I think I’m starting to sniff around my concept for this year’s NaNoWriMo.  It started with the kind of question you ask yourself after reading the same trope for the fourth time in a row, then became something I thought I might be able to explore.  Once it started looking like it would be A Thing, I opened up a document to start tracking my thoughts.

This document isn’t in with my manuscript drafts.  It’s not with my character worksheets, my outlines, or my random research snippets.  It’s in my queries.

It sounds kind of crazy, right?  The query (or blurb/back cover copy if you’re self-publishing or already agented) is something you’re not worrying about until you’ve gone through several rounds of drafts and revisions.  Certainly, it is the highest of high crimes to send out a query for something that’s not fully complete and polished; sending out one for something that hasn’t even been started would probably have an agent checking to see if she’s developed the power to light you on fire with her mind.

We’re not talking about sending the query, though.  Just writing it.  And it’s something I’ve found to be tremendously helpful.  Really, it’s just another approach to outlining, and one that’s quite appealing to me as an inveterate pantser.

I first started doing this a couple of years ago, when I had finished as much plotting and planning as I could stand with a few days to go before the November 1st starting bell.  By that time, I had just recently completed my dive through the glory and majesty that is Query Shark, so I naturally started applying those lessons toward my own story and took a crack at it.  That first draft had too much introductory cruft and the villain’s plan at that point was something something fate of the world, but it wasn’t that far from what I sent out to agents a year later (after revising to reflect the finished product, of course).  Not only that, but it actually provided me with some rather illuminating details; the heroine’s relationship with gaming turned out to be a huge and integral part of her character, and it came from a quip about being “a first-person shooter kind of girl” that I found amusing.

So, what does this have to do with outlining?  After all, a query absolutely should not tell you the entire story, just enough to tease and get someone wanting to read the whole thing.  It does this by establishing three things:

Hero – Problem – Stakes

Essentially, we’re told who the main character is, what choice or dilemma they face, and what they risk to lose by failing or choosing a certain way.  I’m basically just regurgitating Her Sharkness here (seriously, if you haven’t read the Query Shark archives, DO IT NOW), but I’ve heard again and again from multiple agents, editors, and other publishing types that these are the key elements of a good query.

I help people polish up their queries through various communities and forums, and one reason that a lot of people struggle to get these three elements into the query is that they’re not in the book.  Their main character isn’t well-defined.  They don’t have a clear goal or desire.  There’s nothing important standing in their way.  There’s nothing really on the line to give us reason to fear their failure.  But authors frequently don’t recognize these problems in the manuscript until they try to articulate them in the query.

Replace "Phase" with "Act" and you've got most of my outlines.

Pictured: Something I’ve actually done in outlining.

Figuring out these essential elements at the start helps ensure that they’re clearly defined and baked into the whole manuscript, so you’re not trying to clean it all up later.  You’re not committed to what you decide at the outset, and you get to leave yourself a great deal of wiggle room for how it will all play out (which is what I love as someone whose outlines tend to be on the Underpants Gnomes side of the spectrum), but you have some guideposts to keep yourself on track.

Trying to answer these questions early on lets you know where your concept is weakest while you’re still planning, so you can focus your research and development more efficiently.  For instance, in the one I’m working on now, I know that I’m pretty solid on the hook and the hero, but less clear on motivations, goals, and setting.  So as I gear up in the next couple of months to flesh things out, that’s where I know to concentrate.   Plus, I generally find it’s easier to toss something into the query that sounds cool and try to work it into, rather than trying to come up with an elegant, concise, and pithy way to describe a finished work.  It’s basically like giving yourself a writing prompt.

Maybe I’m just that weird kid who actually likes writing queries.  But this isn’t some magic ability that comes out of nowhere.  It’s a skill you can acquire and hone.  And if you’re like me, trying it at a different point in your writing process could make a big difference.

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