Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Query Letters -- Love or Hate?

I hate query letters

That's not completely true. I hate that to the writer, the query letter is seen as the chasm between unfulfilled dreams and a career.
winnond /

Query letters are how your manuscript lands into the hands of your dream agent, assuming you need an agent. And to be clear, my dream agent is still Martin Short from the Big Picture.

But the query letter doesn't have to be seen in such a limited way. My recommendation -- even if you're going independent, self-pub, small-pub, or Irish pub, you should still do the query letter.

Before you send the mob to my house, here me out.

I've spent considerable time and brain cells (what little I had left) on this topic. I am convinced that when you develop the query letter, it will highlight gaping holes or issues in your story. If you've been struggling with your query letter, the issue may not be the letter itself, it may be (ghasp!) the story you've written.

So I've made a solemn oath. I will write a query letter, before I've started to write my next story. Call this a story treatment if you like. But the approach is sound and powerful if used properly.

After countless hours of research (mostly on Super Agent Janet Reid's Query Shark, but also on dozens of other sites) I have compiled my notes for you:

1. Focus on the Action: leave out the backstory. Most queries give too much description. Probably because we feel like we need to explain why we are where we are, etc. Get to the heart of the matter and fast. Show it. Use powerful verbs. In other words, trust yourself as the writer. Everyone has a backstory. Only your protagonist is about to get into this specific problem.

2. Who is the Protagonist?: Who is the hero/ine? Wee need to know very quickly. Janet Reid recommends opening the query with the hero, in action, facing a problem. Also, only mention the most important characters -- no character soup.

3. What is the Problem?: Start with where the protagonist has a problem (the inciting incident, the disturbance). Again, show it. Let us feel the protagonist's problem. Let us care for her and what she's going through.

4. Compelling, interesting Villains: Boring villains mean boring story. The antagonist has to be so bad that you love him. Think silence of the lambs. 

5. What are the Stakes?: They need to be high. Saying, "He just got laid off," is sad, but not enough to carry an entire story. The stakes need to be high. James Scott Bell says there needs to be a feeling of impending death (actual or psychological). High stakes raise difficult choices...

6. Choices, please: The choices your protagonist faces must be explicit and compelling. If the choice includes, "she'll walk away," then there's no story, is there? Real choices. Though ones. Gut wrenching ones. If Katniss Everdeen does not survive the Hunger Games, her sister and mother will most certainly die. They have depended on her for everything. She volunteered to save her sister. She must survive, even if it means killing the boy whom she has known since she was a child. Tough choices, make for high stakes.

7. 250 words please: General acceptable theory says your query letter should be one page -- but one page can go as high 380 words... maybe more. By sticking to the 250 word count, you are forcing yourself to be succinct and stick to the core of the story. If you're doing this for the benefit of developing your idea you'll be tempted to cheat -- but you shouldn't. Get your main plot down. You will be able to overlay your subplots later. But no matter how many smart sub-plots you add, it will not make up for a flawed main plot. Make sure your main story rocks.

8. Rhythm: You need to develop an ear for rhythm. That's accomplished by reading your lines out loud, We've talked about this, reading out loud is a good (critical) practice. This practice will also highlight clunky writing. Reading out loud tells you when "They are" sounds better than "They're." Rhythm will also establish the tone and voice of your story.

9. Entice: The whole point is for the reader to say, "I want to know more." As you write the query letter, you should get excited too! Your blood should be pumping, and your fingers should be ready to explode with words.

10Test: Let your writer friends read it. Get their input. Not only for proof-reading (which is critical, of course) but to see if they get it, if they're excited, if they want to read the manuscript. A good query letter/story treatment should sell itself.

As for me, I have to apply all the above to my query letter and story. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you have anything to add to this list? I'm sure you do. You can tell uncle Ara :)

Fight the good fight.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fail Gloriously!

My eight-year-old wanted a skateboard for Christmas.

I wasn't crazy about it. My wife wasn't crazy about it. Yet, Santa apparently chose to fulfill his wish.

Needless to say, he was giddy with excitement. And in his excitement we were happy. My wife even went on YouTube with him and found how-to videos by the man, Tony Hawk. All was good.

For a few days, all he did was practice on that thing. During the day, in the yard. At nights, in the house. I cringed when I saw the scratches on our hard-wood floor, but turned a blind eye.

One night, while I wrote, I heard a thud from downstairs. "You okay?"

"Um, yeah."

I went back to my work. Ten minutes later, another noise. "What happened?"

"Nothing. I'm practicing."

I knew better than to just walk away, but I did. Five minutes later--you guessed it--a louder bang.

I inspected the war area... I would have been justified to get mad, take away the skateboard and tell my wife I told you so. But I didn't.

I can replace plaster and paint. I can't take away words that will forever tell him that failure is bad.

You see, I'd been breaking my own "plaster" upstairs. I'd been struggling with my writing. Trying and failing. Trying and failing.

There is nothing wrong in failing. Implied within failure is that you gave it a shot, you tried. And more importantly, you tried again.

If you're hitting walls, don't give up. Don't talk yourself out of it. There are plenty of people in your life (including the little voice in your head) who will convince you that you're not good enough, smart enough, creative enough.

Fail. Fail gloriously.

Some of us will understand and applaud you for trying. And do me a favor--once in a while, remind me that It's okay for me to get it wrong too.

I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
~ Michael Jordan

Fight the good fight!
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