Larry’s Queries – Episode 1 Part 4

In this episode we’ll talk about removing unnecessary details from the query, while at the same time keeping the specific pieces that make our query unique.

Larry: [strolls into my office with camera in hand.] Hi, JD. Ready to work on my query? [He snaps a photo of me.]

(in case you missed Round 1, click here.) Worked on the beginning
(in case you missed Round 2, click here.) Worked on the ending
(in case you missed Round 3, click here.) Worked on clarifying stakes

Me: Hi Larry. Please tell me the camera isn’t another one of your attempts to settle a bet with that Dr. Beraux guy down at the college?

Larry: Huh? Oh, you mean old Pete. No, it’s nothing like that. Although we have been having this argument about people intentionally taking pills that make themselves less intelligent.

Me: You’re talking about stupid pills? You think people take stupid pills. Why in the world would someone do something like that?

Larry: [smiles at me] I was hoping you would tell me.

Me: [I got nothing.]

Larry: See that look on your face right there….that’s exactly what I mean. [winks at me] Maybe you should cut back to half a pill in the mornings.

Me: [In case you didn’t know, Larry is a bit of an ego-maniac. Having a 163 IQ and no sense of empathy will do that to you.] Let’s just get this over with. Where were we with your query?

Larry: Last time I was here we talked about getting clearer stakes. You said the next thing I had to do was cut out some of the details to make the story easier to understand. Which of course makes no sense. Everybody knows to make things clearer, you have to be more specific.

Me: Whoa, hold on there space cowboy. I said cut details. That’s different from being specific. You still need to be specific, you just have to be careful not to include so many details.

Larry: Actually, maybe you better stop taking that pill in the morning completely from now on.

 

Me: No, listen. In a query you need to be specific about the story. We need to know what the main character wants, what is at stake and what happens if they don’t accomplish whatever it is they want. For example, in Star Wars we need to know that Luke wants to become a Jedi warrior and free the galaxy from the emperor’s evil rule. If he doesn’t, then Luke and all his friends will be dead and the emperor will continue his merciless reign.

Larry: Seems like an awful lot of details to me.

Me: Not really. I didn’t mention the names of Luke’s friends…or the name of the emperor…or the names of the planet where Luke was born…or the types of droids he has…or the color of his light –

Larry: Ok, Ok. I get it. So just avoid details like names and I’m good, right?

Me: Not exactly. Sometimes names are needed, but not always. However if you’re looking for a good place to start cutting details from a query then usually too many names is a good place to start. Let’s take a look at your original query.

Dear agent,

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.

Sincerely
Larry.

Me: Take a look at all the details you’ve got crammed in there. It’s good that we know your main character is Alexus and her stuffed unicorn is Pom-pom. But do we really need to know that Pom-pom has friends named Bombo and Tinsley? Or that one of the Octomonks is named Badger? Or that they travel through a fire swamp? Those are all details, which don’t really affect an agent’s understanding of your story.

Larry: So you’re saying you don’t like the name Bombo? I can change that.

Me. No, that’s not it. The problem isn’t with the name, it’s that you’ve got too many names thrown in there. Sometimes that’s called “Character alphabet soup.” It means you’ve got so many named characters your query ends up like a jumbled up bowl of alphabet soup.

Larry: That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Me: Why not?

Larry: Alphabet soup isn’t jumbled up at all. It’s very orderly. In fact I usually move the letters around with my spoon to make all kinds of words.

Me: What?

Larry: Words like telemetry and parabola. Sometimes I even pick words to describe places or people I’ve visited. Just last Sunday I was spelling moron and dullard.

Me: Didn’t we work on your query last Sunday?

Larry: [smiles at me]

Me: [I have to remind myself this is just the way Larry is. He doesn’t mean to be a jerk, but it’s hard to go against your natural state of being.] Never mind. Look, the point is you don’t need all of those names in your query. In fact you don’t need all of the characters. Remember, the agent hasn’t read your manuscript. Throwing all those names at the agent in a 250 word query is going to be overwhelming and confusing. Try to streamline and keep it simple. You need the main character, maybe a secondary character and the villain. Then focus on telling what your story is about rather than the cast of hundreds that are in it.

Larry: But Bombo is like the coolest stuffed bear ever. I can’t just get rid of him. He’s got fluffy brown fur and bright button eyes with the cutest little ribbon tied over –

Me: He’s got to go.

Larry: Well Tinsely stays. He’s the most loyal toy soldier ever and he carries a red –

Me: Gone.

Larry: [frowns] I need soup. Don’t suppose you know the proper spelling for killjoy?

Me: Let’s just focus on the middle section of your query where all those details start overwhelming the agent.

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?

Me: See all the names and details cluttering it up? If we cut out Bombo and Tinsley, does it really change the meaning of the story?

Larry: Did I mention Bombo’s curly brown fur?

Me: [rubbing my forehead]

Larry: Fine. Fine. No, it doesn’t really change the way the story goes.

Me: Right. And neither does Tinsley or a lot of the other stuff. Even the Octomonks are over-described. Too much detail about what they look like. Those are details that are getting in the way of you telling the agent what your story is about. Boil all that stuff down to the essential specifics. Don’t include things you don’t need.

Larry: Fine. You don’t like too much detail. How about this then.

The Gordian wraith is threatening to destroy the universe. Alexus has a special talent that can save us all. Unfortunately the Gordian Wraith threatens to kill Pom-pom. Alexus has to decide to save her friend or the universe. The End.

Me: Hold on. You may have taken my advice a little too far. It’s good to remove details, but now you’ve swung way too far to the other side. Everything is just vague statements now. For example, saying Alexus has a special talent doesn’t tell us anything. You have to be specific about that talent, but without providing unnecessary detail.

Larry: [rubs the back of his neck]. Ok, so I should say the special talent is untying knots, but I don’t need to mention how fast she can untie a knot or that she calls her skill Anti-knot-ju-jihtsu.

Me: Anti what?

Larry: Never mind. I think I’ve got it now. Just like when I said the Gordian Wraith threatens to kill Pom-pom. That’s too vague. I need to be specific about how the Gordian Wraith threatens to kill Pom-pom, but I don’t need to provide every detail of how she is captured and who captures her and all that stuff.

Me: Exactly.

Larry: Ok. Then how about this for the middle part of the query.

Alexus can beat any knot and she challenges the wraith to come up with his best half-halter hitch. She’ll crack it and still be back in time for lunch. But Alexus is hiding a secret she’s afraid to admit even to herself – years ago she accidently taught the Gordian-wraith how to tie knots.

Since then, the Gordian-wraith has added a few tricks to his bag and uses magic to tie Pom-pom’s fate to the same knot holding the door shut. If the Gordian’s knot is undone, then so is Pom-pom’s magical life.

Me: That’s pretty good Larry. It lays out the central plot of your story without getting bogged down with too many details. It’s even got a bit of voice going on in there. Let’s put it all together with the first part of the query we worked on before (in Episode 1) and the ending part too (in Episode 2).

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 skilled enough to 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.

No worries though. Alexus can beat any knot and she challenges the wraith to come up with his best half-halter hitch. She’ll crack it and still be back in time for lunch. But Alexus is hiding a secret she’s afraid to admit even to herself – years ago she accidently taught the Gordian-wraith how to tie knots.

Since then, the Gordian-wraith has added a few tricks to his bag and uses magic to tie Pom-pom’s fate to the same knot holding the door shut. If the Gordian’s knot is undone, then so is Pom-pom’s magical life.

Alexus faces a choice between saving time itself and saving her new friend. To fix this tangled mess, she’ll have to figure out the only knot she’s ever been afraid to take on – the one she tied around her own past.

Larry: Hey, that’s kind of neat. It’s like the main parts of my story summed up in an easy to understand format.

Me: Which is exactly what the agent is looking for.

Larry: [smiling] I’m gonna get a zillion requests from agents.

Me: I think you’ll get your share, Larry. Your story actually sounds really interesting. And that’s the key thing to keep in mind. If an agent is going to request pages of your manuscript, most likely it’s because of the story. The query needs to focus on telling that story. Maybe not everything in the story, but the main parts or at least focus on one interesting part. Most times agents will request pages because the story sounds interesting, rather than just a jumble of neat characters with cool sounding name. Focus on the story and the intriguing elements and you’ll do fine.

Larry: That’s good advice. [Looks sheepishly at the ground] I feel like maybe I owe you something…you know…for all the things I said about your lack of intelligence.

Me: [I think Larry means he owes me an apology, but I’m pretty sure his head would explode if he ever tried saying the words I’m sorry.] Hey. Don’t worry about it buddy. I’m just glad we got it all worked out.

Larry: No, really. I feel like this is something I have to do.

Me: [Wow. This is a big moment for Larry.] Ok. If you’re sure.

Larry: [shuffles his feet] I know a lot of times I say you’re not so smart, but the truth is you’ve got some pretty good ideas.

Me: [I may pass out. Who is this guy?]

Larry: I mean it too. You’ve got real potential and you could have gone really far if you went to college.

Me: I did go to college, Larry. For six years. My bachelors degree is right behind my desk and my masters is over on that wall.

Larry: [nods encouragingly] I know, but I meant a real college.

Me: [I can only close my eyes.] Thanks Larry. I appreciate your empathy.

Larry: What can say? It’s a gift. But hey, I’ve got to get going. Great working with you on my query. I’ll let you know as soon as the agent requests come rolling.

Me: [I can only shake my head as Larry skips out the door. Is that guy really my cousin?]

Links related to this Episode:

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,
JD

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