Carts and Horses

Putting the query before the manuscript feels like putting the cart before the horse.
Putting the query before the manuscript might feel like putting the cart before the horse.

Way back in the beginning of this blog, I had a post about how my first step in a new project is writing the pitch. This time I’m going to post about why I think this is a good idea.

Writing a query isn’t the easiest thing to do. Just go visit Query Shark to see how much work it can be to put together a good one. I did a fair amount of poking around on Query Shark before writing my first query letter, and one of the queries really made an impression. I’ve forgotten the details, but it came down to QueryShark wondering why the book was even written at all.

It’s a nightmare to think about putting in all the time and effort writing and revising a book, then trying to create a query and not being able to figure out what to put into it. What if the manuscript has some brilliant scenes but a weak plot? What if the stakes aren’t that compelling? What if the descriptions are wonderful, but you can’t make the main character sound interesting?

Here’s where I think writing the query before the manuscript can be a help. You can shape the query from both sides of the equation. If the brief summary of the plot doesn’t sound all that great, then not only can you reword the query, but you can just as easily change the plot. If a few quick words can’t make the main character interesting, then you can change the character. Everything is flexible.

It doesn’t make writing a query easy, nor should it, but it does challenge your idea for the story. It’ll make you question how compelling the elements are and maybe stimulate some new ideas. You can run the query by other people and see if they find it compelling. Take it to a writing forum and let it get ripped to shreds to see if your ideas can hold up.┬áSure, everything might change as you write it, but at least you’ve established what makes that original idea compelling and use that knowledge even as the plot and characters get modified.

For me, I was able to take a plot I liked and made it even better. It might have made the difference in finding an agent who loved the manuscript. I’m now a believer in putting the query before the manuscript. I don’t really need a query anymore since I already have an agent, but I can still run that query-like pitch past her and others before I start pounding out the novel.

If you do need to write a query after the manuscript, then you already have a good starting point. At least for me, it made the constructing the query a lot easier when the time came, and the query worked.

Like anything, it isn’t for everybody, but I think putting the cart before the horse is something to think about.

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3 Responses to Carts and Horses

  1. I love this idea. I’ve been doing something similar lately — condensing the core of the story into one short sentence, and then expanding on the idea little by little. I’ve done this at the beginning of a project, and also when I’ve gotten stuck midway. It helps me clear away the clutter and remember what I was trying to do. I hadn’t thought of this first nugget as a query, but that makes perfect sense to me, too.

  2. Leandra says:

    I do this a lot & it really does help me. And when I finish the ms, it’s nice to not have to start from scratch w/a query. B/c yeah, queries are the pits!

  3. Erik, I found this post VERY helpful. Thanks for sharing this tip!

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