Thursday, October 30, 2014

Query Question: does the query have to be about the main character?


Does the MC of a query have to be the MC of a book? The direction my query is heading, I’m learning to build the book around the query, is maybe fifth on the list of characters. The query is going that way because his story is the easiest to clarify in 250 words.

The query MC is in the beginning, middle and end of the book so I could not say I was misleading anyone. The reason I say that is that the story morphs from a floating body into much more and the query MC bypasses some of the leads the cops have to investigate.

I'm not sure why you think you have to "clarify a story" in the query. You don't. You have to tell me what choice the main character faces and what's at stake for him/her with that choice.  By default, that means the main character of the book, not the fifth guy on the cast of characters.

What you're proposing here is to query a Harry Potter novel by talking about Ron Weasley.

Let's take this to the next step: I'm reading the query and I am expecting a book about Ron Weasley. All of a sudden, here's this Harry Potter guy with all the page time.  I'm confused. Confused is NOT what you want your reader to be, whether it's agent or book buyer or anyone in between.

The first rule of queries is to entice the agent to read on. The second is to tell what the book is about and by definition that's the main character.

I had a very similar situation in a recent query.  It was a terrific query, one of the best I've ever seen, but the pages opened with a character who was clearly not the protagonist or the antagonist.

Here's my reply to the query:

This is probably one of the best query letters I've ever gotten.

But the pages start with a person I thought was a secondary
character, and you've really buried the hook deep in that fifth paragraph.
And it's a pretty subtle hook too.

My taste runs to starting the book where the story begins.
From the query it sounds like the story starts when (X happens.)

Of course, other agents may have different opinions and finding
out what those are before revising is a smart strategy.

IF you do think I'm right, I'll be glad to hear from you again.

And that's a GREAT query. If you don't get a lot of positive
replies, I'll eat my hat.


Kitty said...

I’m learning to build the book around the query

I'm confused. Does that mean the book is not finished yet?

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I was wondering that too, Kitty.

Janet, what a fantastic response. Hope s/he bounces it back to you, you sell it for a squillion dollars & pounds & euro, and the pair of you can high-five each other all the way down Easy Street.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolynnwith2Ns said...

A little salt, a little pepper, a little hair gel, yum.
But then again maybe you're right.
How can a query be so perfect and yet not? It's like tasting some of the best clam chowda' evah', made without the clams.
Add clams and I'll take a bowl or two. I'm confused.
Love the hat BTW.

That was me, the deleted comment I mean. I'm so perfect I had to fix a screw-up. I'm sounding kind of snarky but I don't mean to. I am really, confused I mean.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

See, I can understand your main character not being your main badass (I've got that going in my werewolf novels, but so does The Great Gatsby [don't worry, I didn't write werewolf Gatsby]), but writing a query around another character because that story makes more sense? Maybe you wrote the wrong book.

(I've also considered this issue.)

Ellipsis Flood said...

Nice hat.

Hm... if #5 on the character list is the easiest to write a query around, does that mean the stories around #1 to #4 are more complicated?

I'm wondering if there's just too much going on in there. Not everyone can be a protagonist, some just have to step aside.

Colin Smith said...

I actually like the idea of writing the query before the novel. It helps give you focus and shows you where the heart of your story is, or what you still need to think through.

Of course, you shouldn't actually send that query until you've written the novel... :)

To our writer friend, I suggest you re-write your query. This time ask yourself: What is this novel about? What is the story here? Is there one character who seems to be driving that story, or at the most two? If your novel is a war story, there are hundreds if not thousands of war stories--what makes yours different? Is there an inciting event and/or conflict that would make someone think, "Oh, that's interesting..." and read on? And who seems to be at the heart of that event/conflict?

This doesn't mean you need to simplify your novel. Or maybe you do. But for a query, you need to be able to express the main crux of the story in 250 drool-inspiring words. I will say, though, that if you're having trouble with this, then its possible you need to take another look at your novel...

All the best to you!

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

So, let's say I have a story similar in structure to the novel A GAME OF THRONES. Ned Stark is, ostensibly, the main character. However, he is never the viewpoint character, and there are 8 viewpoint characters. Do I write the query as though it were about Ned? He is the center of the story, after all. Or do I write it as though I were Arya, because she's an important viewpoint chracter, and talk about her dad Ned being important? Or, not to throw a monkey wrench into this, but do I write it as Tyrion, since he's the most interesting and sympathetic character?

Karen McCoy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen McCoy said...

I agree with Colin. I treat my query and synopsis like a thesis statement in a research paper, and try to stick to them like glue. Anything that strays too far and makes the plot too jiggly usually ends up getting cut.

Janet Reid said...

Stephen, here's the flap copy for Game of Thrones:

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing.

The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall.

At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to.

Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Craig F said...

First off, I’ll live up to the fact that it was my question. I am truly amazed at what all has been read into it.

I do not write the query first but keep a section of my mind working on different permutations of it. This is the third metamorphosis of this book and I am starting to think this version might be able to find some wings. I stay mindful of the query because if you get too deeply into your writing without it you nay not be able to get enough distance to see a query later. I know that because I have pumped out some horrid queries. In fact I still feel like I’m in Injun country with queries.

I did not attempt to sneak a query in without the book being finished. I felt that I could get my point across better with an example. It was the first time I put this query down on paper and it was meant as that example.

By ‘clarifying’ I think that a query needs a sentence or two of back story. It takes out a lot of the whys that tend to pop up. It cuts down on the hokey of the situation. Again I am in Injun country.

It is possible that under all the bravado it takes to go into an endeavor like this I might have needed a pat on the head by someone who holds my respect.

Thank you

Elissa M said...

That GoT flap copy is a perfect example of how to blurb epic fantasy. The only names mentioned are Stark and Winterfell, but you get an excellent feel for what this story is going to encompass.

Craig, I think you're over-thinking your query. What is the overall conflict? What must be done to resolve it? Who is going to do it? Who or what is stopping them?

I think it's always a good idea to keep these things in mind when writing a novel even if you're not working on a query. It keeps the story-train from running off the rails into WTF-land (which I'm sure Ms. Reid has seen happen in more than one manuscript).

Anonymous said...

I wish we could have seen that query you mention at the end... with important/critical info redacted, of course.

Craig F said...

here it be.

Micah Johnson was getting closer. The restaurant was doing well, his fiancé understood, and the memory of the mental institutions was fading along with the face that had put him and much of his squad there.

Two of Micah’s friends, Sheriff’s deputies from separate counties, came into the restaurant and were discussing a case. They had laid out pictures of the four missing girls and Micah saw them. The last few months fell apart as Micah focused on one picture. It was a picture of the girl Micah could see his bullet passing through. She had been used as a human shield and Micah had to protect his squad from those behind her.

Micah helps a man named Justin Thomas whose employee had been abducted. They find things that make the girls seem to be networking devices for a horrendous plot.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Craig, you may not respect me, but consider this a pat on the head.
It takes balls to put yourself out there and a high dose of bravery.
I have written two novels, one memoir, am working on a proposal for another memoir, thirty short stories, hundreds of essays and op-eds and enough queries to choke every commenter here a hundred times. And along with all my scratching, after all these many years of writing, reading and research I know one thing and one thing only, each of us must continue to learn. Never, ever stop learning how to do what we do better.
Oh, I know something else too, we all have an opinion. Of course I think mine is best but, well, that's just me.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Glad you posted your query, Craig. Maybe we can offer some insight.

I can see how you're having troubles. You look like you're trying to write an outline, not a query. You're busy setting the background. You don't need so much background. Just hint. Agents are pretty savvy when it comes to sussing out background from a few well-chosen words. At this point, the background of the story isn't as important as the hook of the story.

What if you approached your query from this format:

1. Inciting event that makes MC's life go snafu.
2. What's at stake from this snafu?
3. If MC & Co don't fix this snafu, what bad things might happen?

That's it. Nothing more.

Don't worry that your query doesn't mention his time in a mental institution. That's like wondering if the puddle in which you dropped a stone is freshwater or salt water. Sure, it's VERY important, but not at this stage.

So, from what little I've gleaned from your query, I cobbled together this:

When two of Micah Johnson's deputy buddies come into his diner with pictures of four girls, it brings up bad memories; Mikah had put a bullet into one of those girl's heads. (Things gone snafu.)

The deputies [name one if he's a main character] are investigating child abductions, including [the child of someone he knows]. (What's at stake--children's lives, especially the life of someone he knows.)

As Micah helps them delve deeper into the mystery, they uncover a sophisticated trafficking network of [whatever it is] that threatens [the character's lives/families/whatever. Big Stakes]. (The bad stuff that'll happen if they don't fix the snafu.)

If you want, you can throw in one more line about a challenge or two that would prevent Micah from solving this snafu.

And that's all you need. Give us a character or two to sympathise with, give us a scary problem, and leave us with the question of how they're gonna solve it.

This is your hook, this is your query.

Craig F said...

Thank you. I’ll keep those things in a safe place. I just hope I don’t forget where that safe place was.

I was trying to think ahead, which can be a good thing, if you don’t toss that dog-eared fool’s card into the deal. If I hadn’t asked the question I might have gotten the Queen Shark to consider my humble offering. She does, however, have an elephant’s memory so I will need to change the names to protect the guilty.

I think my style for writing a query will still run along the lines of a crescendoing overture and not a marching band. I hope that I will have the book finished and have tested it wings in a few weeks. If it seems to be able to fly I do hope that the Queen Shark will give it consideration.

Thanks again

Craig F said...

I thought everyone in Alaska had balls. I don't read a lot about it because most writers tend to push the superhuman theory of Alaskan residents. I personally think that is trash so I stick with Stabenow because she keeps Alaskans as plain humans.

As a Floridian I am in awe of anyone who could deal with mosquitoes the size of small dogs.