Queries are hard. Some problems with them are easy to solve. Others are harder. Below are three hard query problems and how you (or I) can solve them.
Problem: bait and switch
Sample query concept:
“Jeremy has a problem: His head is too big. He keeps breaking his hats. But really, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that his boyfriend might be cheating on him with the vice principal’s cousin, who drives a Ferrari. But really, that’s not the problem either. The real problem is — ”
Who gives a shit, by that point? Are you even still reading, or have you tired of the narrator lying to you by baiting you into thinking one thing is a problem when something else is? Are you wondering if there is a plot or if the writer is just freewriting like a jackass?
Solution: Assuming that the book has a plot and is not satirical or humorous, and the narrator is reliable, the solution is to focus on the plot, whatever it is, and how the character gets from the situation to the inciting incident and then the stakes. In a good book, the hat problem would compound with the boyfriend problem and then whatever subsequent problem and then Jeremy would have to (for example) decide whether to date the hatmaker’s son for the hats or the mechanic’s son to fix the Ferrari — focusing on one problem instead of flitting about. But this bullshit where we have “oh that’s not the real problem” is not fucking happening, folks — not unless the narrator is unreliable or the book is deliberately ridiculous, in which case you’d better be sure you’re funny.
Problem: plot element from out of nowhere
Sample query concept:
“Jenny runs the most successful sandwich shop on fourth street. She loves seeing the smiles on little kids’ faces when she hands them her famous smilewiches.
One day, a man in a charcoal suit walks into her shop and invites her to become the personal chef for the CEO of Illia Inc., purveyor of fine watches and other gadgetry. But Jenny loves the freedom and happiness of her job, so though the well-dressed man offers her any amount of money she wants, she turns him down.
Not a minute after she closes the door on the well-dressed man, a portal opens under her shop, swallowing it and her whole. Suddenly, flames surround her and her deep freeze is melting.”
In this actual portal fantasy, we had no sign that anything was wrong until the portal appeared. Generally, this is a problem with the query, not the book, and what we need are signs from the book, leading up to the portal opening, that something is about to happen. Maybe the man’s eyes are glowing red or a bit of tail is visible — some classic traits that establish him as a demon and concern Jenny, but not enough to make her change her mind. But just going “oh hey suddenly a thing” isn’t organic plot presentation, and we often should and do feel weird, like the writer couldn’t think of anything else to have happen, or couldn’t have led from normal to nightmare in a way that better reflects the world of the book.
Problem: layers of plot and all the words and how do you cut
Actual query (minus bio, comps, metadata) sent to me by Jessi Thomson:
“When 17-year-old Ellie Whittaker breaks into her village’s temple to prove she’s worthy to light the sacred goddess candle, she accidentally burns the temple down. Her village is now convinced she’s a mad dark mystic who draws energy from shadows, not light, and sentences her to trial.
But Ellie has a problem larger than accusations. She’s survived the toxic shadow realm, where dark mystics draw their power, and she returned unscathed — an anomaly which made her the village outcast. And now she’s hallucinating Mara, a dark mystic once hellbent on depriving all mystics of light, who vanished on the same night as the world’s mystic savior, years ago.
Now on trial before the empress, Ellie is saved from prison when Xander, a soldier, mistakes her for his dead love and flat-out lies that she’s innocent. She loses her shackles, but gains a mission: to join Xander in finding the savior, so she can purify Ellie and again protect the world from Mara’s imminent return. (In that order.)
But finding the savior means Ellie must return to the place of her literal nightmares, the shadow realm, and risk slipping deeper into madness. Meanwhile, her hallucinations of Mara turn deadly. In a moment of panic, Ellie discovers she has full command over dark mystics when she uses her power to save Xander’s life. Ellie now faces a harsh truth: she’s not a dark mystic at all. She’s something far worse.
As Mara’s return hurtles closer, Ellie uncovers a horrifying secret about her past connection to Mara — and Xander’s old love. She must decide if she’s willing to fight for the parts of herself worth saving and protect Autumnvale from darkness, or embrace the monster she is and join Mara in extinguishing the light.”
I had to read this something like three times to understand it. This gets into a rule you should know about everything: Unless someone is financially or otherwise invested in your thing, do not expect them to read it three times to understand it. Your mother will read your confusing-as-shit baby plan until she understands it. An agent you have paid will likely read your query more than once and offer feedback. An agent you have not paid might skim it, find it confusing, and FR you.
My first two reactions to the query:
- “lord 289 that’s something”
- “❤ it’s hard for everyone. i know what’s wrong. it’s among the hardest problems to fix, but it’s doable”
Jessi’s query has a few problems:
- It goes backward. Query action should go forward, with things that happen rather than have happened. Going “oh by the way there’s this other thing” is a risk. The exception to this is when core information about the plot is not known until later — we can’t have Jenny being on guard for falling into a portal if she doesn’t know one exists. Similarly, we should avoid frontloading the query with material that isn’t in the first few chapters, especially when the relaying of that information fuels the book’s drama.
- It contains more layers of plot than serve the reader—and you can’t include every layer. Don’t try to. Instead, give a representative sweep of things with agency and specifics.
Accordingly, below is an image of most of my initial round of comments on her draft:
From here, Jessi and I traded notes and comments, and then she made an appointment — which I cannot recommend strongly enough — and we worked on the query in real time, hammering out specifics until we had a way-too-long query to chip away at.
Here’s the final version:
“17-year-old Ellie Whittaker is the village outcast: she awoke in the shadow realm — which fuels dark mystics and maims everyone else — and escaped untouched. But when she breaks into her village’s temple at night to prove she’s like the other villagers, she hallucinates that Mara, a powerful, toxic dark mystic, tells her to torch the place, so she does so … convincing those villagers she’s a dark mystic after all. Accordingly, they try her for witchcraft.
The trial is going horribly when a soldier mistakes her for his dead love and insists she’s innocent. She loses her shackles, but to show she’s normal, she accepts a mission more altruistic than she cared for: purify herself and protect the world from Mara, who’s hellbent on raising a dark mystic army to destroy Ellie’s village.
Ellie tries to purify herself of dark energy, but instead, she discovers she can control its users. As she’s panicking, she learns she must return to the shadow realm to purify herself. But when she enters, the dark energy strengthens her inner darkness. Now she’s not sure she can purify herself — because she might not be a dark mystic after all.
She might be something worse.
As she struggles to remove her darkness, she uncovers a horrifying secret about how she’s connected to Mara. Now, with Mara days away from trying to destroy Ellie’s village, she must decide whether to fight for the redeemable parts of herself and protect people who care nothing for her or embrace her inner darkness and join Mara in ending them all.”
This is still long, but now it’s linear, with no savior, and it focuses less on the soldier plot and more on Ellie’s path to discovering her darkness. And if it doesn’t get us where we want to be, we can remove more plot and make the query more focused. We can’t lose Ellie, and we can’t lose Mara, but we can lose process.
Good luck ❤