Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Queries: summarize the whole book or just first third?

As I'm rounding out revisions for TDoC, I'm also revising my query. And I'm in a bit of a predicament.

I've researched how to write a query, know that you need a hook, setup, conflict and consequences. But I've heard differing things about how much of your story to put in the query. Should it be the whole thing? Or just the first third or so?

Now my story has different conflicts (as many stories have) and there are two or so main ones. One comes more toward the middle/end, and one comes at the beginning/middle. Both are parts of the overall conflict but just kind-of different perspectives. The middle/end conflict is the one that really packs the punch and has (IMHO) the better stakes/consequences. But it's at the middle/end. Is that the conflict I should write my query around? Or should I use the beginning/middle conflict because that's what happens first (and agents might not get to the end)? And I've been hearing differing things about which to include.

So that's the conundrum I'm in right now.

What do you think? Should I use the end conflict that has better stakes/consequences or the middle conflict that comes first?


  1. I'm inclined to think it's not necessarily a question of "tell the whole thing" versus "tell just the first third," but rather a combination of the two: leave off on the huge emotional stakes/decision your character has to make (the harder the decision, the more punch it will pack) and include whatever you need to in order to build to that. Here's (basically) what I used as my query— http://owlandsparrow.wordpress.com/current-projects/ —it had a good success rate while I was querying. :) Good luck!! Let me know if you ever need a set of fresh eyes on your query! (Not saying I'm great at writing/critiquing them—I do enjoy thinking about them, though, and fresh eyes can be helpful!)

    —@olsonkayla :)

    1. Thanks Kayla!! I think I see what you're saying about leaving off the huge emotional stakes (when I read your query). Is that just because then there's something to keep the reader reading? I'm afraid of sounding too vague, I guess, or not having enough stakes. Thanks for sharing your query! And I'll def let you know if I need another set of eyes :) thanks!!

    2. So, I started thinking about this back when I used to be an agent's manuscript reader—part of our deal (since I worked for free) was that the agent critiqued one of my WIPs (*not* the one I eventually ended up querying) in exchange for all my time/thoughts/effort. In her critique, she said she thought my stakes were too low, and she thought that came from my characters never truly having to make any difficult decisions. She…was SO RIGHT. Around that time, I *also* read Cheryl Klein's SECOND SIGHT, and there's a ton of amazing stuff in there about making characters choose between truly hard things. The more difficult the choices—and the more that's at stake on both sides—the higher the tension. I basically started the next WIP as an experiment, and came up with my characters' difficult choices early on, and that became the manuscript I queried. I could have revised the manuscript the agent critiqued, and I still might one day, but at the time, it felt right to start fresh. I don't regret it! (Not saying YOU have to, of course! I was just overwhelmed with new info on plot, structure, and stakes, and preferred to experiment with a fresh project.)

      I think this can be an effective way to close out a query because it is a way to show dimension to your work and to your characters—not only is the main plot happening, but there are these tough choices driving your characters. It's a way to show there's a bit of cohesion between your external plot and what's at stake for your characters. But, yeah, like you said—it has the added benefit of making people naturally curious about what's going to happen, because tough choices + high stakes = helps people get invested in your characters.

      I don't know that all stakes have to look so dramatic or clearly drawn, though—perhaps there's not, like LITERAL life or death at stake. But, to your character, what is the most difficult thing to choose? Is there life or death at stake in other ways, like her reputation, or a relationship, or whatever? What are the downsides to her potential victories? Like, YAY SHE AND PEETA SURVIVE THE HUNGER GAMES! BUT…UH OH NOW THEY HAVE A MESS ON THEIR HANDS downsides? And again, doesn't have to actually *be* that dramatic, it just needs to *feel* big to your character, I think.

      If you've written an entire novel that's ready to query, I'm confident you know the answers to these things! :D :D And re: fear of sounding vague, I don't think you need to be afraid of being specific! I probably wouldn't spoil the ending (I've heard: spoil the ending in a synopsis, but the point of a query is to entice people to read more), but don't be afraid of being concrete and specific if it helps you describe the heart of the book.

      :) Hope that helps! I had a fun time thinking about it here, lol. Sorry so wordy! <3

    3. Oh my gosh, Kayla, thank you so much for taking the time to reply! (And don't be sorry for being wordy; I love all the words!) I totally get what you're saying about having big enough stakes, and I think I do, it's just they come a bit late in the ms, which is making me think I might have to tweak it a little so it comes a bit earlier (which isn't a big deal I don't think). Thank you so much for all your help!!

  2. I think you can include both as well. They might have to each have their own paragraph (in order to delineate that they are two different conflicts). however, since one is more of a plot driver and the other an emotional driver they can (and probably should) both be included to show your well-rounded story.

    Also, I have been stalking Writer's Digest's successful queries thread recently, so maybe it might help you too:


    1. Yes, I've seen the Writer's Digest thread! They're so helpful! I think I'll go back and take a look at them again. Thanks for the reminder!