are FABULOUS! Wow - such great feedback and guidance. I rushed to my computer and have spent the last few hours implementing your suggestions for part II. Sadly I'm VERY wordy but already I think it's taking form. So cool! Here it goes:

    Sam Davis knows all about loss – his father leaving when he was four-years old, his mother dying eleven years later. Even more problematic is that his mom was his best friend; slightly pathetic for a boy of fifteen years of age. When she dies he loses his already small desire to live up to her presumption that someday he would become something great. Although he has moments when he would like to kick the crap out of something, Sam was most comfortable curling up into his beige universe like a warm blanket and following the lead of others. That was until he was hanging out with his new roommates, Maddie and Z, and they find a strange map hidden in the lining of his mother’s old suitcase. The names in faded blue are unknown, but Sam realizes he has seen some of the strange markings before. They also appear on a tarnished frame that holds the sole photo he has of his father. Removing the picture for the first time, Sam sees Davis, WV written in his mother’s familiar script.

    Sam sheds the comfort of being a disciple, his desire to learn more about his missing father outweighing the niche he was accustomed to. He decides to sneak away from the foster home to the neighboring town of Davis hoping to find out what relation the small town has to his parents. Sam is thrilled when Maddie and Z offer to go with him, their earlier promise to watch out for one another holding steadfast. Once in Davis, they find the Vortex and are suddenly hurtled into the convulsing world of Caylestis – the world that had appeared on the map. But they learn the land is dying, the suns barely able to shine through the thick clouds that have brewed since an evil man named Deimos captured Faras, a flying horse and the soul of this enchanted place. Sam is shocked to find that not only does he bear a striking resemblance to the Emporer, but that his true destiny is to save this fading world - but can he survive Deimos’ wrath?

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  2. Go Marlana! *waves pompoms*

    This is fun to watch. Awesome advice, Janice.

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  3. Glad I could help. And thanks for submitting something for me to play with! I really expected more, but I did spring this on folks kinda fast. If everyone likes this, maybe we can do another later, and I can give everyone a heads up.

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  4. Janice, I wonder if I could submit something that is at quite an early stage. It's the same story I used over at Juliette's workshop a few months back. I don't have a novel written, just a lot of ideas. The plot itself is mostly worked out... but I feel like doing little exercises like this help me, and mostly just gets me thinking about it and focusing on it. So is that acceptable if you have another query workshop or no?

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  5. Sure, ColinF. I can approach it like I do in my WOW class. The first assignment there is about ideas, and I usually just ask a lot of questions to start the writer thinking about what they have to help them develop the story. I was actually thinking about doing a workshop with that at some point, so this could be a good test to see if folks like it.

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  6. Cool thanks. I'll keep on the lookout for that.

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