Friday, July 3, 2009

Ungrateful Teenage Slobs, or Writing a Query Letter

Like the child who just refuses to grow up and get a job, there comes a time when your novel overstays its welcome and needs to start paying rent, and for Carnal Jesus, that time is now.

And the first step, of course, is writing a query letter.

Let me tell you -- there is nothing, NOTHING, in the writing process that I've ever experienced that's quite as difficult as writing a query letter. You get one page to describe the entirety of your book. One page to make it seem interesting enough to a prospective agent to even bother reading. I heard someone describe it once as "deciding which of your child's limbs to cut off" and that seems pretty much accurate. It's excruciating.

So, I went out to seek some advice. I found two blogs, QueryShark and Evil Editor, and both have been excellent resources -- I highly recommend them to everyone, as they have been supremely helpful.

I also turned to screenwriting for some ideas, because sometimes I relate more closely to film. Perhaps it's a generational thing -- but everything I write is generally just a novelization of the movie in my head. If I could ever find a way to transfer my head-movie, wholecloth, into consumable product, I'd be a genius. Which is, incidentally, the plot of a story I want to write some day, but never mind that.

Compared to screenwriters, we have it pretty easy. Novelists get a whole page. Screenwriters get a sentence.

This sentence, called a "logline" is all they get to pitch their movie. A sentence.

So I started researching how to write loglines. Clearly, if I could master the one-sentence pitch, I could then rewrite that sentence into a couple neat paragraphs, and I'd be good to go. Right?

Helpful article about Loglines: here

As per one blogger, the general format of a logline should be:
TITLE OF MY SCREENPLAY is a GENRE with overtones of TONE about a PROTAGONIST who HAS A FLAW/MOTIVATION when THE INCITING INCIDENT HAPPENS and s/he must then overcome THE MAIN OBSTACLE in order to accomplish THE ULTIMATE GOAL or else there will be CATASTROPHIC CONSEQUENCES.

Have fun playing with that -- I'd love to see your results in the comments here. I'll toss mine in at the end, but I want to spend a moment discussing why queries are so hard to write. Ready for my theory?

At the end of the day, queries are difficult to write because the writer has no idea what his book is actually about.

After all, a lot of stuff happens in a book. There's a lot of characters. There's a lot of background information. A ton of stuff happens, and it all contributes to the story, but we don't know WHY in some cases because (for a lot of us, at least) the writing process is magical. The story falls together because we have an intuitive understanding of how story structure works -- we never logically map out the plot to conform to the Hero's Journey or the Three Act structure (or at least, most of us don't), we just know the story's finished because it "feels right." And, sometimes, your book really DOESN'T have a plot, and you're going to have a very difficult time accepting that 100,000 words later.

Some important things to keep in mind from our friends in screenwriting (if you didn't read the link I posted yet). Call this Remedial Plotting 101:
--Your character must have a goal. That is the driving element of the story -- your character wants something (or doesn't want something, or wants to be rid of something). Sometimes goals are psychological, and thus subtle and hard to pinpoint. How do you figure out your character's goal if you don't know it? Look at the climax of your novel -- that's where your character achieves (or totally fails at achieving) his goal.

--But important to note is that in order to be legitimate, your goal has to appear by the end of the first act (or first third of the story). If half the story is setting up that goal, then the story is actually about the set-up. Which is totally OK. But you have to know that.

--In order for a story to work, there has to be an antagonist. Sometimes that's a villain. Sometimes it's an event, a psychological impairment, or a character flaw. But something is keeping your character from achieving their goal, or else they'd just go out and buy it at Wal-Mart.

--Where complex worlds/concepts are necessary to understand your story, include just enough mention to explain and not a word more.

And the hardest news to bear, as I touched on earlier: as often as not, the reason why you're having such a hard time summarizing your story is because there's something fatally wrong with the story's structure. Sorry kids.

So, ok. I'll bite. As near as I can figure it, my logline:
CARNAL JESUS is a NEAR FUTURE DYSTOPIA SET IN A POST-WAR AMERICA WHERE THE BILL OF RIGHTS HAS BEEN SUSPENDED about a JOURNALISM STUDENT WHO BELONGS TO A TERRORIST ORGANIZATION who ISN'T SURE HE BELIEVES IN THE CAUSE when HE MEETS A GIRL ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CONFLICT and he must then overcome HIS CONFLICTING LOYALTIES AND CHOOSE A SIDE OF THE WAR TO FIGHT FOR or else RISK LOSING EVERYONE HE CARES ABOUT.

or, when edited down a little from that madlib:

In post-WWIII America, where civil liberties have been suspended by a fear-mongering government, a terrorist isn't sure he believes in the cause he's fighting for. When begins to fall in love with a girl who stands for everything he's against, he is forced to choose between his loyalty to his organization and the possibility to pursue a happy, safe life -- but whichever side he chooses, he must destroy the other.

....Holy cow, I think that actually works.

An amusing note, which has occurred to me a few times throughout the writing of the book, but which has surfaced most clearly throughout this query process: Carnal Jesus is actually the anti-1984, in the sense that it has exactly the opposite plot. 1984 is a book about a government employee who starts to question the establishment when he falls in love with a rebel. And, because nearly every dystopia follows Orwell's plot...then CJ is kind of the anti-dystopia. And that's fun.

Anyway, hopefully this was of some help to you all. It's certainly given me more of a query letter than I had a few hours ago.

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