Monday, July 30, 2018

using your query letter with the outline of the novel

Your post today on querying got me thinking. I'm currently in the early stages of planning my next novel (to be a series). I'm paying extra attention to plot and twists, as I think that's where I've been weakest in the past. But as I read the query advice, I started thinking that I can use that to shape my plot, at the outset, to make sure I don't write a 100k words without making it crystal clear what the stakes are. What MC wants. What's stopping him/her from getting it. Etc.

Do you recommend that writers start the query and the novel outline at the same time, to make sure all those boxes are checked? Of course, at least in my experience, novels and characters can get opinionated about where they want to go and what they do and sometimes those early outlines look nothing like the final ms. But then, if MC wants to take a left in Albuquerque, maybe a test is how that plays in the draft query? Am I just having a light bulb moment on something that should have been obvious? Any thoughts most welcome, thank you!


well, actually I try not to tell writers how to write.
I can evaluate if the results fit my list, appeal to me, are something I think I can sell, yadda yadda yabbadabbadoo, but how you get there? That's all you.

Which is not to say I won't weigh in on this, cause  I've always got an opinion!

Try it.
See if it helps.

if it does, yahooooo!
If it doesn't, well, now you know.

Pantsing vs plotting is one of the subjects discussed in Jeff Somers' Writing Without Rules, which is one of the best and most hilarious craft books I've ever read. Of course, Jeff is a client and I sold that book, so maybe I'm incredibly smart biased.

The writers who read this blog probably have opinions worth listening to!

32 comments:

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Plantsing - the combination of pantsing and plotting according to the cat-addled Jeff Somers, Oh, and have an ending. That’s super important. How you get to that ending, well that’s up to you.

Know your ending and buy Writing Without Rules. And I am not at all biased.

Jeff is not my client or anything. It’s just a great book for keeping that rodent wheel from spinning off its axis and colliding with the Death Star.

Kitty said...

I don't outline, at least not formally, but I try to have an idea of the story's direction. I agree with E.M. Goldsmith about "know your ending," although I can't tell you how many times I thought I knew and the characters told me otherwise. I've learned to listen to the characters.

When I get stuck, I try to bumper-sticker the story. Picture the very limited description of the story in a TV guide. The funniest one I ever read was for the Wizard of Oz: "Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again."

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Nothing, and I mean nothing, is like a great tear filled, smiling 'til your cheeks ache, heart racing, heart breaking, hate to see it end, tell everybody it, ending.

Getting there?

The phenomenal taste of the sauce relies not only on ingredients but on how they are combined and cooked.
Follow a recipe or wing it?
Up to you and the price you pay for wasting/learning how to make a tasty dish.

Donnaeve said...

There's a famous writer who said the same thing about endings, as in know them, and then work backwards from there. Can't recall who, though, dang it. I always know my endings and it really does help get a story onto the pages and working towards that end goal.

I also love the term plantsing - a lot. Because the bottom line is this, even if you create a synopsis, outline, or use a query, you're still going to be a pantster for the majority of the book unless you've got the whole entire novel plotted out chapter by chapter. What I mean is - you write a synopsis/outline - generally 3-5 pages. Or, you write your query - generally 250 words.

But. You still have to write 300 or so pages to fill in, and what's going on in those other 297-295 or so pages is up to you. To me, the point about what if the character decides to veer off to Albuquerque is only important IF it's critical to the overall story plot.

I'd use whatever means necessary to understand the story before you begin to write it - but also know that the story WILL change as you write it. This is, to a degree, what makes it hard to write under contract. The expectation is you submit a synopsis, and the first three chapters. The expectation is you know your story enough that what you ultimately turn in isn't a story about a murder when you said it was going to be a story about a suicide.

nightsmusic said...

I know the beginning and I know the ending. I pants the rest of the story. Sometimes, my ending changes based on which leg I put on first. For me, I don't bother with writing anything but the story until it's done. Too often, since the characters all have a mind of their own, the story I thought I knew isn't even close. Beside, once I've written that outline, I know the story and lose interest in writing it again so to speak. That's me. That's not everyone. I have another friend who plots to the paragraph. So what works for one doesn't necessarily work for another.

french sojourn said...


In one m/s I started out with a concept, and knew the ending. In another I based it on one of my entries for Janet's F.F. Contests. 100 words that ended at 97k. Now my third was cold start and seat of the pants storytelling and about a third of the way through. I knew the twist and the ending. It's never the same for me.

Good luck.

CynthiaMc said...

I always know the beginning. I always know the end. I see/hear scenes on the movie screen in my head and I write them down. I stick them where they go in relation to each other (this goes before that). After I have everything written that I already see, I look at what else I need and write that. If I run out of ideas after that I ask God/my subconscious/my guardian angel/patron saint of writers/The Universe/the guy behind me in line. My prayer is "God, please send me what I need to finish this story." Amazing where answers come from sometimes. And when they do, always say thank you.

What's amazing to me is how well things (whether planned or random or dropped from the sky) fit together later.

Colin Smith said...

If I understand Mr. Somers correctly (Dr. Pants as he is never known), it's not so much that you know the ending that matters as much as you get to the end. Unfinished work is the bane of the writer's life. You can't sell unfinished work... unless you're dead. And you're Mozart or F. Scott Fitzgerald. You can't get to revisions unless you have a complete story. The art of writing starts with a complete manuscript. Good or bad.

Speaking for myself, I like the idea of starting with a query. Use the query format to set out the parameters of the novel: the MC, what s/he wants, the stakes, the obstacles, etc. Then use that as you write to help keep you focused and on-track. Of course, the story may have other ideas and you may find yourself tweaking the query as your tale spins off in an unexpected and much more satisfying direction. But at the end of the process, you have BOTH a finished manuscript AND a query!

In short: there are a bazillion ways to write a novel. Find the one that gets you to the end while having the most fun.

And buy WRITING WITHOUT RULES. Jeff says essentially the same thing, only with a lot more words and lots more humor. And no pants. :)

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Like a lot of others, I pants AND plot. I know the beginning, I know the last scene, I know my characters quite thoroughly - but how I get from start to finale is a never-ending adventure. My own form of "draft" writing is closer to thinking on paper, rather than Writing: I often narrate the events to myself synopsis-style (present tense, etc.), questions and all (would she/he really do that and not this? why?); and when the Perfect Prose sometimes surfaces, I just seamlessly lapse into the finished style and tense. This means I haven't spent a lot of time on a plot-path that ultimately leads nowhere. And if those occasional gems won't fit where I want them to, they can be saved, reworked, whatever.

Having said that, I found writing a query an ENORMOUS help, for the structural points already mentioned, but also for the discipline, because you are forced to cut out all the dead wood. What's extra baggage in a query may turn out to be extra baggage in the novel too.

And the most enormous of the enormous help was Query Shark, which I stumbled onto (can't even remember how) after I had been paddling around in my story pool for what felt like centuries. How lucky I was when an author-eating shark swam into it. I decided I'd write my query right then, before the book was anywhere near done, incorporating all the wisdom and examples I'd learned from QS and its followers. And I can never be grateful enough.

The shark in question will one day get my query - for real - and not only is it a million times better than it would have been, the project it represents is too. My advice is: finished or not, write your query now, adhering to everything you've discovered from these blogs and their commenters; then put it aside, let it get truly cold, come back later, revise. Rinse and repeat, until the final final final book is done. You'll at least have a query that has been polished by the sands of passing time.

Ryan Neely said...

Writing Without Rules is up next in my #TBR list, and I'm excited to get to it.

I love the idea of starting with a query. This is what I tell the middle grade kids I teach at the community ed where I live (although, I don't tell them it's a query letter because most of them are not ready for that stage and I think it would just muddy the waters).

This is how I begin everything I write, but I also need to know the end. It keeps me on track, gives me (the writer) a goal to reach. (Of course, I'm a heavy outliner, taking the Snowflake Method to the nth degree.)

Casey Karp said...

It wouldn't work for me. I'm lucky if I have a character in mind when I start. A plot? Fergeddaboudit. Seriously. I started my current WiP started with a major character in mind. She wound up barely appearing in the book.

But if writing the query first works for you? Go for it. You be you (please don't be me--I've got enough trouble keeping the bank account in order as it is.)

Kathleen Kalb said...

I usually start with a beginning and an end, and then have to figure out how to get from here to there. And one of the ways I do that is by writing the synopsis early on. I know a lot of people hate them, but they work for me. As for the query, the first draft is a pleasure, because it means I've gotten far enough to think about it. Only problem is that if you have a project you're really excited about (me! me! RIGHT NOW!)you then want to send it out before it's ready. All that to say, maybe try a synopsis,too?

Timothy Lowe said...

I try to surprise myself on every page. If I surprise myself, I'm surprising a reader. When it feels like I know exactly where it's going next, I pull an audible and make a third thing happen instead. Fun to write that way. You do wind up in a crazy maze by the middle, and you have some sleepless nights worrying that you're not going to have a novel, but if you give it some time, you figure out a solution.

I tried outlining my rewrite but then wound up diverging from the outline. It felt too much like I was forcing characters to get from point A to point B.

Janet Reid said...

It always made me laugh when author John Straley told people he started with the title. On the other hand when your titles are:

Baby's First Felony
The Woman who Married a Bear
The Curious Eat Themselves
The Angels Will Not Care
Cold Water Burning
Death and the Language of Happiness
The Music of What Happens
Cold Storage Alaska
The Big Both Ways

maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

I'm a pantser. (Despite that Writing Without Rules tell us how to write WITHOUT pants.)

I'm physically unable to outline beforehand and have it work. NP on the Meyers-Briggs.

I also find it hard to plan other things in my life until the last minute, but that's another story.

I like what Steven King says about the story being like a fossil that you excavate. That's how it feels to me. I also like what Tolstoy had an artist character of his say about how doing a painting is like "taking off the wrappings."

Having said that, I've looked at some of the queries submitted to Query Shark and at the Shark's analyses. In a couple of cases, I thought the query was a pretty intriguing description that would make ME pick up the book, but Janet was still saying "You don't have any plot on the page yet." Which worries me a little.

BJ Muntain said...

Writing a query and/or synopsis near the beginning, or after a few chapters, can really help clarify things for the author. It shows the author what the main stakes are, and the main obstacle(s) in the main character's way. A synopsis at this stage is like a mini-outline, giving more detail into the obstacles and the character's way of dealing with them.

Jeannette Leopold said...

Once I "finished" my current WIP for the second time, I wrote a query letter or fifty and none of them worked because the compelling part of the plot started about two hundred pages in. I used that understanding to kill my darlings and start my rewrite.

Now as a check on myself I wrote a one-sentence explanation of the stakes in every chapter in Part I and how the chapter moves the plot forward, and I won't polish a chapter unless the stakes are there and work.

Reading all of queryshark was, of course, immensely helpful in understanding how novels should be structured and the importance of careful language, quite apart from helping with querying.

Steve Stubbs said...

jr53I am not sure I understand the question, but if you think the query is engraved in granite, please reconsider. I polish and/or rewrite a query a minimum of 200 times before sending it out for rejection. If you spend a year writing your great story and read the query every day, it is easy to revise it 200-300 times. OH yesm write the query first.

As for outlining, the people I have encountered who had any success at all were all outliners. There may be a successful pantser out there - somewhere. The posters here are right. You have to have the beginning and end thought out before you get into the middle. Think of all the movies you have seen that are just a lot of clips concatenated with no ending. They just stop and run credits, startling the viewer, who is still wondering after an hour and half when the story will begin.

If your book is successful thousands of people you don't even know will start banging off knockoffs to try to siphon off some of your success. But they do that AFTER the book is published AND makes major money. Most books flop and nobody knocks off a flop. So knocking off your owh book when it is not even written is a wee mite premature. Methinks a better strategy might be to write it and publish it, and if it is successful, THEN write a knockoff. You won't make a good impression if you send an agent a query that says, "Well, my book flopped, but I wrote a knockoff anyway. An unsolicited printed manuscript is on its way via Express Mail. You will have to trot down to the post office and sign for it."

For best chance at success, your 2nd book probably should be a stand alone, new characters, new plot, different genre. If your first book catches on fire, do knock it off. Your keyboard should be giving off smoke.

Good luck.
6.wp5

Claire Bobrow said...

I don’t know who John Straley is, but I like him already (and will look him up immediately). I often start with a title – that’s what jump-starts my imagination – but I’m getting the sense that is…weird.

Hmmm.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

I'm with E.M. Goldsmith, plantsers of the world, unite!

I usually have a beginning and a very high level outline of what has to happen to get me to an endpoint. Then, I ignore the outline until I get stuck and reevaluate.

I haven't written a query BEFORE the story yet, because I don't know enough details to make it good. BUT, I've found it a great way to refocus the story after I've finished the rough draft and am preparing for revisions.

Sam Mills said...

The writing process for the book I'm about to sub went like this: outline > first draft > second third drafts > attempt query package > oh crap what is initial conflict/stakes > fourth fifth drafts > edit query package ten more times > sixth draft maybe there?

I'm definitely going to do a rough query at the outline stage next time. The story always evolves, but it'll give me a focus to start with.

Caveat: this might work for me because it suits the nature of my problem. I tend to know the beginning and the end, plus the loose chain of information I need to convey to connect them, so my challenges are 1) don't telegraph the ending, 2) get the characters there on an inevitable plot tidal wave instead of "because the author said so." Conceptualizing strong initial stakes that *aren't* the final plot goal helps me write a more enticing first act instead of just treading water till the Big Bad arrives...

Lennon Faris said...

Here's my big question: is it pantser or pantster? I've seen agents and writers write it both ways. Clearly a vital thing to know.

OP, I used to just write. Then I realized that a) my roughly 100K word story wasn't coherent enough, and b) the query didn't work (of course). I sat down, thought about the overall story I was trying to tell, wrote a solid query (one that I like and seems to capture the 'feel' and first plot of the story), and then re-wrote the story. I keep tweaking both, but this has helped me a lot.

Kitty the Wizard of Oz thing is hilarious. And the young girl pilfered the beautiful shoes her first murder victim wore. And that her three companions were each missing a vital organ or emotion. Query letter word choices and tones are important, I guess!

BrendaLynn said...

Maybe it’s the rebel in me—maybe???—but the thought of constraining myself to an outline, let alone an outline and a pre-built query makes me itch. There’s no money and precious little recognition in this business so we might as well enjoy the process. For me this means that I fly at a story ‘hair straight back and squealing’.
I do outline...in reverse. I update a second document with a one sentence summary of whatever chapter I just wrote. I do this for my memory (How many affairs was that pastor having again?) and I don’t outline ahead. It works for me but, as Jeff so ably points out in his book, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Sorry Felix.

Kate Larkindale said...

I don't outline or start with a query at the beginning of a first draft because if I know what's going to happen, I don't want to write it. I like to let my characters surprise me with their choices (and because they're teenagers, they do, often.). But I do like to write the query before I dive into revising that first draft. By then I know what the book is about, and writing that query helps me to focus on the important parts when I revise.

Rio said...

I find myself developing my stories from several vantage points simultaneously. I'm working through some big picture item like personal stakes for the MC, so I'm writing query style. I'm also deep in the minutiae of my story world, so I'm fiddling with an individual scene for days. I'm also studying how this event affects that event, and how the consequences ripple through the rest of the story, etc., so I'm writing chapter summaries to just get it all out and stop dwelling.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this strategy to anyone ever because it's very draining, but it's the only way that works for me. If I can't see the story from every possible distance at once, I feel blind.

Craig F said...

The on;y things that stays the same with how I write is change. I have a big assed timeline I work along and that sets an outside boundary. I define the limits of the story with a beginning, end and inciting incidents, then let it rip.

A couple of times I have gone back and move the beginning to somewhere else. Sometimes I have too many survivors at the end and have to backtrack and kill some of them off.

Then comes the second draft and all of that moves around too.

Currently I am writing to a query I wrote for something else. That story was too far along the big assed timeline to work the query as well as it could be, so I am writing that.

Damn, that was about as clear as mud.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm wasting time while I wait on something so here I am! Whoo hoo!

"Do you recommend that writers start the query and the novel outline at the same time, to make sure all those boxes are checked?"

There is no right way to write. Do what works for you. Anyone who tells you that you MUST do this or that is an elitist prig.

Some people always outline. Some people couldn't write to an outline if you held a gun to their head.

Barbara Rogan is a scrupulous outliner. She plots out each chapter, knowing exactly what she wants to accomplish and where the characters will be at the end.

Diana Gabaldon doesn't have a clue what's going to happen in her stories. She has kind of a general idea of what might come next due to carefully researched history, but the story reveals itself as it will and in unconnected chunks that eventually fall into place. If she sees a scene, she writes it. If it doesn't fit here, it will fit somewhere else.

Chunk writing may not be for everyone, and it may not fit in the tidy little rules of how to write right, but someone forgot to tell the bumble bee it couldn't fly. Sometimes it works and very successfully.

Hemingway stopped each day when he knew what was going to happen next. He'd re-read what he wrote the day before to refresh his memory. It would jog what he thought was going to happen and he would dive in. He didn't know what was going to happen way down the road. For Whom the Bell Tolls has forty-nine different endings that we know of.

I think Heminhway would be bored spitless if someone told him to write to an outline. Gabaldon admits she can't. Her publisher stopped asking her for a synopsis after the third book because they never turn out remotely like she predicted they would.

Revision is the key. The Old Man And The Sea had parts or had been fully revised over 200 times by Hemingway's admission.

I thought I knew what the end of The Rain Crow was going to be. I would make it through the first year of the war. I made it through the first four months ending with the first Battle of Manassas. Had I slaved over a query to get it write only to figure out that isn't remotely what my story was, I would have been highly irritated with myself.

I'm glad I didn't chain myself to an outline. I would have missed out on some wonderful mushroom characters and plot twists that make the story so much more.

Again, to the OP and everyone else. Do what works for you. Experiment until you find what fits. No one else is writing your story, so don't let them tell you how to do it. It's your job to finish it and make it fascinating, not justify how you did it.

It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.--Ernest Hemingway

All right, back to murder and mayhem and good luck.

Karen McCoy said...

Late to the party, but this is all great advice so far. It sounds like Opie is trying to figure out a revision process that works. The following was posted on the DIY MFA website today, and it might be useful.

DIY MFA Ask the Editor: Five Reasons Your Revision Process is Stalled

Karen McCoy said...

I also found this from Janice Hardy's Fiction University:

It’s a Start: What Not to Worry About in a First Draft



Bonnie Shaljean said...

I should clarify something, when I speak of writing the query before the novel is done: The query doesn't go through to the end of the story. It stops at a dramatic turning point, where everything has irrevocably changed for the main character. Nothing will ever be the same again, and she has to take action one way or another - or another - or another. This cliff-hanger is meant to leave the agent biting her fins wondering what happens next.

Tell you what, it's certainly had that effect on me. So I need to write it to find out.

AJ Blythe said...

I often start with a title, but when you write cozies that's half the fun.

I'm a plotter and have a very structured approach to my plotting - but am flexible when the writing happens. I always write my synopsis then query letter before I start plotting as I've found they are the best way of getting the nuts and bolts sorted up front.

Brittany Constable said...

I've done exactly this! I first discovered Query Shark one year in the run-up to NaNoWriMo. I felt pretty prepared but couldn't actually start writing yet, so I found myself applying what I'd learned toward the story bouncing around my head.

And it worked beautifully. There was actually one element that came to be pretty definitive of the character that came from a pithy line in the query draft. (Referred to the character being used as a pawn, followed by, "Chess isn't Lacey's thing, though. She's more a first-person shooter type of girl.") It's true that at that point, my grasp on the villain's plan was "mumblemumble something fate of the world?" and what I initially envisioned as the climax ended up being about five chapters before the actual climax. But a query really isn't supposed to cover that much ground anyway, certainly not with any specificity.

I'd say that about 50% of that initial query draft made it into the query I actually sent out once the thing had been finished and revised. (I didn't revise the query as the novel was in progress, just built off it at the end.) It's something I've done since and would highly recommend. It's a great way to hone in on your tone, themes, and focus, and it can help you see where your concept is lacking so you can try to shore up those points--or let the project lie fallow until it's accumulated a few more ideas.

So yeah, as long as you don't feel married to that initial query draft and understand it might become mostly or entirely irrelevant to the version of the novel that actually takes shape, go for it.