Please welcome Anne Brown to WU. Anne was one of our finalists in the hunt for a WU Unpubbed Writer. We know you’ll love her essay on, “THE BATTLE OF THE QUERY AS TOLD BY ONE IN THE TRENCHES” as much as we did. And visiting her blog, I just learned she recently had her first creative essay published by Literary Mama! Congrats, Anne!
“My story is about a man, a woman, and two dogs. It’s a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice, except the characters of Jane and Mr. Bingley are a tad hairier than in the original.”
Confession time. That is an honest-to-God excerpt from the first query I ever wrote. And, yes, I actually sent it out the door. Ten times.
You probably won’t be shocked to learn I received ten rejections, and you’re probably wondering why you’re reading a post on queries from someone who’s unpublished. Well, thankfully, I’ve made some progress since that abysmal beginning. Although I’m still waiting for the life-changing phone call from Dream Agent, I am finally winning the battle of the query and getting more requests than rejections. Here’s a strategy that has helped me go from public humiliation to killer query.
Step One: Pull Out Some Quirk
Most agents seem to like some degree of weird. So don’t let their first impression be déjà vu. For example, rather than introduce your main character as a middle-aged high school teacher, focus on a weird quirk or trait, such as: “Mary Olson is a middle-aged drama teacher with a paralyzing fear of heights.”
Step Two: Stir the Pot
Next, show agents where they’ll find your main character when the story starts and, most importantly, give them an indication there is some unrest that is about to be stirred up. You can do that simply by using the expression “at first.” For example, “At first, acrophobic Mary thinks her life is perfect—great hair, great job, ground-floor apartment on the Nebraska plains.”
Step Three: Raise the Stakes
Then show the conflict. No conflict, no story. At the query stage, agents don’t care about our craftily constructed themes, our inspired use of metaphor or, by the way, that our story might be a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice. They want to know what’s at stake. An easy way to show conflict is a sentence that starts off “But when” or “Everything changes when.” For example, “But when the circus comes to Omaha, and Mary meets tight-rope walker George Maserati, she risks an anxiety attack for the chance of finding love.”
Step Four: Holy Cliff Hanger, Batman!
Then drop the bomb. Entice those poor unsuspecting agents and make them cry out for more. (This is what happens in my fantasies. Poor agent, somewhere out there, crying over my cliff hanger of a query . . . but I digress.) Leave them wanting more with the classic Batman ending.
Remember the 1960s t.v. show? The Joker would throw a punch at Batman, then the scene would freeze and the announcer would say in an angst-ridden voice: “Will the Joker drop Batman into the vat of boiling oil? Will Batman get the last laugh? Tune in next time for the conclusion of . . .” In a query, the Batman ending could translate into something like: “Mary climbs to the heights of hot circus love, but who will catch her when she falls?”
So there you have it! I’m not saying this four-sentence query should be the end of your drafting process. But it’s a good first draft formula that, in my experience, leads to a door-opening query. And that, as you know, is half the battle.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s woodleywonderworks