Wednesday, November 13, 2019

the right word, the best word and how much can you leave out

I'm always glad to see one of you take issue with something I've said. Two reasons for that: it helps me ascertain if I made the point clearly enough; and, it gives me something to yammer about the next day.

Jennifer Mugrage's comment on yesterday's blog post caught my eye:
Naming no names, but I once had an English teacher who would have taken Revision #2 and turned it into the original.

I do feel we've lost some information in the revisions, though. Specifics about how Felix plans to stalk Steve electronically. I guess that is going in the next sentence where we find out that the Twitter handle was a decoy?

This is my problem with revising queries too. I am great at leaving out extraneous stuff, but then I'm left without any vivid details and I've left out about 80% of the plot and I honestly don't know how much of it needs to go in the query.

Initial effort
Grumpy, frumpy, jumpy Felix Buttonweezer was insanely jealous of Steve Forti's dexterity with prompt words. He walked to his desk, and clicked The Forti's profile where he found an email, and better yet, a Twitter handle. He created a new Twitter account and proceed to stalk Steve, intent on discovering the details of his deal with the devil. He must have deal, right? No one can be that deft without some sort of demonic assistance.

Revision #1
Felix Buttonweezer was insanely jealous of Steve Forti's dexterity with prompt words. He proceed to stalk Steve, intent on discovering the details of his deal with the devil. He must have deal, right? No one can be that deft without some sort of demonic assistance.

Revision #2
Felix Buttonweezer was insanely jealous of Steve Forti's dexterity with prompt words. He decides to stalk Steve, intent on and discovering the details of his deal with the devil. He must have deal, right? No one can be that deft without some sort of demonic assistance.

Let's look at the second part of the comment:

I've left out about 80% of the plot and I honestly don't know how much of it needs to go in the query.

Leaving out 80% sounds like a good start.

A query ONLY covers the first big choice, or change in the main character's circumstances.

I used the movie Silverado yesterday when I was talking to a writer about leaving out backstory in a query, so I'll use it as the example again.

Silverado opens with Scott Glenn being set upon by three ruffians. He kills them in a feat of gunfighting that leaves us certain he's a tough guy.

As he continues his trek, he comes across a man lying prone on the desert sands. He stops, gives the man water, and then, offers him a lift on his extra horse.

The plot starts with the man in the desert, not the gunfight.

The man in the desert is the first big change; Glenn's no longer riding alone. AND he faced a choice. He could have just ridden by and let the total stranger kick the bucket.

So, how much more of the movie would you put in the query is the next obvious question.

And the answer is I don't know.
It's hard to say this works, or  that doesn't unless it's on the page.

Which means a LOT of trial and error.

Except it's not really error. It's not error if it's not right.  It's just not right.

Jennifer's other point:
I am great at leaving out extraneous stuff, but then I'm left without any vivid details
I would offer this: vivid should describe the language, not the details.
You can be vivid about the main plot points.
It's your word choice that makes something vivid.

In my example above I revised out
lets him ride the extra horse
and replaced it with
offers him a lift on his extra horse.

I used trek instead of journey
As he continues his trek, 

I spend a LOT of time asking "is this the right word or is it the BEST word?" Those can be two different things.

I also spend time trying to use active or dynamic words: offers him a lift is much more dynamic than lets him ride. (There's probably a term for this, but I don't know what it is.)

And I hope it's sort of humorous too. To me, the artful words that convey style and humor are voice in the query.

I only find the best word when I have all the right words in place, and I can actually see which right word is tepid or passive.


JulieWeathers said...

I've been trying not to post stuff from my writing here as it's kind of selfish, but this advice is spot on. When we were hammering out my query letter on the litforum there was a lot of back and forth about words. Individual words.

Eventually, it all fell into place, but it was a lot of wrangling.

This is part of the query:

Her Union-sympathizing mother could help, but she prays Lorena will fail and be forced to move north where she'll find a suitable match. By all that is holy, she certainly won't condone marriage to that Confederate captain Lorena is madly in love with. So what if he writes beautiful love letters? A rich man could write beautiful cheques.
But the blackguard bankers underestimate Lorena, who's going to have them for breakfast with a side of grits.

The words were all carefully chosen, including the archaic spelling of checks. Lorena is fighting a battle on all fronts. War is coming, bankers are after her, her mother is after her.

You just have to keep fiddling and dancing until you get it right.

CynthiaMc said...

I liked grumpy frumpy - it painted a picture for me. But I like poetry.

LynnRodz said...

This post is so helpful. I am rereading all the FTW queries on Query Shark and noting all the pearls of wisdom you give along the way. Even reading part of Julie's query is helpful.

I've been crawling around the query Outback for so long, now I'm starting to see the outline of the Sydney Opera House in the far distance. (I've never been to Australia, but I'm reading an incredible memoir of a Swiss girl who walked 14,000 km throughout the deserts and wilderness Down Under.)

Gabe Szabo said...

Word choice is definitely a huge part of finishing up a query. However, I have run into the issue of getting bogged down in the finest of details, usually finding myself days later in an alley rambling on about "then--that" and how the whole query is completely unrecognizable if I use one or the other and how . . .

I've said my peace.

Dena Pawling said...

Then there's what I tweeted yesterday in response to the Query Shark tweet. There's a question missing between what's the RIGHT word and what's the BEST word -- You missed a question. The second question is: why can't I come up with this >*&%$^&*^ word?!

Sometime I mutter frequently when I'm revising LOL

BTW - "let's him ride the extra horse"

The revision also removed the typo.


Colin Smith said...

Reminder: The purpose of the query is to entice the agent to request your manuscript.

If you do as LynnRodz did and read the "FTW" queries on QueryShark, you'll see that no matter how closely they follow the "query rules" they all have one thing in common: they make you (or at least they made Janet) want to read more.

So the "right" word in a query context is the word that makes your story sound like something an agent will want to read, and not just another hum-drum read-that-a-thousand-times voiceless tome.

Am I right?

Julie: "Cheque" is not archaic. It's how the Brits spell it. In the UK, you tick boxes, write cheques, and check your bank account. :)

Oh, and speaking of the right word, how's this:

Instead of "Results later in the day!" how about "Results later in the week!"? *ahem* Just sayin'... ;)

NLiu said...

I have nothing to add, except, "So what if he writes beautiful love letters? A rich man could write beautiful cheques" is just brilliant.

And in the UK, it's still spelt "cheques".

So, um, I'll just carry on being archaic over here if no one minds.

Steve Forti said...

May just be me, but Julie - you've got some right words there as they are providing voice for sure. But to me it's confusing as to whether Lorena or her mother is the person the story is about if I'm just reading that first paragraph. I believe it's supposed to be Lorena, but the way it's written, I begin and continue to think it's the mother for the entire paragraph (though with confusion, which takes away from the words). Just my 1 1/2 cents.

Brenda said...

So, you’re saying that the gunfight was necessary in the movie to establish character, but unnecessary in the query? I think I get it.
As writers we want to tell about the gunfight because that’s where we fell in love with our character, but because the query is about the pivotal points in the story we leave it out. Gotcha, I think.
My favourite western, btw. The Kevins are stellar.

Janet Reid said...

Brenda I think the gunfight is the prologue.
It establishes character, but it also gets the story going with a bang.


The next big action scene in the movie is either at about 10:09 when Kevin Kline shoots the guy who stole his horse, or at 33:00 when Our Guys burn the scaffold and get chased out of Turley by John Cleese's posse.

It makes sense to start with action given that it's a while before there's more!

Is that something to remember for a book?
Pacing in books is different than pacing in a movie, but some of the same sensibilities apply.

Brenda said...

Chuck Pahlaniuk talks about how his dead-end job at a movie theater was actually excellent training in plot development. The crew would sit after work and pick out inciting incidents, plot twists, and major plot pints. I’d love to take that class.

Brenda said...

* points
Although pints may have been involved as well :)

JulieWeathers said...

Colin and NLiu

Yes, cheques are correct in Britain and it was how it was spelled in America at the time because we still used a lot of British spelling. Traveller, Gen. Lee's horse, for instance, is spelled with with the British spelling. In the story, when people write letters, I switch back to words and spellings they would have used at the time.

Dialogue is peppered with words and phrases of the time, but not enough to make it hard to read.

In the query I deliberately used the archaic cheque to give a sense of the time. Whether an agent will pick up on this or not, who knows.


This part comes down in the query a bit. Lorena is well established as the MC by now.

Craig F said...

It takes a village to raise a query.

As a writer it is so very hard to work your way all the way through a query and discover it's gestalt.

I like where my query ended up (Query Tracker, socialize, forums, page 2, Ashes of a New Dawn) but the journey to get there was a killer. I was positive six times that it was perfect. It ended up being perfect in the Donald Trump way, faulty. Now it has almost 1500 views, so something must be working.

The writer knows all of the ins and outs, plot twists and sub-plots, the reader doesn't. Get eyes on it and learn from the WTF moments your readers will give you. Those are the dead ends and speed bumps that keep the query from running like a smooth machine.

Timothy Lowe said...

To add to Janet's "bang", I would say it also establishes status quo. For a gunfighter MC, gunfights are part of your everyday existence. I assume the plot thickening somehow shifts or changes or threatens that status quo (although I haven't seen the movie).

I am working on a WIP with a contract killer. He does a job, but then goes off the rails and quits. The job is the "bang", but it's purely status quo. A novel about a contract killer -- surprise, surprise -- killing people wouldn't work. Once the company gets his grumpy-cat mother involved in tracking him down, that's when the plot begins.

None of this is easy. It requires constant rethinking, and a firm focus on what's important, and what's not. That's one of many reasons I could never do NaNo -- the pace is just too darn quick for my brain.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks, everyone for your advice.

I still have no idea what I'm doing.

I do diligently read the Query Shark posts, and it seems as if two of the more common complaints about queries are "this is too generic" and "you don't have any plot on the page." The former complaint was the reason I mentioned vivid detail. By which I meant vivid choice of words like what y'all are talking about.

As for plot, based on Query Shark, the Shark prefers/allows a bit more plot in a query than the average agent's web site asks for. They commonly say "like the blurb on the back of the book," which means about one sentence of setup and one that, maybe, hints at the first big choice. One paragraph max.

I do have a query that describes the first big choice. I find it boring, but maybe that's because I've been staring at it so long and because I know that The Good Stuff is later in the novel.

I could submit to Query Shark, but it would be months before I'd get any feedback and then only if the query sux in an interesting way. I used to think that was too long a process, but maybe, you know, I actually have all the time in the world.

Thanks again, Janet and everyone.

Craig F said...

Jennifer, have you considered posting it online? You will get some conflicting ideas for improvement, but they are ideas. I prefer Query tracker's forum because of its lack of trolls.

Another thing that helped me turn a corner on query writing was this piece by John Cusick.

Anonymous said...

Craig, I've queried using Query Tracker but haven't seen the forum. Do you have to become a monthly member?

Thanks for the link. I will check it out when I get a moment.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This post is super helpful with my query which is driving me insane. Insane I tell you. Also, I feel like I have to have several versions of the one query based on specific agents asking for particular formats. It'll be fine. I know it will.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

It's super cool how many Reiders are querying and readying to query. I feel like maybe that was not always the case? Maybe I'm just remembering wrong. But I look forward to having a shelf full of my writer friends!

I think I'll be querying next year, which means I'll be writing the query, writing the synopsis etc. etc. etc.

Adele said...

Bit of housekeeping - Janet? You know there's no apostrophe in 'lets', right? The first time I thought it was a typo, but the second time warrants enquiry.

In Canada we write cheques all the time. Or used to, before debit cards.

John Davis Frain said...

Well, now I'm gonna have to look up lets / let's because it seems like if you're saying "Let us get outta here" then that'd be a contraction and thus, "Let's get outta here."


"If she ever lets me have the ball, I'll score a goal."

My grammar would know, but she's not alive anymore to ask. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

John Davis Frain said...

I like the example of "offers him a lift" because it's more dynamic, more action-oriented.

But isn't "trek" over "journey" just a matter of preference or is there something further I'm missing. I guess a "trek" is more arduous than a journey, is that the distinction?

I love playing with words and doing seven versions (okay, twelve, who's counting) of the flash fiction. But it's so hard to do that with a 90,000 word novel. Is the trick to pick out certain scenes and make them come to life? Because who has the time to do that with 90k words?

Fearless Reider said...

My query conundrum is how to show the tension in my MG novel without giving up details that build the tension in the pages.The plot begins in the aftermath of a crime, and the events that lead to the crime build up like storm clouds as the story unfolds on two timelines, present and past. I don't want to name the clouds in my query, but I drop hints that adult query-readers will pick up on easily enough to entice them to read pages, I hope; otherwise, it's going to sound dull and generic. I need to find more winning mystery queries, especially for younger readers. Good thing I have plenty of time to work on the query while I, uh, finish the story and then revise, revise, revise.

Julie, I always find it helpful, not selfish, when you and other Reiders share work. Timothy, I want to read that book -- hurry up and finish!

Craig F said...

Jennifer the query tracker forum is free. Go to the Socialize button and then to the forum. It needs a new password set-up but that is all

Since the Other Jennifer said something about us querying, I would like to know how many published authors would lend some credit to this blog. Query Tracker makes a big deal of the 1583 authors they have helped.

Timothy Lowe said...

Fearless Reider thanks for the vote of confidence. At barely 6,000 words in, I have a way to go!

JDmsFrain my process is to go through the whole thing with a fine-tooth comb twice, printouts each time. Takes about a month. That's at the very end, of course, after the teeth-gnashing, rewriting, wailing, howling, dancing around the house in various states of undress, imploring any all all gods to intervene, and thanking my wife and children a thousand times each for allowing me to close my door.

(Actually, now that I think of it, my writing "room" could use a door!)

RebeccaB said...

Mmmmm. Scott Glenn.

Dora William said...

Thriller genre is saturated. To stand out and grab eyeballs, authors need more reviews. Being a thriller novelist, I am finding increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. I am getting a few reviews from and hope for better Christmas season…

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Craig F It's definitely a help when querying (I had a brief foray a few years ago), but I also know that the wisdom from Madame Sharque has even helped me in publishing short fiction, with regards to professional behavior and contract negotiations (the SFWA resources help with that as well)! This blog and Query Shark are unbelievable resources for writers and I'm thankful to Janet, often, for the work that she does here. I also recommend, often, that my writing group people come here to read.