Pub Rants

Got Conflict?

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STATUS: Wow it’s late but I’m finally getting around to writing this entry from home. Long day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DOWNTOWN TRAIN by Tom Waits

Over the weekend, I read about 100 queries (and in case people take notes on this sort of thing, we requested sample pages for 36 out of those 100 queries). That’s actually rather high (so great job on those queries folks). The number is usually around 15 or 20.

But as I was reading all these queries, something became pretty crystal clear to me. I would finish reading the letter and then ask myself, but what is the story?

If I had to ask that question, it was a NO.

So let me expand on what seemed to be the issue. Since I can’t really talk about any one query specifically, all I can point to is general elements.

Most of the queries end up following this structure:

Paragraph 1 describes the setting.
Paragraph 2 highlights the character traits of the main protagonist and who he or she interacts with, and maybe a little bit of his or her back story.
Paragraph 3 details the villain, the love interest, a second protagonist, who they interact with and some back story.

Then there might be some reference to them tackling a conspiracy, an issue, a mystery, or a need to reach a destination (etc.) together.

Now all of the above are great things to have in a query (make no mistake) but ultimately, these details are all set up and don’t answer the question, “but what is the story actually about?”

What is the main conflict that will make this story about these characters worth reading? Be sure that your query letter answers that question. As a reader, we need to know what is at stake. Without it, it’s a lot of frosting but no cake. Now I love frosting as much as the next person but it’s the cake that gives a query substance and is often the deciding factor between a YES or a NO.

So, got conflict?

23 Responses

  1. katiesandwich said:

    Mmm, frosting…

    And the first issue of the newsletter was awesome! I especially loved Sara’s discussion about queries. So between that and the info in this post, I should be set to go!

  2. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for posting this! I keep hearing this over and over from everyone. “too much set up.” Now I know at least one thing that will put me ahead of the competition. 🙂

  3. Anonymous said:

    Query letters are soooo hard to nail down! Don’t anyone get discouraged. Just keep plugging away until you get it. Think of the first hundred drafts and the first twenty submissions-to-agents as practice. The best help I got was from published authors. Big Hint: Authors are real human beings. They don’t like to hang out with pushy or bitter people anymore than the rest of us. So, play nice.

  4. Anonymous said:

    You have no idea how much I wish you represented my genre. Thanks for the insight, Ms. Nelson. I’ve got conflict, but it’s nice to know I’m on the right track.

    Thanks also for this blog. It’s very helpful.

  5. Richard White said:

    Yep, query letters are a tricky thing.

    So far, my query letter has gotten one rejection and two requests for partials. Basically the same exact query letter, modified slightly after reviewing some of the hooks/queries in the latest CoM over on Miss Snark.

    However, I understand what works for one agent doesn’t always work for another. If I sent out a query and 50 out of 50 agents rejected it, I’d be very concerned about both the letter and the work. If I’m scoring even 20% requests, then I think I’m probably doing pretty well.

    It could be timing, just not different enough from something they’re already looking at or maybe it just doesn’t “sing” when the agent reads it.

    The thing is to be objective and keep at it. As Uncle Jim MacDonald loves to point out – a rejection is simply natures way to say, “Write another and better novel.”

  6. Anonymous said:

    Well, when I send queries, I typically have a rate of about 2/3 request rate for pages.he number one mistake authors make is trying to sum up the WHOLE story in the query letter. It gets long, overly detailed and makes the agent/editor think the author doesn’t know how to self-edit. The (sometimes erroneous) conclusion becomes that if the query letter is so unwieldy, the novel must be one bloated mess, so they just reject and move on.

    What needs to go into that first paragraph is word count, hook, and genre. That’s about all, really. They’ll find out whether your writing is right for them by reading it. Get them reading your pages and if they’re good enough, you’re set.

    I recommend the following format. First paragraph is a sentence about why this agent is a good pick for you (and not that you found them on Agent Query) if applicable, word count, hook, title and genre.

    The next paragraph should be your blurb. For every novel I query, I write up what I imagine would go on the back cover of the novel in paperback form. This should be intriguing and jazzy, summing up the conflict in your story. It should also be less than 200 words.

    The next paragraph should be about you and your writing credentials. If you don’t have any, keep it lean. Don’t write about your four kids and your stuffed marmoset collection.

    The final paragraph should close and thank the agent for his time. Use his or her name again, at this point, and spell it correctly.

    That’s it. Using that formula and writing well, I guarantee you’ll get some requests for partials.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Since the percentage of fulls you request from partials is so small, I’d love to hear the main reasons why most partials never get any further. Is the writing not polished, the writing is fine but just doesn’t resonate with you, it isn’t told as you think it should be, or what?

  8. Anonymous said:

    Annie–thank you for the info. It’s just what I’ve been looking for—something clear, concise and exact. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read detailing how to write a decent query and I kept thinking that it had to be simpler than what was presented in the book. Also, Kristin, I keep your comments on queries in mind as well. That’s why I like this blog. Not only do I get good info from an agent but from a network of writers as well. Question, Annie—how many words should the entire query be? Thanks again.

  9. katiesandwich said:

    I wanted to add, since there seems to be so much curiosity about queries, that there’s also some very helpful info on Kristin’s website, just in case you didn’t know.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Though I don’t have a set length, Jack, 500-600 words should do the job well, if you’ve kept it lean.

    Yasamina, the conflict should be evident in the blurb paragraph. If it isn’t, then you need to rewrite the blurb until it is. The “one liner” would be the hook. Distill the essence of your book in less than 200 characters (not words). For example, for Jane Eyre:

    Plain jane seeks wealthy patron. Too bad he has a dirty little secret.

    They needn’t all read like want ads, but that’s the hook, and it goes in the first parapraph. It should pop, letting the agent / editor know this is what’s unique and different about your project and will make him / her to read on. If you can’t come up with one, you’re in trouble from the jump.

  11. Anonymous said:

    I hate this. My story is so complicated, because it’s about society and peoples’ mentalities. It’s got a plot, but I can’t narrow it down to so few words. It’s not a clear-cut thing like robbing a rare diamond in a top-security museum. It’s all about people and their way of thinking. So basically, pretty much all the conflict is internal. But with five characters, there’s five different conflicts that are soomehow all the same (I swear, this makes sense completely, but I just don’t want to write my novel’s entire summary right now).

    And not to mention the fact that I have FIVE main characters. Every time I write my query I end up writing a paragraph for every single character, and yet I look at the outlines for query letters and it seems like the entire thing should be five paragraphs long. I have no idea how I’m going to pin this down.

  12. JDuncan said:

    If everyone starting following the proper format for queries and could actually pull them off halfway decent, I wonder how agents would then deal with the significantly higher rate of queries they’d want to request material from? Lol, not sure I like that notion overly much.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Perhaps I can shed some light on this. When I wrote my hook for the CoM, I concentrated on the action which was incidental to the battle going on inside the protag’s head. Immediate conflicts don’t drive the book, the global internal goal (which the protag isn’t consciously aware of, in my case) is the true conflict that drives the book. Some part of me thought the turn-of-the-century setting and action would be more attractive to the prospective agent than the protag’s flawed personality reaching out for achievement. It’s the movie trailer syndrome. My bad.


  14. Sherryl said:

    Miss Snark’s Crapometer gave some great examples of what you’re talking about, Kristin. After reading a few hundred that didn’t work, I began to see exactly how a query should work. Not a blurb, but a concise paragraph about what happens, i.e. the story, not how they all got to the story.
    I’m also interested in how many fulls you ask for from those partials, and why/why not.

  15. Anonymous said:

    I didn’t describe any character traits per se, but the job descriptions should help to convey them. Maybe that’s the problem?

  16. Anonymous said:

    Based on this:


    I’d like to know what Lukeman would say about revealing charcter “traits” when he doesn’t even want actual names in a query.