Monday, November 17, 2014

Query Question: more on who to feature in the query

Dear Sharkly One:

I have a quick follow-up question to your most excellent post of 30 October, about starting a book with the MC or not. I'm wondering - does your stand on this change, when the book is a mystery? It seems fairly common for mysteries, thrillers, and other books of that ilk to begin with the crime, not necessarily the main character and his/her problem(s).

So if I query you about Miss Detective and her New Cozy Quilt-'n'-Criminology Shop, which the local Knitting Society is trying to shut down, and my sample pages open with Chris Corpse, and how he came to be lying in a forest covered in shark bites, would you stop reading? Or would you keep going, assuming that Miss Detective will show up shortly to begin unraveling the mystery?

(Of course, my query would be about Miss D and her problems - quilting, sleuthing, or otherwise. I'm just wondering about your comment on opening the book with what appears to be a secondary - or even tertiary - character rather than the main protagonist.)

Thank you for your most excellent insight. I await your response with shark-baited* breath!

* Yes, I know it's supposed to be "bated," not "baited," lest I offend your grammatical sensibilities. But I couldn't resist the pun!

Why would you tell me how Chris Corpse came to be in the copse when Miss Detective will be trying to figure that out in the book?  In other words, don't tell me more than your main character knows UNLESS that's what you're also doing in the book.  

In the soon to be published DEATH AND THE RED-HEADED WOMAN, Fabulous Loretta Ross told me about Wren Morgan finding a dead body in the house she's preparing for an upcoming auction.  She did NOT tell me how Mr. Corpse came to be there because that's one of the things Wren needs to solve very early in the book.


There is one rule, and one rule ONLY for effective queries: entice me to read on. Generally I try to give you advice that will steer you in that direction.  Things like avoiding rhetorical questions, or don't give away all the plot points, or don't start with weather, driving or waking up.  Those generalizations apply to 98% of all queries.  If you're the 2% it doesn't apply to, well have at it.

The problem is, it's hard to know if you're in the 2% catetogory, and you're the worst judge of it.  That's why you don't query everyone in the known universe on round one. Leave some wiggle room to change up your query if you're not getting the response you hoped for.


Anonymous said...

My recently finished project was changed to accommodate this rule. I've read over and over "opening pages should introduce the main character. Originally, I opened with my MC's parents...then the bad guys. I realized my MC didn't enter into the story until page...25 or something. It made me so nervous when I realized this, I changed it around to include a page and half at the beginning of the book that intro's the MC. But honestly...I know the story could do without it. It's like the unnecessary prologue - but that rule. That doggone rule, repeated so many times in writerly forums...made me do it.

Craig F said...

You could always call it that thing that most writers dread worse than the name Voldemort. Then you could argue about if it should be considered chapter 1 or not.

Be careful that it doesn't look like you forgot half of the back story in your book and tacked it on the front because you didn't want to change your chapter numbers.

Elissa M said...

I think if the query makes it clear who the protagonist is and that it's a murder mystery, it doesn't matter if the novel starts with the victim. Agents, editors, and readers are all accustomed to this genre convention.

Of course, if the protagonist doesn't show up until chapter five, there's a problem. Ideally, he/she should make an appearance by the end of the first chapter, or no later than the start of the second.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I don't have a MC, I have Visa. What's in your book? I don't have one of those either.

Colin Smith said...

Elissa already alluded to my thoughts on this: there's a difference between how you start your query and how your start your novel based on what each is trying to achieve. Your novel is the story. Your query is persuading the reader to read your story.

If your novel starts like an episode of "Bones" or "NCIS", where a group of walk-on characters come upon the victim and call 911 (clearly with more page-turning action than that), I don't see that's necessarily a problem as long as the reader is intrigued enough to read chapter two where you introduce Detective Shark.

Your query, on the other hand, should focus on Detective Shark and the mystery. Who is this super sleuth and what interest does she have to Chris Corpse in the woods other than professional curiosity? Why should you, O Magnificent Agent, want to spend a few hours with Detective Shark?

I'm no literary agent, but that's my take.

french sojourn said...

Great comments.

Craig.....the word that must not be spoken....just the mere non mention of the word sends shivers down my spine.

*insert image of Orson Wells resting in bed, and uncurling his arm and dropping a snow-cube which rolls across the floor to an open book. It rolls onto the open book, and stops on that word that should not be uttered.*

And he doesn't say "Rosebud" either.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

In the edition I read, Anna Karenina title character didn't show up 'til page 30 something, and [SPOILERS] exited stage train long before the end of the book. But I think people are perhaps mistaken when they think she's the main character, regardless of who's on the cover. But, as with much of my habitual reading, the old novels probably have little to do with current querying.

I frequently see the convention, with mystery/thriller type books, that there's a prologue with characters you'll never see again, in which one of them is murdered and/or finds the body. Then chapter one occurs.

Anonymous said...

Great comments!

Craig - I suppose the good news is...Chapter One (didn't dare call it Prologue - can't even believe I typed THE WORD)doesn't contain any back story dump, etc. It's merely a snapshot of the MC seeing the "bad guy" and then getting a "bad vibe."

Elissa - this is part of why my book is now structured as it is, b/c I must have read something similar to what you said here:

"Ideally, he/she should make an appearance by the end of the first chapter, or no later than the start of the second."

It "felt" like a mistake to have her waltz into the story as late as I had her arrive on scene originally. It'll be funny if I get told at some point to scrap the first chapter. Live and learn.

Craig F said...

"Oh no, she said it. Gloom, despair and agony on me."

"Calm down, that is only a myth. It can't hurt you. All it can do is suck the mystery out of a novel."

Anonymous said...

By the way...and totally off topic...but the comments from yesterday's blog...that came in kind of late?

WTF??? Thanks to Hank for being the real man and sticking up for us "real" women.

Unbelievable. I was left speechless for hours. Hopefully Ms. Janet dumped that sh-- right down the toilet and hit flush multiple times. (haven't checked - might get too incensed again)

Anonymous said...

"...deep dark depression, excessive misery! If it weren't for bad luck..."

Thanks Craig - now that tune will be in my head the rest of the day! :)

Who said that last part? Pls tell me it wasn't my idol, Stephen King.

Craig F said...

I think it was a skit from Hee Haw. It might be even worse to know what it says about our ages.

Anonymous said...

It was, and yes, the age thing might be worse.

Although...the "last" part I meant was... ""Calm down, that is only a myth. It can't hurt you. All it can do is suck the mystery out of a novel."

That doesn't sound like Hee Hee Hee Haw Haw. Hee Hee Hee, Haw Haw.


Craig F said...

Both of my posts were aspersions of what I think of prologues. Obviously I don't like them. It is more that I think there is a much smaller space where they work than there are people writing them.

They work well when you are setting a scene for one of those historical artifact finding adventures.

Quite often it seems like an editor finds a back story hole and to cover it the writer, who is onto another venture, writes a prologue. Often it tells the story right there. Sometimes it messes with the pacing and is usually better where it belongs, somewhere around chapter 26.

This question looked like the writer was considering one of those "ripped from the headlines" prologues being used lately.

He also mentioned the Oct. 30 question. You asked about the query and I provided it for you. I haven't heard squat from you about it.

DLM said...

Craig and Donna, it was indeed Hee Haw, and that first line was "Doom, despair, and agony on meee."

My family still sings that from time to time. We have problems.

In other news, I completely missed the hysterics (word chosen with etymology in mind, yet) - but now I'm beginning to be glad of that. The actually upsetting misogynist trolls do squick me out.

Personally, I kind of like the unrelated-intro in mysteries, and can't think of them as prologues. To me, prologue has something to do with backstory, whereas the introduction is just dramatic state-setting. I've seen that done poorly, yes - but when it is done really well, I find it fun.

Anonymous said...

Diane - I am admittedly from the Hee Haw era. Not ashamed of it either. :)

Personally, I have no issue whatsover with prologue. One of my fave books begins with a very (IMHO) well done one - THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, by David Wroblewski.

As to the other "incident" from yesterday's post. Ick.

Alex said...

If I can raise something about the genre convention of having the crime first and the detective second... someone mentioned its used by Bones and CSI (also Law & Order). Isn't that mostly because the 'point' of those shows is the mystery plot, and not necessarily the detective character?

Raymond Chandler novels (which I think are more often about the PI than the actual mystery) always start with Marlowe, not the crime. The story is about him (specifically) solving the crime, not the crime being solved by anyone.

The only reason I mention this is because the OP mentioned quilting stuff and her own problems, which makes me think her story has more in common with character detective novels like Chandler's than the long-running serials on TV.

Having said that I obviously haven't read OP's novel, so I'm probably just full of it.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I sent my full to an agent a while back and super agent's wonderful minion came back with some excellent suggestions. One of them being, "Why don't you cut the first chapter and everything up to where Gen's dead uncle appears?" IOW why don't you start with the inciting incident?

So, now instead of a fairly ho hum, forgettable opening, I have: "They say bad news rides a fast horse. No one said anything about riding a dead one and the destrier Gentyl's uncle now rode toward her had died two years ago."

The wording may be off a bit, but that's the gist of it. That opening does a few things. It introduces the mc. It introduces the inciting incident. Her uncle has been murdered and he has a message so important he had to return from the dead to deliver it and extract a promise from her. Hopefully, it makes the reader want to read on a bit and find out why someone is riding in on a dead horse.

It's also the way I open the query letter.

The change has made all the difference in the world about the way people react to the opening and the query.

I say all that to reiterate what Janet said, the whole point is to entice someone to want to read more.

In Agatha Christie's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, it starts out with all the characters who have been invited to the mysterious island under different pretexts and it's done quite well. I doubt, however, the query goes into much depth about these characters. It's probably something to the point of, "Ten guests have been lured to a mysterious island under various pretexts, including intrepid detective--" In other words, the query and book don't have to be the same. The beginning focus in the book is on the guests. In the query, it might have been on the sleuth.

I'd just be careful of starting in the right place and not making the mistake I did in my original opening.


DLM said...

donnaeverheart, as I always say - I earned every second of my age. And if I don't look it, isn't that all the more impressive? ;)

Alex Dook, that's a very good point!

Julie M. Weathers, I came close to kissing one of my beta readers when she told me to hack 60 pages off the top. My own first line is now, "Guilt and blood are the first anointing" - and the polish has gotten very smooth indeed on overall tension and momentum. I take perhaps an unseemly pleasure in killing my darlings ...