Monday, July 09, 2007

Query breakthrough

I know I'm not going to be to the query phase for at least another 6 months: I have to finish the first draft by September 20th, then let it sit for a bit, then my first readthrough and edit, then beta readers/workshops, then rewrite from comments and suggestions, let it sit again, and probably at least one more readthrough and edit on my own before submission. At least. Best case scenario is I'll be querying after the first of the year, once everyone's back in the office from the holidays.

So the last thing I should be worrying about writing right now is my query letter, especially since the story is still evolving and needs to be gotten down. But I don't think it's a bad thing to let the query simmer in the back of my head. It can't be a slap-dash thing at the end of the process, after all - I could have the best MS in the world and it won't mean a darn thing if my query is crap.

Today I was re-alerted to the fact that Noah Lukeman (he's a former literary agent and author of several craft-related books) has published an E-book on writing a good query letter. He's made it available for free, but you only get one download per person, so make sure you're someplace you can save it to have future access before you get it. The link to get the e-book is here:

How to Write a Great Query Letter

I, like Jo, don't agree with 100% of what he says. But the majority of the advice is good, and it led to a breakthrough for me. I guess it was one of those things I had to hear multiple times for it to sink in. Keep. It. Simple.

See, my problem was the description of my plot. Because of the nature of my story, a lot of people see "Scotland" and "time travel" and instantly assume I'm just writing some kind of knockoff of Outlander or the other Scottish time-travel novels out there. So I wanted to keep the detail to prove I had an original plot. But this meant I could never compress it enough to fit in a query letter - I kept slipping in names and details that I thought were vital to prove my story was unique. Lukeman finally snapped me out of that necessity, and I was able to pare it down to the bare essentials:

-She is trapped over 300 years in the past (dilemma!)
-Not only is she back in time, but she's being chased by a bad Earl who wants her for his own nefarious schemes (conflict on top of the dilemma!)
-The clan that protects her is outlawed (important to set up the climax)
-She falls in love (duh, it's a romance)
-They try to stop Glencoe (historical setting, external conflict)
-The love interest is sentenced to death (climax, and sets up the central plot point...)
-She sacrifices herself for his freedom (CPP)
-He thinks her dead and also time-travels to reunite with her (twist!)

That sounds like a lot, and it is. But I've managed to leave out extraneous names, side-plots, backstory, and all the other stuff that was bloating my previous attempts. Lukeman says keep it to 3 sentences max. I didn't manage that; I think I got it in 5. But I'm still only on one paragraph, and within the 150-word limit I've seen a lot of people suggest.

Here's the (extremely rough) draft:

Physicist Elizabeth Clarke finds herself trapped over 300 years in the past, pursued by a politically avaricious Earl who wants to use her “Sight” (her knowledge of history - to him the future) to further his consolidation of power. Her only choice is to take refuge with an outlaw clan, and she finds herself falling in love with Alec, the handsome son of the chief. Together they try to prevent the treacherous massacre at Glencoe - the Earl's doing - but Alec is captured and sentenced to death. After one night with him on the eve of his execution, she secretly chooses to surrender herself to the Earl in exchange for Alec's release. When he learns of her sacrifice and subsequent death at the Earl’s hands, Alec’s only choice is to attempt time-travel himself to be reunited with the woman he loves.

Does this work for you? Would you want to read more? Any suggestions?


Jen said...

Hi Jenny,

I'm up late hashing out my chapter 2 and noticed you had a query up. OHHH...the dreaded query. (g)

I think this is a good start. There are a couple of problem spots -- one, you never set the time/place of your story -- That may be an attempt to sidestep the whole STT thing, but I'd advise putting it in. The last thing you want is to surprise an agent -- or leave them asking questions about such important details. Best to be up front about it right from the start. (It might have been an accident, but thought I'd point it out.) lol

Secondly, I don't quite understand the last bit -- if he thinks she's dead, why would he travel forward to find her? Doesn't make much sense. I'm guessing that he thinks she's dead for a while, but then uncovers a clue that suggests she's alive? I'd allude to that.

Also, you mention her sacrificing herself to the Earl -- and then you say she's died. I'm presuming she somehow escapes Back to the Future (HEH) -- so you might want to mention that. You don't have to be too specific, but you need to make sure that there aren't any relevant gaps in the story.

Hope this helps. :)


Jenny said...

Jen -

Ooh, thanks for your input!

As for the setting, I include that in the first paragraph, right before the bit I posted. So it's kind of like:

Dear Agent So-and-So,

I am contacting you because I saw that you represent Author X who has a book like mine/list this type of book on your "currently seeking" page/your client Z, a friend of mine, recommended me to you (I hope!) blah blah blah. WORKING TITLE is a time-travel romance, complete at 100,000 words. It is set primarily in the Loch Awe area of the Scottish Highlands, 1691-92, and includes the events [backdrop?] of the infamous Glencoe Massacre.

Or somesuch. And then right into the bit I posted.

I'll work on the other stuff you mentioned. I like having a bit of mystery about whether or not Elspeth's really dead (though I will explain more fully in the synopsis) so I thought maybe leaving it open-ended as to *where* in time Alec travels to go to her might work. But maybe I'll allude to his vision that prompts him to think she's still alive and back in her own time. Though he can't be certain. *g*

Carol said...

Hi Jenny,
First, your time table sounds exhausting.

I like the query but think you can leave the explanation of "her sight" out and it will be fine. With sight in quotes, given the nature of the story, that's enough for anyone to understand what the sight is. I would break the sentence with her falling in love with Alec into two. Hmm, the part of her night with me, it sounds like she wouldn't have considered surrendering herself to the Earl unless she and Alec had had that one night together. As for him time traveling, it worked for me. I assumed that he would try to "land" in her time before she went to his. But of course, I don't know if that's what happens or not.

Queries. They're horrible. Just wait til you get to the synopsis!

Jenny said...

Carol -

I tend to go for exhausting timetables. Otherwise I don't have the motivation to get anything done. *g* For example: I finished my Master's degree (a 2-year program, plus 6 months clinical practicum) in a year and a half. Sure, I was exhausted - but I was done. Same principle here, I guess.

Thanks for your comments! I took the "Sight" explanation out, and broke up the "falls in love" sentence.

It's important to me to keep the "one night together" aspect in, because that's all they have. Prior to his condemnation, there was no way for them to be together. This night is the declaration of love/handfasting/wedding night all in one and that's it for them until much later in the book when they are (SPOILER! but this is a romance... *g*) reunited.

But I need to keep it in without coming off as you thought - that she wouldn't make the sacrifice without that night. I mean, she probably would have, but it's his declaration of love and the night they spend together that really wakes her up to her own true feelings (along with everything she's been through emotionally since his capture) and the realization that his life is more important to her than getting home, or even her own life. to get that across...hmmm... *thinks*

As for the synopsis, I have one. Unfortunately, it's over ten pages long. *g* Getting it down to 2-5 pages will be the hard part, not to mention cutting it down to 1! Although I suppose I could use all my "bloated" first attempts at the query for the 1-page synopsis, hehe!

You guys are awesome! Thanks so much for the help!