Write Your Query FIRST for a Better Book

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest is author Camille Noe Pagán, whose debut novel, The Art of Forgetting, releases today! It’s a book Library Journal has called a “page-turner” for “readers who enjoy intelligent novels about women’s friendships,” and it’s been named one of the “Best Books Just Out Or Coming Soon We Thought You Should Know About” by Huffington Post. What’s the book about? Says J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Commencement and Maine:

As it chronicles the complicated yet loving bond between two young women, The Art of Forgetting manages to be both a hilarious page-turner and an insightful exploration into the nature of friendship and self. This impressive debut is at turns funny, thought-provoking and achingly sad. It is (dare I say it?) unforgettable.

Read on to learn more about the book as Camille delves into a topic every author struggles with at one point or another: the dreaded query. Enjoy!

Write Your Query FIRST for a Better Book

Ah, the dreaded query letter. Writers bemoan, obsess about and labor over them—not realizing that this one-page document may be one of the greatest tools at their disposal.

In fact, I’d argue that you shouldn’t wait until you’re done with your novel to craft your query letter. Whether you’ve just started a new draft or you’re ¾ of the way through, write a one-page synopsis—a.k.a. a query letter—now.

When I got the idea for my first novel, The Art of Forgetting, I quickly scribbled down a synopsis on a legal pad. After I thought about it for a day or two, I transferred my chicken scratch into a word document and reviewed it. Main characters? Check. Narrative arc? Check. Theme? Check. The elements were all there, and as a result, I felt confident enough to tackle the first draft.

Writing a one-page synopsis that’s intended to sell your novel—both literally or figuratively—is the middle ground between being a “pantster” and a “plotter.” It helps you determine:

  • The big idea. What is your book about? What’s the theme, and what do you hope the reader will come away with? It’s true that as you write, your concept may grow into something you didn’t initially envision. But if you’re not sure what the point of your story is, you’re in for a struggle.
  • Whether there are holes in the plot. Writing a one-page synopsis helped me understand that the story that I thought would be my second novel was fatally flawed; try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to connect the dots in the plot that was floating around in my head. Putting that on paper made this crystal clear, and helped me move on.
  • The novel’s tone. What does your protagonist sound like? Even though queries are written from the writer’s POV, you should be able to hear your main character’s voice coming through.
  • Your own excitement for your WIP. Are you head over heels for your story—or are you just in like with it? Summarizing in one page can answer this for you quickly. If you’re just not that into your story, then ask yourself if you should keep brainstorming—or if it’s time to move on.

For reference, here’s my query letter for Forgetting, which was based almost entirely on the early synopsis I wrote:
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Forgive and forget—but not necessarily in that order.

Marissa Rogers never wanted to be an alpha; beta suited her just fine, thank you very much. After all, taking charge without taking credit had always paid off: vaulting her to senior editor at a glossy diet magazine; allowing her to keep the peace with her critical, weight-obsessed mother; and enjoying the benefits that came with being best friends with gorgeous, charismatic Julia Ferrar.

Sure, coming up with 15 different ways to lose five pounds month after month was enough to make Marissa crazy. And yes, Julia was a walking, talking reminder that Marissa would never be the type to turn heads. So what? There was no reason to upend her perfect-on-paper life.

But when Julia is hit by a cab and suffers a personality-altering brain injury, Marissa has no choice but step into the role of alpha friend. As Julia struggles to regain her memory—dredging up things Marissa would rather forget, including the fact that Julia asked her to abandon the love of her life ten years ago—and to return to the sharp, magnetic woman she once was, their friendship is shaken to the core.

With the help of 12 girls she reluctantly agrees to coach in an after-school running program; the countless studies on traumatic brain injury that she Googles while pretending to work; and, of course, a healthy dose of chocolate, Marissa will uncover an inner confidence she never knew she possessed and find the courage to reexamine her past and take control of her future.

The Art of Forgetting is a story about the power of friendship, the memories and self-created myths that hold us back from our true potential, and most of all, the delicate balance between forgiving and forgetting.

Thanks for a great post, Camille! Readers, you can learn more about Camille Noe Pagán on her website or blog, and by following her on Twitter at @cnoepagan. Write on.

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Comments

  1. says

    Interesting advice. I don’t really think that this would work for me, though. With my first novel, I didn’t know some very major things until the 3rd-4th draft. I don’t think that writing a synopsis/query letter first would have helped; my mind doesn’t work this way: I have to pour the ideas onto paper multiple times until I realize what I’m trying to say. If this works for others, though, that’s great.

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  2. says

    Ooo, I’ve done this once before and found it quite helpful. It won’t work for every writer, of course, but I suggest that no one knock it until they ACTUALLY TRY IT. Even the pantsers. :P

    Another “trick” I liked was writing the climactic scene first, and then starting from the beginning and driving towards that. The scene was so exciting, and thus such an incentive b/c I wanted to GET TO IT NOW. Hehe.

    Anyway, good tip, and I’m really looking forward to reading your book! It should be on my doorstep, like, today.

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  3. says

    One of the members of my writer’s group mentioned she was doing this last night at our meeting, and after hearing the raves from both of you I think I’ll give it a shot!

    With my first book, it took me almost three or four drafts just to get to the heart of the matter and whose story it really was. I’d like to go into the next book much more focused, which is something I’ve been struggling with since I’m in research mode and overwhelmed by so much information.

    I love the idea of starting from the core of the story first, making sure there’s a working plot and theme, and writing “out” from there. Thanks for the suggestion, and best of luck today, Camille! I’ll be waiting for my copy to arrive and bugging my apartment’s office about package deliveries :)

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  4. Vaughn Roycroft says

    A terrific idea, a great way for us pantsers to test and explore. I like it. Thanks Camille! Congrats and best wishes on your release!

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  5. says

    Excellent post, and your query letter is a great reminder that it can be a mistake for writers to become obsessed with making their query as short as possible. Yours took the time to give a great sense of the story and voice, and showcased your own writing ability in the process – and clearly it paid off.

    By the way, I think your book cover is simply stunning. What a beautiful image!

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    • says

      Thank you, Keith! I agree about worrying too much about the query letter’s length. Voice and story, not length, is what an agent is looking for (IMO :).

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  6. says

    Interesting idea. I’m not sure it would always work for me in terms of helping the novel, but anything that might help me with the dreaded synopsis/query letter summary is worth a try!

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    • says

      Hi Jenelcc,
      I think the beauty of the query letter is that it’s quick enough that you can give it a whirl without losing days of valuable writing time!

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  7. Cindy Keeling says

    Great advice, Camille. Thanks! I’ve found that writing a basic premise first makes all the difference. Much less “wheel spinning” later.

    Congratulations on your new book. Gorgeous cover!

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  8. says

    I was thinking exactly that a few months ago for the next novel I write. I’ve written the first two more or less organically (sorry to use a cliched word) and never quite knew which one of the possible plot developments I would take until I wrote the scene, and even then, I would come back and change directions during later revisions. Writing a query is a great tool to let me work out the big ideas but still allow some of the process to be fairly free and occasionally surprising.

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  9. says

    I’ve done this! In fact, the query that finally got me an agent was written before I’d written a single word of the novel. It worked for me because (with other attempts) I got so engrossed (bogged down) in the subplots and details of the novel, I couldn’t later pare it down to a query-length paragraph (or even two) that captured the story’s essential core.

    It’s a forest-for-the-trees kinda thing.

    Even though the novel went through several (million) revisions before I sent the query letter out, the heart of the story was the same as my initial idea and the initial query.

    To nay sayers, give it shot. If it doesn’t work, just toss the original letter. No harm done!

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  10. says

    Loving this! It’s query day, feels like… Nathan Bransford’s doing a query crit at his blog, and now this.

    Your query sounds amazing, and that cover is gorgeous. Definitely a book I’ll want to check out. Congratulations!

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  11. Sheree Wood says

    Great post! I loved your query and the advice that went along with it. I’m off to look up The Art of Forgetting, now. I hope it’s available in digital form.

    Thanks again for the advice.

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  12. says

    Terrific post. I did this with my newest WIP and it has helped immensely. It’s a great compromise for a pantser-at-heart.

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  13. Crichardwriter says

    Thank you – this was fantastic! I started writing a synopsis like this for my first novel, but I think I like the idea of hammering out the query letter better.

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  14. says

    Excellent post! Thanks for providing an example too. I’ve read advice before about writing the query first, but I’ve forgotten to do it. Great reminder; I’m going to go do it right now!

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  15. Maril Hazlett says

    Great idea – and congratulations on the novel!

    When I really want to torture myself, I try to reduce my WIP into a tweet.

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  16. says

    I so wish my brain worked this way for the first draft, but for those of us who are total pansters, I can see the value of doing this before revisions.

    The book itself looks wonderful. I’m grateful for your query letter on a different level, though. One of your themes is close to that of my WIP, so you’ve given me a hint of how I might articulate it better. Thank you.

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  17. says

    I did this with my current manuscript. It helped keep me on track. Of course, the query I wrote still needed a complete overhaul. Your book sounds fabulous!

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  18. says

    I couldn’t agree more! I did this, and my 1-page synopsis before I started revisions, and that helped me see the big picture.

    Don’t know if it helps makes the book better, but it sure *feels* good to have a query written. Good like having an organized closet instead of a big pile of unsorted laundry. :-)

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  19. says

    I do this with every book I write. The first novel I submitted was a mess, and one things that should have clued me in on that was how hard the query was to write. It took a lot more years before I learned enough to know why (it was a premise novel — no core conflict, no protags with strong goals).

    A query is a fantastic diagnostic tool. If I can’t write one (even if it’s bad with vague “then she saves the world” type sentences) then I know I’m still missing important core elements to the novel. But if I can pinpoint who my protag is, what she wants, what’s in her way, and what the consequences are if she fails, then I know I have enough nailed down to actually write the novel.

    I may still have a lot to figure out (that’s the fun part), but the core conflict and the pieces I’ll need to craft a good plot are there.

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  20. says

    Camille,

    It’s always so interesting to hear what works for different writers during the magical process of novel writing. I, too, write something beforehand that includes the characters, their respective struggles and how they overcome them, and also the main story question. I specifically like how your original “forgive and forget” premise is repeated at the end of your synopsis, and ties to the title. A great example!

    Thank you for sharing, and a HUGE congratulations on your debut release. Well deserved. I can’t wait to read it!

    Jennifer

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  21. says

    Super post, Camille.

    A few of us at The Backspace Conference were saying the same thing about loglines. Best to nail it before writing the book.

    So, if you have a concise logline, you can write a query. If you have a tight query that echo’s your character’s voice, you can write the novel.

    Great advice. Time to apply it.

    Much success on your debut and thanks for sharing the wisdom.

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  22. says

    Great idea, Camille! This is exactly what I need to do right now to clarify some things for my story. This will be a great way to adjust my focus.

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  23. says

    I’m a pantser who’s gradually learning the value of a (very general) outline, starting with a “query” like this.

    With my last novel, I followed the first few steps of the Snowflake method – just enough to identify major characters, turning points, and backstory/worldbuilding, plus a brief “query” paragraph. The novel turned out to be MUCH more coherent than any of my previous ones, even though there were still large swaths that I made up more or less as I went.

    In retrospect, I can even see that the elements that were vague in that initial query – the antagonist, the interim goals to get to the final goal, the last half of the plot – are the same ones that are vague in the finished first draft of the novel.

    Maybe that’s inescapable with my process – I have to write the first half to know where I’m going. Or maybe it’s something that can be fixed with a better query. I’ll keep that in mind for my next novel, along with the other excellent points you’ve raised!

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  24. Jeffrey Russell says

    Great post.

    Last year I was stuck midway through the third draft of my first book when I decided to distract myself by working on a query. That didn’t go so well either. I should have realized right then that if I couldn’t distill the essence of the story into one page, well, maybe there wasn’t an essence to it at all. And that turned out to be the case.

    I’m not making the same mistake again. This time, prior to writing even one scene, I made damn sure I knew what my story was, who it was about, what my characters have to accomplish, and what they need to go through in order to do so.

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  25. says

    I LOVE the idea of doing the query first. I’ve been playing with that idea this time around and it definitely helps see if you have enough meat to carry 300+ pages. Thanks so much for providing your letter here. How generous!

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  26. says

    Wow, this is a great post and a trick I’d never thought of. I did work on a synopsis for my blog the other night, and I was amazed at how much the story had changed since I’d written my first months ago. Chalk that up to writing my first book, I guess.

    I can see the merit in the idea, and even though my WIP is almost done, I’m going to pull up that synopsis and work on it.

    Thanks!

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  27. says

    I think this is great advice Camille. Because I thrash around with ideas at the outset, I’d probably have to write the first 12,000 words and play with what I have. Then a query letter would help me really understand my main character and stay focussed.

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  28. says

    This is so smart. (And your book sounds fantastic!) The fact that the wonderful Janice Hardy says she does this too (in the comments up there) really sells me on this.

    Next book: Query comes first. Love this!

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  29. says

    Too late for me to implement this advice for my first novel, but I will definitely consider it for the sequel. LOVE this idea! Thanks for posting it.

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  30. says

    Very interesting idea that I am definitely going to try. Plus, it would help to answer the question we are always asked when we’re out with friends or family and working on our WIP: “What’s your book about?” I currently dread this question because I do not have the above concepts in place, so my explanation turns into this longwinded “blah blah blah” ramble that even puts me to sleep, LOL. I have printed out your sample query for inspiration. Thanks SO much!

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    • says

      Thank you, Kris! That’s funny about the WIP question; I, too, dread it because I want everyone to be as enthusiastic as I am. (That may explain why I’m very hesitant to discuss a book before I’ve finished the first draft).

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