Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Building Blocks of a Query Letter

With Query Kombat coming soon, I thought I'd take a quick run at writing query letters. For those who don't know Query Kombat is a battle-style contest where 64 query letters and the accompanying first 250 words go head-to-head against each other until only one is left. It's not a contest for the faint of heart. You're faced with a lot of feedback from ten to twelve critical judges, and that's just the start to get to the agent round. Half of all writers in each round will see the votes go against them and lose. But the reward is a huge variety of opinions from experienced writers.

To win you're going to need a well-crafted query letter. But what does that look like?

No successful queries are going to be alike, but there is a formula you can follow--just like if you're baking a cake--to get you started. I call it the basic building blocks.

The "meat" of a query, or the part that details the story, is usually three paragraphs long. (Some cut that to two, but I like three to make sure everything is covered.) Each paragraph should have a specific function and goal. Keep in mind that the details of every query letter will be different, but the basic buildings blocks are all going to be similar. These are the parts agents look for. The parts that show you have all the aspects of a story and nothing is missing from your writing. It will look something like this:

The "first" paragraph of your query is the basic setup. Note: I call it the first paragraph here for simplicity, but it may be the second or third, depending on where you place it. Some writers choose to put a paragraph about comps, their bio, and genre ahead of this paragraph. It's really subjective to decide what goes where and probably isn't that important. Some prefer to start with the meat of their story and others prefer to ease into it by putting general information first. (If you have something really striking in your bio like solid publishing credits or are ownvoices, I suggest going with that first.)

So the setup paragraph. Here, you're setting up the basic personality of your main character and giving a sketchy version of the world (whether that's set in our world or an imaginary world, the past or the present or even the future). A key component of this paragraph is motivation. What does your character want at the beginning of the story? The setup can be two or three sentences, made up of details about your character that shows their personality and what they want. Then the last component of this paragraph (probably where you should end it) is the obstacle. What (or who) happens to either (a) block the main character from their motivation or that (b) changes their motivation.

To sum it up, the first paragraph of the "meat" of your story should set up the main character and setting, provide the character motivation, and introduce the obstacle. Note: If you're writing a dual POV story (commonly romance), you'll write two of these setup paragraphs. One for each main character. 

My Pitchwars mentee from 2017 has agreed to share his query letter as an example.  Here is the first paragraph of Ian Barnes' successful query. Notice it has every building block mentioned above. 

Forty years ago, Kastien slew a god. He lashed out in rage and grief with a sharpened hunk of fulgurite, piercing Divine flesh and proving humanity’s bastard overlords could die. Together with his wife, Val, he freed half the continent using the fulgurite’s power to walk through walls and defy gravity. The new Commonwealth hailed Kastien as Godbreaker, but now the only title he gives a damn about is Husband. His knees ache every Void-damned time it rains, and he longs to retire with Val. But when a plague sweeps the nation, boiling blood and burning eyes to ash, protecting the home they forged means embracing the violent legacy he’s tried to bury.

Next is the middle paragraph. This paragraph can be the most difficult to nail down because there are fewer rules for the middle paragraph. There's a variety of things that can go into this paragraph, but I'm going to stick with the building blocks first. You've just introduced the obstacle, now you get to expand on that obstacle and give us more details. Basically show us how bad the situation is, and also how does the main character react. Their emotional and actual plot response to the obstacle. By providing their response you highlight their character arc and personality and thus give the reader more ways to identify with the main character. Another component to this paragraph for some stories is to introduce the love interest character or other major character that helps the MC along (often needed for middle grade).

The last component to the middle paragraph is somewhat optional, meaning it can go here or in the third paragraph. Agents will want to see how the story escalates. What comes up to make the situation worse? The problems deeper? The situation more dire? The main character more fragile? This is extremely important because it shows your story has depth and the status quo changes before reaching a conclusion. It's probably the most often forgotten component of a query. And a good place to include it is right at the end of the middle paragraph.

A sum up of the middle paragraph is expand on the obstacle, how does the MC attempt to fight it, who helps them, how does it get worse?

Here is that paragraph from Ian's query:

As traditional cures fail, the Commonwealth’s leaders suspect this disease isn’t a pathogen but a weapon—one unleashed by the Divines. Now, husband and wife must return to the birthplace they did their best to burn to the ground, risking a second war to attempt the impossible: abduct a god and force them to produce a cure. The catch: Kastien and Val will need all their powers, but overusing the fulgurite’s unstable magic will turn them to stone. 

And we've reached the third and final "meat" paragraph. The place in a query letter where things most often go wrong, sometimes because a writer fears giving away too much. Everyone says this is the stakes paragraph. But that's not the whole story. Or where you want the query to end. I think this last paragraph should be about the choice facing the main character. What choice you might ask. Let's dig in.

Often the third paragraph will begin by shedding light on more escalation of plot and expand on intensifying the situation. It's about putting the main character in the most painful place possible and showing them at their most desperate. That's step one. Then it should move into the stakes: what happens if the main character fails? What bad thing is going to happen? The stakes can be entirely personal to the character or may involve a group of people, or go bigger and affect the entire world for an epic fantasy. The size of the stakes depends entirely on your story line and your genre. Just be sure to include them. 

Sometimes writers will end the query there. But a stronger query goes a step further. It will take in the choice facing the main character. That's what the whole story pivots upon. The choice is the hinge that decides success or failure. Whether the MC falls or is uplifted. An example might make this easier to follow. Remember Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings: her choice is the place where she decides whether to (a) take the ring from Frodo and seize power or (b) reject the temptation and remain herself. 

A lot of writers fear to include this information because they believe it is giving away the ending. Here's the key: you don't want to conceal the options of the choice (the a or b), you want to conceal how the main character decides. So a query about Galadriel would end with does she grab the power to stop the dark lord or stay true to herself and find another way. But it wouldn't tell us which option she picks. 

There are all kinds of choices a main character will face. As many different choices as there are stories. Sometimes the main character must decide whether they will fight or lay down and die. Like the stakes, the choice may be small or large.  Here in Ian's query, it's a choice between putting aside hatred and the past in order to work with old foes. The last sentence provides the choice and the stakes and sums everything up nicely. 

Their plan goes to the Void when they discover plague ravaging the gods’ cities, weaponizing the infected against their Divine masters. Worse, the gods combating the sickness are being hunted and murdered in manners reminiscent of Kastien’s kills during the war. To stop this mysterious new godbreaker and obtain a cure, Kastien must set hatred aside and protect the last Divine healer. If he can’t quiet the old rage and find space for trust, Val and everything they’ve spent their lives building will fall to dust and shadow.

I've always enjoyed writing and shaping queries, and if you think of them as a recipe or a formula, it becomes much easier. I also like to tackle queries in different passes or layers that focus on separate aspects of building a successful query. First draft of a query, for example, might nail down the story, character, and plot. Get that straight and then do more passes to add voice and personality. Final passes will help you to upgrade to more active verbs and more interesting word choices. Practicing writing flash fiction is a great way to build your query skills because flash fiction requires some of the same expertise. And remember to get people to read over your query. The Query Kombat forum is a great place to find readers. 

I 'll leave you with another successful query from Jason Hines, another Pitchwars 2017 mentee. I think you'll find he hit all the building blocks. Happy query writing! 

Not even the devil himself wants Wayne’s soul. Wayne is a curse magnet, a hexjammer. World-class jinxes stick to him like wet dog shit to the sole of a boot, screwing up his life instead of their intended target. Because of these sorcerous lumps of joy, he’s spent the past three hundred years avoiding entanglements with humans and the extranatural—mostly. His daughter Jenna, stuck in a coma because of his curses, is the one relationship he can’t cut loose. Then out of the clear Arizona sky comes the Brighteyes, Heaven’s own wetworks pro. It hires Wayne to kill a witch and offers him a miracle to do the deed.    
Miracles aren’t something angels pass out like candy—or if they do, it’s the flavor of candy sweaty guys offer to children from the back of an unmarked white van. But Wayne can’t say no with Jenna lying in a hospital bed. What’s the life of one Las Vegas witch compared to his daughter? Except the witch, Fionna, reminds Wayne a whole lot of Jenna, and bears a cursed tattoo that will latch on to Wayne if she dies. Complications are a bitch.
Fionna’s tattoo is a gateway for nightmare creatures to visit their wrath on earth and her curse is popping out evil like a Kardashian fresh out of birth control. Naturally, the demon overlord of Vegas wants to claim Fionna for himself. With the Brighteyes breathing down his neck, Wayne seeks help from a holy-blade wielding Sikh and a failed Korean demon-turned-arms dealer. They have two days in Sin City to send Fionna’s nightmare ink back where it belongs before it’s lights out on the Strip, and the world. But dispatching Fionna’s curse means no miracle for Jenna. Wayne must weigh risking his world and betraying his conscience against saving his daughter.

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