Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In which I disagree with Query Shark (OMG)

You read that right:  disagree...with the Query Shark.  *faints*

Don't get me wrong--I have learned SO MUCH from Query Shark (and continue to learn!  She started up again (wasn't there a break somewhere where she said she was quitting?) so click here and check out all the recent awesomeness--OR, if you're new to Query Shark, camp out and read all the archives.  All of them.  Seriously.) 

Among all the awesomeness arises the prickly problem of multiple POV queries.

Which tend to look like this, in case you've never written one.

The Shark answered it in what to many people was a query-saving brain wave, right here in Query Shark:  #199FTW.  

Basically, she says that if you're querying a multiple POV novel, you should focus on the story of one character in the query and then specify at the end what other POV's are included.   This advice has been widely shared, respected, appreciated, and applied with much success, as can be seen in AbsoluteWrite threads like this one. 

A writer of multiple POV's myself, I gratefully applied this advice to my query.  It ended up pretty nice, and I wasn't the only one who thought so.  

The query itself was fulfilling its role as an attention grabber and a "must-read-more!" prompter (I didn't actually query--I'm measuring success here according to various forums and agent/editor critiques I got along the way).  It was NOT, however, giving an accurate representation of my novel.

Which means....DEATH!

Okay, so this goat isn't actually dead.  It's a fainting goat.  Look it up.

But really.

I discovered this in May when I attended the annual PennWriters conference.  Still not actually in the query stage (thank goodness), I attended a session called WiP MD, in which I got to sit down with an agent and talk through any problems I was having and show him my query or synopsis if I wanted. 

After reading my query and THEN hearing me talk about my story, the agent in question informed me of two things:
1) My query seemed to only represent a very small part of the story I had written, and he would have felt cheated if he had to deal with such discontinuity in his inbox.
2) The things I was saying about the story as a whole, while (hehehe cringe) disjointed, were much more interesting to him (!) than what I featured in the query.

In my case, this was EXACTLY what I needed to hear.  This agent was right--looking back, that decent query I wrote (read: revised a million jillion times) was not getting to the heart of my story.  My reasons for going with this particular story idea and loving it were not on the page!  (<--NOT GOOD.) 

I'm not saying Query Shark's advice is bad advice--far from that, I see why it's the rule of thumb for multiple POV queries.  In a case like mine, however, in which some of the characters spend much of the book apart, I need to focus, above all, on the high-concept idea that draws them together and makes it absolutely necessary that they exist in the same story. 

Not the reaction I was going for...

This does leave us with a problem.  Query Shark's #199 advice has filtered around the internet for a reason:  multiple POV queries are HARD TO WRITE.  Harder to write than single POV.  Yes.  I said that. 

But what do you do if the conventional advice isn't working?  At this point, your guess is really as good as mine, but I think it's safe to say that I should....

1.  Make sure I'm not just messing up.  By this I mean make sure I can't pick a different character to focus on, or focus on different things in a character's story.  The key line in #199 is where Query Shark says that after giving one character's POV, "simply saying there are three POV's and whose they are tells [her] what [she] need[s] to know."  Can you write about one character's story and by the end have it be self-explanatory what would be going on in the other POV's?  I tried, and strictly following that piece of advice won't work for me.  Btw, however, if you can do that, follow the Query Shark!  I can tell you it will be an easier query to write. 

2.  The agent I met with at PennWriters suggested I find a relationship between my three main characters, such as a love triangle, to place at the center of the query.  This would be perfect.  If there were something like a love triangle or siblings that I could utilize.  But that leads me to the last point which is... 

3.  In my case at least, the story itself suffered a lack of unity.  I've known for a long time why the characters are all in this story together, but I wasn't bringing it out enough.  If multiple POV's are done right, they have a very compelling reason for existing in the same story.  So I did a lot of re-imagining (I did.  Ask Tyler-Rose.) and am now headed into a rewrite that already feels TONS better because I'm tying the characters together more closely.  And I think--I THINK--that once I've rewritten the thing with iron bonds of necessity pulling the three of them together in their story world, it's going to be easier for me to represent the story faithfully in a query. 

The kraken tentacles=my plot.  The poor little ship=my query/my little ship of ingenuity (Dante reference whoaaa)/my soul as I attempt to write a good query. 

So HOPEFULLY I will learn that once you enforce unity among the POV's in the manuscript, the query will totally write itself!!!!!  Kidding.  That would not be real life.  But hopefully it will become much more clear to me how I should be writing the query.  I wouldn't be surprised if I followed the #199FTW model for the majority of this new letter and sprinkled/wove in some info concerning the other characters.  Or maybe a different structure entirely will work for me. 

In any case, I think it boils down to (some advice I am not entirely qualified to give, but which I will write here anyway):  You need to have complete mastery over your story before you query it.  Maybe with multiple POV's (or in general) that won't come as fast as you want it to--but that still doesn't mean it's a good idea to dive in with a wobbly understanding of what makes your story tick. 


  1. I, too, am a fan of QueryShark, and have found Janet's advice to be invaluable when it comes to understanding the purpose and form of the query. However, I think there's an underlying principle to querying that Janet doesn't necessarily state up-front, but is evident if you read between the lines, so to speak. The principle is: the query that works is the query that sells. In other words, if your query gets agents requesting pages, your query works.

    I think we writers tend to look at query tips as infallible rules for writing the perfect query. But we need to understand that what Janet provides is what works for her, as an agent. Now, she is an experienced agent who networks with other agents, and knows her business very well. This means that what works for her is usually fundamental to many other agents. All that said, she has more than once cited examples of queries that "broke the rules"--they didn't tell us much about the plot, or didn't tell us much about the MC, or indulged in some world-building, or had multiple MCs, or told instead of shown, etc., and yet they were written in such a way that she was compelled to read more. In other words, the query did its job.

    I think the suggestions that Janet and others provide should be a good starting point for our queries. We should also refer to them if our queries aren't working to help us figure out what's wrong. But if the best way to express your novel doesn't follow the traditional "query rules", then feel free to go your own way.

    That's what I think, anyway. All the best with your querying, Susan! :)

    1. Very true, Colin! And now that you mention it, I think I have seen her say things very much to that point--that breaking rules is okay if it works. Because, well, what works works!

      Thanks for stopping by. :)

  2. Queries are the trickiest things, seriously! But you know what matters more? The writing! I've recently learned that stressing over a query isn't going to help improve my book. Anyway, I know this is a tangent from what you're talking about, but maybe it's because I hate queries and I'd rather not think about them, haha :) In all seriousness though, good luck. It's such a tricky balance.

    1. I recently came to a similar conclusion. Happily, all of the excellent, brilliant, wonderful Donald Maass' fabulous manuals on writing back us up. Read instantly if your resolution needs a little shoring up or your writing life needs a simultaneous pat on the head and kick in the pants.

    2. Thanks, J. A.! If that was a tangent, it was a very relevant one. The only reason premature query stress helped me was that it caused me to see a major flaw in my manuscript. That said, I agree completely with you and Tyler-Rose (and with the truly helpful and inspiring Donald Maass) that the writing is the thing. If it's not there, it won't matter if you've written the best query in the history of the world.

  3. Kraaaaaaaken... *o*
    Beyond that, nice point re: getting what it is you love about the story into the query. It is the story's heart we're trying to sell, after all. :)

    1. I was so excited when I discovered that was a gif and not just a drawing. :D And lol..."selling hearts" sounds kind of shady...but this is what we're doing!

  4. I haven't seen that advice before, but I would have to agree with you on this. Querying with only one POV when your story has more than one POV seems like it's missing a big part of the puzzle. Like you say, if you know your story inside and out, then crafting a multiple POV query shouldn't be too, too difficult. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Susan. :-)

  5. That is a seriously creepy goat. Just saying. XD

  6. "Why are you here?"....That's stuck in my head now! My stories have multiple POVs as I switch between the 2 protagonists, but I don't use a multiple POV to query. I just give the main points of the plot in a third person POV.

  7. I think it's great that working on the query helped you to bring the whole story to a place you're feeling better about!

    I think, generally, advice is great, except for when people fail to realize that it is just advice, and not a set-in-stone rule that MUST be followed. There are obviously reasons for doing certain things, but when it comes down to it, whatever works for you and your story is what's best!