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Query Hell: The Fastest Way to Madness

August 29, 2012 by Kiersi

photo by fmgbain

Each new query letter I write is like learning to ride a bike all over again, with the accompanying falling, scraping, and toddler-esque shrieks of frustration. I don’t think it will ever matter how many times I write a mini-synopsis–each manuscript has its own set of challenges to be overcome in breaking down a book-length plot into a short pitch.

Finding inspiration in book blurbs and dust jackets.

The first problem I’ve had writing my query letter for The Aeronauts is that the novel takes place across multiple settings. Parallel worlds, really, if we’re going to get technical. It means I have to introduce not one, but two environments within a single mini-synopsis. And while one world (Earth) doesn’t feature prominently in the story, it is the protagonist’s home and the backdrop to her character, so it requires a little airtime in the query letter.

For a long time, the organization of the mini-synopsis just didn’t make sense. I introduced Earth, then I introduced the texture of the fictional world Navica, and then the primary conflict. But it moved slowly into the action and my (lovely) beta readers found the move between the two worlds confusing.

After getting some hair follicle exercise (euphemism: more screams of frustration, followed by hair-pulling) I decided I needed a new approach. I looked up another book that deals with a character crossing over multiple worlds–The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. A different sort of story, but very helpful nonetheless. Instead of starting with Earth, it starts with Narnia and the conflict awaiting the heroes there.

Suddenly could I not only merge two sections together (main conflict + setting texture), but introducing the conflict of the fantasy world first became a great new hook.

Highlighting the problems inherent in the manuscript.

The other major drawback to writing this query has been the realization that, through the writing and re-writing of my mini-synopsis, my draft is fundamentally flawed. It’s funny that one can get this far–as far as pitching the book to agents–only to realize certain large-scale problems with the manuscript.

I wrote a long-form synopsis for The Aeronauts a good time ago (around that same magical time when I began writing it, before we became nemeses), but the story has changed so much that the original synopsis is no longer of any use to me. Certain characters became important that I hadn’t expected; I imagine it’s a bit like casting a TV show and realizing after the first season that a minor actor is a star and needs a larger role in the forthcoming story. (The half-human, half-mermaid Prince Gueylon, cough cough, you sexy beast, you)

Writing a book is, in some ways, like carving a sculpture. You start with this big soggy pile of dirt. (The first draft.) You use a couple of tools to start whittling out a reasonable shape. (Peer critique, revision.) You carve in nuances and details. Eventually, you have a working piece of art–but even then, you’ll still find a million things wrong with it.

I really like this video, Why I Write (And Why It Only Gets Harder) by David Rakoff, where he discusses the increasingly painful process of writing. I suffer from what David suffers from: higher standards with each final product, and as a result, more stress and frustration during the editing process. And I’m finding during the query stage that The Aeronauts isn’t quite meeting my new, higher standards of storytelling.

So my synopsis has pointed out to me some obvious (and corny) plot devices whose ends could also be accomplished through more meaningful, subtle means. It’s highlighted where I’m focusing too much on the action and the twists and not enough on the important thematic elements.

Short and sweet, but with a punch.

Every word in every sentence of the query needs to be the right one, and that is where I stumble. I love this article by Lydia Sharp called “If You Can’t Say It Succinctly Then Don’t Say It At All.” The job of the query letter isn’t to give the reader full disclosure of the plot–it’s to give just enough plot to hook the reader.

So how much to give? How much to hold back? With a novel like The Aeronauts–a purely fictional setting, complex political upheaval, and mysteries that lie unopened for much of the manuscript–I get stuck in the details like a brachiosaurus in a tar pit. I have written and re-written this bad boy so many times that I barely recognize it anymore. The words on the page are strangers to me.

I suppose at some point, one has to just sign off on it. Do the best job one can, sign one’s name at the bottom, and throw it to the wind.

Ah, the joys of being a perfectionist.


  1. Michelle says:

    Oh when to stop. That’s always the question. Someone once said the manuscript will never be perfect but at some point you have to walk away. If only someone had a crystal ball to tell us when something was perfect. Queries are always the hardest part of writing, I think.
    Good luck 🙂

  2. Don’t lose sight of your story in the revision process. You can overdo it. Maybe you need to step away from it for a while. You should fall in love with your story more and more as it gets closer to “perfection” (though perfection isn’t really possible).

    Good luck!

    • Kiersi says:

      Really good advice. I think it IS about time to leave it for a while and do revisions for the other book. Thanks, Kelly!

  3. I hear you on the query pain! Each draft I write gets better, but it always changes. I think what drove me crazy was all the different feedback when I posted on a forum. Some of it was great, but sometimes people said the exact opposite comment so it’s hard to determine what to listen to.

    Like you, my initial draft pointed to some flaws in my story. It was incredibly helpful overall, and I feel like I’m closer to a publishable book at this point. Now, to take the leap and actually send out the query. I’m terrified!

    • Kiersi says:

      Did you go to Agent Query Connect? I had a similar experience there when I browsed other people’s queries. Everyone has an opinion, and some are better than others 😉
      Good luck to you! I’m sure it’s come a long way and is close to being sent off.

      • Ah, that query mantra that will accomplish all that you’re dreaming about! I wonder why I spend more time on it than a chapter in my novel, which has already been revised umpteen times. Perhaps some kind fairy will whisper in my ear when it’s time to walk away from my current obsession.

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