The Fiction Reboot Presents: Writing Queries with Sharon Bayliss

FictionReboot2Welcome to the Fiction Reboot! Today we are featuring the first of several guest posts by Sharon Bayliss, a science fiction and fantasy author (and one-time manager of the social media accounts for Curiosity Quills Press). Today we are interviewing her about her writing queries!


AUTHOR BIO: My PhotoAn avid daydreamer, Sharon Bayliss has lived in magical version of Austin, Texas for her entire life. So, using a fantastical, alternate history Texas as a setting for her debut novel The Charge, was just “writing what she knows”. To her, nothing goes better with barbecue and live music than robots and superhuman royalty. As a child, Sharon lived on a 6 ½ acre patch of land with cows for neighbors. She enjoyed playing in mud, collecting frogs, and was so certain that there was a ghost in her closet that her mother admits that she half-expected to really find one there. She began writing her first novel at the age of fifteen (handwritten in a spiral marked ‘private’). A proud Austinite, Sharon never saw much sense in moving anywhere else and got her degree in social work from the University of Texas at Austin. As an author and social worker, she has devoted her life to making the lives of real people better and the lives of fictional people much, much worse. In addition to her official credentials, she is also an expert in fictional Texas history and make-believe neuroscience.  Sharon’s debut novel, THE CHARGE, will be published by Curiosity Quills Press on 3/2/13.

Does a good query equal a good novel?

The established way to find an agent or publisher is to cram your 80,000 word story into a query of 300 words or less. Like stuffing clowns into a tiny car.  If you’ve ever tried to write a query, you know that there may be some flaws to this system. It’s simply not possible to capture all of the nuances of your story in a query.

But it’s the best system we have. Agents and editors get zillions of queries (yes, that is a precise statistic) and even finding the time to read that 300 words can be tough. So, until we find a way to project an entire novel directly into someone else’s mind in 10 seconds, we’re stuck with the query method.

So, I wonder, does the query system work? Can agents and editors really tell whether or not a novel will be good by reading the query? Based on my experience and research, I can confidently tell you, “sort of.”

Director of Acquisitions for Curiosity Quills Press, Andrew Buckley, reinforces that a bad query raises serious flags about the novel as a whole. I asked him if there was any situation in which he might make a request on a bad query and he said, “We generally don’t accept query letters that are poorly written…The few we’ve accepted have had a great concept but even then, a badly written query letter raises immediate red flags.

At the very least a good query demonstrates:

  1. Basic writing skill. The author understands punctuation and grammar and can communicate clearly and effectively in the written form.
  2. Voice.
  3. A capable author. If your query is well written, it’s not by accident. The author researched the topic, got feedback, and revised. Chances are they’ll do the same with all aspects of their writing career.
  4. A good plot structure. In a query the author must clearly define the main character and the primary conflict, if they can’t do that well, chances are there is something amiss with the plot.

The first three points are fairly obvious, but I think #4 is the most important one, and one you might not think about.  In some previous attempts, my plot problems didn’t truly become clear to me until I tried to condense my plot into a few paragraphs. This is also often one of the most important problems I see with other people’s queries I read. A good query needs these elements:

  1. Your main character
  2. The inciting incident that changes the MC’s life forever and sends them on their journey.
  3. The MC’s primary goal in the story
  4. The obstacle getting in the way of the goal.
  5. The stakes. What will happen if the MC doesn’t meet their goal?

If an author can clearly describe these five things, then you know that they understand the basics of plot and their novel has structure. You can also easily get an idea of whether or not the story is compelling. When writing your query if any of these points leave you scratching your head, then I’m sorry to tell you that you may need to put down your query and go back to revising your story.

Former acquisitions editor and author Jessa Russo says this about queries, “Most importantly, I don’t want to be confused. If your query has me completely lost by the second paragraph, that’s not a good sign…Who is your protagonist? What does he/she need to accomplish? Who or what stands in his/her way (antagonist)? What happens if he/she fails? Even if your side characters are amazing, and they are your most prized creations, don’t tell me about them in the query unless you absolutely have to. Too many names/characters/plot twists, and I’ll end up confused and uninterested.”

I challenge authors to write their query BEFORE writing their novel. Personally, this has improved my plotting and my query writing. It ensures that you understand the basic points of your plot structure. If you don’t understand those five points yourself, it will be nearly impossible to write a good query even if you write a million drafts.

I asked James Wymore, acquisitions editor from Curiosity Quills Press, if he believes that a good query coincides with a good novel. He said, “Just because somebody is a good salesman, doesn’t make them a good writer.  Unfortunately a good writer has to be a good salesman, too.  But if you can write, you can learn to write a query.”

Yes, it can be done. And I can tell you from experience, as your plotting skills improve, writing queries becomes easier and easier.

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