Thursday, June 11, 2015

Query question: travails with character names

I am querying a novel, and use your blog as one of my main resources on querying etiquette.
I love the idea of starting the query with the character's name, but I'm having trouble figuring out how. My main character starts out as a number, and eventually earns her name (toward the end of my ms). I'm not sure if I should start the query out with "Agent 61825...", or if I should start out with her earned name, and go back to fill in the fact that she comes from a society where humans are given numbers, and not names.

I can almost hear the movie trailer voice over right now "In a world when humans have to earn their names...."

Starting a query with the character's name is my druthers not because the name is important. It's to prompt the writer to focus on writing a sentence that begins with what's important. In other words, to pry them out of backstory.

Sebastian Dieter set sail for the New World with his wife, three small children, everything he owned in the world, and a fierce and fervent hope for a better life.

(That's the start of a book I sold recently about the first non-English immigrant wave to the New World. It's a captivating and compelling story.)

That captures our interest much more quickly than: the first wave of German speaking immigrants began arriving in the New World in the 1730's. This is the story of one voyage that began in Rotterdam and ended in flames off the shore of Rhode Island.

What to call your name your name changing character at the start of the query is going to be discover by trial and error. Try something. If you like it, let it sit for a day, then look again. If you don't like it, try something else.
There is no right or wrong here despite my strangled yelps of outrage over at QueryShark. There is only effective and ineffective.

Your goal in a query is to do one thing: entice me to read on.


Anonymous said...

I never realized that was Janet's goal in advising queries open with a name. Makes perfect sense to me now!

So let me sidestep for a moment.

I usually start my query around the time I am confident I will finish the book. There's a few reasons for this. One, it helps me to summarize when the whole plot isn't officially on the page. I can't get caught up in nuance if the nuance isn't written yet. And two, this ensures I've had a LOT of time to think about my query.

That doesn't mean I won't scrap what I have and write a whole new one. It just means I have the base of the layer cake and I know the approximate shape and size.

All of this to say I agree with Janet. Write it. Sit on it. Show it to someone. Rewrite it. Show it to the first person again. Then show it to someone new.

At some point it'll become abundantly clear whether you should use a real name or a number to describe your main character. Good luck Opie!

Kitty said...

You have one job, not to frost & decorate a cake (OMG HILARIOUS!) but to write a query. Who knew one 'simple' letter could generate so many questions?

Congrats to brian for being first vomenter :)

Susan Bonifant said...

At first, I thought "You're right, OP. Of course you should use her number. It sparks intrigue." But then I remembered.

I forget what page it's on in the Guide for Woodland Creatures but it clearly states: "Beware this notion of gut instinct. Don't give in. Fight your intuition for no less than a week. And then, of course, go with it."

It can take days to circle back to a good idea in this biz.

DeadSpiderEye said...

I like character names, stereotype associations are fun. Brad Steele, I wouldn't pick a fight with him and Clint Harvard doesn't need a hot water bottle for those cold nights. I thought that lead in, 'A World where...' would work, then you could tease the agent by implying some significance in the name but not stating it. I suppose there's a chance that, that might leave the taste of cheese on a few jaded palettes but everything's a risk.

Sam Hawke said...

Definitely sit on it, definitely try new things. Write it with different tones, different emphasis. See what works. Show a bunch of different people and see if it would make them want to read your pages.

Disclaimer: don't hold off and fiddle so long that you're just using it as yet another reason to avoid taking that eventual plunge. It took me 18 months of fiddling from first draft of my query to the final one I started sending out. EIGHTEEN MONTHS. I think maaaaaaybe I could have done it sooner. :)

DLM said...

Honestly, I think the namelessness is a huge hook in this case. You can present that so dramatically, and if you're a deft writer the character will be straining to break out of the anonymity even in the query. Powerful!

And it eliminates some of the nasty legal questions from yesterday; these two posts dovetail nicely. :P

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I've putzed about with my query since I finished the rough draft of my MS last summer. This query has many iterations! And I've used my query letter as a tool to help focus my MS better as I revise it. And it's amazing how much better my later queries sound compared to my first one. Amazing. Yes, I saved their various versions, just in case. But my most recently crafted queries remain the best.

However, if Opie has already finished their MS, then speed up the process but not so much that you can't read it with an objective eye. One nice thing about a query--that detachment comes much sooner than it does with the full-fledged MS.

Susan Bonifant said...

Sam Hawke: good advice. We will stand on that diving board forever, won't we?

Dena Pawling said...

What helped me in writing my queries, is asking myself these questions:
1. What's unique about the MC?
2. What's the story goal? What does the MC want?
2. What's the conflict? Why can't MC have what he wants?
3. What's the crisis/black moment?
4. What choice must the MC make?
5. What's the twist?

So if your answers are:
1. Agent 61825 is human in a world where humans are slaves
2. Agent 61825 has to earn her name to save her people
3. Humans are dying [or at war, or whatever]
4. Agent 61825 gets the disease [or is captured, or whatever]
5. Agent 61825 must decide whether to save herself or save her people, can't have both
6. Agent 61825 saves her people without earning her name, which ends up also saving her own life AND earning her name

Okay so I made those up, but if the story looks like this, then I would NOT include the name she earns as part of the query, because that's revealing too much of the ending. You want the agent to be curious: Does Agent 61825 earn her name? Which choice does she make? Does that choice work?

I have a manuscript in the let-it-sit-for-6-months stage now, plus I'm waiting for that “flash of inspiration” which I generally get while the manuscript sits, which gives it the shine it needs. Anyway, there are two MCs in that MS, and one doesn't have a name, but in the query I wrote “She doesn't have a name, so he calls her Ellie.” Having a name isn't the big part of the story, altho it does factor in near the end and becomes part of the twist.

Write several versions of your query and let your CPs read them. See which one they like, and get their recommendations for which one makes them curious to read the entire story. Read Query Shark. Good luck!

Cindy C said...

brianrschwarz, I just did the same thing you mentioned-- I can see the end to my WIP, so I wrote a query and a brief synopsis. NOT because I'm ready to send them out into the world, but because it really helped me cut through to the heart of the story. I'm having to eliminate scenes I originally thought would be great, but just don't fit into the narrative, and writing the query and the synopsis is making that easier.

OP, I agree with the other who say that earning your name is a great hook--I'm intrigued!

DLM said...

To Dena's point(s), yes - I'd agree to leave out the eventual name.

Just this month, how many of us were DYING to know what Bruce Jenner was going to change his name to as he shared with us all the journey of his lifetime?

Leave agents *wanting* to know what the prize will be. Agent 61825 is the right designation for the query, and gets the job done.

Craig F said...

The four Cs of a query start with character. Using a name can save thirty to fifty words over describing that character. Since you only have 250 words to work with that is a big plus. Using the MC's number could be even stronger than a name. It also gives a strong segue into explaining it (the reason for the number and not a name)and wraps in the conflict and consequence fairly neatly. The choice might be a bit harder to tie in. It is easy to think of why someone would prefer a name over a number so you have to be careful in that explanation.

Anonymous said...

Now I'm curious to know if anyone has written a query on a cake. I've got a bad feeling that someone, somewhere, and for some reason, probably has.

As for OP's question, I'd be inclined to do as Janet says, and go with the name, because you can always mention that it wasn't always the protag's name. Unless the actual name is a huge secret, I don't see that it's cutting out any suspense, and you should be able to creatively work around the name/number thing so that an agent gets the right idea. Really, I don't see why you can't have both, though- ie, 'Susan wasn't always Susan. Once, she was simply #65. But when robots explode the dye factory in which she works, #65 escapes, and Susan Monte Cristo is born. Or something to that effect. You could probly even cut the first sentence. Also, I have no idea about the robots. That's just for scenery since I have no idea about your book :D

LynnRodz said...

I think you should go with the number, I find it more intriguing. Just the fact that you have to earn your name is an interesting concept. I, for one, would read the first pages in a bookstore and if I like the writing, I would be taking the book home with me. Good luck, Opie!

18 months isn't that long, Sam. Well, not for me.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I really like QOTKU's own suggestion as a first line: "In a world where humans have to earn their names, Agent 61825 [performs her opening action, which kicks the plot into motion]". It's a great hook.

Megan V said...

Hey look! Another writer dealing with the "Stitch Scenario"—that's what my critique partners and I call it.

I don't know if you've seen the movie Lilo and Stitch, but in it "Stitch" starts off as Experiment 626. As a consequence, we came up with a method to work on 'nameless character' queries using that movie.

Step one: Draft a query for the movie as if it were a book written in Stitch's perspective.

Step two: Compare your character's beginnings to that of Stitch.

Step three: Compare how and when your character and Stitch got their new name.

Step four: Insert your character into your Stitch query. Does the initial intro make sense with your story? If not, it's probably because of the differences outlined in Step 2 and 3. Maybe your nameless character is more like a MIB scenario.

Step five: Draft your query.

Step six: Trial and error.

Donnaeve said...

I think the answer for the OP lies in the importance of number vs name to the overall story. The OP says her MC earns it at the end of the ms, which must mean she goes to hell and back to get it. Maybe the question for the OP is, what's the impact to the overall story if a reader knows the name? If it's zip, maybe use both creatively along with the number, like some others have suggested.

Donnaeve said...

Boy. Must drink more coffee before commenting. "If it's zip, maybe use it creatively along with the number, like some others have suggested."

There. I feel better.

Anonymous said...

I actually kind of like that opening for a query, but what do I know?

The MC in my WIP started out as Gentyl Diarmand. She was named after one of my game characters because a piece of the original story idea came from some fan fiction I wrote for our guild lore. The girl's name means gentle spirit in her father's language. The parents had hoped to give peace to her life with the naming. A sweet bit of sentiment for our little warrior.

At the SIWC Idol panel the first page was read. Everyone passed, but there was a minor discussion of the name. Some agents liked it, some didn't.

I return home, ready to do battle with this manuscript from hell. I have at thee.

Denver comes up. Off the manuscript from hell goes to a few workshops. A few more debates about the name Gentyl. Princess Perfect, she of the perfectly arranged rape scene so the woman's glittering golden locks cascade dramatically off the edge of the table in the heavenly sunlight. The woman lies on the table like a Mayan princess laid out for sacrifice while the barbarians uncoddle their codpieces or whatever barbarians do when they are preparing to befoul fair maiden, says, "That's the stupidest name I've ever heard in my life."

I refrain from saying, "Oh yeah? Well, that's the stupidest rape scene I've ever scene. Everyone knows the table should have a white cloth on it to make her look even more virginal and a crucifix the barbarians cruelly tear from her throat as she prays."

That remark alone is enough to make me dig in my heels to keep the name.

Home we come to digest all we have learned at Denver.

Emails fly and excerpts of things we're working on and discussion of what we learned flow freely on B&W. (Books and Writers.)

"I'm not sure I like the name Gentyl. It sound like you're trying to be cute."

"I like it. It's a wonderful irony that her name sounds gentle, but she's studying to be a warrior."

The discussion is on again.

Holy horned frogs here we go again.

If the name is taking the reader out of the story, it's time to change it. I had already named given her a Celtic name before, but Barbara Rogan said that was really a difficult name to wrap your tongue around. So, I knew from that class I needed to keep it simple. Her dead uncle's name is Kael. There's a special bond between the two. Kaelyn it is.

I have three cultures in this book. One is very loosely based in Celtic/Sarmatian lore and one more Normanic/Roman based. I use a name generator to keep the names for the cultures consistent within each one.

I think names in fiction are important. They say something about the person you're writing about. In truth, we shouldn't be writing characters. They should be people. We should be able to think about them at any time as fully as we might a close friend and wonder what they are doing. I fiddle with mine a lot before I find the ones that say what I want them to say about a character.

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER C.S. Lewis

To the OP. I love the numbered agents. That draws my curious mind in immediately.

S.D.King said...

Totally off subject, but for more cakes visit the Cakewrecks website. Too often I have laughed until it hurt.

Susan, for Dr. Who fans like Colin and myself, the phrase "And then I remembered" is likely to send us to the DVR to lose an hour in "The Library".

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Names plus queries plus names IN queries makes me want to run up to my attic and throw myself on my fainting bench.

Though I wonder...if Daphne DuMaurier had to query Rebecca in modern querying style, how would she have done it? (this is my best and most favorite "nameless main character/nameless narrator" example. I get that Opie's MC isn't nameless, but I feel it might not even be so tangential of me....)

Colin Smith said...

LOL--that cake! Really??

I'm with Diane (DLM) and Donna--the number-name is intriguing and part of the story. I say keep it. Especially if earning a name is part of the MC's journey--you could even make that part of the query if it fits ("can 61825 do what it takes to earn a name...?"--something like that).

If there's one thing I've learned from researching querying/writing/publishing rules over the past few years: there are no rules, only guidelines, suggestions, and best practices. This is a very pragmatic industry. The ideal query is the one that grabs the agent's interest, and compels that agent to request a full. There are no set-in-stone rules, and, let's be honest, an agent who is a stickler for "rules" despite how brilliant your query is probably isn't an agent that will work well with you. Thankfully, I don't know many agents who would be that persnickity. :)

All the best to you Opie!!

And then I remembered... ;)

Donnaeve said...

After reading Julie W's story about her character's name, it struck me (again) how determined I can be on finding perfect names for my own characters. Maybe my somewhat reclusive nature is the problem, but for my second book, my MC's name is something I'd never heard of, and it came to me while I was stripping sheets off the bed. The name is Truitt. I wrote "his" story in 2013, and lo and behold, on that series called TEXAS RISING, here comes a young character named TRUITT. And in "my" Truitt's story, I have a woman named Maisy. Again, maybe I live a secluded life b/c Maisy wasn't one I'd heard of either, but I've since found out it's pretty common - at least here in the South.

In my hard crime book, my antagonist's name is Haskell.

In my latest WIP, I have a girl named Wallis Ann. I love picking out the names. And I generally take a LONG time doing it, until I hear the name in my head within the story and it sounds "right." (whatever that is)

Beth H. said...

Julie's story is making me reconsider the name of my protagonist again. His name is Enrique, which I thought was a fairly common Hispanic name. CPs have mostly said nothing about the name, but a few said it's weird. For those readers, the name is taking them out of the story, so maybe it's time to change it. Or, more likely, time to get more feedback.

Julie said...

The way I read this, I was picturing the following:

Dear Agent 61825,

In a world where humans have to earn their names....



Thank you for your time and consideration.

Now, imagine Agent 61825 opening THAT email. I've read complaints from Agents about people getting their names spelled wrong or gotten switched with other Agents' names, or gotten off the wall entirely - but this is so off the wall that...


It might actually work.

Dear Shark 61825,

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Author 4,384,947

(It also reminds me of this Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson: Far Side Cartoon that this post reminds me of

And HTML link in case you "Just don't want to go there...":

Be Well, God Bless, Love On.

Anonymous said...

Such a smart, concise question which leads to a smart, concise answer. In other words, I have nothing to add, except: Listen to the Shark. Which you were going to do, anyway, because you asked her.

WR: I'm sure someone has written a query on a cake. I've seen lists of some of the things agents get (or used to get, when queries were through the mail). A decorated cake would not be out of the realm of possibilities.

Brian and SiSi: writing a query letter is a GREAT way to help sort out a story and bring to the fore what is important in the novel. Writing a synopsis helps to tighten the plot. All the work put into these things is worth it, because it improves the novel and it improves our skill.

(I know people's view of synopses here. You could call it, I suppose, a summary of the plot. If you were to write out your plot, in whatever format you prefer, you'd be able to see where it needs work, where it lags, where it skims to quickly.)

Regarding finding the right names:

I don't think there really are any 'unique' names out there. There may be some unique spellings, but every name already exists in some culture. I've had friends try to find totally unique names for their babies - only to find out later that someone they meet or some celebrity has the same name. Or, worse, a company does.

I prefer names that are not overused or unique. I'd rather the name fit the character and the character's culture than have it say anything specific about the character. If I have a character from a made-up culture, I pick a name that fits the culture, not necessarily one that's unique. After all, different cultures can coincidentally use the same syllables for a name, but it means different things in different languages.

Hi Julie H! How are you doing?

(Pick all the food. Ignore the booze and coffee... and the young couple holding hands???)

Stacy said...

Love the hook! However, I would not withhold that the character does earn her name by the end of the story in the query. You're looking to sell this, which is different than hooking the reader. That's just me, though.

Donnaeve said...

"I don't think there really are any 'unique' names out there."

Yeah BJ, probably not, just like someone else once said to me, there are only x number of words which exist in the English language (of course nowadays words get added to Oxford like "twerking" once everyone starts using them)

What I think was weird (for me) is my brain landed on these names I'd never heard of, and it was strange. I was sort of like, WHERE did THAT come from???

Maybe a past life. I dunno.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I'd be intrigued if Opie withheld the name from the query. It makes me wonder what name the character wants. Does she get to choose her earned name? See, we're all dying to read your book because we want to know what her name will be.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Because my column is all about me (yeh, I'm paid to be self-centered) I avoid using ANY names. I have written about my family extensively and yet I've never mentioned my husband's name or those of my children. I did use my granddaughter's name when I wrote about her birth but only once.
It's odd that over the years when I've written rather disparaging things about someone (like the parent whose discipline was too forceful) they never recognized themselves. People are quick to claim the good stuff and never see themselves as a bit off. I say write about them, they're more interesting. BUT don't use their name.

Anonymous said...

I still haven't mastered linking videos, but this is just priceless. Dear God, please let someone deliver a manuscript to an agent on a white horse some day.

It would be the best do not ever do this story ever.

Yes, I know, this is going to bring out Janet's angry horse, but it was worth it.

I'm going to write a blog about this. I'll even create a new character.

In other news. I've had an offer to write someone else's book for them. I'm sure it was meant in the best of ways, but it feels kind of like having someone say, "I'm too tired to make love to my husband so I'd like you to do it, but I'll tell you how." I'm sort of busy making love to my own guys, but thanks.

DLM said...

Donna, what's it like writing something and having no idea where it came from?


Sorry all, in-joke of sorts.

2Ns, I write my blog that way. I have one or two folks I refer to by nicknames, most simply by relationship, but only one person I've ever named using their actual given name, and even that only once or twice in the years I've been posting.

Julie ... I'm somewhere caught between HAH! and *wow* there ... :)

Anonymous said...

I do think you can have unique names. The thing about them is they should be used sparingly, like a well-placed adverb. If you use too many, they're no longer unique, they're just part of the background. If you're trying too hard to be unique, all you become is irritating.

There has to be a balance between Estunemeazz and Eklylazohra and "this is my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl."

DLM said...

Once again, I'm struck by my good fortune in being a historical fiction author. Not only have all my characters been dead 1500 years, some of them never lived at all, or may only have been legends told in ancient propaganda.

Of course, it does rather leave me in Julie's world of Eklylazohras (Amalaswintha and Mataswintha are little less confusing for some readers), but I rest relatively assured nobody'll be suing.

Dena Pawling said...

I don't drink coffee but I clearly need to consider it because, looking at my post above, I don't know how to count.

Julie your last comment made me think of Men in Black when Will Smith was
introduced to {#%€£>~|##€€%<~| and Bob. Too funny

I never get to pick food or booze or anything. At home I click the box and on my phone I just tap publish. I'm either obviously not a robot or someone wants me to have nothing else to complain about lol

Donnaeve said...

DLM - snort laugh!

Julie W, good point, and at least I got that part right. If I pick one unusual name, I usually don't have others.

Julia/Julie H! Hope you're feeling better.

2N's, love this, "People are quick to claim the good stuff and never see themselves as a bit off. I say write about them, they're more interesting. BUT don't use their name." Amen.

Karen McCoy said...

2Ns: "People are quick to claim the good stuff and never see themselves as a bit off."

Yup. A friend of mine had the following analogy to further prove this:

"It's like we're all wearing gigantic red cowboy hats. We can see the hats on others, but it's rare when we can see them on ourselves."

Numbers in a name should be fine (unless it's like Dena's uproarious example, {#%€£>~|##€€%<~| and Bob). Don't sweat the small stuff, OP! Your story sounds super intriguing!

Unknown said...

Donnaeve- I do that too. The obsessive, pedantic, and entirely necessary hunt for a name is almost the first thing that happens in a book, with me. Some characters pop up with a name straight away; others, I have to really work for. I used to have heaps of baby name books, for when I knew what letter the name should start with, but had no idea of the actual name.

Theresa said...

Oh....cake query! The challenge of getting the first line of your query to fit as icing writing on the top of a cake. How delicious.

And for OP, I concur--leading with the MC's number rather than eventual name is what makes this story unique.

Craig F said...

Personality is but a collection of quirks and foibles. As writers it is our job to point those out. If we are truthful writers we will point out our own first.

Anonymous said...

Well, Christopher Lee has died. I think I'm going to rename a character Carandini in his honor, not that anyone will know, but I will.


Anonymous said...

I saw that, too, Julie :(

Unknown said...

Starting with a number instead of a name is...well, let's just say I hope this book is Sci-Fi.