Books are all about conflict. Think about that.
In this sense, conflict can be anything that causes a problem for your protagonist – not just wars, or serial killers, or world ending asteroids about to hit the planet (I always tear up when Tea Leone squeezes her father as that gargantuan tsunami roars toward land. Her whispered plea: Daddy! You know the one!)
Conflict can be found in a whisper, an unbidden memory as your protagonist spies a familiar face among the crowd; something – anything – that sends him or her on their journey.
Sounds like hogwash? It’s not.
Many writers map out their conflict long before they translate thoughts to drafting phase, but just as many writers don’t. Either method is fine – whatever works for you! But you have to be able to identify the conflict in your story in order to write a successful query.
Think about the books you’ve read. Every one of them has some kind of drama. Even the fluffiest of romances sport the dilemmas to end all dilemmas! So what’s yours?
Is it an actual conflict? One Ring to rule them all…
Is it a central theme? One choice can transform you…
Is it a state of mind? This is Bridget Jones, signing off…
Trust me, that last one is definitely a state of mind!
So, let’s recap the formula of a successful query:
- The Hook
- The Conflict
- The Resolution
When I first started this little project, I realized that a lot of writers couldn’t seem to identify the conflict in their manuscripts. Not because they didn’t know what their conflict was; but again, they seemed to focus on the details that they deemed ‘vital information’, as opposed to the snappy overview.
Boil it down. Write, re-write, and hone in on what’s really important. What will make a reader pick up your book?
In The Dreaded Query Part One, we discussed the importance of The Hook. Remember, you have four seconds before an agent passes your query based on the hook alone.
If you were successful, congratulations! You have just made it to level 2: Another six seconds! You’ve graduated to a whole ten seconds before an agent passes!
As I urged you all in Part One…think about that.
If we, as writers, can’t bring the plot together in one cohesive paragraph, the agent will assume that half your manuscript is waffle.
So, again, I would like to highlight the query of another brave Twitter follower – Christi Silver. An amazing writer, Christi is definitely worth a follow – @EditmoiSVP
Thanks to Christi for participating! Read on for her original query! The conflict is highlighted in red.
Chuck Palahniuk’s gritty tone meets Lidia Yuknavitch’s ruthless style in EXPOSURE, a 75,000-word noir thriller about a bad-girl undergrad who follows her photography professor and her own good intentions down a spiral of self-destruction in the war-torn Middle East.
Eden Saintsbury is no saint, but man, she thinks she can heal people, and she sure isn’t above using her body to do it. A Chicago poli-sci/psych double major, Eden says she has plans to one day counsel victims of war, and in the meantime she prepares by exposing herself to others’ traumas. Between classes, Eden preys on troubled souls. She homes in, uses sex to get into her captives’ heads, and once she’s in, she does some housekeeping.
Her new girl, Zoe Miller, is an empathic police sketch artist whose drawings reveal more than just her subjects’ motivations, and Eden finds herself unexpectedly enraptured. Zoe, a loner who’s swept up in a manhunt for a suspected terrorist, has no time for Eden’s ploys and soon draws the line. Reeling, Eden flings herself into an adventure with her grief-struck photography professor, Jason Lazarus, which leads her to some forced perspective in Syria and helps Zoe frame her missing suspect back in Chicago.
Exposure follows the alternating points of view of Jason, a cold and compulsive photographer who eventually falls in love with Eden’s pure intentions, and Zoe, Eden’s on-again-off-again girlfriend whose drawings bring to light the dangerous depths that Eden is willing to go to help others find their good sides.
Very nicely written, but I had trouble identifying the central conflict of her manuscript (her query was also missing a hook). Upon reaching out to Christi, and asking a few key questions, I was able to give this great query a once over.
Disclaimer: Only Christi knows the true theme/conflict of her work, and though I did ask questions, my re-work might not accurately depict the story that she was trying to tell.
Here it is, again, conflict is highlighted in red:
Eden Saintsbury may be a woman on a mission, but she’s no saint.
A student with a soft spot for war victims, Eden finds herself in the midst of an adventure after her empathic police sketch artist girlfriend – Zoe – calls it quits; sending Eden straight into war torn Syria on the heels of her grief-stricken photography professor – Jason.
Cold and compulsive, Jason is the perfect test subject as Eden endeavors to drag him back to the light; but when Zoe’s empathic sketches take a very dark turn, the dangerous depths of Eden’s good intentions are revealed, ultimately placing them all in very grave danger.
Which version would entice you to pick up the book and read on?
Here are the questions I asked Christi to determine the conflict:
- Can Zoe not concentrate on her abilities with Eden in the picture?
- Does something happen in Syria to link back to Zoe?
- Does Eden ‘find’ herself in Syria due to something Jason does?
Why did I ask those particular questions? There’s method to my madness, and maybe my madness can help you.
1. I needed to find out if Zoe was central to the plot, or if she was just a character that Christi deemed important
2. I needed to discover the stakes – in other words, what’s the one (or two) thing (s) that would completely screw up Eden’s life if the worst happened.
3. How do all three of these characters link together?
Go through your query line by line, asking similar questions, and if you find yourself answering those questions aloud – as opposed to seeing those answers in your query – it’s time to start over.
The next query I want to share was missing a good hook when I first read it…and that’s about all that was missing. Sekou Smith – a guy with a hysterical Twitter feed – is definitely worth a follow – @KSekouM
Here’s his original query:
Maysar flees his former master’s hired slave hunters.
Riding the front of a sandstorm in a stolen inflatable, he crashes into the legendary Floating Library. The grandson of one of Timbuktu’s most revered scholars and himself a skilled wind cartographer, Maysar settles into life aboard the flying palace of knowledge.
But when ruthless slavers attack the Library and threaten the tentative peace of the region, Maysar realizes he has to take a stand.
This sounds like an awesome read! There’s conflict, and resolution. It’s clear, concise, and a great query example. I know it doesn’t quite follow my formula, but two of the main components were present, and it felt like the back jacket of a book – so revising with a fresh perspective was easy.
Here’s my revision, complete with snappy Hook:
If your inner peace was in jeopardy, would you risk your freedom?
Fleeing his former master’s slave hunters, Maysar steals an inflatable, riding the golden crest of a sandstorm before crashing into the legendary Floating Library.
The grandson of one of Timbuktu’s most revered scholars, and a skilled wind cartographer, Maysar settles into life aboard the flying palace of knowledge. Freedom is everything that he expected it to be, and Maysar doesn’t want to waste one more second of his life.
But when ruthless slavers attack the Library and threaten the tentative peace of the region, Maysar realizes that he has no choice.
He has to take a stand.
That’s it for another installment of The Dreaded Query. I hope the above examples can help you on your quest for a Literary Agent! And give those two brave souls a follow on Twitter! They were great sports!
Next time, we will look at the Resolution – the moreish paragraph that brings the entire query together.
Until then, I can be found on the Twittersphere – @Maria_Tureaud
And remember – crafting your query is 100 times more difficult than crafting your novel. Don’t rush it!