Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Well, despite knowing perfectly well that the #1 task I need to accomplish as a writer is to WRITE, I keep finding ways to distract myself. Sometimes I distract myself “productively” (laundry, dishes, blog entries…) and sometimes I just read all of tumblr or get distracted by a really excellent blog. Or decide that I really need to spend a long time posting pictures of my kid on Facebook. Or tweaking things that are immaterial.

forgive the language, but this is a very accurate depiction of what I’m talking about.

Anyway, lately I’ve been reading through the entire archives at QueryShark. (This is facilitated by how easy it is to read things on a smartphone while you feed a baby.) This counts as goofy procrastination because you absolutely do not ever query an agent about a novel that you haven’t finished yet, and despite having several projects in various stages, I definitely do not yet have any finished novels to be querying.


As part of my grant, I am going to be attending the Midwest Writers Workshop in about two weeks, and I had already paid in advance to get feedback on a query letter, and even though I don’t have my grant novel even close to finished, I thought it would be good practice to go through with it. (Also, I had already paid for it, soooo…)

QueryShark is one of the best resources for fiction queries I’ve seen, because it has one of my favorite learning tools: examples and non-examples.

It’s been an interesting exercise to read the archives and see what Janet Reid, the literary agent behind QueryShark, points out in the good, the bad, and the ugly queries. I read a few before writing and submitting my practice query (because of course I left it until the day it was due, another terrible habit of mine) but now I’m up to query #200 (April 2011) and I’ve already found lots of problems with the letter I submitted. (Which is fine, since the novel isn’t even close to ready.) I’ll be interested to see how the feedback I get from MWW matches up with the feedback I imagine I’d get from QS.

In case you don’t have the time or inclination to go read 200 entries on QueryShark, Reid lays out the structure of a query like so:

Who is the main character?
What happens to her-what’s her immediate problem?
What choice does s/he face?
What terrible thing will happen because of that choice?

That’s in letter #119, and she gets even more specific in #170:

There’s a simple way to figure out what goes in the first paragraph of a query.

1. What is your main character’s name?

2. What problem/choice does the character face? (20 words or fewer)

3. Who wants to foil the main character’s plan and why? (20 words or fewer)

These three questions are the blueprint of your query. You don’t write the answers and send it as a query any more than a real estate agent posts blueprints instead of photographs of a house for sale.

You USE these questions to guide you on what to include (action/plot) and what not to include (description/character list)

Think of it as a writing exercise. Answer each of these questions. Use as many words as you need, then pare down to 20.

And then, once more, with feeling, in 187:

What does the protagonist want?
What’s keeping him from getting it?
What choice/decision does he face?
What terrible thing will happen if he chooses A; what terrible thing will happen if he doesn’t.

Here’s another form of the same thing:
The main character must decide whether to ________. If s/he decides to do (this), the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are______. If s/he decides NOT to do this: the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are________.

Obviously you don’t just fill in the blanks, or just answer the questions. You use this template to get the important information in the right order. You build on to this skeleton. But, you start here, and work up.

So I got to thinking that I should probably practice this with the novel I’m stuck on (it’s the one I’m co-writing with a friend and we have written well over 100,000 words, which is too many, and with no end in sight). It seems like a good way to force ourselves to nail down the main conflict. That, however, could take weeks (again, there’s a lot written…) and I’ve just finished a one-page synopsis of my grant novel (since I also, in a fit of optimism, paid to have somebody review and give feedback on five pages of my manuscript and a one-page synopsis).

Here’s attempt #1 for my grant novel, written BEFORE reading 205 QueryShark queries and responses:

Mr./Ms. Agent Name:

I am writing to you because you represent X, and my young adult novel THE VANISHED HEIR (XX,XXX words) is a futuristic reimagining of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Seventeen-year-old Anika Patel’s new life at Culler Academy is suddenly interrupted when she finds out that she is the lost heir to the Novorossian Empire, and that the woman who adopted her fifteen years ago is the assassin who was sent to kill her father. Now Anika must decide whether to help the rebels overthrow the family she’s never known, or to claim her birthright as the next in line to rule an empire she has never seen.

The first page of THE VANISHED HEIR follows. May I send you the completed manuscript?

So, that has the benefit of being short, but I’m not super sure it’s appealing enough to get an agent to read on/request pages. Here’s the second version, which I wrote tonight after 205 QueryShark queries:

Anika has finally convinced her itinerant mom to let her attend school–a real school!–for the first time. Her first semester as a normal kid is interrupted when a stranger claims to be Anika’s Aunt Lidiya and tells Anika that her mother is in danger.

Anika refuses to leave the school with Lidiya. Lidiya kidnaps Anika with the help of Anika’s roommate. They take her out of the climate-controlled safe zone and into the wild, where the weather is severe and unpredictable.

The kidnappers tell Anika that her “mom” is actually an assassin who was sent to kill Anika’s birth mother, Alina. Because Alina is the crown princess of the Novorossian Empire, who disappeared fifteen years ago.

And with Alina missing, Anika’s next in line for the throne.

The kidnappers say they know where Alina is and can take Anika to meet her. Of course, going to Novorossia means leaving behind the idea of a normal life–and putting herself in serious danger.

If Uncle Boris finds out that Anika is alive and well, he’ll stop at nothing to change that.

Lydia and the rebels want Anika to stop Boris from taking the throne. Madeline wants Anika to stay as far away from Novorossia as possible, even if that means never meeting her mother.

Anika needs to choose, and fast—because the longer she spends in the uncontrolled zone, the more likely she is to lose the chance to choose…

THE VANISHED HEIR is a Young Adult novel at 65,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

So, gentle readers, which do you prefer: first, or second?

And, more importantly, do you have any suggestions for a better title? Because I am really terrible at titles. 🙁

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