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Query Quandary: Level of Detail


(Originally posted at Crossing the Helix, June 2010)

Mention queries, and writers of all ages sprout a few more gray hairs. The first rule of #AskAgent chats on Twitter is No Query Questions. I haven't yet come across a writer who looks forward to writing one or an agent who adores slogging through hundreds of them to find a few gems. (If you're out there, give a shout.) [EDIT: CatWoods likes writing them, just not sending them. So there's at least one out there.]

No one (or almost) really likes them, but I get why they fall under the "necessary evil" category. And it's not like there aren't resources out there to help--enough blogs to overload anyone's browser, for starters.

Even with all that help, we struggle. After doing my best to help critique several queries on AgentQuery Connect and overhauling my own query for the umpteenth time, I thought about what makes it so difficult. Boiling a novel-length plot down to a couple hundred words isn't easy, obviously. But what--above all else--stands in the way?

They say the devil's in the details. I contend that the devil's in determining the depth of the details. (How's that for alliteration?)

Boil down the plot too much, and you get something like this:

An orphan boy discovers he has unexpected power and is the Chosen One who must battle ultimate Evil.


Could be Harry Potter. Or Star Wars. Or possibly dozens of other fantasy works.

More often, though, I think we tend to go to the opposite extreme, thinking every nuance of the story is essential if the agent or editor is to understand the plot. Try this (exaggerated) example:

Milton Dauntless, a shy thirteen-year-old boy with a faithful Chihuahua-Corgi mix named Gargantuar, discovers his parents, Darwina and Ted, weren't killed in the famous So-So Steakhouse food poisoning scandal of '99 as he'd been told all his life by Grandma Gertie. In fact, his father was killed by the evil vampire lord Vladindeath, who has secretly ruled the underworld ever since defeating the werewolf clans seven hundred fifty-two years ago. As the sole survivor of the powerful Dauntless clan, Milton must now learn to harness the power of the Crystal of Purity, find out what happened to his mother when she escaped the bloodbath of her husband's murder with her long-lost brother Sherman, and defeat the vampires once and for all.


(Okay, that was kind of fun.)

That one is obviously bogged down in excess detail, including irrelevant backstory and too many names. (See my earlier musing on the issue of Name Soup.)

Here are some of my conclusions, and I hope others will add to them.

Get Enough Detail
  • The whole point of the query is to show an agent or editor what makes your story stand out from the others. Part of this can be through voice. But these days, if you're writing about vampires or angels, for example, you've got to show your unique twist.
  • Make it memorable and leave them wanting more. Again, the point of the query: get a request for more material.
  • Include details that are snappy, quirky, or unexpected ... without belaboring the point.

Don't Overdo the Detail
  • R.C.'s Personal Rule of Thumb: Anyone who won't be mentioned by name again in the query shouldn't be named at all.
  • Avoid backstory. Plenty of time (and more creative ways) to incorporate it into the manuscript itself.
  • Axe details that can leave the reader saying, "Why should I care about that?" For example, knowing all of that about Milton's dog doesn't really tell us anything substantial about the character (except maybe that he has a silly sense of humor when it comes to naming pets) or the plot.

It's a thin line to walk between too much and too little. No wonder so many of us find it so difficult.



4 Comments

RC, You're a master of hyperbole. Good one, and the rule about naming characters is rock-solid.
When you talk about how much detail to put in.....I was considering hooking with the conflict of the story, which includes only one character and no details of the story. I felt like the details really aren't important, because in all reality...the conflict is the story. We're looking at about 100 words for this paragraph. What do you think??
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Johan Potgieter
Oct 15 2010 05:19 AM
Must say, I think your assessment is spot on. Have you ever brought the dialface of your watch right up to your face, to where your eyes lose focus.? Well I think that's what happens to all of us when we need to come up with a query. We are too close to our work to begin with so we are not able to see the really sharp detail─ the essence of it.