Saturday, November 11, 2017

Querying weird

Oh honorable QOTKU,

De-lurking here to ask a question that's been making my brain itch for the past few weeks: how do you query something weird? What do you do with a square peg that doesn't fit the "protagonist faced with a choice" hole?

For example, I recently re-read Max Brooks' World War Z. It's a phenomenal book that was wildly successful, but depending on how you look at it, the protagonist is either all of humanity or the roughly fifty subjects whose interviews make up the book. No one makes a significant choice to set up the story; it's sparked by an outside influence that everyone must react to. No character is involved in more than twenty pages of story. And to make things even more difficult, the most recent reasonably well-known example of its oral history style is a history book over thirty years old.

World War Z is a textbook example of breaking the rules done right, and I'm sure the pages sold it immediately. But how do you write a query that says "I know this breaks the rules, but I do it well and it's the right choice for this story," especially when you can't build from a base of "protagonist X is presented with decision Y?" Where does one even begin a pitch that makes you want pages on something like this?


Using your example of World War Z, here's the description lifted from the ebook edition:

We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time? We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead, but at what cost? Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z, a #1 New York Times bestseller and the basis for the blockbuster movie, is the only record of the plague years.


Take out the last part of that and you've got something that works just fine as a query:

We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time? We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead, but at what cost? Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z, a #1 New York Times bestseller and the basis for the blockbuster movie, is the only record of the plague years. is X words by Y author.


If you break all the rules, and do it  well, I'll get it. The trick is of course doing it well. How do you know if you have? Give your query to someone you know who likes to read (not necc your crit group which is trained to find problems.)

When that person is done reading, ask if they'd want to read the book. Yes is good, no is not. Lather, rinse, repeat till you're ahead of the game.

You learn the rules not just to follow them blindly but to know what is breaking them and what isn't. Breaking rules isn't a deal breaker. Bad writing is a deal breaker.

11 comments:

french sojourn said...


Today's post is an excellent example why every day at 1:oo p.m. (my time) I open this blog. As always, thanks.

Timothy Lowe said...

Interesting post. Not sure I'd want to describe my writing as "haunting" and really not sure I'd want to describe it as "riveting" - but I think if you delete the adjectives the rest would work just fine.

Never read that book. It's one of many I need to get to. Sometimes I feel like the guy in the Twilight Zone episode, minus the glasses and the armageddon. Too many books, not enough time.

Kathy Joyce said...

"De-lurking," I love that! Off to de-fast and de-pajama, time to de-lazy. Have a good day all. OP, good luck. No help from me here. Just listen to Janet. Always.

Claire Bobrow said...

I looked at Goodreads and Amazon to see what "read me" language they used for World War Z. It was identical on both sites, and I think the first paragraph would also work well as query material.

It begins: "The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors..."

Interesting question, OP - thanks for asking.

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

It keeps coming down to this single, simple rule:

The purpose of the query is to make the reader want to read your book.

All other "rules" are just guidelines to help fulfill this purpose. Read QueryShark, and you'll see that Janet reverts to "Protagonist, Antagonist, Conflict..." when the query goes astray or isn't compelling. If the query makes her want to read more, then it doesn't matter whether it fits some "perfect query" paradigm. As she says, if you pass your query around your reader friends and they all want to read the book, its job is done. :)

I hope you're enjoying the fresh non-lurkerdom air enough to come join us in the comments, Opie! :)

Craig F said...

OP: I can almost feel for you. However it has to be easier to query the weird than something just normal.

My protag is just a normal kind of intelligent businessman. It would be so much easier if he had some weird and defining character flaw. He walks into the sale of weapons of terror and ends up torn between making sure his employee is truly safe and an attack that would upset the whole east coast of America.

Maybe it is just that queries are like some kind of exotic animal. Until you gain confidence and make friends with them they will always be a scary beast.

MA Hudson said...

I'm with Craig - queries are scary beasts.
After years of training here, I thought I'd be able to sail through query writing. Well, not so. I still struggled to get the hook and stakes clearly defined, especially as my book is also slightly weird.
I agree with Janet (as always), get some other eyeballs on it. I eventually paid for a really reasonably priced query critique and was amazed at the progress I made. It also highlighted areas in the MS that could benefit from some extra tweaking.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Querying hard. That is all.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

KATHY JOYCE, hahaha a couple of hours ago I got home from two, day long road trips in three days so I de-hungered, de-dressed and am about to de-awake myself.
Regarding this post, the shark knows best. The shark always knows best.

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