Back in college I took a close-reading class, and since then I haven't viewed prose in quite the same way. The right single word can propel a poem to greatness -- or as Mark Twain said, the right word versus the wrong word is the same as the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
At the Muse Online Conference last month, I taught a query-writing class. Students posted their queries for critique, and a few times I found myself rearranging their sentences without knowing why. This is fine for my own work, but a student is going to want a reason, or at least a reason more than "It just works better this way, trust me."
This is a generic example of something I saw in the queries, and I want you to sit up because you're about to learn some verbal sleight of hand.
The original query would say something like this:
Jane thought her worst problem was going to be writing next week's QueryTracker blog entry until the day she discovered she was a Hedger, one of only seven women who could destroy the Earth.
Okay, we've got stakes and a person and maybe a shred of personality, but do you notice what's missing? An emotional reaction. Time and again, I'd rearrange that kind of sentence to something more like this:
Jane thought her worst problem was going to be writing next week's QueryTracker blog entry until the day she discovered the existence of the Hedgers, seven women who could destroy the world. And she is one of them.
Now why would you do that?, you're asking me. And I realized after a while that until we know the meaning of the made-up word, we don't know why we should care.
Let's boil it right down to its simplest: Look at the following two examples:
- Fritz died last night. He was my puppy.
- Fritz was my puppy. He died last night.
In the first example, you the reader delay feeling anything until you know to what degree you should care about Fritz's death. You can't wail, "Oh, how awful! Who was Fritz?" so you need my verbal cue to indicate whether you should be devastated for me, whether you should shrug, or whether you should laugh out loud and say that was a long time coming.
In the second example, I telegraphed the expected reaction by establishing the relationship between me and Fritz, and you can backfill with your own understanding of what it means to own a puppy. Then when I tell you he died, you know what degree of response is appropriate.
Now replace "puppy" with "my neighbor's ex husband" or "the guy who shot my parents." See how giving you the information up-front changes your reaction? As readers and listeners, we guard our emotions until we know how we're expected to respond.
Also, we need to know why we're going to care. In the following circumstances, think about how differently you'd listen to a series of instructions on how to deliver a baby:
- reading them on my weblog
- attending a class for certification as an EMT
- hearing them from the 9-1-1 operator
As a writer, you need to slip in the necessary information first, and then follow up with the cause for emotion.
Mind you, those initial examples about Jane discovering her powers -- they're awful and you wouldn't want them in your query anyhow. In your final draft, you'd do something more like, "While clearing her grandmother's papers out of the attic, Jane discovers a crumbling journal describing the seven women --Hedgers -- who can destroy the earth. Oh, geez -- maybe Grandma's mind was failing three decades before the Alzheimer's took her. But then Grandma's journal describes the birthmark that will appear on the wrist of the seventh Hedger. The birthmark Jane was born with ten years after the date on that entry."
Your query is short compared to your book. It would be short even as the setup of a short story. Two hundred fifty words: hit your reader hard. Tell us first why we need to care about the impending revelation, and then give us the revelation. Tell us the importance of what your MC is going to discover before she discovers it.
Agents are receiving a hundred queries a day, and while it's a fair bet that they recognize terms like vampire, mermaid and demon, it gets tougher when you're inventing your own paranormal elements. Tell me that your main character is a Hedger or a Silter, and without excitement I say, "Okay, what's that?" Tell me that your main character cancels out entropy and occasionally clusters (totally by accident) all the oxygen at one end of a room, and now I'm saying, "Tell me more."
Remember that "Tell me more!" is the reaction you want to get to your query. The query's only purpose is to get the agent to say "There had better be pages pasted into this email," and the purpose of those pages is to get the agent to hate the subway tunnel that prevents her from sending an email demanding the rest of that manuscript right this minute. The prelude to "Tell me more" is showing me why I'm about to care.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.