Thursday, August 9, 2012

How NOT to Write a Query 6: Breakdown

On Tuesday, I broke Dan Wells' excellent book blurb on PARTIALS. This is about how.

First, let's look at my bad version again:

Sixteen-year-old Kira lives on Long Island with the tens of thousands of humans who survived the war with the partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans. The weaponized virus which destroyed the rest of humanity is still working: no baby has been born immune to the disease in over a decade. Desperate to find a cure, the government passed the Hope Act—which could soon force Kira to become pregnant . . . and watch a new child die every year to provide data for the scientists’ disease research.

Kira knows she's too young to start that, but she is determined to find a cure—and she’s willing to go to tremendous lengths to make that happen.

Before we move on to the good version, notice that this blurb suggests that Kira's main goal will be working to avoid being used as breeding stock for dead babies. We know that she's going to go to "tremendous lengths" to find a cure for the virus that makes that necessary, but we don't know if she's planning to dodge an unwanted pregnancy or if she's planning to reluctantly submit. What, exactly, are these tremendous lengths? Not a clue.

So let's look at the real blurb:

Humanity is all but extinguished after a war with partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the world’s population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America have huddled together on Long Island. The threat of the partials is still imminent, but, worse, no baby has been born immune to the disease in over a decade. Humanity’s time is running out.

When sixteen-year-old Kira learns of her best friend’s pregnancy, she’s determined to find a solution. Then one rash decision forces Kira to flee her community with the unlikeliest of allies. As she tries desperately to save what is left of her race, she discovers that the survival of both humans and partials rests in her attempts to answer questions of the war’s origin that she never knew to ask.

[I left off the paragraph that talks about how awesome the book is--we don't get to write those things for our queries.]

So what's the difference? STAKES. The real blurb tells us clearly 1) What Kira wants (to save her friend's baby), 2) What stands in her way (the virus that will kill the baby), 3) What she's doing to get it (hint: she's not getting pregnant--she's off somewhere else looking for the cure), and 4) What happens if she fails (humanity won't be saved).

This is slightly different from How NOT to Write a Query 5,where I talked about not being vague and including specific details about your world and your plot. This time, we're focusing on the stakes--what the protagonist has to do and what will happen if s/he fails. That needs to be in there somewhere, folks. More, you need to give the agents some hint about what the protagonist will be doing about that. Because that's where the story is.

Setting isn't story. Premise isn't story. Character isn't story. Story is someone trying to get something, something standing in their way, and that person doing what it takes to overcome the obstacle to prevent something bad from happening.

I'm ashamed to confess that it took me a year to understand this. That I thought until very recently that my query didn't need all that. That the goal and the obstacle and what my MC would have to do to overcome it was a secret. That the potential consequence was the biggest secret of all. *sigh* Be wiser than I was, okay?

Specific details about the actual stakes faced by the protagonist can help make the book sound like something someone will want to read.

So go look at your query and make sure it says, suggests, or hints the following:
1. What does the main character want?
2. What stands in his way?
3. What will she have to do to get what she wants?
4. What, specifically, will happen if he fails?

Is it there? Has it always been there? If so, you're a year ahead of me.

What lessons have you learned while writing bad queries?

I'm planning another installment of this series for the first Tuesday of each month. If you'd like me to feature (read: rip apart without mercy) your own real query--either anonymously or with full credit and linkage--email me at robinweekswriter [at] gmail [dot] com.


  1. Just when I think my query is pretty good, I read another article like this one and I slink back into the shadows wondering how to start over.
    At least I have the advantage of sitting back and learning from those who know. Thanks for the advice:)

    1. Oh, Ink. If you only knew the number of cringe-worthy queries I thought were good enough to send to agents....

  2. When I was still drafting my novel I did a query just to see how I could summarize my book. I realized the STORY didn't have high enough stakes, which is why my query sucked. Sometimes that can be the issue and forcing yourself to condense the whole plot into a query can show you amazing things! :)

  3. Good post Robin. Queries are tricky little monsters.

  4. What a great post with lots of excellent advice, thanks Robin.

  5. Hmm I have had the goal and stakes in there since the first horrible draft of my query, but even in the version I have now that is pretty streamline I wonder if they are displayed strong enough. This has got me thinking.

  6. Everytime I think I know how to write a query, I realize that the one I've spent weeks on completely sucks. There's a lot of good advice in this article here that you've written. Thanks for providing the comparison/contrast.

    1. I'm a lawyer. I live and die on hypotheticals. I couldn't hope to understand why my own query wasn't working without this. :D

  7. i'm still working on it! thanks again! and i cant wait to read dan's book!

  8. Writing a query seems a lot more possible after reading this! Great post and I will definitely send others to read this post. :]