WARNING: I am not an agent or an expert of any kind. Everything that follows is based solely on my experience in the query trenches and my personal taste. If everyone wanted the same thing, we’d all be dating your grandmother, as the saying goes. What works for me may not be what works for you or for others.
Confession time: I’m the only person on the planet who still hasn’t read City of Bones. Before I saw the movie trailer, it was a few books down on my TBR list. After I saw the trailer, it got moved to the vague “whenever I get to it” pile where TBRs go to die. The movie just looked so dark and heavy. So not my cup of tea.
Fast forward a few weeks. My sister goes to see the movie. Loves it. Drags me kicking and screaming. After the end credits, City of Bones jumped to the VERY NEXT spot on my TBR list. I’m also now the proud owner of my very own stele prop replica:
That’s right. I now own merchandise from a movie I didn’t even want to see.
This got me thinking. Movie trailers can teach us a lot about querying. I’ve heard agents warn you should never, ever, EVER pattern your query like a movie trailer. If, like me, you wondered what that meant, watch the teaser for City of Bones:
Before I saw this trailer, I was loosely aware of The Mortal Instruments, its characters and premise, etc. For the sake of argument, let’s say I wasn’t. If my sister had tried to sell it to me following the structure of the trailer, it probably would’ve gone something like this:
Sis: Imagine this. A random dude murders someone in a really crowded conspicuous place, but no one can see it except Clary. Not even her hot bespectacled friend.
Me: Why? Is she crazy?
Sis: No! She’s just not a Mundane.
Me: What’s a Mundane?
Okay, at this juncture my sister and I both would’ve replied, “A Muggle.” In fact, that’s exactly how we did describe the movie to our dad. But since you can’t exactly say that in your query, the rest of the conversation may have gone something like:
Sis: A Mundane is someone who isn’t human.
Me: I don’t know, man. Clary looks pretty human to me.
Sis: Well, she isn’t! She’s a Shadow Hunter.
Me: What the heck’s a Shadow Hunter?
Sis: Shadow Hunters are half-angel, half-human warriors locked in an eternal battle against evil!
Me: Ooookay. So… why do they need Lily Collins?
Sis: Because she’s different.
Me: [does double-take at trailer] Was that Kevin Zegers?!
Sis: Focus! Clary’s got a map inside her head, alright?
Me: Why didn’t you just say that? [glances back at trailer] Does the map lead to Kevin Zegers?
Do you see where I’m going with this? This particular trailer got so bogged down in world building that it didn’t get a chance to showcase what made City of Bones awesome. When agents say not to structure your query like a movie trailer, I think this is partially what they mean. My first query was a mess because I was so in love with the world I’d created I wanted to shove all of its beautiful intricacies into my query. But guess what? All that world building didn’t need to be there. It just ate up precious words that could’ve been used to showcase what really mattered: why an agent should want to read more.
I’m reminded of an article I read a few weeks back, What Separates ‘City Of Bones’ or ‘Divergent’ From ‘Twilight’ or ‘Hunger Games’? Simplicity. The author, Scott Mendelson, gives advice that lends itself directly to queries:
“You’re selling a movie [in the case of a query, a manuscript], not a rule book on the fantasy world in question.”
“Don’t sell the rules of the game, but rather sell why the moviegoer [reader] would want to play.”
If I may be so bold, I think this is the cardinal rule of querying. I’m not saying you should be vague and cagey in a query. That’s just as bad as being overly specific. However, I think you need to be able to distill the bigger picture into a brief, snappy hook so that you can spend the rest of your 250-300 words, as Mr. Mendelson puts it, “teasing the actual adventure being offered [not just the world where the adventure takes place] or offering character beats that might make me want to spend time with these people.”
In the case of City of Bones, I might’ve said: “When Clary’s mom is kidnapped, she must venture into the dangerous world of demon hunting to get her back.” Boom. Is it more complicated than that? Yes. Is the scope of the world grander than that? Of course. But by simplifying the hook you give yourself room to show how grand and complicated your manuscript is. If the trailer for City of Bones had hinted Clary’s first love might just be using her to get the treasure map inside her head, I’d have been all over it. Hello, internal conflict and potential heartbreak! Throw in a tease about the conflict Clary might feel trying to choose between her old safe life (i.e. her funny, loyal, awesome best friend) and the rush of something new and dangerous, and I’d have been like:
The moral of the story? Conflict is key.
I’m not saying a simple query tweak would’ve sold my first manuscript. It was just as messy as my query. But if your manuscript is in good shape and you’re still not getting the responses you’ve hoped for, you may need to approach your world building with a wider lens so you can really dig into the specifics that make your book unique and engaging.
Still here? In that case, here are my last two cents: it is imperative to capture the tone of your manuscript in your query. While watching the trailer for City of Bones, I found myself thinking: Why so serious? The movie is actually very funny in places, which I love, but the trailer is all gloom and doom and weepy violins. Don’t do that.
Above all, don’t give up. You CAN do this!
Thanks to everyone who’s read and good luck to anyone in the query trenches. I hope this post helped a little.
Also, for hanging around until the end, here’s a hula dancing snowman. Enjoy: