QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, August 8, 2011

Conveying Thy Characters in Queries

Everyone who has attempted to write a query knows the fear: We’ve finished the manuscript. We’re feeling awesome. We’re planning out who is going to be cast as the main lead and their love interest in the movie version of our stories.

It is then that we open up that blank sheet of paper and our eyes fill with fear.

How am I going to condense my amazing book into 250 words?

What will I include?

I’ve read many queries (some being my own) where an important character is missing and in their place is a random grocery attendant. Maybe you’ve done the same thing in your query, and now you’re looking at it and STILL can’t figure out what it’s not working. Why someone doesn’t understand your full story.

Think about this… Just like you need to understand the plot and climax, you need to understand your characters and who moves from point A to point B.

If your main character in a paranormal universe has a ‘protector’ and that protector doesn’t make it into your query, you’ll lose the key part of the story.

Sending it out only to have the agent reject you…and you’re still not seeing the main problem.

There are moments to capture and others that can be tucked in. The key points are the ones you want to share.

Which characters carry the story structure?

If you say the secondary character can be removed then you might want to go back and rework your novel because the secondary character isn’t important enough. Even in the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks is alone but his SECONDARY character is the volleyball, Wilson. Wilson would have made the query. He’s a critical part in the story.

Does a character have a power that’s not being fully utilized?

Did you mention your character has the gift of cleaning? Or the fact that with a single touch she can kill any human, which is why she always wears gloves? What about the fact that a shape-shifter loves a vampire? We must know more about your characters; those details are what bring the story to life.
A story about a character attending high school isn’t nearly as enticing as a girl who can kill with a touch of a finger… making high school that much more difficult. When you leave out key components, you leave the agent out on the juicy news.

Is your character in a love triangle?

Mentioning all three characters in the triangle is pivotal. The agent, as well as the reader, needs to know each person is important. Do you think an agent would have known about a love triangle between Bella, Edward, and Jacob if she’d left Jacob out of the query letter? I think not. It adds depth and it’s something that should be known.

If you’re writing a YA are the parents still alive?

Mentioning that the parents have disappeared or are still alive is a great way to show what developmental stage your character is at. If your main character is about to fight crime, a normal set of parents is NOT going to allow that (if they find out, anyhow). Making a quick comment about where they’re at can be very helpful.
Friends, Frenemies, and enemies, finding out who’s important.

If there’s a villain you’ll want to mention him or her. Adding tension to your query helps not only brings out the voice but keeps the reader (or agent) intrigued to read more. Only talking about those fighting HALF the battle will leave the agent figuring you didn’t finish your novel since the other HALF of the battle isn’t explained.
I should mention you don’t want to get carried away. Agents don’t want to read about 30 guys in a 250 word query. Make sure that who you’re sharing are the MOST important characters, the ones who make the story shine. As much as you don’t want the plot to outshine the characters, you don’t want the characters to outshine the plot. Be sure to keep it equal. Just don’t forget about the key points.

Excellent Examples from the QueryTracker Success Stories Files

Leah RaederFull Query

Leah leaves nothing to chance with her query. Right from the beginning you learn the two important individuals in this story. If she were to remove Ben from her query the whole story wouldn’t be the same. The whole reason Rosa is infected is because of him. Don’t you think he’s pretty important? She did, so adding him into the query helped her get requests.

Rosa Farrow didn't kill Ben Waters. She moved in with her brother to get away from violence: the alcoholic father who was behind the wheel the day Mom died. But she's the last one who sees Ben alive. When his body turns up brutally mauled—with evidence of human bite marks—everyone wants to talk to her. Cops. Social workers. Even her brother seems unsure of her innocence. Rosa's starting to feel like she's in some waking Kafkaesque nightmare.

Until Ben's body disappears from the morgue.

And he shows back up at school, bloody, pissed off—and with lots of murderous new friends.

That's when he does the one thing you shouldn't let the recently deceased do: he bites her. She flees with her brother, but something escapes with her, stows away in her veins. She's infected. Changing. Becoming something like Ben. Becoming a monster even worse than her dad.

Rosa's no killer. Whatever happens, she won't follow in her father's footsteps. But how can she fight something that's inside of her?

Ashlyn MacnamaraFull Query

Titles are something to watch out for. Aislinn has titled her novel A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. If her sister wasn't mentioned at least once within the query how many agents would pass it by? My money's on several. If you didn't take the time to show her in the query then you didn't take the time to put her in the novel!

Scarred by her governess' suicide, debutante Julia St. Claire must marry to save her family from financial ruin, so she seeks to guard her heart in a civilized, sensible union. When such an arrangement is offered by the man of her sister's dreams, Julia must either betray her sister or risk giving her heart to childhood friend, Benedict Revelstoke. But Benedict, a second son, fears he has destroyed her trust by revealing his love for her--until she turns up at his townhouse with a scandalous proposal.

Patrick GabridgeFull Query

In Patrick's novel we have the lovely Tyra and her Grandpa Rudy. She desperately wants to know what he is searching for in the woods when he goes on his many adventures. If the grandpa disappears from the query then Tyra really has no reason for an adventure and Patrick had no reason to write the story.

Eleven-year-old Tyra is stuck spending the summer with her irascible Grandpa Rudy in a lakeside town where she's the only black person (she's adopted). It's clearly going to be the worst summer ever. And a weird one, too. Every night, Rudy disappears into the woods, hauling tools and maps. He's searching for something, and Tyra desperately wants to know what it is.

One night, Tyra follows her grandfather and discovers him digging for an old bootlegger's buried treasure. He swears her to secrecy, but soon Tyra leads her new summer friend, Cory, to Grandpa Rudy's dig site. After being chased deep into the woods by an enraged Rudy, Tyra and Cory uncover clues that lead to Emerald Eddie's secret stash.

Grandpa Rudy isn't the only person in Spirit Lake obsessed with Emerald Eddie's legendary treasure, and it becomes a race to see who will find it first. Someone has been poking around the excavation site and has even broken into Rudy's house. Soon, Tyra, Rudy, and their friends find themselves in very real danger. Only a great sacrifice will allow them to escape unharmed. Through all the ups and downs of their treasure hunt, Tyra and Grandpa Rudy ultimately realize they need each other a lot more than they ever expected.

Jen Daiker writes humorous women’s fiction, where cupcakes and cocktails are always on the menu. She’s spends way too much time on Twitter and can be found on her blog Unedited.


Jemi Fraser said...

Great post Jen! It's so important to make those queries clear and have the characters shine through. Thanks for the tips :)

Bish Denham said...

Good job Jen!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good tips, Jen! I had three key characters in both of my stories that needed to be mentioned.

Jolene Perry said...

I LOVE shorter queries.
nearly every time I've written a very short query, I'm finally thrilled with what it says about my story. Crazy, because when you first start writing them, it's like - WHAT? less than 250??

Abby Fowers said...

Hey! Fancy that, the link just took me right here! (See what happens when I don't get any sleep?) Love the post. You go girl!

Unknown said...

You're most welcome Jemi! Best of luck querying!!!

Alex - Looks like you understood the importance of all main characters! It paid off :)

Jolene - Isn't it amazing when you put your own writing to the test? You end up surprised when everything is said in those 250 words. It takes practice, but is worth it in the end!

Abby - Thank you! You're a gem! Happy Writing!

Anonymous said...

Jen, thanks so much for featuring my query.

I blogged about this, including some self-analysis of my query.

While the query ended up simple and clear, the process of whittling it down was a struggle. My novel actually has four alternating POV characters. Ultimately, I decided to just focus on one for the query, and it's much stronger for it.

Focusing on the right character is vital, especially in a story with no clear MC.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks for covering this, Jen (and for including my query). Figuring out how to convey enough about the important characters in the short space of a query is awfully tough. In mine, I went back and forth on whether to mention Cory's name. In a query for a middle-grade novel, it was important that we got a sense of both kids in the query, as well as the grandfather.

I'm fortunate in that the writers in my fiction group are willing to critique each other's queries.

Sarah Tokeley said...

Okay, don't need this yet, but definitely bookmarked so I can get help BEFORE I rip my hair out :)

Johanna Garth said...

This is such a great post. I HATE query writing. I'm bookmarking it now so that I can come back to it next time I'm in query mode.

Meredith said...

SUCH great advice. I'm about to write my query, and I know it's going to take me forever to get everything I want into that tiny little synopsis. Thanks so much, Jen!

Hermana Tiffany Garner said...

Great tips! It was hard, but I think I've gotten my villain and all the MCs into my 250 words without pushing it. Thanks for all the tips!

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

In a way, it's ironic you chose my query for this blog, because I deliberately left one of the titular sisters out of my letter. I felt trying to work her into the story was overcomplicating matters.

The whole point of a query it not to tell your entire story. What you want is to whet the editor's or agent's appetite enough that they request more.

So definitely DO give them enough of your main character's goals/motivation/conflict, along with the stakes, and you should get requests.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

This is SUCH a great post, Jen! Queries are really difficult for me, but this advice is perfect. :)

Unknown said...

Leah & Patrick - Thank you for stopping in and THANK YOU for your queries! Congrats on the success of finding an agent! You two knew what you were up against and beat the odds!

Sarah & Johanna - Bookmarking comes in handy!! I still have ones I go back too!!

Meredith - I hate the word synopsis!! Query sounds much less frightening!! I'm still looking to perfect the synopsis before send off!!

Tiffany - Glad I could help!! Best of luck with it!!

Ashlyn - It seems you made the right choice in showcasing characters!! The perfect ingredients for an awesome query!

Bethany - Best of luck! Guides and writer buddies are always available for help!!

Jennifer Hillier said...

Fabulous post, Jen! Lots of great advice here!

Tracey Wood said...

Who doesn't love a post about the nasty old query? -Loved the examples, loved the comments about brevity, decided "irascible" is my favorite word of the week. Oh, I have done the query for my second novel BEFORE even being close to finishing it. A wild notion, but one I'm loving. I can dip back into the Q with a genuinely clear eye and calm state of mind. :)

Samantha Vérant said...

Queries. I'm one of those weirdos that LOVES writing out those short synopses. And, Jen, you give some sage advice!

G. B. Miller said...

Got any successful queries to show that aren't YA oriented?

Seems like every success story that you're using as an example is YA.

There are other kinds of fiction out there you know.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Weronika Janczuk said...

The first query is for an adult literary novel and the second is for an adult romance, just FYI, in case anyone needed that clarification.

Wonderful post.

Unknown said...

Jennifer - Glad you enjoyed it! Though, we know you landed yourself a fabulous agent!

Tracey Wood - It's a really good word isn't it?? We should definitely pocket it for later!!

Samantha - You nailed your query so to love it is genius! I think we should remember to have fun with each stage of writing!!

G - Weronika is right, not all of these are YA. I was careful to mix up the queries to show it could work no matter what. :) Thanks for stopping in.

Weronika - Thank you for stopping in! We have three wonderful queries here, all who worked hard to find their dream a reality!

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thanks for the clarifications on the nature of the queries (ie that they include adult fiction). G, if you'd like to see some more, we have LOTS of success stories of all types -- on our success stories page. Feel free to visit! http://querytracker.net/success.php

Michelle Fayard said...

Excellent advice and examples, Jen! One thing I love about agent/editor contests is when you're asked to pitch only three sentences or X number of words, you now have a tight, compelling and fast pitch to use in your queries.