But what is your story about?

Query Shark.

I love Query Shark.

Janet Reid is a literary agent who has opened herself up as a query critic. Writers can submit their queries to the Query Shark and, if the Shark thinks that her readers could benefit from the query, she’ll post the query with comments about why it doesn’t (or, rarely, does) work.

As of now, there are 286 entries on the blog.

The point of the blog is not to get representation from the Shark (she has a different e-mail for that) but to refine your query until it shines and actually has a snowball’s chance with an agent.

Very few submitted queries make it onto the blog. As the Shark says in the blog’s FAQ, she posts queries with interesting errors or errors on a subject that she’s already ranted about. That second part is important because the Shark specifically instructs people to read the ENTIRE blog, then revise their query, THEN submit the query.

Why is this important?
If you read the entire blog then you’ll be exposed to the major mistakes people make in a query that bog your query down or cause an automatic or form rejection. You can then go through your own query with a fine-toothed comb and make sure you don’t do any of those things.

What sort of things are we talking about? I’ve been keeping a list, actually. Some notes have been:

  • Do not open your query with a rhetorical question. You will be killed and eaten by the QueryBunny.
    • A rhetorical question reads like this:
      • “Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you woke up one morning and had wings?”
      • “What would you do if the Evil Empire killed your family and you found out your father was a great wizard?”
  • If you can take out a word and the sentence still works, leave it out. Say the sentences out loud one by one. And if you’re doing this on your query, you also need to do it on the novel. One of the things I hear from other agents when we gab at conferences are complaints about really good queries followed by pages that go splat. Make SURE what you’ve learned and applied to your query is also applied to your book.

Some suggestions are just sound business advice:

  • DO NOT submit to publishers while you submit to agents. This handicaps your future agent in ways you do not want to imagine. If a publisher turns you down pre-agent-snag, it’s hard for the agent to go back and say “yanno, you made a terrible mistake saying no to this.” Query agents first.
  • Never, ever, NEVER use a preface or a prologue or chapter 0 or whatever you are calling the part that comes before chapter one, as sample pages. Chapter one, pages one up to whatever the number agent wants.
    • I actually misunderstood a similar suggestion and “solved” the problem by simply renaming the prologue “Chapter 1.” The problem isn’t the chapter name, it’s that prologues are not the start of the story. I should have sent the actual Chapter 1 and probably would have had better results.

One that comes up a lot in various forms is about keeping a tight focus on a query:

  • Start with the hero. What conflict does he face? Not a war kind of conflict, but a choice kind of conflict. Now what choice must the hero make? What consequences of those choices bother him? Queries don’t need backstory and setup. Get to what’s at stake for the character *personally*. What’s the bad thing that will happen to the character if they do X? What’s the worst thing that will happen if he doesn’t? Without choices, or stakes, there’s no compelling reason to read the book, it’s just a series of events.

I’m finding that is important advice not just for a query but for getting a handle on an actual story.

  • Who is the main character?
  • What does she want?
  • What is keeping her from getting it?
  • What must she sacrifice to get what she wants?
  • What two options does she have to choose between (Do A or do B)?
  • What are the consequences if she chooses A?
  • What are the consequences if she chooses B?

Just knowing these when you start the story, whether you are a plotter or a panster, will go far in helping you know what your story is about and in keeping that story on track and minimizing rabbit trails that have nothing to do with the character’s struggle to get what she wants.

Even if you aren’t at the query stage yet, I highly recommend reading the Shark’s blog. Take notes, even! View the blog as a way to arm yourself with the skills to hone in on a story’s “aboutness” now. In fact, if you know all of this before you even start writing then you could improve your entire work in progress from the get go.

Trust me. It’s a slap in the face when you write 100,000 words and then, in the query phase, realize that you have no idea what your story is actually about.


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