Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WRT: Putting Horse Before Cart – Why You Should Consider Writing Your Query Letter Before Finishing Your Manuscript

You know, you really should write your query letter summary paragraph before you sit down to write the first words of your next project.

Say what?!

Let me explain what I mean.

Anyone who has ever finished a novel and sat down to query an agent or editor knows what it’s like to freeze in front of the keyboard, unable to summarize key story points and characters in 250 words or less. Why is that? Well, aside from the obvious reason (you know your story so intimately that pinpointing the most critical elements sometimes seems like an exercise in arbitrariness, though it’s really more like not seeing the forest for the trees), I think a lot of the difficulty derives from our writing habits.

Maybe the problem stems from holding onto outdated perceptions of what the story is about. While you might set out to write with certain objectives in mind, you don’t adapt those objectives as the story matures. It’s so easy to forget that those unexpected and compelling twists of plot or character insights that waylaid you along the way have also commandeered your story. It’s no longer what it started out to be. While discovery is so intrinsic to the organic nature of writing and why we derive so much pleasure out of the act of doing it, it makes writing the summary a bit more challenging. Now, you have to go back and reassess with the mindset not of a writer, but of a reader.

One of the biggest reasons I struggle with querying comes from realizing I haven’t spent enough time developing the most commercially relevant aspects, whether it be story arc, conflict, character... whatever. I get to the query and, for the first time, am forced to think about this character’s role, the purpose of that character’s personality strengths or flaws, the reason for structuring the story a certain way, or defining the conflict as I did, from a purely market-driven point of view. I often find then that the most compelling attributes haven’t been well developed or even incorporated.

Arguments aside about whether you should outline or synopsize before writing, you might find it useful to write that brief query letter summary both before and frequently throughout the course of writing your book. This will help you focus on those oh-so-important key elements and make writing the real query afterwards a piece of cake. (For those new to writing queries, a few keystrokes and your basic search engine will reward you with a trove of helpful resources :blogs, boards, articles....)

Oh, and one last thing: those early query letter summary paragraphs? Nobody should ever see them except you.

Happy RoadTripping.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you! I like to write the query as I go along, so I have something to work with when the time comes. And now, I'm using the snowflake software, which is forcing me to really think out my novel before I write it. Love it so far.