Sunday, May 27, 2012

Climbing out of the Query Pit

I hate queries.  Writing them.  Reading them.  Editing them.  It hurts my brain.  There are about a thousand other things I would rather do.  Change a poopie diaper; clean the little space between the fridge and the counter; sand and re-stain my bookshelves—all preferable to writing a single query letter.
Why?  Because I thought the point of a query was to condense my three-hundred-page book into three paragraphs.  Quite frankly, if I could summarize my entire book in three paragraphs, it would be a pretty cruddy book.  This is why I’ve got four or five books sitting on the back burner.  I’ve edited and re-written them all so many times that I can’t stand to look at them anymore, so I should be querying, right?  Well until a few weeks ago, I didn’t hold out much hope for that because of my utter disdain for the whole “condensing” thing.

Thankfully, at some point in the last few years, I stumbled across literary agent Kristin Nelson’s blog, and I had the good sense to keep up with it.  I’ve learned how to tell a competent agent from a bogus one, what agents think as they read our queries, and most importantly, I’ve come to realize that agents are actual people, not the snarling, query-gobbling monsters I imagined them to be.  Then a few weeks ago, I had my biggest epiphany yet: queries aren’t about condensing.

In a webinar hosted by Ms. Nelson, I learned that queries are actually about the plot catalyst.  She defines this as a main event that happens within twenty or thirty pages, without which the rest of the book could not take place.  If that sounds complicated, take a deep breath and relax.  It’s actually pretty simple.  Here are a few examples of plot catalysts in action:

1.  The Hunger Games
Did you ever stop to consider what would have happened if Prim’s name had never been called at that fateful Reaping?  If Katniss had never been a tribute in the Hunger Games?  No, of course not.  There wouldn’t have been a story without that.  The plot catalyst here was when Effie called Prim’s name and Katniss volunteered to take her sister’s place.  Everything that came after, the entire fate of Panem, shifted on that one pivotal moment.

2.  On a Pale Horse
Zane doesn’t have much going for him, and before the end of the first chapter, he has sunk to such a low level that he’s prepared to kill himself to escape the misery that has become his life.  It’s only when he accidentally shoots the incarnation of Death that he is launched into his story.  He takes up Death’s mantle and sets out into the world to judge men’s souls.  Without that act of paranormal homicide, he would have probably died and the story would have lasted a whopping twenty-seven pages.  It would also have gone down as both the most depressing—and probably worst—story ever told.

3. Howl’s Moving Castle
Sophie is all set to live out her unlucky life as the eldest child, until the Witch of the Waste curses her.  Being turned into a hobbling old woman was the event that propelled Sophie into an adventure she otherwise never would have embarked upon.

4.  Marked

This one happens pretty fast: by page three, a tracker marks Zoey as a vampyre, setting the rest of the story into motion.  Without that, she never would have left home to begin a new life in the House of Night.

5.  Star Wars: A New Hope
Okay, this one isn’t a book, but it is an easy example and I’m pretty sure most everybody on the planet has seen it.  Right off the bat, you know the universe is in chaos thanks to the dark side of the force.  You also learn pretty fast that although Luke wants to join the rebellion, his loyalty to his aunt and uncle will keep him from doing just that.  Obi-Wan tries to get Luke to come with him to rescue Leia, but Luke initially refuses.  The plot catalyst comes when Luke discovers storm troopers have destroyed his home and family.  Only then does he agree to help Obi-Wan, and learn the ways of the force.  (Imagine if his aunt and uncle had lived.  Luke might have become the most prominent moisture farmer in the outer rim, but the rebellion would have failed and Vader would have gone on destroying planets.)

What do all these stories have in common?  The catalyst takes place early on in the story (within thirty pages) and it is an actual event.  A catalyst can’t come from an emotion, it can’t be a theme, and it isn’t a description of something.  If you can nail your plot catalyst, you’re half way there.  (Side note: if you can't locate your plot catalyst within thirty pages, you probably have too much back story and need to do some chopping.)

What’s the next step?  Summarize the plot catalyst into one sentence.  Here’s a few from book jackets:

“Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games.  - The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

“Shooting Death was a mistake, as Zane soon discovered.” On a Pale Horse, Piers Anthony

“But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady.” Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

“Sixteen-year-old Zoey Redbird has just been Marked as a fledgling vampyre.” House of Night: Marked, P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast

Now work your summary around the plot catalyst sentence.  What happened?  How did it change the character’s life?  How will he/she overcome the problem?

I’ll use Howl’s Moving Castle’s full book jacket as an example.  It isn't a query, but I think you can see how this would work well as the summary portion of the query letter:

“Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate.  But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady.  Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle.  To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on.  Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.”

That’s a four-hundred page book, stripped down to the plot catalyst and the consequences that follow.  It demonstrates the change in Sophie’s life, and the obstacles she’ll have to overcome to fix things.  It doesn’t give the outcome.  It doesn’t explain how Sophie goes about overcoming the obstacles, and it certainly doesn’t delve into descriptions of the people, places, or systems of magic.  It’s short, sweet, and a good representation of the story’s style.

I’m not sure why this didn’t click for me before watching Kristin Nelson’s webinar.  Maybe my brain refused to believe it was that easy.  Maybe after spending so much time editing and re-writing, my brain turned to Swiss cheese.  I don’t know.  But I’ve got the hang of it now and I’m really excited to test this new found understanding out on the unsuspecting world. 

Now go write your queries, people!


  1. Trisha, this is fantastic. I have several novels that I ought to be querying, but I'm so overwhelmed by the whole process, starting right here with making a query. Thanks for the great advice!

  2. I dig this. Queries are so tricky for me, and I think it's because I've just over-thought the whole thing. This post really made me think, and excited to go back and start fresh.

    Thanks Trisha,

  3. This really is great advice and excellent examples. That really help illustrate your point.

    I don't know if there is anyone who doesn't struggle to some extent with query letters. One of the things I struggle with is trying to capture the voice and uniqueness of the story, but I think it is important to remember that a query doesn't have to be perfect just interesting enough for the right agent/editor to be curious enough to read more.

  4. This is excellent advice. I love your example of Howl's Moving Castle (one of my favorite books) and how it ties all the query advice together so nicely. Thanks so much for this.

  5. Tips for query letters are always welcome. I definitely appreciate this perspective. I'm not querying now, but I'm sure I will be before too long.

    Also, Howl's Moving Castle is one of my favorite books of all time.


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