Eerie Query Week: Structure

So the other day I talked about how you have to write a normal, textbook query before you can play with the rules and make it stand out.  And I didn’t really talk about the structure itself.

The typical structure of a query that I’ve seen people try to pass along is:

An introduction/premise/hook
Paragraph describing the main character
Paragraph investigating the plot/showing what’s at stake
Paragraph about the author

I talked a little bit about hooks and pitches yesterday, so today I thought I’d talk about format.

The point of describing the main character, and the main character’s life is simple.  You have 4 sentences to make me care about this person and understand who they are.  So who are they?  Why is their story so important?  What makes them interesting?

The point of describing the plot is because….duh, it’s what your book is about.  You’ve got 4 sentences to show me the direction of the book, how things are going to escalate, what’s at stake, or what our main character will suffer/lose if he/she fails.

This seems like a lot, right?  That’s why it’s so important to master a basic query first.  Once you can nail down these kinds of elements, you can play with your structure.  An amazing example of structure was on the Query Shark blog recently.  You should go check it out.  If I was an agent?  I would have requested that full immediately, and sat by the computer refreshing my email until it arrived.  That’s the best compliment you can get for a query.

Okay, so let’s talk about the structure itself.  The 4 part query (intro, character, plot, personal) has a lot of good and bad to it.  The good is that if you pay attention to what you’re doing, and don’t go overboard, you’re going to keep your query to a page or less.  You’re also going to have an order that agents recognize, and it’s going to force you to keep it structured.  This prevents you from rambling, or getting off topic.

If your book fits the standard query method, you’re golden.  But what about books that don’t?  With Witch Eyes, I stuck pretty closely to this, but with Moonset, I had to approach things differently.  This is why it’s bad sometimes, too.  Bad also makes it harder to win over an agent with voice (the Query Shark example above avoids the usual methods, as well).

Moonset had a very specific, very important back story.  If I hadn’t explained it in the query, the plot would not have made as much sense.  So I devoted one paragraph to describing the world and history of Moonset, specifically the key events that set into motion the book’s plot, and then a paragraph about the characters and the struggles that they face.

Sometimes you have to break the rules like this.  It’s like if you write a post-apocalyptic, the novel isn’t ABOUT the apocalypse, but it’s important to explain that there WAS an apocalypse.  You want the query to be as easy to understand as possible – sometimes, that means explaining a bit more.  It’s always a struggle to give enough backstory to clarify your novel, without going overboard.

But one of the key things is that you have to know WHEN to break the rules.  So write the query the normal way, first.  Now send it to a friend.  Does it work?  Do they have questions?  One mistake people make (that I see) is that people demand too much from the query.  They’ll critique it and list 5 things you don’t explain enough.  The query is not a synopsis, so you have to be frugal with the information you’re giving.

Again, it’s a balancing act.  Between what the reader needs to know, and what they want to know.  Because the goal is to get them to want to know more, but all their questions shouldn’t be answered by reading your query.

Now, onto the paragraph about you.  When I critique things, I don’t usually touch these paragraphs unless there’s something that’s a serious no no.  “My dog loved my first draft” or “The people on the subway didn’t hate it.”  I’m a fan of “If you don’t have something important to say, then skip it.”  With my first book, I didn’t talk about myself at all.  There was nothing to say.  With the second, I tied all that up in my intro, when I had to explain that I had 2 books already coming out, and I was looking for new representation.  Again, not much detail.

So some people put in that they’re members of SCWBI or that they have Masters in certain things.  If it relates to what you’re doing, then totally put it in.  My feeling is that it can’t hurt.  No one line (unless it’s truly, truly inappropriate) is going to make an agent reject your query because you included it.  And if it does?  That agent probably wasn’t right for you anyway.

So those are my thoughts on query structure.  I’ll post the first query review sometime later this afternoon, so be on the lookout for that.

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