Larry: [bangs open the door to my office. He has a sheet of paper in one hand and what looks like a model rocket in the other.] FFFFFuuuuuuusssssshhhhhh!!! [Larry shakes the rocket like it’s hurtling through the stratosphere.]
Me: [cringing. It’s kind of painful watching one of NASA’s top rocket scientists playing around like a 10 year old – no seriously, Larry really is a rocket scientist for NASA.] Uh. Larry, are you Ok?
Larry: [stops and stares at me like he just discovered life on whatever imaginary planet he was exploring] Oh. Hi JD. I brought over the query for my book. You said we could go through Round 3 today, right.
Me: Yeah. Today I was thinking we could work on your stakes. [The rocket ship is flying in a figure 8 now. He’s actually blowing raspberries too.] Larry? What’s up with the toy rocket?
Larry: [the raspberries stop and both his eyebrows go up. Uh-Oh…a two eye-brower look. I may be in trouble here.] Toy? Look closely. This is an exact replica – down to the very last rivet – of the gasoline and liquid oxygen rocket that Robert Goddard first launched in 1926. This “toy” heralded in the modern era of every worthwhile scientific discovery of the last 90 years.
Me: [have I mentioned Larry can be a little melodramatic at times.] Right. Sorry. Robert Goodman’s rocket. I didn’t notice that at first. I should have recognized –
Larry: It’s Goddard. Not Goodman. You don’t even know who he is, do you?
Me: Let’s take a look at the stakes in your query.
Larry: [sets the rocket down on my desk] Somewhere your high school science teacher is crying right now.
Me: By the way, did you say that thing was an exact replica? And it runs on gasoline and liquid oxygen? You didn’t really put that inside the –
Larry: Don’t be ridiculous. Only a complete idiot would walk in here carrying a rocket loaded with a dangerous explosive like gasoline and liquid oxygen.
Me: Oh. Good,
Larry: You don’t add fuel until launch time. [He sets a stainless steel bottle on my desk]
Me: [staring at the stainless container, wondering when it will explode.]
Larry: [laughing] Oh relax. It’s just water. [he pops open the top and takes a long drink] So what’s this business about stakes?
Me: [sliding back into my chair, wondering how many years that took off my life] Yes, stakes. We need to talk about the stakes in your query. They need to be more clearly defined and you need to bring them up sooner. Let’s take a look at your original version.
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: So what are stakes? The stakes are the “bad things” that will happen if your main character doesn’t succeed. It’s very important to make those clear to the agent, because it gets to the heart of what your story is all about.
Larry: Yeah. Well I nailed them. They’re as clear as Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. If Alexus doesn’t get the door open, then the universe ends. You can’t possibly tell me those aren’t clear stakes or whatever you called them.
Me: No, you’re right. You’ve got the stakes in the query. The real problem is they don’t come up soon enough. Look at how long it takes before you tell the agent that Alexus has to get the door open or there will be no more time in the universe.
Larry: What do you mean? Right there in the very first paragraph I said Pom Pom needs Alexus to help save the world. Just in case your math skills are on par with your knowledge of science – the first paragraph is the one at the beginning. I mean how much sooner can I get?
Me: No Larry. That’s not really the issue. You mention saving the world early, but it’s a very generic phrase. How many queries do you think the agent gets where the main character has to save the world? It needs to be more specific than that. You need to get your unique stakes out there sooner. You need to let the agent know the specific reason the world will end – in this case because of the Infinity Door being tied shut.
Larry: Well that’s just dumb? What’s so important about putting the stakes in the query early?
Me: Because the stakes frame your story. It tells the agent why Alexus is going through all the stuff she goes through. The sooner you get that out there, the sooner the agent will start to understand what your story is really about. Look. See that second paragraph you have – the one about Alexus going through the fire swamp and then battling the octopus-monkeys. Well none of that makes any sense unless we know why she has to go through the fire swamp and battle the monkeys. You haven’t told us yet that she needs to get to the Infinity Door so she can let time in and save the universe.
Larry: [fidgets with his model rocket] You know Goddard’s first test went over 184 feet.
Me: [poor guy doesn’t even know how to ask for help] It’s not all bad, Larry. In fact you did one really great thing with the stakes.
Larry: [stops fidgeting with the rocket and looks up]
Me: You kept raising the stakes and that’s really important. After you brought up the Infinity Door, you didn’t stop there. In the next paragraph, you say “Things take a turn for the worse” because the Gordian-wraith puts Pom Pom in danger too. So now it’s not just the universe that’s at stake, but Pom Pom too.
Larry: Yeah, I guess. But I’m not sure how a stuffed unicorn being in danger raises the stakes. I mean I already brought out the big guns with the whole universe being in danger. So what if her unicorn friend is in danger too?
Me: That’s just it, Larry. Because the unicorn is her friend, the stakes become very personal for Alexus…and for the reader. When you do that, it narrows the stakes, so they aren’t just some abstract concept of the universe ending, but rather a much more personal connection to the outcome. It’s much easier for a reader to relate to Alexus losing her friend than to the universe ending.
Larry: Well yeah. I mean, right. That’s exactly what I was thinking.
Me: Good. Just one thing though. You want to avoid phrases like “Things take a turn for the worse” because it’s very cliché. Come up with a better way to say the stakes just raised.
Larry: I can do that.
Me: And you have to bring those stakes up early. My suggestion is to do it the first paragraph. So you’ve got the first sentence we worked on in Round 1, right? Let’s take that as a starting point and then add some more sentences right after that to explain the stakes.
Larry: All the stakes? Right up front?
Me: Not all of them, because you want to leave some stuff for later, so you can raise the stakes. But let’s get the main stakes out there – the thing about no more time getting into the universe if Alexus can’t get the Infinity Door open.
Larry: Got it. Ok, let me see. This is the new first sentence we had:
In the history of useless talents, ten-year old Alexus LeGrand swears untying impossibly difficult knots has to be the lamest thing ever – that is until she gets roped into helping save the universe.
Larry: Ha! That’s such a great line. How do I come up with these things?
Me: Yeah. Hard to believe how you did that all on your own. [I won’t mention the work we did in Round 1, but here’s a link]
Larry: Ok, so if I take that line and add something like:
In the history of useless talents, ten-year old Alexus LeGrand swears untying impossibly difficult knots has to be the lamest thing ever – that is until she gets roped into helping save the universe. Her stuffed unicorn, Pom-Pom, comes to life and insists Alexus is the only one who can unravel a magical knot the evil Gordian-wraith has tied around the Infinity Door (the source of all time in the universe). Unless they can get the door open soon, time will run out – literally.
Me: Wow, that’s not half-bad, Larry. I’ll bet even Robert Goodall would be proud of that one.
Larry: Goddard. It’s Robert Goddard. Seriously, did your high school science class involve a lot of picture books and paint by number exercises?
Me: [what’s wrong with paint by numbers?] So the lines you added really clarify the stakes for the agent. This frames the rest of the story and now we know why Alexus is going to do all the other stuff that comes after this. It also creates interest in the story because we want to know how Alexus will get the door open. And as a bonus, you’ve even included the specific reason that Alexus is the only one that can help.
Larry: What do you mean?
Me: A lot of stories are about “the chosen one”, where some kid is the only one that can save the world. The problem is that most of the time, it isn’t clear why that kid is the only one. What’s special about that particular kid? Why couldn’t it be some other kid who saves the world?
Larry: Oh. So you mean because Alexus has the special knot untying ability, then that explains why she’s the only one that can get the door open.
Larry: Ha! That wasn’t so bad. [rubs hands eagerly] So now I’m ready to send my query out, right?
Larry: [rolls eyes] You know I’ve gone through Pentagon audits that are less intrusive than this.
Me: Literary agents aren’t as easily impressed as the Pentagon. Look, you’ve got a great start here Larry. Good first sentence (followed closely by stakes) and then a good closing sentence. What you need to work on now is all the stuff in between.
Me: There are a lot of details – names and descriptions – that are making it hard to follow your story. We need to cut those details out.
Larry: [seems to be wondering why he even bothers talking to me] So let me get this straight. You want me to cut details out of the query so it’s easier to understand. That’s dumb. Everybody knows you add details to make things clearer. It’s like when I explain to Uncle Tommy about how your low SAT scores kept you from getting into a real college.
Me: [now I’m wondering why I bother talking to him] We’ll work on it next round, Larry. It’ll be clearer then.
Larry: [shrugs and picks up rocket]
Me: [sniffing the air] Hey. Is there something leaking from the bottom of that thing? Is that gasoline?
Larry: [tucks rocket behind his back] Gotta run. You may want to avoid open flames in here for a few hours. [bolts out the door]
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,