Write the query first

I used to think that writing a query for a book you hadn’t written yet was a bit of self-gratification–like spending time writing different pen names in different handwriting when you are supposed to be writing. You’re getting ahead of yourself, daydreaming of the time when the book will be finished.

But after doing it a few times for a few different projects still in the ideas phase, I actually found it surprisingly helpful. A query letter–or, at least, a blurb–can help you pin down what sort of book you are trying to write. Who is the real main character? What is the main storyline you’re going to carry throughout the book? What are the stakes?

Before you have those written down, you may find yourself hemming and hawing when people ask what you’re writing. “It’s about . . . well, there are six main characters . . . and while a romance is developing between two of them, three others have a love triangle, and this one wants to avenge his father, but that one is trying to start a war . . .” All of these things may validly be in the same book! But when you’re writing it, you have to have clear in your mind what you want to focus on. Subplots, you see, can begin in chapter four and be tied up by chapter twelve, but the main plot should be at least hinted at by chapter one and tied off with a bow in the last chapter. And it does matter what you pitch it as–what will the reader be expecting this book to be about? Who will you hint to her she should focus on?

The query should contain these points:

  • The main character: who is he? what is interesting about her?
  • The problem: what terrible situation has she landed in?
  • The decision: what must he choose?
  • The stakes: what will happen if she makes each choice?
  • The antagonist, if there is one

The amount of plot that makes it into the query should be small–we’re probably aiming for about one-tenth to one-third of the way into the book, which is about how long it takes in most novels for the main plotline to be at least somewhat clear. However, the stakes may wind up being something that isn’t threatened early on.

Let’s try a sample: The Lord of the Rings.

Frodo is a food- and music-loving hobbit, who has just inherited his uncle’s estate. But he discovers that a ring he got from his uncle is cursed with terrible powers. He learns that he must destroy the ring, which will require a dangerous journey to the Dark Lord Sauron’s domain. If he doesn’t, Sauron will kill him and seize the ring. But on the way, he may die in the wilderness. Either way, if the ring falls into Sauron’s hands, he will have the power to subdue all Middle-earth to his terrible will.

You see it’s very easy to do, if you know what the story is about. (Harder to make it actually sound good, like you would need to before sending this out as a query.) If you struggle to do this, it may mean that you don’t actually know what the story is about. Maybe you’re not sure which character you want to be the main driver of the story. Or you haven’t figured out how any of the plot is going to be driven by the main character’s choices. Maybe your stakes so far sound underwhelming: “Mary Sue will be awfully disappointed if she doesn’t win the contest.”

Why wait till you write the book to figure all this stuff out? Write the query now, and don’t give up till you have something that might draw a potential reader in. Then you’re ready to write a novel that fulfills its promise.

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