Larry: [skips in, humming the theme song from 2001 A Space Odyssey.] Hi, JD. Ready for round two?
(in case you missed Round 1, click here.)
Me: [I prepare myself mentally. Larry’s my cousin, and he’s a great guy, but sometimes he lets his 163 IQ get the better of his ego. I mean don’t get me wrong, the guy is literally a rocket scientist. He evaluates civilian rocket programs for NASA, but all that brain power hasn’t translated into good query writing. Don’t tell Larry though. He might fill the inside of your car with space age sock gel. It’s happened before.] Hi Larry, come on in. Ready to polish that query up?
Larry: [beaming his biggest smile] You bet. I can’t wait to see what you’ll help me with today.
Me: [I break out in a sweat. Something’s wrong. Larry never asks for the “h” word.] uhhh. Ok, sure.
Larry: [pulls out a video camera and sets it on a filing cabinet. He carefully adjusts the angle to focus on the desk where I’m sitting.]
Me: What’s that?
Larry: [as if noticing I was in the room for the first time] Oh this? Nothing. Pretend it’s not even here.
Me: [I glance from the camera to Larry and then back again]
Larry: Ok fine. Remember Pete, my buddy who works down at the college?
Me: Yeah? [I think he means Dr. Peter Beraux. The dean of the Biology Department. Won some prestigious award for research like three years in a row. Larry hates the guy. Says he’s a moron with a paper napkin degree. Then again Larry is pretty sure science that isn’t “space” science is just junk.]
Larry: Well old Pete and I were having a chat. [Larry’s eye twitches involuntarily] Anyway, he’s doing research on primates. He’s testing a theory on how the alpha male teaches younger members of the group by pretending not to know something. [Larry smiles] Primates are like chimps and apes, in case you’re wondering.
Me: [not smiling. I feel a headache coming on] I know what primates are.
Larry: [pushes the record button on the video camera.] Well anyway, I bet my old buddy that humans use the same technique.
Me: [that explains Larry’s good mood. I’m a science project.] Did you two spend any time talking about the violent way primates can respond when unwanted stimulus is forced into their habitat…and say for instance they could smash a thousand dollar video camera.
Larry: [frowns.] Always thinking about yourself. Have it your way then. [turns the camera off and sits down]
Me: So let’s look at where we left off with your query. This was your original.
Ten year old Alexus LeGrand loves her stuffed unicorn, Pom Pom, more than anything. Then one day Pom-Pom magically comes to life and tells Alexus about all the other magical creatures that exist all around them. Pom-Pom has revealed himself to Alexus because he needs her help to save the world.
Alexus goes with Pom-pom to meet his friends: Bombo the stuffed bear and Tinsley the plastic soldier. Together they travel through a dangerous swamp called the Fire Swamp and are chased by evil monkey-like creatures called OctoMonks, which have the bodies of monkeys but eight arms like an octopus. The Octomonks work for an evil wraith known as the Gordian-wraith.
There is a door called the Infinity Door that provides all the time to the universe. The Gordian-Wraith tied the door shut with a knot that no one can untie. But Alexus has a special talent that lets her untie any knot and that’s why Pom-pom came to life to get her help.
Together, the friends work as a team to get through the swamp and avoid the Octomonks. Finally they reach the Infinity Door and the Gordian knot. Alexus is about to untie the knot, but then the Gordian-wraith has an Octomonk, named Badger, capture Pom-pom. Even worse, he ties the unicorn to the knot on the Infinity Door. Now if Alexus unties the knot on the door, then Pom-pom will disappear forever.
Things take an even bigger turn for the worse when Alexus finds out the Gordian Wraith knows something about a secret in her past she doesn’t want to talk about. The wraith uses this as blackmail to make sure that she doesn’t help her friend Pom-pom. Will Alexus be able to figure out a way to save the universe before it’s too late?
Send requests for full manuscript via email only, as it’s unlikely I will be able to respond to the number of requests using regular postal mail.
Me: We changed the first sentence yesterday, but this time I want to jump to the end. The two most important parts of your query are the first sentence and the last. The first sentence is important because it has to be interesting enough to convince the agent to keep reading the rest of the query. But the last sentence is really important too, because you want to leave the agent wanting to know more about your manuscript. Remember, the whole point of the query is to get that agent to request pages. Your last sentence is:
Will Alexus be able to figure out a way to save the universe before it’s too late?
Larry: Can’t get much better than that. I mean if you were an agent wouldn’t you want to know if she saves the universe. [rubs his hands together eagerly] I’m gonna get hundreds of requests. [crosses his legs and squirms in his chair like he’s a five year old who needs the bathroom]
Me: [I wonder what Dr. Beraux would think about this primate behavior.] Larry, your book is for Middle Grade kids, right? I’m going to go out on a limb and say Alexus ends up saving the universe.
Larry: [stops squirming in his chair. He looks like someone just erased his favorite math equation] Well…yes.
Me: So there really isn’t an interesting question at the end. The agent knows Alexus is going to save the universe, so you haven’t really created a sense of interest in the outcome. There’s another problem with your last sentence. It’s a question.
Larry: [purses lips thoughtfully] Did you really graduate high school? I mean you weren’t one of those kids they just pushed out of the system because they were tired of failing you every year.
Me: [I take a deep breath and wait.]
Larry: Well yes, I know my last sentence is a question. Obviously. Look. See that funny little squiggly mark at the end that looks like a hook? That’s a big hint. But you just got done saying you want to leave the agent with an interesting question in their mind about how the story turns out. Didn’t I just do that?
Me: Yes, you want to leave a question in their mind, but not by literally asking a question. You have to be really careful putting rhetorical questions in queries. Many agents have a very good sense of humor and they will think up funny answers to your questions. You don’t want them doing that. You want them thinking about your story and how much they want to get their hands on those pages.
Larry: Fine. So I have to create the sense of question without phrasing it as a question.
Me: You got it, Larry. For example, what if that last line said:
Alexus has to choose between saving her family from the meteor or saving her friends from the fire.
There’s a big interesting question about which choice Alexus makes, without literally writing it as a question. This also gets into the conflict and the stakes of your story a little bit. You can think of the stakes as the bad thing (whatever that is) that will happen if Alexus doesn’t succeed.
Larry: So I should save the stakes until the last few sentences?
Me: No, that’s not what I mean. The stakes should really come up earlier in your query. That way the agent knows what’s at…stake. However, when you want to generate the question in the agent’s mind at the end…the stakes are a great place to look. Because remember the stakes are the bad thing that will happen if Alexus doesn’t succeed…which presumably you already explained earlier in the query. So now, here in the last few sentences you want to reinforce those stakes and make the agent wonder how Alexus is going to succeed. In the example I used, the question is how is she going to save her family and her friends at the same time.
Larry: [look of concentration on his face] I should phrase this as a choice then. Something like
Alexus has to choose between saving the universe or not being able to play with Pom-pom anymore.
Me: That’s a better approach, but you still want to tweak it some. You’ve re-stated the stakes (saving the universe) and setup a choice…but the two choices aren’t balanced very well. If Alexus chooses to play with Pom-pom, then that means the universe gets destroyed, right? So there really isn’t a question of which choice she will make. She’s going to save the universe. If you’re going to end the query with a choice (which by the way you don’t always have to use a choice, but if you do…) then you want the choices to be balanced. Even better, if you can make it so that both choices are bad, then that’s the gold standard.
Larry: What do you mean both choices should be bad? Why would you want to do that?
Me: Think about it this way. If the hero of the story is stuck with only two choices, both of which are bad, then which choice should the hero make? For example:
Alexus can either stop the massive asteroid from wiping out Pom-pom’s world, or her own.
Larry: [the gears are turning in his head. I’m sure he’s trying to apply some statistical probability formula to come up with the right answer. I can actually see smoke starting to drift out of his ears.]
Me: Relax, Larry. You can’t really solve the problem based on just that sentence. Do you want to know which world Alexus will choose to save?
Larry: Yes. But only because I want to check my answer.
Me: If you want to know, then you’ll have to read the book.
Me: That’s the whole point. The question sets up an impossible situation for Alexus. She can’t pick saving one world over another. However, the agent knows that the situation is resolved somehow because that’s the whole point of the book. So to find out how the situation is resolved, the agent is going to have to request those pages.
Larry: [furrows his brow] So what’s the right answer?
Me: No. Larry. There isn’t a right answer. What I’m trying to show is that when you setup the stakes so the answer seems impossible it generates interest in the agents mind.
Larry: [looks steadily at me, not blinking]
Me: [oh good grief] Our world! Ok, she decides to save our world! Happy now?
Larry: Hah! I knew it. And I didn’t even need my slide rule.
Me: Let’s just keep going. What kind of choices does Alexus have in your story? Try to tie her choices back to the stakes.
Larry: Well the stakes are pretty clear. She has to untie the knot to let more time flow into the universe.
Me: Yeah, but that’s not really a choice is it?
Larry: Not at first, but see the thing is the Gordian-wraith is really tricky. And there’s a secret in Alexus’ past that she doesn’t think anybody knows about, but the Gordian-wraith does. He uses the secret as leverage and tricks Alexus into revealing where Pom-pom is hiding. So then the Gordian-wraith captures Pom-pom and ties Pom-pom to the knot. Now if Alexus unties the knot, it will open the door to let time in, but then that will kill Pom-pom. So Alexus doesn’t really have a good choice. [Larry smiles] Hey, that’s sort of like your gold standard where there aren’t any good choices.
Me: Yeah it is. And that actually sounds like a really interesting story. The other thing you have there, which is great, are personal stakes.
Larry: Personal stakes?
Me: See a lot of stories are about saving the world or the universe or the town or whatever. That’s fine, because it sets the stakes really high, but it’s almost too high. It’s hard for a reader to relate to the whole world being destroyed. Yeah, it’s a bad thing, but it’s hard to relate to because most of us haven’t ever had to deal with the whole world ending. On the other hand, If you add personal stakes then you are giving the reader something they can relate to. We’ve all had to deal with the fear and grief of losing someone close to us. In this case you’re talking about Alexus losing her friend Pom-pom. Readers can immediately relate to those kind of personal stakes.
Larry: Sort of like in that movie Armageddon. There’s an asteroid about to wipe out the whole world, but the hero is most concerned about saving his daughter.
Me: Exactly. The audience can easily relate to the father wanting to save his daughter. It gives us a much better connection.
So let’s review. You want your last sentence (or last couple of sentences) to do a couple of things.
Leave a question in the agents mind about how the story will resolve itself.
- Create the sense of a question without literally writing it as a question.
- If you pose a situation that has a choice, the choices have to be balanced.
- The gold standard is creating two choices that both seem bad.
- Try to tie the choice back into the stakes (the bad thing that will happen).
Me: So the sentence you had at the end of your query is:
Will Alexus be able to figure out a way to save the universe before it’s too late?
The stakes are there, but it doesn’t really create a question. Like I said, we all know she’s going to save the universe. Can you come up with something better? Something to create a strong question about the outcome of the story, without actually writing it as a question?
Larry [takes out slide rule and starts making strange markings on the paper. I recognize 3.14 as Pie, but that’s about as far as I can make out. Larry leans back in his chair, smiling.] I got it. How about this.
Alexus faces a choice between saving time and saving her new friend. To fix this tangled mess, Alexus must untie the only knot she’s ever been afraid to take on – the one tied around her own past.
Me: [I gotta get me one of those slide rules] Hey, that’s not half bad, Larry. You’ve got the stakes in there about saving the universe and you also make it personal by talking about saving her friend. And both choices seem bad, so the agent will be wondering how she is going to figure it out…plus you even added in the thing about her secret past. I also really like the way you keep bringing in words that invoke the images of knots and ropes. It gives it a nice consistent theme.
Larry: [sheathes his slide rule like a sword] Told you we should have video taped. Old Pete would be eating his words right about now.
Me: Don’t worry about that. Just keep working on the query. It’s really getting better.
Larry: [stands up.] Got to go finish my calculations for that low atmosphere re-entry program. Wouldn’t want returning shuttles to go skipping off into the moon.
Me: [I smile. That’s about as close to a thanks as I’ll get] I’ll see you tomorrow, Larry.
Links related to this Episode:
- E1 Part 1: Working on the first sentence
- E1 Part 2: Working on the last sentence
- E1 Part 3: Clearer stakes
- E1 Part 4: Getting rid of details by using specifics
- E1 Final: The original query and the final rewritten version
If you care to comment on this episode I would love to hear it. If you have a suggestion to improve Larry’s query I would love to hear that too. Heck you can even rewrite the whole thing if you’re feeling ambitions.
All the best,