I’ve been reading up on the fine art of writing query letters, and something has occurred to me. There are a few editors who have blogs aspiring novelists can send their queries to for critique and improvement. The same advice is repeatedly given – it’s too vague.
90% of the time, these authors are vague about their plot. They give a premise or set up that works, but they seem distressingly unable to be specific in what their story contains. They begin with, “All John wanted to do was get home again. But the lava monster had other ideas.” Okay, an interesting hook. But now the synopsis becomes vague and ill-defined. “Now John must face many dangers and almost certain death to retrieve the amulet, save the girl and defeat the monster – and all before the lava monster barbeques his home town of Dante’s Peak.” This summary is Extremely Vague, and is more of an Idea than a Plot, if you get my meaning here.
As I read all of these authors tripping over the same trouble every time, I realized that they had slaved over their novel (often upwards of 80,000 words!) but were somehow unable to actually tell an editor or agent what the bleeding story was about in a single page. I suspect this may be the case because the author doesn’t actually know what story they’re writing. Their thinking about their novel is muddled. I would be willing to bet, if I bet, that those authors who get published generally have a strong grasp of what their story is about and can summarize the heart of the conflict and plot in a powerful and attention-grabbing way.
So I’ve come to realize that authors need to start approaching their queries like they were film trailers. What I don’t mean: you should write your query with camera angles, or a mash of explosions or special effects (hard to do, anyway).
What I do mean: a film trailer provides a hook, but it also provides something of a sneak peak at what you can expect from the movie. What’s the genre? It also gives you the central plot, the conflict that drives the story.
Take Lord of the Rings. Hook: The Dark Lord has arisen and has a Super Evil Ring. Plot: A group sets out to journey to Mordor to cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Conflict: They will be hunted (specifics: by birds, beasts, orcs, Black Riders, etc.), and must face the hardships of the road (rain, marshland, getting sidetracked by the Riders of Rohan, having enough food, etc), and deal with internal tensions (the Ring tempts them all, different agendas for what ought to be done with the Ring now they’ve got it, etc.).
Films typically have taglines too. A tagline is a one or two short sentences that tell you exactly what to expect from the film.
Alien‘s tagline was: In space no one can hear you scream.
Blazing Saddles: Never give a saga an even break!
Tristen and Isolde: Before Romeo and Juliet, there was . . . Tristen and Isolde.
Many books are beginning to have these as well, and if only for your own records, have a tagline. Often a tagline can become a sentence in a query letter, providing a part of a hook. At the least, by thinking about a query in this way, it will help tighten up your understanding of your plots.