Sunday, January 16, 2011

The First Week | The First Paragraph

The first week of The Query Goblin site has been much more successful than I thought it would be! Thank you everyone who checked it out or mentioned it elsewhere on the internet. I do appreciate that.

Erm, please forgive me if I keep talking about it? Heh.

I've already learned something--about myself, as opposed to Great Over-Arching Wisdom™ about query letters in general--and I'd like to talk about it here.

On the new site, I'm roughly following the advice of two literary agents with regard to structuring a query: (1) Kristen Nelson, who suggests outlining the inciting incident that kick-starts your plot, and (2) Janet Reid, who says you need to get across who the protagonist is, what they want, what gets in their way, and what's going to happen if they don't achieve their goal.

Both of these tactics make sense, and a good query probably uses both. Let me explain why I like them.

Kristin Nelson's method:
When it comes to writing queries, one of the things writers tear their hair out over is the problem of packing three hundred pages' worth of plot into two hundred and fifty words.

The fact is, you shouldn't try to.

The query letter's purpose is to entice the editor or literary agent into requesting the manuscript. All the query has to do is pique their interest.

Now think about what hooks any reader into a story: It's the promise that things are about to get interesting.

Harry Potter gets a letter saying he's been accepted to wizard school! Lucy Pevensie discovers a wardrobe that leads into a snowy forest! Ilsa walks into Rick's bar in Casablanca!

In other words, it's the tension implicit in your story's inciting incident that makes your reader curious enough about how it all resolves that they're willing to plough through another three hundred pages to find out what happens.

This means the book's inciting incident is one thing that will very economically--in terms of the number of words you use--convince an agent/editor that they want to see more.

Janet Reid's method:
This method forces you to communicate the essence of what your story's main conflict is. It tells the reader who the protagonist is, what they need, what's keeping them from getting it, and why it'll be a disaster if they don't get it.

Giving all this information also provides the reader with a promise that things are going to get interesting, but it does so in a way that encapsulates a lot more of the book's plot.

You see, the main conflict of a novel may or may not include the story's inciting incident. For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the inciting incident is indeed Harry getting a letter saying he's been accepted to wizard school--but the main conflict is Harry trying to keep the Philosopher's Stone from being stolen by Lord Voldemort.

A query letter could equally-well concentrate on the "Ooh, cool!" idea of a young boy unexpectedly finding out he's a wizard, or on the "Oh no!" idea of a young boy unexpectedly having to defeat a very scary, very powerful enemy. Both could be gripping.

The second method tells the agent/editor more about the whole book than the first does, which might be a factor in you choosing one over the other, but even Janet Reid recently loved a query that focused exclusively and very successfully on a story's inciting incident. You can read it here.

What the two methods have in common is they provide focus. They tell you what to include in your query letter in order to, very economically, hook a reader's interest.

My method:
Oh--I said I'd learned something about myself, didn't I? Yeah, maybe I should get around to telling y'all that.

The thing I've noticed myself doing in every one of the edited queries on The Query Goblin is I try to figure out what the essential conflict in the inciting incident is, and then I try to cram it into the first paragraph.

In Query #1, the inciting incident's tension comes from the fact that Hagai just got a birthday present from the mother he thought was dead.

In Query #2, the inciting incident's tension is due to Anaiiya thinking she's human, only to fly into a supernatural killing frenzy when her family is attacked.

Query #3 is a little different in that the conflict I outline isn't the story's inciting incident, but it is what prompts the character Bane into taking steps to get what he needs. It's the inciting situation.

In Query #4, Ehlana saves someone from assassination only to wind up in political hot water over it. The tension comes from a good person being punished for a good deed.

But wait! Before we move on, I want defend myself a bit. You might have noticed in the edited version of Query #4 that I added something that is not necessarily in the book! Now why the hell would I do that?

Because it added tension. In the rewritten version, I mention Ehlana's magical gift prematurely and implied she is beginning to regret having it. In the book, that may not be true, but in the query, it makes the mention of her gift later seem less abrupt, and it also adds a layer of internal tension to the inciting incident.

More tension = a stronger promise to the reader that this book is going to get interesting.

In Query #5, the tension in the inciting incident is completely internal. Jack feels like he should be happy to be at a new school, but he isn't. That fact is expanded on in the second paragraph, but I made damn' sure it was obvious to the reader even in the first.

Which brings me to my point: What is a hook?

A hook is also a promise that things are going to get interesting. A hook is a conflict that the reader can immediately see won't resolve easily.

When it comes to queries, I work on the assumption that agents and editors read the slush pile with bloodshot eyes and a two-micron fuse. If the first paragraph of the query letter doesn't make them perk up a little, then they're going to skim it all and slap it out of the room with a form rejection. I believe you've got to break them out of their funk right away.

Thus, the first paragraph is where I put the inciting incident's conflict. It's the lure that makes the reader want to continue through rest of the query letter, which--hopefully--will make them want to read the entire book.

Now, after all those words explaining why I write this kind of opening paragraph, I think I'd better refrain from talking about what I think should go in the rest of the query letter for another time!


What do you think? Is this a good way to start a query letter, or do you think the first paragraph should be used for other things, like establishing the main character or the world of the novel?

Do you think I'm wrong about needing to "wake up" the agent/editor with a fast shot of conflict right at the beginning of the letter?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of this!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis


Merry Monteleone said...

Hey JJ,

I think you're dead on, actually... it's knowing it and doing it that are two different things...

I also like it when people use a tagline in the opening paragraph, give the basics about why that agent and then go into the two paragraph pitch... that's just me, but I will tell you, almost every request I've ever gotten has had that formula. That might just mean I write those better than other formulas though :-)

My pitch is not conveying the story. On the plus side, I know there is a story because I could thoroughly answer every comment in the comment section at query goblin... now it's just a matter of conveying it with the intensity it deserves... I'm going to take another pass at it and post it back at goblin's and at my blog... the great thing about doing it this way is you're fairly well polished before querying which makes it a little less nerve wracking

jjdebenedictis said...

Merry: I look forward to seeing your new version! And I agree, it's far less terrifying to send out a query that has been thoroughly acid-tested by your peers. Nobody is more willing to nit-pick than writers! :)

Travis Erwin said...

Sound advice.

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: