Friday, February 7

Testing...Testing...is 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? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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40 comments:

  1. Love this! Have any advice for a multiple POV literary YA novel query?

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  2. This is great! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Ooh, timely! I'm sitting down to work on a query soon. Thanks for the breakdown -- very helpful, and different than other query advice I've seen. And I agree with Donna ... what about those multiple POV books?

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  4. Great post! I started a new ms last night and plan on writing the query this week -- I agree it helps tremendously to have the query written before the book. :)

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  5. This was a very interesting approach to looking at your novel.

    I also think it helps to highlight the difference between "I can't describe my novel in 300 words" and "I don't want to describe my novel in 300 words." The former is trouble, the latter is just over-thinking.

    *goes off to chop up thirteen premise novels in character novels*

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  6. Donna, I don't write literary, but I've discussed it and read about writing queries for it, so take this with a grain or two of salt...

    The theme is often what ties together the POVs in a literary novel, so you might focus on that as something that ties your query together. Best I can suggest is to reads the cover copy for as many YA lit novels as you can and see how hey handle it. Your query will be similar, you'll just be specific with details instead of being vague. You don't want to give away stuff to readers, but agents need those details to see how your book is unique.

    As for a "is this a problem..."

    I suspect that if you have multiple POVs and it's literary, and you can't show how each POV plays into the theme and explores your story question, you could have a problem. Best I can do, LOL. Not a genre I read, so my knowledge is limited.

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    1. Thanks for the question, Donna, and the answer Janice. I'm struggling with this too! But actually your point Janice, about how each POV plays into the theme is EXCELLENT. I hadn't thought of that all. Back to work.

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  7. Great post. I'm also working on my query and trying to cut to the main plot and stakes, so this is helpful. You're right, it's hard to cut a 300 page book to a paragraph or two. Perhaps you could post your query if you'd be willing. It was obviously successful. I may have at least part of it from Kristen Nelson's blog.

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  8. Wow. This is handy. But then all your posts are. :D

    I LOVE your idea to start out with the query, though, and I intend to start implementing it.

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    1. UPDATE:

      I used this method for novel #2 in one series I was working on. The series is fantasy, but there are also elements from other genres. I hit a point where the element(s) emphasized would affect how the story went from there, so I sat down and wrote the query…a few times, each one emphasizing a different aspect.

      I already knew where book #3 would end up, and looking at those queries let me figure out the right part to emphasize for the overall series. So far, feedback from Wattpad has generally been that #2's the favorite. :-)

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  9. Great post. I often write the query as I'm writing the MS as "break" and to help me remember where my focus is. Great tips, TY!

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  10. Well done! And such a helpful format, too!

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  11. This is EXCELLENT advice. This is exactly the kind of thing new writers need to hear. I just recently came to similar conclusions, but the hard way.

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  12. Nataline, I analyzed my query a while back, the same time my agent posted it on her blog. So here's that link, (and Kristin's link is in there, too). I like this example because it shows what I was trying to accomplish by choosing what I did.

    http://storyflip.blogspot.com/2009/04/query-ho.html

    Queries are such a great diagnostic tool.

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    1. Janice! You have done it again. I tried writing a query for my WIP when the idea first came to me (after reading your first blog post about this exercise.). Since I am a little further along with the concept, BUT not completely satisfied with the plot, I am thinking about writing the query again.

      Also, THANK YOU so much for posting the link to your own query. Sharing this info from Krtistin's blog has been sooo very helpful.

      Keep doing you Janice, and I'll keep reading these great posts! Looking forward to reading your writing book too.

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  13. Has anyone told you lately that you're a genius? I haven't even finished reading this entire post and already it has helped me. Thank you.

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  14. Aw, shucks, gonna make me blush. Most welcome, I'm glad I could help. :)

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  15. One of the most useful I've read on the subject.

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  16. This is a great technical blog. It is of practical value because as I read through it I was forced to look long and hard and I had the sinking feeling this was mine, until you gave more information and I found out it was not.

    I would like to see you write a similar blog about novels that are so original and different they fall outside the desired mainstream. I suspect there are a number of us who fear we just may have written this type. I would also like to see you address the issue of whether an agent will be interested in novels like this at all. Is this a non-starter?

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  17. Wonderful post! I love how you clarify the types of issues we face in condensing our novels and the likely fail in the manuscript itself.

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  18. Interesting idea, Anon. I'll add it to the list!

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  19. Janice, this post is as scary as it is helpful. Scary, because I don't want to think my 97% finished ms suffers from any of the weak points you mentioned...but I think it might. Crapola!! Back to the dungeon. Thanks for another incredible post.

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  20. I think some people just struggle with queries, but having the problems diagnosed like this is very helpful. I came across this post from Jane Friedman's link.

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  21. Welcome to the blog, Theresa!

    Lynne, I figured this stuff out because I kept doing it, so I totally know how scary that feels. But I think it's better to know what's wrong than wonder, no matter how rough it is to face. Facing my hopeless novel made me start The Shifter, and that turned out great! Who knows how many others will do the same thing?

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  22. This post is sheer genius! My hat is off to you Janice, and I mention your articles frequently on my own blog.

    I had a sneaking suspicion there was an issue with my first novel which showed up when I tried to write the query, but this really helps me put words (and fixes!) to what the issue is.

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    1. Thanks so much! I love doing this to test my ideas.

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  23. I've never tried this method, but I think I should. I have a very complicated novel in process and I don't want to discover, after 200,000 words, that I've got a bloater!

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    1. It really helps, because it does force you to pinpoint the conflict and stakes. It's also a nice way of figuring it out in your head beforehand and spot possible problems before you get to them.

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  24. Janice, you have distilled the problem down to its essence. Thank you. Do you know how many "premise novels" I have? I'll get 5 or 6 chapters in and realize, "oh, what now?"

    Yes, do the blurb, and the query, before you start writing. Words of extreme wisdom.

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    1. Glad I could help! I did the same thing for years until I figured out this worked for me. And when I get stuck, I go back to it and it always helps me find y way again.

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  25. I did this with my WIP since I came across your post on it last year. Helped tremendously. Thank you so much for that.
    But now my WIP has taken another route and my protagonist has a goal that she achieves at the midway point only to find out she was completely wrong and needs to then go the complete opposite direction. How on earth do I query that? Do you have a post or know of any articles that would help? Thanks!

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    1. Patti, this is fairly general advice, but have you ever looked at query shark.blogspot.com? She's an agent who reads queries and explains what works and what doesn't. I want to say she's reviewed a query that sounds similar to yours...but I can't be certain. Anyway, if you'd like an extra resource, I've found her tremendously helpful!

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    2. I haven't read all of the posts but have subscribed to her posts for two years now. Nothing is coming to mind, but if you think of it let me know. :-)

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    3. Patti, you probably don't have to say exactly what happens. I'd suggest focusing on the problem to be solved, the stakes, and why the protagonist has to do this. The 180 can be a surprise when they read the book. Odds are the goals and stakes are the same even if the road to get there changes.

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  26. It's complicated, and it's about...um...

    *sigh*

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    1. Hehe, I sense you have one of those? Been there myself oh so many times.

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  27. This is just such great, practical advice, Janice. Thanks for sharing it.

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    1. Thanks! Hopefully it'll save some folks the frustrations I went through before I figured this out.

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  28. Thank goodness for James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. He suggests writing a tag line and the query guts before even starting the story. Even if the query changes (which thank goodness it does get better) at least it keeps me focused. Queries are still tough to write!

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    1. I do it for every book and it's been a lifesaver. And actually, after you do enough of them, queries become so much easier to write because you're writing a book that has clear "query bits" in it.

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