Thursday, March 22, 2018

Two timelines in a query

I bumped into your blog this morning--reading your posts goes well with coffee, albeit with the occasional erp-laugh spillage :-)

You provide an opportunity for readers to ask questions, so here goes: How do you recommend I address two time lines in a query?

To date, I've only addressed the main character's timeline. With queries limited to ~300 words including greeting, pitch, and bio, it's hard enough to grab the agent's attention with one timeline. I believe the essentials of the query can be communicated via the MC's timeline; will a second one surprise the agent when they (if they) ask for a partial or full ms?
You address two time lines by talking about each as a separate story line. If you've got characters in the here-and-now you'll need to tell me what they want and what's keeping them from getting it; what's at stake in their quest.

Then you do the same for the characters in whatever the other paste/future time line is. (yes, it's supposed to be past/future)

The best way to figure out how to do this well is find other books with two time lines and look at the flap jacket copy for the book. You don't need to reinvent the wheel, just adapt it to the kind of vehicle you're querying.

I can think of two examples off the top of my head: The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis
and The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. 

The comment column will no doubt have a few more good suggestions, and your local librarian is a resource you want to avail yourself of as well.

As to your question of whether an agent will be confused, the answer is no.
You can't put everything in a query, and a query is NOT a synopsis.
The purpose of a query is to entice me (your reader) to dive into the pages.


25 comments:

E.M. Goldsmith said...

What a perfectly timed post as I near the query trenches. OP, so glad you asked. I have the same general conundrum. Not only two timelines but parallel dimensions.

Still, I panic.

Mister Furkles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dena Pawling said...


My WiP doesn't have two timelines, but it does have two POV. My query is currently with critique partners and also posted on the left side of my blog under "Pages". Translation: It's rough, and I'm by no means an expert in queries, but you're welcome to check it out if you want. I'm hoping to begin querying in June or July.

Karen McCoy said...

Agree with E.M. I have a universe with multiple timelines, and within this, it's challenging to write a book that acts like a standalone, which, per current industry advice, is a good way to go, since it's unclear whether a book will be sold as a standalone or a series. Trying to find ways to incorporate this information without being overwrought is certainly a daunting task.

If it helps, other books with multiple timelines are:

INVISIBLE FAULT LINES by Kristen-Paige Madonia
THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield
THE LAKE HOUSE by Kate Morton

Final note: I noted the phrase "paste/future" in the post--could this mean past/future?

french sojourn said...


Excellent post as usual. I have three planets that weave different stories in tri-alternating (?) chapters.

Now I have to leave and debate if that is even a word. Crab!

C. Hank

( Primary, secondary, tertiary....)

KariV said...

Funny story about The Magpie Murders - when I read it (and I loved it, btw), the 2 timelines/storylines threw me off so completely I actually skipped all the beginning and half the middle because I thought I'd picked up some strange edition where the agent had included her own thoughts on (what I thought was) the bigger story.

Because of that, I highly recommend exactly what Janet said and mention both timelines upfront.

*OT - Horowitz is genius!

Anonymous said...

@French_sojourn Maybe simply go with 'rotating POVs'?

I love the dual story lines and watching them provide the 'backstory' and parallel plots. :-) I hope you find a home for your book, OP!

John Davis Frain said...

Dual timelines is all the rage these days, no? Of the last four books I've read, three of them featured multiple timelines. Couple interesting ones:

AFTER I'M GONE by Laura Lippmann (3 interspersed timelines)
GRIST MILL ROAD by Christopher Yates (good example of jacket flap copy for you here)

Craig F said...

I think the best way to mention multiple timelines is in your first line hook. Then build a narrative arc around your MC. Make sure that MC is featured in the first five pages you also submit.

Build the query like it was the chum used to fish for sharks. Chum draws them in so you can hook them. Maybe cheese on a mousetrap would work too.

Julie Weathers said...

The Outlander.

Claire catapults into the 1700's, but the story is very much set in two different worlds.

We've had other people on the Litforum with stories that have split timelines and invariably, they try to do a synopsis-like query. It has to be boiled down to two very interesting bites.

In Victorian times there were some popular savories called angels on horseback and devils on horseback. These were usually served after dinner when the men adjourned to the smoking room and the women to the parlor. They were small, interesting, opposite bits not meant to fill you up, just satisfy the palate with a teasing taste.

That's kind of what your query needs to do. Just tease, not fill the agent up.

Alina Sergachov said...

Here's a link to the post #278 on Query Shark. It's a good example of how to handle the two timelines: http://queryshark.blogspot.ca/2016/06/278.html

Janet Reid said...

Alina, thank you! I knew I'd talked about dual time lines before but I couldn't find the post! QS! Of course!

Here's the hyperlink to QS 278!

Adele said...

When I read "two time lines in a query" my first thought was that one line was two-timing the other line. Intrigued, I read on ... I've never heard to two-timing lines, what is this, a new writing technique? Must read on ... oh.

Memo to self: drink more coffee, drink it earlier in the morning ...

After that I doubted myself when I saw paste/future. It could be a typo, but it could be one of Janet's jokes. Better leave it alone.

Steve Stubbs said...

OP wrote: "I believe the essentials of the query can be communicated via the MC's timeline"

That's your answer, then.

If you decide you don't like your answer, Ms. Reid gave you another great answer you can consider. Having multiple options is empowering. Now you get to choose which one you want to go with.

Anonymous said...


Two more:
Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Julie Weathers said...

Steve Just to make sure you don't miss it, I responded to your bit of encouraging advice from yesterday post.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Julie Weathers, just to make sure you don't miss it, I left a comment for you on yesterday's post 😮.

Thanks for the advice on this subject, Janet.
I'm not sure though if I have a "classical" two-time-lines. My present part consists of only some hours, whereas my past story (showing all the back story) is stretched over almost the whole life of the MC.

Maybe this is a problem. Maybe I don't show it correctly in my query. Maybe that's why I don't and won't ever get an agent. Maybe I don't really care anymore...
(I've just found out that I will definitely be unable to stay in Canada, given the laws and lack of sponsorship for my boyfriend. It's going to be goodbye in a few weeks' time only. All my efforts have been for nothing... but who cares...) (I'm sorry for my current negativity, dear Reiders. I'm just feeling so down right now. Sorry.)

Kathy Joyce said...

One of us, I'm so sorry! What a terrible disappointment. Please don't give up. Life so often "draws straight with crooked lines."

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Thank you, Kathy. It helps me. Although I don't see anything straight yet, cause we don't even know exactly where to go to.
We've been here for two years now, came over not long after the Paris attacks in 2015 (we got caught in them, then I couldn't stand it anymore) and really wanted to stay here.

My boyfriend is from England, I'm from Germany. He doesn't speak German. Have you heard about Brexit? Hopefully the UK will let me in!

Also, I am really scared of flying these days!!!!

But I appreciate your nice words. They really help a little 💗💗.

Julie Weathers said...

One of Us.

I don't blame you for wanting to get out. I so wish things had worked out differently and it irks me so much given some of the idiotic refugee laws, but I won't get into politics.

My heart is with you.

Julie

Susie Orman Schnall said...

Hi all. Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I queried a dual-timeline historical fiction ms (story is based on the real Miss Subways contest, and I used The Dollhouse as a comp in my query) and I mentioned both timelines equally including how the present day one connects to the 1949 one. Delighted to say that book, The Subway Girls, will pub July 10 with St. Martin's Press. Here are those paras from the query in case they might help anyone:

In 1949 Brooklyn, dutiful and ambitious Charlotte is forced to take over her father’s store which shatters her dreams of gaining independence from her suffocating parents and starting her career in advertising. Meanwhile, Charlotte is swept into the glamorous world of Miss Subways, which promises irresistible opportunities with its Park Avenue luster and confidence-boosting appeal. But when her new friend—the intriguing and gorgeous fellow-participant Rose—does something unforgivable, Charlotte must make a difficult decision that will affect the rest of her life.


Alternating chapters are told from the perspective of outspoken advertising executive Olivia, who, in present day, is pitching the NYC subways account to save her job and avoid financial despair. When the charismatic boss she’s secretly in love with pits her against her misogynistic nemesis, Olivia’s urgent search for the winning strategy leads her to the historic Miss Subways campaign. As the pitch date nears, Olivia deals with a broken heart, an unlikely new love interest, resolutions of past secrets, a whirlwind trip out west, and an unexpected personal connection to Miss Subways that could save her job—and her future.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Thank you, Julie. It is very nice of you! I understand we don't get into politics here but I see what you are saying...

When I sat there yesterday and my international English IELTS immigration and French TEF immigration exams were assessed, I was told that not even every British person (=so native speakers) had such good results (I have C1 results in both English and French).

Still I couldn't get enough immigration points to pass and stay (Canada uses a point system for immigration).

My English boyfriend (who is 'too old' to be the one to base an application on for both of us) and I have scratched our heads numerous times whenever bunches of people walked past us, speaking neither of Canada's two official languages but are allowed here as non(!!)-refugees cause they 'know' some other people here.

Then they work here at a bar or so, and you hardly get what they are saying... So puzzling this.

Thank you again 💗.

Julie Weathers said...

One of Us

These rules blow my mind. I am going to get political here. Trudeau is setting aside money for returning ISIS fighters, but they won't let people stay who are probably not going to try and blow them up.

Does this make any sense to anyone?

It makes me livid. If I could help, I would. We need more people who genuinely want to be productive citizens of our countries.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Janet! I appreciate your response to my question. And thank you and Alina for the link to your previous post on dual timelines. There is a lot of great feedback on this post; I'll devour it like a shark :-)

Will Pennington

Anonymous said...

Susie Orman Schnall,
My breath caught at your example. That's it. Thank you for weighing in.
Congratulations on your soon-to-be-published novel!