This week, I'll concentrate on how to begin writing a query--what information you need and what story elements you should focus on.
The first thing to understand is that your job in a query letter is not to summarize a 300-word novel in 250 words--your job is to make whoever reads that query desperate to get their hands on the book itself.
So how do you do that? The same way you compel someone who is reading the first chapter of your book to compulsively plough through to The End--with the promise of conflict.
People become desperately curious to learn what happens next when they can smell a major confrontation on the horizon. This is why an escalating argument is so hard to ignore--you feel you need to find out how bad the fight is going to get and who will win.
Thus, in your query letter, you want to make the reader believe that all hell is about to break loose--and then leave them dangling, with no idea of how it ends. This should effectively make them frantic to read the book itself.
(Note that when I say "all hell is about to break loose", that can also mean a quiet, internalized hell. Introspective novels also focus on escalating conflicts, but the conflict can take place inside the protagonist's head or heart.)
So how do you convince the reader of the query that your book has a juicy, riveting confrontation lurking at the end of it?
I'm actually going to save that discussion until the Feb. 27th, 2011, blog post, but today I will explain how to identify which the story elements you'll use as building blocks to assemble that enticing query with.
One thing to note is if you've written a good book, then you have all the raw material you need to write a good query letter too. You might not know how to yet, but the content you need already exists in the form of Building Blocks 1 and 2, listed below.
Building Block 1; The Inciting Incident
The story's inciting incident is the moment when the protagonist's world changes--usually unpleasantly--and forces them to take action to improve the situation.
The inciting incident usually sets up a dilemma for the protagonist, too. If they don't act, there will be a penalty (the "stakes"), and if they do act, there will be hardships to overcome (the obstacles).
Note the inciting incident does not have to turn out to be an important part of the story. For example, the inciting incident of the Harry Potter books is when Harry gets a letter inviting him to attend wizard school. However, Harry's destiny turns out to be destroying the evil wizard Voldemort, so in hindsight, that exciting letter he got wasn't such a big deal.
Building Block 2; The Escalation: Goal, Obstacle/Complication, Stakes
Once your protagonist has been forced to act, he has to choose a plan. As soon as he tries to implement that plan, things go awry in the form of obstacles and complications. The obstacles/complications force the protagonist to come up with a new plan, and they also increase the stakes (i.e. the penalties for failure.)
Inciting incident: Luke Skywalker discovers a hologram of Princess Leia in his droid. He is so entranced by her image that he cannot ignore her plea.
Stakes: A stranger will be hurt if he does nothing, and Luke's too good-hearted to allow that.
Goal: Visit Ben Kenobi and ask if he knows who this "Obi-wan Kenobi" Leia is trying to contact is.
Obstacle/Complication: The droid goes missing.
New Stakes: Not only can Luke not help the pretty lady, but his uncle is gonna kill him for losing the new droid.
New Goal: Go find that droid.
New Obstacle/Complication: Luke finds both Ben and the droid, but learns he's more personally connected to Leia's fight than he knew. Ben says Luke's father was killed by Darth Vader, the same person Leia is fighting, and Ben wants Luke to leave the planet to help fight Vader.
New Stakes: Luke is asked to sacrifice his entire way of life for Leia and Ben's fight.
New Goal: Say no and go home. This is too big.
New Obstacle/Complication: Storm Troopers, looking for the droid, have killed Luke's family.
New Stakes: Luke's life is in danger, and he now has a potent personal desire to fight Vader.
New Goal: Go with Ben Kenobi and stop Darth Vader.
Et cetera. The thing to note here is that every time Luke tries to do something to get to his immediate goal, the situation changes to both increase the stakes and force him to form a new plan to reach a new goal.
Now, how to turn this into a query letter? That discussion I'll defer to Feb. 27th, 2011, but here is a list of things you want to think about before you begin to assemble your query:
Questions to Answer Before Drafting Your Query:
- Who is the protagonist? What is her situation, and what kind of world is the novel set in?
The Inciting Incident:
- What is the story's inciting incident? I.e. What sudden change convinces the protagonist she must act?
- For the story's inciting incident, answer the following questions:
------- What does the protagonist want?
------- What are the stakes if she fails?
------- What gets in the way of her getting what she wants?
------- What does she choose to do to obtain what she wants? What's her plan?
- What goes wrong with that plan?
- How does that increase the stakes?
- What is her next plan?
------- At this point, you want to start thinking big. The inciting incident is small; the main plot of the book is big. Think BIG.
- What goes wrong with the next plan?
- How does that increase the stakes again?
- What (very hard thing) must the protagonist do to prevent (a very bad) disaster?
------- Note this should outline the book's major conflict, i.e. the event that constitutes your big climax.
On Feb. 27th, 2011, I'll explain how to begin crafting the answers to these questions into a query letter.