Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Your query is not a telephone book*

A query is NOT the place for a lot of names and/or backstory. There isn't enough space in the query for orientation or context. Once you get past three names, it becomes a jumble.  Look at any list of names for 30 seconds, then try to write them all down a minute later.

When you have names with context, it's easier.
Janet Reid
Harry Potter
Dorothy Gale
Felix Buttonweezer
Her Grace and Sleekness, the Duchess of All Y'owl

But try:
Cornwell Milliken
Tait Goodbrake
Nancy Evans
Roberta Booth
Doris Ann Norris

Harder isn't it?

Count up the named and unnamed characters in your query. There should be no more than three named characters, and any unnamed shouldn't exceed three either. The unnamed characters should be connected to the named ones:
Harry Potter's mom
Harry Potter's vile cousin
Harry Potter's owl
 Any questions?

**Yes I realizing I'm dating myself when 
I use such a last century description as telephone book. 

Here is a picture of a telephone book.


Kitty said...

I love deciding upon the right name for each character, but sometimes I find descriptive nicknames work much better. I wrote a very short story in the 1st person in which the unnamed protagonist referred to her boss as Lizard Feet because he wore Bruno Magli lime green lizard skin loafers. (The story began as a 500-word entry in one of Miss Snark's contests. I've rewritten it several times and doubled the word count.)

nightsmusic said...

Oddly enough, I got a local telephone book in the mail Saturday...

Too many names in almost anything makes things too confusing. I have to admit, books that have 30 characters that all have a storyline are books I don't finish. I end up getting confused and it's too hard to keep track of things. A query should be no different. Short, to the point and intriguing. The agent should be slavering for more, not scratching their head.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Good to know. This tripped me up in early life querying. A query is not a synopsis. That is a different monster.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Don't worry, it isn't any easier if none of your characters have names! Ask me how I know! :D (novella, not novel, but some of the people who accept novella submissions are also people who want a query letter and a synopsis).

JulieWeathers said...

Well, this sent me racing to my query to check it out. le sigh.

It opens with a quote from Allan Pinkerton:

"The southern woman is the greatest weapon the south has."—Allan Pinkerton, Lincoln's spymaster.

That's two names already, but I think perhaps people will not trip over them too much. I don't know. Queries make me crazy. Then the MC, of course, and her location. Do locations count? Two well-known generals if someone knows anything about the Civil War at all. I've been assured, most don't, but assume an agent interesting in a Civil War-based novel might.

Oh, look, I'm up to five names and I don't think it will make sense without them.

All right, off to babysit munchkins on their last day of freedom. We shall wreak havoc and mayhem. Like every other day when Grandma babysits.

Craig F said...

I have been hanging around Query Tracker of late. I have seen what may be an uptick in character soup queries. Even worse are those that toss names in and don't quantify or define those characters. They just float around in the broth.

I know that writing queries sucks your brains out, but try to at least remember that it is just a sales pitch, not a black hole. The hardest part for me is in finding that medium distance perspective. The one where I can see what the query really says, not what I think it says.

I don't even want to get into multiple POVs.

OT: I am not the praying kind but I am praying for the Bahamas. Poor place might just be a sandbar when this is over.

Cari said...

This makes me miss Doris Ann :-(

Lennon Faris said...

I think some of these same principles apply to the synopsis, and even the book. If you mentioned someone in chapter 1 and it's now chapter 10 when you bring him back up, you'd better give us some context.

I read a book recently where that happened. A minor character was suddenly very important to the plot (there was a big revelation), and I had zero idea who he was. I recognized the name, so I knew the author hadn't failed to mention him. I just couldn't recall one other thing about the character. I was annoyed at the time and didn't bother to flip back through. I just kept reading and figured 90% understanding was good enough.

By the way, who's DoY again?

Just kidding, just kidding. I'll see myself out.

Lennon Faris said...

And Craig, and CynthiaMc, and everyone else in the storm's path, I hope you can hunker down and weather this one out, too.

Brenda said...

In one of my rewrites I had named my three primary characters John, Jess, and Jack. Complete cerebral flatulence. Do not do!

Beth Carpenter said...

Lenon, that happens to me, too. I hate it when I have to page back two-hundred pages to discover this person who sneaked in with the cleaning crew is the MC's estranged sister. We need a little context, like those TV shows. "Last time on Gilligan's Island..."

BTW Telephone books are an excellent writer resource. When I name a character, and his last name pops into my head, I'm suspicious it's a famous name, e.g. John Wayne, so I look in the Ws and change it to John Wayland.

Craig F said...

Thanks Lennon, it looks like we'll be fine, except for having a whole holiday weekend sucked out of the matrix of time and space.

Telephone Book is a last millennium concept, not just last century.

Kate Larkindale said...

I have a story in which the protagonist and narrator is an unnamed 'I'. This character is also never referred to as 'he' or 'she' by anyone else. Writing a query for this one, if it ever gets finished, will likely be a challenge...

LynnRodz said...

Character soup is not my problem, I name the two MCs and refer to the antagonist as the best friend. Each time I think I finally have a query that works, I let it sit for a day or two and when I come back someone in the meantime had the nerve to switch it with one that sucks.

I hope you enjoyed your time off, Janet. As much as we loved seeing some adorable furry friends, it's good to have you back.

AJ Blythe said...

One of Jeckle's favourite dragon series has nearly every character start with the same letter (because it's a dragon thing). Took me 3 goes at getting past the first 5 pages, and I kept losing track of who was who. Of course, Jeckle had no trouble - he said it's an age thing *eye roll*