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Friday, February 7 This Query On? Diagnosing Problem Stories

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I like to write queries before I start a novel, because I find it helps me pinpoint the core pieces of my novel and lets me know right away if I'm missing one. Typically, if I can't write a query there's an inherent flaw with the novel. Until that gets fixed, the query (and novel) will never work.

If you're just testing your novel idea before you write it, getting stuck on the query is not so bad--but if you've spent years writing your novel, and suddenly find yourself struggling with a query, it can be pretty disheartening.

One important note here...

I'm not saying having trouble writing a query means your book is doomed. Sometimes you just have trouble with a query. This post is for the query that will not under any circumstance work. If you've been banging your head against the keyboard for a long time, and getting all kinds of frustrating feedback from critique partners, and you have that sinking feeling maybe it's the book, this diagnostic might help you find out why it's not working.

Well, It's About, um, Well, it's Like This...

Probably the most common query issue is not knowing how to condense your novel into a few sentences. This usually happens because you don't know what your story is about, and you've developed a premise novel. Premise novels are books where a really cool idea (premise) is explored, but none of the characters really have a stake in what's going on. They're just there to act out a part and show off the cool premise.

Queries With This Problem Often Look Like: You see a lot of backstory and world building in a premise novel query. Cool histories, neat ideas, grand notions. But when you look close, you don't see a character actually trying to do anything. It's more explanation of why they need to do it, and it frequently links into a huge plot/prophecy/conspiracy/tragic history/mistake of some type. The "past" often plays a major role, usually something that happened to make the world/protagonist the way it/she is. It reads a lot like set up for a novel, really.

Is This My Problem?: Can you identify your protagonist? Can you identify her main problem? Can you identify the major conflict that is driving her to the end of the novel? Can you identity what she needs to do to resolve this conflict? If you answered no to any of these, there's a good chance you have a premise novel and there's no protagonist with a goal driving your story.

How Do I Fix it?: Find the protagonist and figure out what she's trying to accomplish. Find the core conflict of the novel and make sure that's what the protagonist is working toward solving the whole book. Take a closer look at your subplots and make sure they connect to and support this core conflict, or work within the theme of your novel.

(Here's more on how movie trailers can help you write better query letters)

It's Important Because, Well, You See There's This Bad Guy...

The second most common issue is lack of stakes, and quite often you'll find a premise novel also has a lack of stakes. If there's no real goal, then how can there be consequences if no one achieves it? You'll also see this when the stakes aren't really "bad." Like when the love interest has to chose between two men, but either one will make her happy and there's no downside to picking one over the other. If the query just isn't grabbing folks, you could have a "who cares?" novel.

Queries With This Problem Often Look Like: You'll see a lot of explanation about what happens, but little to no "why" or "why it matters." Or if there is a "why it matters," there are no consequences to the protagonist making that choice. (Like in the above romance example). It's about someone who goes through some stuff and makes a choice (or not) but nothing bad will happen if she makes the wrong choice.

Is This My Problem?: Can you identify the risk the protagonist is taking? Can you identify the consequence if she loses or fails? Is that consequence something that will adversely change her life forever? If you answered no to any of these, you might have a problem with stakes and there's nothing to make a reader care if your protagonist wins or not.

How Do I Fix it?: Find the reason for readers to care and add some real stakes. Look at the things your protagonist has to lose if she fails this quest/journey/problem. Give her choices consequences and force her to make hard decisions. Nothing should be easy for her, and if she makes the wrong choice, very bad things should happen to her.

It's About These People Who...Oh? You've Heard it? But This is With Ninjas!

One of the roughest problems is a novel that uses a well-loved idea, but didn't put a fresh enough spin on it. These can be real gut-kickers, because you might be able to write a good query, but no one is hooked by it. It might even be a good book, but one that just doesn't quite break out of the pack.

Queries With This Problem Often Look Like: People read your query and instantly say it reminds them of that book/movie/TV show. You'll also see common ideas, or generalities instead of something unique to that story. You secretly worry that it sounds too much like "X Book" and feel the need to explain to folks why you're book isn't like that at all.

Is This My Problem?: This one is tougher to diagnose. It takes real soul searching and objectivity to overcome the natural love we have for our stories and see them as they truly are. Can you identify the difference between your novel and the well known one? Are those differences different enough to set the novel apart? Is the setting different? Are the characters different? Is the plot different? If you answered no (and don't hedge... that sorta counts as a no) to several of these, you might not have a fresh enough take yet to set this novel apart.

How Do I Fix it?: Find new angles on your story. Take what's similar to another book and look for ways to make it different. Remember that theme and general premise are fine, and lots of books have the same idea but are vastly different. If you're only taking the girl who meets a mysterious vampire at school and making it the girl who meets a mysterious vampire at band practice, that probably isn't enough of a change to make the story feel fresh. What goes underneath the trappings of story is what matters. The same story can be told a million different ways. The plot that tells that story is where you need to be as original as possible. And plot is all about what happens to whom and why.

It's Just Way Too Complicated to Explain in Two Paragraphs!

Epic fantasies and historical novels run into this one a lot. You have so much in your story you can't explain it in 300 words or less. You've got a bloater -- a novel that has taken on a life of its own. Every secondary character has a storyline, stories are told over vast periods of time, events are happening on a grand scale and there's often some major darkness at the end of it everyone's trying to stop (or make happen, as the antagonist's POV is often part of this).

Queries With This Problem Often Look Like: Over one page. You also typically find several characters and what their histories are, frequently in list form with each character getting his or her own paragraph, and a summation paragraph at the end that says why all these people need to do whatever it is they're doing. You also often see a lot of world building or set up explaining why this event is so important, but the stakes themselves are frequently vague, like "to save the world" or "to stop the rampaging evil."

Is This My Problem?: Can you identify the theme or problem linking all the plot lines together? Can you take out any one (or more) characters and the story resolves pretty much the same way? (don't hedge here, be strong) Does it start when things start to go wrong? Are all the subplots vital to the resolution of the novel's climax? Can you cut any of the subplots and still have the story resolve the same? If you answered no to any of these, you might be facing a bloater.

How Do I Fix it?: Repetition is the most likely culprit in this kind of novel, and you're probably showing the same things from multiple character perspectives. Not necessarily the same event (though this isn't unusual), but the same kind of scene. People fighting, escaping, discovering things, etc. Stuff is happening all the time, but only one, maybe two of those things really matter so the stakes either barely escalate, or escalate sharply and then stay flat for a long time, because we need to see how seven different people react to something. Look for characters that can be merged into one, which trims the novel, and deepens that character as she'll have more conflict. Find the characters who truly need to be there and cut the rest. Weed out extra subplots that don't advance the core story. Identifying your key players in the story helps a lot as well, as you'll have something driving the story and can chose which others to keep or cut based on how they affect that core story.

There are other problems you can run into with queries, but these are some of the more common reasons a query (and a novel) might be kicking your butt. Being objective can be hard, but sometimes taking a hard look and being honest with yourself can save that story you love and turn it into something that you can sell.

Have you ever used a query letter to test a novel idea? 

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My 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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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