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View Full Version : Queries based around inciting event or 'first fifty'?



Wilde_at_heart
04-27-2014, 12:18 AM
In Query Letter Hell on here, one common complaint by critiquers is that the query a person has posted is 'mostly set-up' even when there's some form of conflict or potential conflict in the opening paragraph. However I'm wondering how much of a problem that actually is, and would love to hear from agents what they think of this.

There's a lot of near-contradictory advice out there. Plenty say it should be like a book-jacket blurb. Yet I often find those, too, only hint at the main conflict and focus on the inciting incident rather than explicitly specifying the MC's overall goal, obstacle and stakes.

I've seen advice to base the query on 'the first fifty pages' bandied about here and there, but even my google-fu searches for 'first fifty' brings up only references to partial requests and so on, not advice about writing queries based on the first fifty pages or the initial incident that moves the plot forward.

Others stress to 'show the inciting incident, main plot, and consequences for the main character if the conflict (plot line) isn’t resolved.' On QLH it’s advised generally to show the main conflict upfront, then what the MC has to do and what’s stopping her. Often when I attempt this, even at < 250 words it feels like a synopsis. I'm far from the only one with this issue either.

However I found this on one agent's* site:


for an agent, that bonding process begins with the query. An overview of the whole story is not going to accomplish what a connection to the main character or the plot set-up will. Agents have to want to invest themselves in the story.

Samantha C. cited an excellent piece of advice from the always amazing Kristin Nelson: write a query based on the first fifty pages of your story. That number of pages should cover a connection to the character, as well as the set-up for the main problem/incident your character will face.

I would love to know your thoughts on this, dear agents. Is it better to set up the main conflict leaving the agent dying to know what the MC’s going to do about it, or be more explicit with what MC’s going to do and what’s stopping him or her?

Show it all, or hint? Thank you.


* http://newleafliterary.blogspot.ca/2010/08/monday-monday-so-good-to-me-er-to-you.html
These authors recommend this strategy too: http://genniferalbin.blogspot.ca/2011/12/on-ninth-day-of-querymas.html
http://m-b-west.blogspot.ca/2011/06/query-thoughts.html
I also know that Ms. Nelson is on here sometimes and love to know if this is actually what you mean. I have read through your site too but I've not had much success doing searches on the old blogspot site.
Also, 'query' along with 'setup' brings up stuff about database tables :p

Putputt
04-27-2014, 12:58 AM
This is such a great question, because, having spent a lot of time on QLH, I have also come across a lot of contradictory advice. I still remember the time I came across Gail Carriger's query on Pubrants (http://pubrants.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/gail-carrigers-query-letter.html) and I was all, "Butbutbut, on QLH we've been taught to tell at least what the MC would be up against! It's missing a last paragraph!"

I would love to know different agents' takes on this too, although at the end of the day I have a sneaking suspicion the answer boils down to "Either way could work as long as the concept/writing/voice hooks us". :D

lindyhop
04-27-2014, 02:30 AM
I'd love to hear an agent's perspective on this, too. (Though of course, Putputt, I'm sure you're right!)

jclarkdawe
04-27-2014, 05:09 AM
There's all sorts of answers, all over the internet. They boil down to make the agent fall in love with your story.

So let me tell you a story.

Many years ago, or just yesterday as it seems to me, I saw this beautiful woman and fell in love with her. In many ways it's been a lifetime, but I'm still excited every time I see her.

Why did I fall in love with her? Damn if I know, despite all the quizes from COSMO and GALAMOUR that she'd make me take. I suppose, push comes to shove, I could come up with some reasons, but it would be about as real as capturing a rainbow.

All agents can do is give out hints, just like QLH, about how to make them fall in love with your story. And just like we all fall in love with vastly different people, so do agents fall in love with stories. There is, in reality, no real way to explain why an agent falls in love with a story.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

katiemac
04-27-2014, 05:37 AM
There's a lot of near-contradictory advice out there. Plenty say it should be like a book-jacket blurb. Yet I often find those, too, only hint at the main conflict and focus on the inciting incident rather than explicitly specifying the MC's overall goal, obstacle and stakes.

I'm no agent, but the biggest difference between book jacket copy and a query letter is that book jacket copy comes attached to a published book and the query letter is not. That might seem trite, but a published book has a lot behind it. There's a implied promise: This book has a beginning, middle and end. It's a fully-formed story, and someone else (lots of people!) think it's worth reading. That's why you can get away with less.

A query gets no such implications, and that's why it needs to be more. You need to show via your pitch that you have a fully formed concept in there, the promise of a satisfactory beginning, middle and end--even if you don't give away everything. Even short queries, or queries based on the first 50 pages, are capable of proving there's follow-through.

As with everything, of course, there is the caveat: whatever works.

Fizgig
04-27-2014, 11:00 PM
Also, no agent here, but I can say that I've sent out quite a few queries now. What I've learned:

1. Log Line! It was the main difference between getting a request or not. The queries without a simple, one sentence "hook" were far less successful.

2. Real jacket blurb-like-thingies seem too short. In one version of my query, I really distilled everything into what I think was most like a blurb and it was less successful than my slightly more detailed letter that was almost a paragraph longer. I think the blurb was just too short and too light on details.

3. But it can be too long. My first query was too long and revealed it all. I think that was too much detail.

This is just based on my first query experience, but I think there's a perfect, milometer-wide middle ground. How you find that zone of query letter perfection is entirely a mystery to me.

Mossy9
04-28-2014, 06:48 AM
Also, no agent here, but I can say that I've sent out quite a few queries now. What I've learned:

1. Log Line! It was the main difference between getting a request or not. The queries without a simple, one sentence "hook" were far less successful.

2. Real jacket blurb-like-thingies seem too short. In one version of my query, I really distilled everything into what I think was most like a blurb and it was less successful than my slightly more detailed letter that was almost a paragraph longer. I think the blurb was just too short and too light on details.

3. But it can be too long. My first query was too long and revealed it all. I think that was too much detail.

This is just based on my first query experience, but I think there's a perfect, milometer-wide middle ground. How you find that zone of query letter perfection is entirely a mystery to me.

So you added your log line at the top of your query? Interesting

mayqueen
04-28-2014, 06:34 PM
Interesting about the logline. I've seen very mixed opinions about them.

After reading the blog posts the OP linked to, I feel like whether or not it's the version ultimately used, writing a query around the inciting event seems like a very good way to make sure you have a compelling set-up.

Aggy B.
04-28-2014, 11:22 PM
The query that lead to a request that lead to an offer for me had a three sentence log-line pitching the book, the "I'm seeking representation for a book of this length in thus-and-such genre" paragraph, and a paragraph about my short story publications.

Prior to that I'd gotten some solid requests of a letter that had a three paragraph pitch of the book (beginning, middle, end) and the other stuff I just mentioned. (And that three paragraphs was actually based off the three sentence logline.)

So, if it works, it works.

Fizgig
04-29-2014, 12:21 AM
So you added your log line at the top of your query? Interesting

Yep, at the beginning with word count and genre. Though, as everyone else is saying, what works, works. I think the logline actually made the hook much easier to imagine for that specific project, but I bet there are other projects where a log line might detract.

DoNoKharms
04-29-2014, 04:07 AM
I cite the 'first 50' principle a lot in QLH, because it was personally extremely helpful to me; reducing my own query to the first 50 had a incredibly positive impact on my response rate and helped me get representation. The thing is, when I cite it, I don't mean 'this is how queries MUST be written'; read any Successful Queries thread and you'll see many that focus on more or less than the first 50. Rather, I think it's a very helpful exercise to refine and hone your query that can improve it in many cases.

I'd say about 75% of first drafts in QLH suffer from too much plot and not enough focus. Limiting the scope to the first 50 is a great way to work around that, and to try to find your core character, conflict, and stakes. I'd see it more as an exercise to refine a query than a defining standard.

Regarding loglines, I know the conventional wisdom around here is to avoid them. I'll join Fizgig in saying that my queries with a logline did much better than the ones without. Despite that, I also think that in 95% of cases where I see a query with a logline, I flag it, because I do think it's inappropriate in those cases. My personal suggestion would be to only do it if you're querying a high concept book where the unique premise is a major part of the appeal; basically, if you've got a really really strong 1-sentence elevator pitch. I actually don't think this is true of most books (including many great published books), which is why I think the logline is an exception rather than a rule.

Jo Zebedee
04-29-2014, 10:45 AM
I'm with the logline-pro minority. When I was enduring QLH (shudders at the memory ;)) I specifically asked the question during #askagent, and all three agents (Julia Churchill, Juliet Pickering and Juliet Mushens feom memory) said they had no problem with a log line. Having said that, I dropped it from the query which got me an agent. That one I wrote off the top of my head to match what they'd asked for and sent. So sometimes we can angst too much about it.

The first 50 pgs - I think it's quite nice advice, actually.