Thursday, June 3, 2010

Becoming Stephen King

If you haven't seen this movie, I've included the video trailer to give you an overview so you can participate along with those who've seen it. And, aside from entertainment value, there's a reason I've added it. It will make sense as you read on.

Today we are going to look at the dreaded query letter. I know you hate them. But they’re a necessary stop on your journey from writer to author. We've done some exercises on queries in the past, but today we’re going to discuss them in detail and learn a little more about how to make them effective.

There’s an old saying that form follows function, and that is especially true with the query. I'm going to give you a form that will work effectively a bit later. But first, let's look at the function. The purpose — the only purpose — of your query letter is to create enough interest in the agent’s mind for them to request a sample of your writing. That’s it. It’s a sales tool, nothing more. Nothing less. It must be written in such a compelling manner that it will create interest and sell your product (sample chapters or a full manuscript). And the quicker it does that, the better.

We did an exercise a while back regarding opening paragraphs. We did another writing session on one-sentence pitches. The purpose of those posts was to encourage you to start out with something intriguing, something that made the reader want more. That same tactic is critical when crafting your query. This captivating opening is often referred to as "the hook." If the great writing in your query doesn’t occur until the second paragraph, chances are the agent isn’t going to read it unless the first paragraph makes them want to continue. If your first paragraph is weak or boring, you’re slush pile bound.

After you create that wonderful, grabbing, intriguing, enticing first sentence or first paragraph, you can continue to weave your query and give the reader more info. There are specific things that need to be included in an effective query.You should address these four questions.

1. INCITING INCIDENT: What happens to change the MC’s life?
2. SOLUTION: What can the MC do to fix it, to make things better, or solve the problem?
3. OBSTACLES: What’s standing in the way? What’s stopping him/her?
4. STAKES: What is the MC risking? What happens if the problem isn’t solved or the goal isn’t achieved?

Let’s look at an example. In The Body, by Stephen King, Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp and Vern Tessio take off on a hike to find Ray Brower. If you’ve seen Stand by Me, that’s the movie this novella was based on, and you know the story. If we were to write a query for it, we could answer those four questions as follows:

1. INCITING INCIDENT: Vern is under the porch, still trying to find the pennies he buried, when he overhears his brother and a friend discussing Ray Brower. He runs to the tree house to tell his friends, and the boys decide to hike to Back Hollow Road and find the body. If they discover where he is, they might get their names in the newspaper.

2. SOLUTION: They come up with a plan to tell their parents they’re tenting in the back yard so they can be gone without being missed.

3. OBSTACLES: There are many along the way: Miles Pressman and his killer dog, Chopper (Sic. Balls.), a train that almost runs over them as they’re running across the trestle, the leeches in the pond, and the frightening sounds in the woods when they camp that night. And finally, Ace Merrill and his gang show up and tell the four adventurers that they’re taking the body and claiming the fame. Above it all, is their fear of seeing a dead body and the uncertainty of whether they really should be doing this.

4. STAKES: This is a coming of age story, so the emotional level is high. The boys are afraid, but they’re determined to carry out their plan despite their fear. If they don’t continue and achieve what they've set out to do, they’ll have to live with the shame of their failure. This is especially obvious in the confrontation with Ace when the boys refuse to back down.

So, now that we know the elements, here’s an exercise for you to complete. Pretend you’re Stephen King. You've just finished your final edit on this story and it's ready to send out. Write the query. Be sure to include a dynamic opening paragraph and the four elements listed above. You can either write it directly into the comment section or create it in Word, do a little editing, and paste it in. Make me want to read the book.

It will be interesting to see the different results in each one. Spend some time with that most important opening sentence. I’m looking forward to seeing how you write it.

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