Saturday, February 29, 2020

Revising your novel, revising your query

I have written what is, according to everyone who's seen it, a very good query letter. ("Everyone who's seen it" includes a respectable agent, who read it and requested the manuscript. Hooray!)

The problem is that I wrote the query letter before revising the novel, and now the "hook" in the query letter takes place in the second half of the novel. I should rewrite my query letter, right? But the first half of the manuscript isn't as hooky. I worry that if I rewrite the query letter to reflect the beginning of the novel, I won't get requests; but that if I send the current query letter and do get requests, agents won't like the book because they'll be expecting something that doesn't happen for another two hundred pages. Thoughts?

You're right to worry.

When I get a query that talks about choices and stakes for the character, I'm expecting to see those choices and stakes pretty quickly in the novel.

That's because your query is about the START of your novel.
It's about the START of the plot, what choices the main character faces, and what's at stake with those choices.

If it takes 200 pages to get to that, the problem is NOT the query, it's the novel.

If the query talks about something that happens on page 200, I'm going to be perplexed. That's
not the reaction you want.

And the problem is not that the agent won't like the book, it's that they'll stop reading and pass.

Obviously something compelled you to rewrite the book after you thought it was done. I'm not sure what "isn't as hooky" means but if it means the plot doesn't really start on page one ....

"Nothing happens for the first X pages" is a comment I've written to authors more times than any of us care to know. If you hear "the pacing is off" this is one of the things it means.

Start your novel where the story starts.
Tell me about that in the query.

Here's an example: Gone With the Wind starts when Scarlett O'Hara learns Ashley Wilkes is going to marry Melanie Hamilton.

It' does not start with Ashley meeting Scarlett. Or with Gerald O'Hara coming to Georgia. Or Ellen Robillard agreeing to marry him. All those events are the start of the timeline, but they are NOT the start of the story.

The main character is Scarlett and novel starts when (to her way of thinking) her life takes an abrupt left turn.

Any questions?


Aphra Pell said...

"I worry that if I rewrite the query letter to reflect the beginning of the novel, I won't get requests"

If the events of the beginning of the novel aren't interesting enough to hook an agent in a query, they are unlikely to hook a reader.

So the question to ponder is - are they really not that interesting / not key to the story (in which case you need to revisit the novel), or, having got used to your old hook, have you just not identified their query potential yet (as Janet says, there must be a reason why you reworked the novel that way)?

I'd be inclined to show your new opening to some query proficient beta-readers and get their suggestions on how to handle it - fresh eyes might see the potential in a different way.

But don't lose heart - you've written one great query. That means you are ahead of the pack, and you've got the skills to write another.

nightsmusic said...

I'm wondering what motivated you to rewrite the story. You had an agent that requested a full. Did they answer and give you feedback? Not like it? Did you revise it based on suggestions they made? It worries me that you've changed what might have been a story that dives right in to one that is now a too slow burn. If that's the case, changing the query is the least of your worries right now. So that would be the first question I'd ask myself. Did I change my story for the better and how excited will readers be to continue after the first chapter? If the answer is that they'll be excited to continue after chapter two or three or eight, then leave the query and go back to the story.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yeah, when I was revising my book, going through agent queries, most often I got "this is not where the book starts" sort of feedback. Now, my worst worry in the query trenches are the two super, duper agents that ONLY want a query. And I feel less confident about my query than my pages. I really want them to see the first pages. They always get a reaction - not always positive, but big reaction. Which for me, means they do what they need to do.

I am about to send off another swarm of queries tomorrow and am trying to decide if I should pad the queries to the two agents who only want queries. Ugh. What to do, what to do.

OP I would maybe revise your book so that it matches your query. Or you will have to go the other way around. Of course, don't take my word for it. I am in the trenches and having a daily mental breakdown where I forget everything that I have learned about publishing and querying. It's awesome.

Aphra Pell said...

EM - don't "pad" your query, just make it as tight and engaging as you can. Do you have the juice of your pages, the core thing that gets the reaction, reflected in your query? If so, have faith in yourself, get those queries out and treat yourself to an enormous gin / whiskey / cup of tea / cookie / all of the above.

Mister Furkles said...

One agent said "Most new authors don't know where their story begins."

If the query identifies the main conflict, how far into the novel must the main conflict begin?

Must the query represent the beginning of the main conflict or might it reflect a secondary, temporary conflict?

Katja said...

My feeling is that the novel should be 'adapted' to the query.

Although I have paused writing my 2nd book, I already have a draft for a query. I wrote it quite early and paid attention to the beginning, but I also then noticed "Oh, what is actually at stake?"

So having a good query sounds great, OP. Means you know quite well what SHOULD be in your novel. :)

Wishing you BEST of luck!

Katja said...

P.S. Aphra and nightsmusic, and all who were so kind to me last night, I wrote another comment in response on yesterday's post.
Bit of an English-language mess, though. Anyway, you'll understand, I hope.

Karen McCoy said...

EM I agree that you shouldn't pad the query. What you have is strong. Trust it. I tried padding mine to "avoid confusion" and I think it earned me one of my form rejects. And OP, trust yourself, trust your instincts. It's the best thing we can do for ourselves.

Author Guy said...

So how would you query Lord of the Rings? The story doesn't really begin until the Council of Elrond in Book 2. Frodo dithers most of the way through book 1 and barely gets out in time. Or The Curse of Chalion, which starts with the MC seeking a humble tutoring position at an out of the way manor. It takes an act of a god for that choice to become important. In my novel Ghostkiller the antagonist starts out as three separate individuals, none of whom are doing anything intentionally. The hero has no idea he lives inside a fantasy novel until they merge halfway through the book. Before that he's just doing what he normally does, not intentionally pursuing 'the plot' in any way. There are lots of story structures that begin the plot in the middle, I've invented several. Trying to force them into this model of the hook is painful and frustrating.

Karen McCoy said...

I'm also reminded of a saying/question I heard recently: "Are you an oak tree or a willow?" Sometimes, yes, it's good to be flexible, like a willow, and be willing to revise. But once the novel is where it needs to be, we can turn into oak trees, stand firm with our queries; that way we can make sure it's still true to what we envision. If we try to bend to what others think is satisfactory, our queries will get muddled. Clarity in vision is key.

Lennon Faris said...

OP, I hear you. It's tough to get the query and the book to match. Sometimes in the necessity of leaving info out, you don't convey what you need to in the query.

Author Guy, I'm not sure about the other two, but LOTR definitely follows this pattern. Frodo inherits a ring from his uncle, which he learns is cursed and powerful and very wanted. He has to decide whether he's going to take it away from the Shire (and leave his home, friends, culture which for a hobbit is a huge sacrifice), or be a coward and endanger the Shire (and the entire world). In fact, that is the book that my sister and I always go to when we need to remind ourselves how simple a hook can (needs to?) be.

Colin Smith said...

Author Guy and Lennon: Janet can boil me in water and call me a noodle if I'm wrong, but you can probably find a lot of books written over the past 100 years and in a variety of genres that don't fit modern commercial fiction reading sensibilities. That's not a criticism of either, just a fact of life. I think television and movie story-telling has impacted the way people read. Not that there isn't an audience for slow-burn stories today. And I'm sure you can find novels from ages past that are paced like a Jack Reacher book. But generally speaking, I think it's unfair to pull a novel from a different era of entertainment and use it as an example of how to break "the rules." When I was 10, my mum used to let me take the bus into town and spend the day on my own shopping. Not the kind of thing most parents would do today.

There's my two cents. I'll go put the pot on to boil... :)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


That was brilliant.

Barbara Etlin said...

Thanks for asking this question, OP! I realized that my logline that was critiqued here is about a conflict that occurs at about the halfway point. I'll have to find something hookier earlier in the story. Or rearrange the plot and start with that conflict then do a long flashback or series of flashbacks.

KDJames said...

OP, I'm wondering too why you revised the book in such a way that the "hooky" part moved like that. Here's something I've learned about feedback that might apply. If not, maybe it'll be helpful to someone else reading along.

I want to preface by saying there are MANY different types of feedback betas can give. But there are two versions of the "I need to know more" feedback from betas who have only read the query or the first few chapters, as opposed to the entire story. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the two.

-One is genuine confusion. They're lost in a bad way and really need to know more up front to get invested in the story. This isn't good. You might have started the story too far into the action or just not included enough pertinent detail at the beginning (use a very light hand if you need to add a wee bit more; preferably not 100 pages).

-The other is curiosity and excitement. "Oh, how did she get into this mess?! I need to know what happened and why! You can't just say that and leave me hanging here!!" Well, yes you can. And you should. This is the good kind of "I need to know more." It's what makes readers keep turning the pages until they finish.

I don't know whether you got either of these responses, obviously, or whether that motivated you to revise. But if it was the second, feel free to go back to the original version of your ms (please tell me you saved it) and leave your query as is. Not all feedback is helpful. Best of luck to you.

RebeccaB said...

What made the light bulb go off for me on this topic was recently hearing that one should start the story "fifteen minutes before the inciting incident," for which the GWTW reference is a good example. That way, you get straight to it, but still have some time to introduce the reader to your MC first. It sounds simple, but it took having the blogger word it that way for it to really click in my brain.

RebeccaB said...

Actually, I meant "What made the light bulb go ON for me..."

Craig F said...

I am a hybrid type writer. I build an outline structure for my works and then fill them in like a pantster. I can't even imagine moving everything around in an edit. Sounds like it would get as muddy as started a watercolor painting over. Maybe it would edit the magic out of it too.

I am sorry you ended up in this situation. I hate trying to corral that little beast known as the query. To me it is harder than writing the damned book.

I have, what I think, is a pretty good query. It is on something like page 5 of Query Tracker's query review but keeps getting people looking at it, over 3000 now. I would hate to try and build it again.

Katja said...

Craig, I tried to respond to you on the previous post, but it didn't work. Maybe I'm blocked because I commented several times.
Just to let you know and that I appreciate your support!

Janet Reid said...

I don't block commenters.If your comment is too far off topic, spam, or maligns another reader here, it gets deleted.

We're all adults behaving pretty well here (side eye at Steve Forti Thwarti planning his next contest entry).

Katja said...

It said that my comment would be published when approved or something along those lines.

It's all okay and fine for me, including if that comment of mine never appears. I posted here because I just wanted Craig to know I appreciated his comment/support and avoid he thinks it didn't mean anything to me.