So, as per my last post, here's approximately what my query looked like back in the day. I'm using 'Aliens' as an example instead of my actual book, which is still on sub (go go go lil novel! u can do eet!)
As per the structure I described previously:
- What does the main character want and why might we want to read about it?
- Bit of back story, and how the back story might feed into book events
- Prevention of getting what she wants (based on back story, and current events)
- Who might help
- Ending setup
- Wordcount, title, genre
'Aliens' is set up really well for this, as it's a sequel that can also stand on its own. The marines don't know there's a previous movie. They only have Ripley's word for it, and therefore all the setup and back story that they need is received from Ripley herself. Similarly, the reader can get everything they need to know from this query, as if there were no previous movie. Ripley, also, is a sympathetic character -- she's not solely easy to sympathize with (because that's not what that term means, to me) but she's also interesting in her own right, she's led an interesting life. That comes into her back story, where it's revealed that she's lost her child, her job, her prestige, etc, as well as doubting what really happened.
Anyway, it's my favourite movie and I wanted to use it as an example, LEAVE ME ALONE.
What does she want?: 'All Ripley wants is to live a quiet life, get back to work, and leave the horror behind.'
Back story: 'As the last survivor of a historic disaster, she's been rescued and returned to society. It's been sixty years; the world has moved on; she's wracked with nightmares about monsters and paralyzing grief over the death of her only child. But she's safe now, right?'
Prevention of getting what she wants: 'Instead, her employer has asked her to return to her nightmare — on a colony planet that's gone inexplicably silent. Just as a consultant, they swear! She won't be in any danger from the acid-blooded killers she escaped sixty years ago. Tantalizingly, too, if she goes, she might be able to get her beloved pilot license back, and quit doing menial warehouse work.'
Who might help: 'Teaming up with company representatives and marines, she arrives at the colony planet to find only silence and desolation. And a single survivor, just like her. Their rescue mission has become an investigation, and she can only fill in so many gaps for the marines.'
Ending setup: 'But there are more factions at work here than anyone has realized, and soon Ripley is tangled in a fight not just for her life, but the lives of every human in the galaxy. A fight that she knows she can't win.'
Wordcount, title, genre: ''Aliens' is sci-fi/horror and is complete at 110,000 words.'
Bio: 'Premee Mohamed is both a beetle and a large carnivorous lizard based in Canada. Previous publications include A, B, and C. She is a member of the Codex Writing Group and Maulers Anonymous.'
OK, this could probably use a bit more work; I haven't gotten enough into the conflict, and it's not clear why the galaxy is at stake (ALIENS, MAN!!!!!!), but I'd probably fix that in future revisions. But with no more than a sentence or two!
My main takeaways from Query Shark at the time were:
- No need to get too complicated. Notice how the 'Nostromo' isn't mentioned, or specifically what the disaster was; or the Weyland-Yutani company and their motivations and the eventual double-cross; or the names of any of the marines, or the company rep, or the survivor, or the planet. A few of those might be OK. Too many, and the agent might panic and hide under their desk.
- Shorter is better; agents have to read a lot of these things. I mean, literally so many. I had no idea till I started asking around. The best query takes the useful information about the novel and sort of shrink-wraps it with a heat gun, so nothing sticks out.
- Agents want to read about the premise of your novel, not every single worldbuilding detail. Queries get one more chance to hook them with the pages that are sent.
- If there's a twist, the twist can be set up (in this case, 'factions'), but maybe shouldn't be laid out in the query? Opinions seem to differ on Query Shark, but in my case, there's a big twist very near the end of the novel (like, 25 pages before the end) and not only could I not figure out how to explain the setup in the query, but I was also getting bad vibes about doing so. Which worked out, thank Gord; my agent loved it, and said he never would have guessed it from the first 10 pages, or the partial.
Anyway, this is what worked for me! The usual disclaimer is that people's mileage may vary, and of course there are agents who do want the twists, who want longer queries, who want different stuff, etc. A few agents on my query list wanted a full synopsis as well, in which case I did regretfully lay out the twist.
Next post: How I triage and flesh out my uselessly unending stream of story ideas!