Yes, it’s hard to believe. Queries, for those who don’t know, are a small paragraph of no more than 250-300 words, in which you try to tell someone what happens in your story, why it’s cool, and how totally awesome you are as a writer.
Unfortunately, you can’t just come out and say this (Imagine that – I am a good writer, and this is the best most fantastical book ever). No, instead you have to show them that by weaving a compelling and individual narrative (ie, you can’t have just a premise – you have to show what happens in your book, what the stakes are for your character, and give some hint of what they do).
There should be conflict, tension, character, plot, good writing… in about 250 words. Thus, queries have a reputation for being evil. Their primary purpose is to sell your book, or net it some representation from an agent.
But for me, at least, queries have quite a nifty little second use, which is not quite as evil as the first one.
Okay, you’ve got 250 words. In that sort of space, you can’t muck about. A query forces you to get to the very essence of what your story, characters, themes and ideas are about. That’s what makes it so bloody hard – most of us don’t try and think that way to start off with. Whether you’re a planner or a discovery writer, most people will think out their plot, characters and story, but they won’t think about the essence of all those things. And most people don’t know what the essence of their story is. Well, they have a generic idea. For example, my story The Manda was about shades of grey in people and civilisations – the idea that no-one is right; that there is only perspective, and while a person can be kind in one instance, they can be downright horrible in the next.
But that has been done before. It’s a very broad idea of what my story is about. In a query, you need to be specific – you have to figure out the essence of your story, characters, plot ect, and then you have to figure out what makes it individual, fun, terrifying, brilliant.
This takes forever, or at least it does for me. I spent hours on my last query – it didn’t take too long to figure what my themes were about, but to par my characters, plot and structure down into short succinct ideas, and then combine those ideas to make a compelling narrative – took about two weeks, working at it for something like five hours a day. This doesn’t sound too long. Then you realise that this is only 250 words I’m talking about. I wrote, and rewrote, and agonised, and cut, and scrapped, and started from scratch, and cursed and got second opinion and third opinions and went through at least 100 drafts of 250 words.
So. Whatever way you look at it, creating a query is evil. But once you have one, they can be gold in so many ways. Once you’ve had to write a query, you know what you want your book to be about – you know it’s essence, not just the big things that make it go. And in my honest opinion, once you know the essence of a book, you can fix anything that’s wrong with the plot, story, characters or structure. That fixing may take a entire rethink. (That circumstantially is what I’m doing with The Manda). or you may find your query closer to what you wanted than you thought it would be. Either way, once you nail a query, you’ve nailed your stories soul.
Then there’s just the problem of communicating that to a reader, which is a whole different kettle of fish. That’s where the perception gap between what a writer wants to say, and what a reader actually receives from you words, comes up.
But with a query, at least you have a start.
So my suggestion: write your story. Either planning or not planning, however you will. Then agonise over your query. Then, once you’ve got your query, and know it off by heart, (you will to – believe me, you can’t create a query and not be able to quote it in your sleep by the time you’ve done) look again at your story. Take a good long look. Try and put yourself in the place of the reader, and see how big that perception gap is. If it’s huge, make it smaller, until you can’t notice one. Then, depending on what type of person you are, send it to a beta reader, or to a publisher. You’ll either get a rejection, telling you that that gap is still there, or a report back from your beta reader, telling you that that gap is still there. Read the query again. And again. Think about the soul of your piece, and shorten that gap.
It’s worth it. That “ah-ha!” moment you get on figuring out what’s wrong is like drinking a redbull + espresso + no-doze shot. That sort of zing is worth being given a Medicare number for financial re-reimbursement.
(Oh, and this is written to hype myself up before I start query writing for my steam punk novel. There is a hidden motive here – if I remind myself of the benefits, I may actually look forwards to putting myself through the hell of writing a query. I’m also going to revise the Manda – this is to hype myself up for that too.)
Anyway, regardless of your motive in writing a query, know that they are evil to create. But bloody useful thereafter.