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How would you query for "Titanic?"

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#1 Iconian

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Posted 16 July 2017 - 07:33 PM

I have a question, for anyone out there that might have an idea about this:

 

If you were writing a book version of the 1997 film "Titanic," how would you write the query for it?

 

I've been trying to work out the query for my book, Shallow,   http://agentquerycon...-dramedy/page-2

 

 

I've had a lot of people complaining about the query being "unfocused," not being able to understand the plot, and "a sprawling mess, and it doesn't encapsulate the elements agents look out for in queries."

 

I'd never thought much about it before, until now, since it's an issue.  My book is pretty similar to Titanic in several ways.  Romance makes up a lot of it, but so does a friendship between the two main female characters.  But in addition, there's a background story that intermingles with all this, of a school shooting that affects the characters lives.

 

In comparison, in Titanic you have the romance between the two main characters, one of whom is an artist sailing to America for freedom, the other a young woman being pushed farther and farther into a life in which she can anticipate virtually no freedom at all.  And in the background of it all--the massive and majestic Titanic, sailing around, crashing into an iceberg, and eventually sinking, resulting in the freezing and drowning deaths of hundreds of people.  (Not to mention the fact the story is actually being told in the movie 80 years after it occurred).

 

Just how do you create a query for all this, without it coming off as "unfocused" or "a sprawling mess?"


My query, open to critiques:   http://agentquerycon...mantic-dramedy/


#2 dogsbody

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Posted 17 July 2017 - 04:07 AM

In 1996, a treasure-hunter and his crew search the wreck of the RMS Titanic for an infamous blue diamond known as the Heart of the Ocean. Instead they discover a drawing of a naked young woman wearing the stone around her neck -- and it's dated the day the ship sank to the bottom of the sea. A nationwide search reveals the young woman's identity as Rose Dawson, now one hundred and one years old, whose past contains the last remaining clues to the diamond's location.

 

In 1912 Rose is only seventeen, with a fiance and a first-class ticket for the maiden voyage of the world's fastest, most modern, and truly unsinkable ship. Bound for America, Rose is not sure she wants to survive the trip: she's being forced to marry to secure her family's fortunes, and despairs at a life of rigid upper-class values and an even more rigidly controlling husband. His engagement present is the legendary Heart of the Ocean, but it might as well be an iron shackle around her neck.

 

As she's about to throw herself into the Atlantic, Rose is saved by Jack, one of the ship's third-class passengers. A young artist determined to make his own way in the world, Jack won his ticket in a poker game and left the continent with nothing but the clothes on his back and a dream of a better life. Jack can't understand why a girl like Rose, who has everything he lacks, would want to throw it all away. As circumstances conspire to bring the two of them together, again and again, they realize they share a connection that transcends differences in wealth, experience, and even class. 

 

But fate is hurtling toward the young lovers as quickly as the Titanic cuts through the icy ocean waters. Even if they manage to escape Rose's violent fiance, they can't avoid the iceberg ahead. For the first time in over eighty years, Rose is about to confess the secrets of that terrible night: a story of passion more precious than any jewel, and of a love that would -- like the ship that brought them together -- go down in history.  

 

At [x-thousand] words, TITANIC is a work of romantic historical fiction with a sprawling cast of characters, including both imaginary and very real passengers such as Captain Edward John Smith, shipbuilder Thomas Andrews, and the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown.   

 

... yeah, okay, please don't poke fun at me for pounding something out real quick. 

 

But! Does this begin to help? Titanic is a movie and not a book, which makes this a bit trickier -- we introduce what's at stake first because of the movie's framing device, where usually I would say to put them after the introduction of the main character.

 

But the essentials are there. Character: Rose, suicidal despite being so young and privileged, which is an intriguing juxtaposition. This is no ordinary romance heroine, as her dashing and wealthy prince is equivalent to a jailer, and the historical realities for women in this period are NOT glossed over. 

 

Main conflict: Rose falls in love with someone not her fiance! We get a brief description of Jack so that we can see what would make him so attractive to Rose, and also why it's not as simple as canceling her engagement. (He's poor, from a different class, they really never should have been allowed to meet, etc.) This heightens the basic conflict, and makes it about more than just loathing Cal. 

 

And then there's the stakes. Again, because it's a movie they come a little bit out of order, but they're there. Rose and Jack might be discovered by her fiance, who is... not a nice guy, and might do them harm. Plus the ship is definitely going to sink, so we don't know if Jack survived. Maybe he didn't. Maybe Rose married the dude she hated. Those are the worst-case scenarios. Best case is that Jack and Rose might have been living blissfully together ever since the ship sank (although the foreshadowing makes that doubtful) and maybe even got rich off a stolen diamond.  

 

It leaves out A LOT. But a query is supposed to! It's only supposed to contain enough to make people want to know more. So the very basic, central premise is laid out, with just enough tantalizing specifics and interesting details to make someone wonder: how did these totally opposite people fall in love? what happened to Jack? what happened to the diamond? has Rose's life since been a happy one? (It's been a long enough one, don't you hope she's been happy?) Plus there's a brief nod at the end to all the other characters whose stories might be connected to Rose and Jack's. So no one reading the query is confused about what the story contains -- again, on a very basic level -- and they hopefully are interested in knowing MORE. Hopefully enough to request more pages, or the full manuscript. 

 

Was that helpful? This was a fun exercise, btw -- I've seen a few agents actually recommend trying to write your favorite books or movies as if you were querying them, to get a sense of how to focus in on the spine of a story and present it simply. So maybe you should try it yourself with some other titles. Or this one, if you don't think I did it justice. 



#3 Iconian

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Posted 17 July 2017 - 06:10 PM

I have to say I really like that query, especially seeing you wrote it all within just a few hours!  The only problem I'd even note, taking into consideration what everyone has been saying about my query and other queries, is that perhaps it's on the long side.  But I think it's really good, and I'm glad to hear you enjoyed writing it.  I've also heard about different writing-related exercises over the years . . .

 

But it just seems as though I keep on running into issues with my own query.  Always something new that I didn't see that someone else points out.  I definitely feel that the members here have a whole lot more experience with querying than I.

 

But I think I'll get there.


My query, open to critiques:   http://agentquerycon...mantic-dramedy/


#4 dogsbody

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Posted 17 July 2017 - 07:03 PM

The only problem I'd even note, taking into consideration what everyone has been saying about my query and other queries, is that perhaps it's on the long side.

 

It depends on who you talk to. Some agents like very very short queries, some agents argue you can go longer, as long as it serves the story and isn't empty verbiage. 

 

I did say I banged this one out very quickly (more like 30 minutes), and was mostly concerned with showing you what high notes a query is supposed to hit. It wasn't meant for critique. If I was truly concerned with the word count, I could easily take out the first paragraph and shuffle around some of the last sentences to make it all work. 

 

 

 

 

 I definitely feel that the members here have a whole lot more experience with querying than I.

 

How much time have you spent reading through Query Shark

 

Queries are tricky, because it's a short form when novelists are used to thinking in the long form, but they're not insurmountable. They're a form of business letter: they get the job done and you move on. 

 

So ask yourself: at brass tacks, which one or two characters are central? What's the one conflict (among many, I'm sure) that is present in every other aspect of the story? What's at stake for those one or two characters, and what makes it interesting to a reader?

 

Put all that together clearly and concisely, maybe put a bit of your voice or narrative flair in there to give the agent a taste -- and that's your query. 



#5 Iconian

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Posted 17 July 2017 - 09:33 PM

I think it was Novelarnia that sent me the link for Query Shark, among others.  I went through the first query on Query Shark.

 

It all kind of reminds me of Flash Fiction.  Back ten years ago I and my stepmother made some submissions to a contest called Flash Fiction.  Now THAT was something.  I think you had to tell story within the space of 250 words.  They were all firecrackers, but it was amazing experience.

 

Querying is different though.  From the feedback I keep getting, what it feels like is as though there are very specific requirements that agents are expecting to find in the queries they get.  If they don't see those things, they're more likely to lose interest quickly.  It all feels like some special handshake which, unless you already know it, you're never getting into the club.


My query, open to critiques:   http://agentquerycon...mantic-dramedy/


#6 dogsbody

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Posted 17 July 2017 - 10:21 PM

When you say you went through the first query on QS, what does that mean? You only read one query, or you sent in one? Because if it's the former, I really encourage you to read deeper into the archives.

 

 

 From the feedback I keep getting, what it feels like is as though there are very specific requirements that agents are expecting to find in the queries they get.  If they don't see those things, they're more likely to lose interest quickly.  

 

Queries aren't fiction at all; it's a business letter. So yes, it's definitely a switch in skills. 

 

I'm trying to think of "specific requirements" on queries. Your name, your title, your wordcount and genre... and sometimes if you forget one of those but the rest of the query is good enough, they'll ask. Other than that, it's just a matter of grabbing an agent's attention.

 

(I should stress this: via your story, and in a professional manner. Not that I expect any less, but some people used to load up their envelopes with glitter or perfume in the days of snail-mail to this end. It did not work out.)  

 

Certainly there has emerged a certain general expectation of what should be in a query -- the whole character, conflict, stakes -- but that's to make things easier by providing vague guidelines. People can, and have, ditched that format and gotten representation, or despite breaking other "rules." Remember the opinions you get on this forum are just that.

 

Another resource I like to provide is this series on successful queries, where agents talk about why a query made them request. You can see that a lot of things people here insist are absolutely, 100% vital to "do right" are not, always. Like I said: the query's job is just to get someone to look at your book. It's not the end-all, be-all. (That would be, you know. The book.)

 

 

It all feels like some special handshake which, unless you already know it, you're never getting into the club.

 

It's not. This is literally the most democratic process I know of. All you need to "get into the club" is the skill and power of your words.

 

You're a writer, and this is one letter. It's a very particular type of letter, and one you've never learned how to write before -- but you are a writer. So study up, try not to get too frustrated or fall into self-pity, seek out "how-to" posts and instructions from actual agents and editors, and write a letter of 500 words max. One letter. That's all. 

 

... I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this: sometimes the problem with writing a query is not actually writing the query; it's that in trying to write the query, the weaknesses of your book are exposed. It happened to me, and I've seen it happen to a bunch of others. It's a bit early to decide whether that's your issue as well, I think, but keep it in the back of your mind as you go. Is writing the query hard because it's a new skill, or is it hard because it's your book that needs more work? It's not even a bad thing if this turns out to be the case: that means you have the chance to find and fix a book's problems before sending it out to agents, which means a higher chance of being offered representation. 



#7 Iconian

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 01:41 AM

I'm really starting to plug away at the query now.  At first it was mostly what I'd slapped down, straight out of the book's foreword.  But now that I'm going through it word by and word and phrase by phrase, I am finding on one hand that I do need to change some things, to strengthen the prose and clarify a bit; but on the other hand, I'm also finding that some of the stuff other people didn't like, really sounds right to me.  I think it's probably going to take a few more rounds of critiques for me to really decide about a lot of it, but I definitely think it's getting there.


My query, open to critiques:   http://agentquerycon...mantic-dramedy/


#8 jaustail

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 03:15 AM

I think there is a difference in time as well. Back then there wasn't many writers. Querying was through post.

Agents didn't receive as many proposals as they do now.

 

But with internet it's very easy to submit a query letter. So writers have more competition than they had before. Agents have to sift through more queries to find the few books that they can submit to publishers.

 

All this translates into more effort on the writer's part to make sure our query can squeeze through the competition.


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#9 Springfield

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 11:32 AM

Rose, 101 years old, reflects on the momentous few days she spent on the Titanic -- the unsinkable ship she boarded as a young girl on her way to America -- including the love and other valuables lost at sea. 

 

When she boards the majestic boat with her mother and fiance, Rose hopes for the adventure of a lifetime on the way to an unadventurous arranged marriage. She bumps, literally, into Jack, a steerage-class ruffian who holds promise and a pint. As they sail toward the States, dine with the Astors and drink with the crew , they grow closer than Rose thought possible in just a few days. As an iceberg and her destiny loom, Rose learns her fiance may not be everything he seemed, but he is her family's hope of financial savior. 

 

Running off with a boy of no breeding or wealth is not an option, but neither is ignoring her feelings for Jack. One steamy night together turns cold as the ship collides with fate and ice, and Rose and Jack rush to make it topside and find her family. In present day, Rose recalls those perilous final moments and choices that set the path of the rest of her long life -- the man she chose to leave the ship with, who lived, who died, and the heart she left in the ocean deep.

 

---

 

There. It's not great, in under seven minutes, but I think it gets in the salient points and includes the character, the problem, the stakes and it's <250 words.



#10 Iconian

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 06:35 PM

Springfield: Yeah, I think it works.  The last paragraph feels a little iffy, and you give away the ending . . . but I think most agents looking for some sort of historical romances would probably be interested, don't you?  I still don't feel like I quite have the eye for what makes a good query though.


My query, open to critiques:   http://agentquerycon...mantic-dramedy/


#11 Springfield

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 07:03 PM

Springfield: Yeah, I think it works.  The last paragraph feels a little iffy, and you give away the ending . . . but I think most agents looking for some sort of historical romances would probably be interested, don't you?  I still don't feel like I quite have the eye for what makes a good query though.

 

I didn't give away the ending. I didn't say who died or what she chose. Had I taken more time, I'd have set that better as stakes probably, but it's a movie, not a book, and a terribly-written one at that, so there's only so much you can do. :P 

 

Yes, I'd think it might hook some agents, but I can't guarantee anything. However, in my experience, that type of thing is what you want. Clear character, problem, stakes. 

 

Does it matter that Jack is an artist? No. Has nothing to do with anything. The entire purpose of that detail is the portrait, which is the thing that gets Rose in the movie and ties it all up. He could have been a mechanic who mentions he likes to draw. Changes nothing.

 

Does it matter that hundreds of people die in the wreck? Nope. It's Rose's story. If you remove the Titanic from it, and make Rose a random grandmother whose granddaughter is helping her clean out her attic and finds the portrait and her grandmother tells her of the time her mother put her on an unnamed transport ship carrying 20 people, including her fiance and Jack, and the ship sinks yada yada, does that change anything? No.



#12 dogsbody

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Posted Yesterday, 05:18 PM

Okay, this is an interesting discussion. Because I could not disagree more.

 

The fact that Jack's an artist does a great job of sketching his role and basic character in one word. Artists -- especially those in the early 1900s -- are associated with romanticism, free-thinking, and adventurous spirits. Is it a stereotype? Sure, but when you've only got a few hundred words to work with, it's effective. And Jack fits that stereotype, although if he didn't that impression could be given in only a few extra words (and the juxtaposition would only provide more interest).

 

And it's important that he works as an artist, rather than having a day job and drawing in his free time, because it's a direct contrast to Rose's situation. Rose is already very comfortably well-off, and she's being forced to marry someone she loathes because her family wants to be richJack, on the other hand, is penniless -- but does he buckle under and learn a trade? Nope! So we immediately understand, even unconsciously, that living a fulfilled and passionate life is more important to Jack that money. Given the background of Rose's unhappiness and reasons for it, this also gives an immediate reason to understand why she's drawn to him.

 

Is this a lot of weight to put on one word? Yeah, but that's the point of a query. It's showing you understand how to wield words and their impact enough to choose them concisely and convey the utmost meaning. The whole point is, "wow, if this person is good enough to sketch such an interesting idea of their story in several hundred words, what can they do with tens of thousands?" 

 

It works the same way with placing the story on the Titanic. With that one fact, the book becomes high concept. There's a built-in market for Titanic stories (and there was well before the '97 movie) to begin with, but placing the story in the center of one of the most famous historical disasters, instead of just some random transport ship, adds multiple layers of intrigue in one go. Anyone who paid attention in history class knows the problem with the Titanic wasn't that it hit an iceberg, it's that there weren't enough lifeboats. Obviously Rose survived, but then first-class female passengers had the highest survival rate. The groups with the worst survival rates were men and third-class passengers -- which heightens the stakes for Jack. Which goes back and ties in to the whole "penniless artist as opposed to middle-class schmo" distinction; because it's the Titanic, it's not just a story about a rich girl falling in love with a poor boy, it's gained Romeo and Juliet-esque hindrances to their possible happiness. All because of where it's set. 

 

That's all before going into how the Titanic was so much more than just a boat that sank, but I tried to touch on that when talking about how popular Titanic stories and media are, overall. This is a piece of history that has fascinated people for over a century, and with good reason: there's so much fodder for stories there. The fact an author chooses something like that as the backdrop of their story, as opposed to any old ship, shows a knack for drama and storytelling.

 

Now, we talk a lot on these forums about how different agents have different tastes, so different versions of queries will appeal... differently. So this is not me arguing which is or is not the best tactic to take in any query. I just disagree that these facts have "nothing to do with anything." The words we choose always matter



#13 Iconian

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Posted Yesterday, 07:50 PM

When I was about five years old, I remember thumbing through the "Titanic" copy of National Geographic many times.  This story fascinated me like little else at that age.  I remained pretty obsessed with the Titanic story until the age of 10 or so.  I even recruited a neighborhood kid to whittle a wooden Titanic for me, though he never finished.

 

When the movie came out, I was actually rather disappointed.  It was a love story wrapped in the Titanic story.  I felt it would have been better as more of a disaster movie, with more focus on the crew and their struggles.

 

Initially I was pretty pissed off that the movie did as well as I did, but after a few years I came to understand it better, and actually like it.  Certainly I respect Cameron for combining in the film the different elements that led to its success.

 

So, Springfield, I definitely had to disagree when I saw your comment about it not mattering whether the Titanic was in the story, or not.  The ship itself brings a whole new level of mystique to the film, due to it being a major historical event, as opposed to some 20-person barge.  I don't think that the film went nearly far enough for me, but really don't think it would have made the billion-odd dollars it did had it not been about the Titanic, and the Titanic specifically, perhaps beyond any ship in the world, ever.  In fact, "The Notebook" actually sounds a fair deal like the story you described, Springfield, but although it became popular it never reached nearly the height of Titanic.  I don't think there's any other ship in the world that virtually everyone in the world could instantly recognized the name of, before or after the movie.


My query, open to critiques:   http://agentquerycon...mantic-dramedy/


#14 Springfield

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Posted Yesterday, 10:33 PM

Well, yeah, if I were actually querying a Titanic story, I'd mention the Titanic.

 

I see what you're saying, dog, but we do disagree here, though seem to agree other places! My point was that the story is Rose's, and *for the query*, Jack's profession is immaterial. I don't think it matters to the movie either, frankly. If you'd asked me what he did I couldn't have said, and I've seen that thing more than once. I didn't think he had a stated job.

 

For the purposes of the query, I think you need Rose, her problem, her stakes, and enough of the surrounding to make it sound interesting. Sure,it sounds like the Notebook, I guess (I neither read that nor saw the movie). The Notebook the movie made over $100 mil on a budget under 30. The Notebook the book spent more than a *year* on the NYT Bestseller list -- in HARDBACK. I'll take that level of popularity and leave Cameron to his little blue folks and terrible scripts, happily. 

 

An agent is spending seconds on a query. Grab them or don't. They're not musing on themes. 



#15 dogsbody

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Posted Yesterday, 10:42 PM

I see what you're saying, dog, but we do disagree here, though seem to agree other places! My point was that the story is Rose's, and *for the query*, Jack's profession is immaterial.

 

 

I knew your meaning; I thought I addressed how it important a purpose it served in the query itself. Was there anything you wanted me to clear up?

 

Seconds is all it takes. That's the glorious thing about language and word choice; our communication has evolved to such sophistication that themes and ideas can be transmitted in seconds... as long as you use the right words, and for the right reasons. 



#16 dogsbody

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Posted Yesterday, 10:47 PM

When I was about five years old, I remember thumbing through the "Titanic" copy of National Geographic many times.  This story fascinated me like little else at that age.  [...]

When the movie came out, I was actually rather disappointed. 

 

Iconian I had almost the same experience! The Titanic is such an incredible piece of history. Have you read Connie Willis's Passage? I have mixed feelings about the book itself, but the way it deals with the history and actual stories of the Titanic as opposed to the hubbub surrounding the film. And you know, you might enjoy giving it the go-over for your own purposes; it's a long book with lots of characters and subplots, rooted in personal discoveries and journeys. It might be something that gives you extra insight on how to tackle a long, multi-faceted novel. 



#17 Iconian

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Posted Yesterday, 11:13 PM

Well, yeah, if I were actually querying a Titanic story, I'd mention the Titanic.

 

I see what you're saying, dog, but we do disagree here, though seem to agree other places! My point was that the story is Rose's, and *for the query*, Jack's profession is immaterial. I don't think it matters to the movie either, frankly. If you'd asked me what he did I couldn't have said, and I've seen that thing more than once. I didn't think he had a stated job.

 

For the purposes of the query, I think you need Rose, her problem, her stakes, and enough of the surrounding to make it sound interesting. Sure,it sounds like the Notebook, I guess (I neither read that nor saw the movie). The Notebook the movie made over $100 mil on a budget under 30. The Notebook the book spent more than a *year* on the NYT Bestseller list -- in HARDBACK. I'll take that level of popularity and leave Cameron to his little blue folks and terrible scripts, happily. 

 

An agent is spending seconds on a query. Grab them or don't. They're not musing on themes. 

 

I actually can't say I liked either The Notebook or Titanic all that much, to be honest.  I'd watch Moulin Rouge or The Great Gatsby any day over either of those.  But they were successful in their own ways, so surely there's something there.

 

And as to the question of Jack as a free-wheeling, penniless artist--I think it does add a new insight, a new dimension to Rose and Jack's relationship.  I think omitting from a query would do no good, while including it does enhance it.

 

 

 

dogsbody:  I've never heard of Passage.  By the time Titanic came out I'd mostly lost interest in the story, and the movie did little to get me any more interested.  But my sister became obsessed after the movie and read tons of stuff about it, constantly listening to Celine Dion.  She's probably read Passage.  In 2015 though I did happen to read a little book called "The Wreck of the Titan," written about 1898, but giving a lot of details about the crash, including the name "Titan."  I still find it an interesting story.  It'd be nice to see a new movie version of it, something that really gets more into the Titanic story.  But something tells me most studios probably already consider James Cameron's version "definitive," and wouldn't want to fork money over for anything else--except possibly a remake of the 1997 version, with Jack and Rose.


My query, open to critiques:   http://agentquerycon...mantic-dramedy/






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