Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Querying a whodunit

Greetings, Janet.

I am working on my query with the help of query shark and was wondering if you could clarify something for me:

As I understand it, when writing a QL, you need to explain what the main character wants, and who is thwarting them, but what if you are writing a "who dunnit" mystery and the antagonist isn't revealed until much later?

How much of the plot should I keep up my sleeve?

Not all queries follow the template.
It helps to know the rules, so you know when you need to break them.

And if the murderer can't be revealed until the end, you'll have to talk about the plot in a different way.

Much depends of course on how the plot unfolds. If you're writing a police procedural, the plot unfolds as the investigation progresses.

If you're writing a traditional, the plot unfolds as the main character proceeds.

The best way to figure out how to talk about your book is look at how similar books are discussed.

I use Amazon as a starting point.

Three of my favorite Agatha Christie novels:

The Secret of Chimneys:
Little did Anthony Cade suspect that an errand for a friend would place him at the center of a deadly conspiracy. Drawn into a web of intrigue, he begins to realize that the simple favor has placed him in serious danger.
As events unfold, the combined forces of Scotland Yard and the French Sûreté gradually converge on Chimneys, the great country estate that hides an amazing secret. . . .

Or Lord Edgeware Dies
When Lord Edgeware is found murdered the police are baffled. His estranged actress wife was seen visiting him just before his death and Hercule Poirot himself heard her brag of her plan to “get rid” of him.
But how could she have stabbed Lord Edgeware in his library at exactly the same time she was seen dining with friends? It’s a case that almost proves to be too much for the great Poirot.

Or The Hollow
A far-from-warm welcome greets Hercule Poirot as he arrives for lunch at Lucy Angkatell’s country house. A man lies dying by the swimming pool, his blood dripping into the water. His wife stands over him, holding a revolver.
As Poirot investigates, he begins to realize that beneath the respectable surface lies a tangle of family secrets and everyone becomes a suspect.

These are all from Amazon, but you'll want more recent comps or examples, so looking at the reviews in PW is a good guide too.

In short: you set up the scene and who's investigating. In an amateur sleuth mystery, one of my requirements (but this isn't industry standard) is that the sleuth have a compelling reason to investigate.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

This is great advice, naturally. You got this, OP.

Now, I have to go reread every Agatha Christie mystery ever published. I loved Lord Edgeware Dies. I wonder if I can get sick by lunch time so I can nip home to read it. I think I can find it or did I leave it at my parent's house? Will the library have it? Should I just buy another copy? What to do, what to do...

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've never read any Agatha Christie, I keep meaning to (add it to the list, right?) Recently, we did watch the star-studded remake of Murder on the Orient Express and that really intrigued me, especially when I tried to envision how all of that plays out on the page. So I'll probably start with that one.

My query conundrum lately was querying a novella in which none of the characters have names. It honestly didn't occur to me that I'd have to do this; submission requirements vary so wildly between markets when you get into novella territory. Arguably, most of the time, it's just like a longer short story, you send it along through whatever submission system/protocol is in place. Sometimes they want a query letter and the entire novella, and sometimes they want the query letter, the entire novella, and a synopsis.

Jill Warner said...

Oh wow. I'm so glad someone thought to ask this before I got to this point with my cozy!

Megan V said...

Thank you OP and QOTKU! This is really timely for me as I'm currently writing a whodunit of sorts. I've been having the hardest time trying to lay it out for query purposes because, well, 1. it's a whodunit and 2. I'm using 2nd person POV. (Think HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER meets murder mystery a' la GHOST—the victim hijacks the reader's e-mail). And I've been struggling with the whole, what's the motivation factor.

Anyways, I adore Agatha Christie and her books serve as an excellent foundation for drafting a query. Of course, one thing I've noticed recently is how short her stories were!

And it mead me realize how much I miss the short whodunits. They were wonderfully easy to devour in a sitting.

Erin Price said...

My single best garage sale discovery was a box filled with the ENTIRE collection of Agatha Christie's work. It was a big box. I did a happy dance right there in the garage and the owner still only charged me $5 for the whole thing, even when she could have easily said, "oh, twenty bucks," after seeing my excitement.

I got pretty good at figuring out whodunit by the end of that summer, but Chimneys had me stumped. That was a good one.

Thanks, Janet, for the advice, and for inspiring me to embark on a re-read this summer.

Brenda said...

I’m sure there are other rules specific to a cozy as well. Can anyone recommend any how-to type of books or sites? I’m editing one now.

InkStainedWench said...

Jennifer, I'd also recommend The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Talk about turning expectations on their head! (heads?)

Beth Carpenter said...

Jennifer, Death on the Nile is a good one, and Cards on the Table is an excellent locked-room type story.

Craig F said...

Cool, almost like a birthday present. My favorite book (that I've written), is a thriller that also contains a bunch of who-done-it.

I tabled it because I couldn't get a query to work right with it. I couldn't find the right width of brush to paint it. This gives me a less forced perspective.

Thank you, my Queen

Brenda said...

Ink stained wench, Roger Ackroyd is my all time favourite. Apparently, Christie got flack from her readers for not sticking to the norm. It’s reminiscent of the twitter furor some famous authors receive today.
Love your handle btw.

Ashes said...

This is a little confusing to me because I feel like there is a bit of a spectrum between "it is important to be specific in your query letters" and "don't give away the plot".

From where I am standing (deep in the woodlands), query letters lean more towards specifics and back jacket copy leans more towards the don't-give-away-the-plot end of the spectrum.

QS has taught me specifics tend to be compelling. If that first blurb were a query my crit group would mark it up like so:

"Little did Anthony Cade suspect that an errand (what errand?) for a friend would place him at the center of a deadly conspiracy (explain). Drawn into a web of intrigue, he begins to realize that the simple favor has placed him in serious danger (so vague as to be almost meaningless)."

As a reader who hasn't read that book, I think I also find that blurb objectively the least compelling due to the lack of specifics. But knowing the author makes a big difference. In Christie's hands I'd be excited to read this.

The second and third blurbs I find more compelling because there are more specifics.

Karen McCoy said...

Thank you for this! Writing the query for the talking vole book (it is a mystery) and getting all kinds of ideas!

And Ashes the very spectrum you speak of is a very liminal path that can be very difficult to walk indeed.

Aphra Pell said...

In case it's of use, this is the basic structure of my mystery query blurb (I haven't fluffed it up with nice writing yet)

Main character knows her friend has been murdered, but no one will believe her because [compelling reason]

She wants to prove it because [very bad thing that will happen if she doesn't], but pursuing it risks [different very bad thing]

To resolve all this she must [various difficult choices and navigation of other bad things that make up the meat of the plot]

If that structure looks very familiar, it's because I drafted it and redrafted it while digesting the query shark archives.

InkStainedWench said...

Thank you, Brenda! *blushes*

Lennon Faris said...

I've always been curious how "Gone Girl" was queried. I had no idea what was going on for the first third of the book (as the author intended). I also had no idea how to explain what it was about to my family & friends, when I recommended it.

My WIP is YA fantasy, not a 'who dunnit', but the major plot has to do with m.c. figuring things out. So my major query conundrum has always been how much to include. The mysteries revealed make the story much richer & more interesting, but a query isn't supposed to ruin surprises.

KDJames said...

In this type of story, where the antagonist's identity isn't revealed until much later, you instead show the impact of their action(s). You have the dead body or evidence of some other crime/trouble. The stakes have to be compelling enough, personal enough, for the protagonist to take action (unless it's their literal job to do so), even though they don't know who is causing trouble.

You don't need the antagonist to be physically on the page from the start. You do need to show the effect they are having on the story/protagonist. Their presence in the story, the conflict they're causing, even though off-stage.

Why is it always so much easier to make sense of this when it's someone else's story? I dread trying to do this for my own work.

Aphra Pell said...

It's also worth thinking about who or what your antagonist actually is - because from a query pov, it isn't necessarily the person who killed Professor Plum in the library with the lead pipe. It's the thing that's frustrating the protagonist and driving the story.

One way of figuring that out is to see if the fundamentals of the protagonist's journey survive if you change whodunnit.

Take some classic Sayers as an example:

In Unnatural Death, the murderer actively works against Wimsey. We know who they are from a fairly early stage, the stakes are about the consequences of proving it. If you changed the murderer the entire plot would collapse. Ergo murderer = antagonist.

But in Strong Poison, the driving force is the time pressure of Harriet's retrial. Her life is hanging on Wimsey's success. If you changed the culprit from John Smith to Joe Bloggs, details of the investigation would have to change, but the fundamental core of the story wouldn't. The id of the murderer is only important in making the whodunnit hang together nicely - the antagonist is time and the death penalty.

In Clouds of Witness it's the titular confusion from people covering up unrelated indiscretions. Wimsey's brother's life is at stake, but the confusion means he may end up condemning his sister. If you changed the killer it might not make such a satisfying story, but Wimsey's stakes and choices would be fundamentally the same.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Lennon GONE GIRL is Gillian Flynn's third book, after SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES, so in theory, she didn't have to query it? Though I guess she probably did have to pitch it to her agent? I'm a little unclear. Though I would love to see the SHARP OBJECTS query letter, that's my favorite of her books.

Alvania Scarborough said...

Brenda, you might want to try Elizabeth Spann Craig's site. https:// elizabeth spann craig. com/blog/ (without the spaces) She has a lot of helpful information for the cozy writer. She also writes some awesome books.