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Lazette Gifford,
Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Assistant Editor

Issue # 55
January/February 2010

Table of Contents

Writing A Fantastical Query

By Steff Green

Copyright © 2010, Steff Green, All Rights Reserved

Writers read and reread the instructions about creating successful query letters with a fervor usually reserved only for the religious and Robbie Willians fans. Over and over they repeat the querying rules; start with a hook, no more than a page, spell the agent's name correctly, summarize, summarize, summarize. For most writers, boiling the 'essence' of their masterpiece into 150 words is more difficult than writing the actual novel.

Fantasy writers seem to have the most trouble with queries. Perhaps it's because their tomes are tomelier than most while commercial fiction runs around 80-100 000 words, fantasy novels regularly clock in at 120-150k, and 200k is not unheard of. Also, fantasy books are more likely to extend into trilogies, or octogies, or more. And with fantasy's emphasis on hyper-creativity, the writer may have dedicated months - or even years to creating and refining their fantastical world. He or she has created something they feel is coherent, unique, and infinitely complex and interesting. This is quite apart from the epic complexity of their plot and the heroic actions of their protagonists (there is usually more than one).

Fantasy novels especially epic fantasy sagas are created by authors who think big. How then can they possibly be expected to condense all their epic ideas into a hundred and fifty measly words?

It can be done.

In order to create a successful query letter for this kind of fantasy, you need to ask yourself these four questions?

  1. Who is the protagonist?
  2. What is the conflict that occurs in the FIRST thirty pages of the novel?
  3. What is the emotional tension of the book?
  4. What fantasy subgenre does your book belong to?
1) Who is the protagonist? The protagonist is the main character of the story, but he (or she) is more then that. He/she is the person the reader is cheering for. The protagonist is usually the narrator of the story, but not always.

Why is this so important? A common mistake in fantasy queries is to pepper the hook paragraph with names of dozens of characters, places and magical objects in a futile attempt to give an accurate representation of the story.

This will never work. You cannot give an accurate summary of your story in 150 words, and that is not what you are trying to do with a query letter. You are trying to entice the agent/editor to read your manuscript. You do this by making it easy to like your book. You concentrate on one character. The protagonist is probably the only person you should name in the entire query letter if you can help it (aside from your own name, that is). If you have more than one protagonist such as Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely write your query from the point of view of one character.

2) What is the conflict that occurs in the FIRST thirty pages of the novel? Conflict drives your story forward, because without conflict there would be no story. With enormous fantasy volumes, the conflict can be grand in scale as well as internal struggles; complex political situations, centuries-old magical curses and battles for which the future of mankind hangs in the balance. Conflicts build on each other, creating escalating tension that pushes the reader through the book.

What you don't want to do in your query letter is attempt to summarize all these conflicts. Once again, it's impossible to tell the reader every detail of the plot in 150 words.

What you need to do is figure out your plot catalyst the event that occurs within the first thirty pages of your book. This is the event to which all other events in your book relate. Does your heroine find the magic amulet? Does your hero rescue the princess from the trolls? Does the king sign the treaty with the ruler of the demons? Does your centaur army storm and burn the capital?

If there is no precipitating event in the first thirty pages, then your query isn't the problem. You need to take another look at your book.

Have you got that? Good. Now we're on to step three.

3) What is the emotional tension of your book? You've got your first sentence or two for your hook paragraph, right? Who your character is and what happens to your character that sets the story in motion. Now, ask yourself these questions:

Is your book character heavy or plot heavy? What are your themes?

For character-driven novels you want to emphasize your character's struggle as he/she strives to overcome the problem (the plot-catalyst described in 1). For plot-driven novels you want to emphasize how the plot elements move your character through the book.

4) What is your fantasy subgenre?
  • dark fantasy
  • high fantasy
  • low fantasy
  • magic realism
  • young adult fantasy
  • contemporary/urban fantasy
  • paranormal romance
  • steampunk

You need to know your subgenre so you can market to it. Your query should read like a back cover copy for a novel in your particular subgenre. It can be helpful to scour back-cover blurbs at your local bookstore. Study how published authors convey the tone of their novel in a 150 words.

For example, in dark, urban fantasy, and steampunk you want to use words and phrases that emphasize the bleakness and dystopian modernity of your world. For dark fantasy you want to emphasize the danger. And for epic fantasy you want to emphasize the scale of the conflict, and hint at the journey the hero must undertake to solve this problem.

Putting it all together So now you've done some work on the questions above, you can begin putting together your query. To help you, here's an example of a query for an epic fantasy novel that answers the four questions above:

When Ragad's fishing village is destroyed by vicious half-human, half-horse monsters, he is sent to the king to ask for aid for his dispossessed people. When he arrives in the capital he discovers the streets teaming with the same frightening creatures, the people too terrified to stop them. The King's decree 'All Centaurs' Welcome' is pinned to the wall of the temple.

As Ragad takes rest at a local inn, Silika a feisty barmaid who has stolen his heart disappears in the night, leaving behind a trail of blood and a clump of long, coarse hair. Ragad's journey to rescue her and save his people will take him on a wild chase across land and sea, into the heart of the kingdom's politics, and examine his own deep-set prejudices against the ancient centaurs.

All Centaurs' Welcome is an epic fantasy complete at 125k words, rife with intrigue, corruption, adventure and love.

See that? Five sentences. 134 words in the pitch paragraphs. And I have all the necessary details: one protagonist (Ragad), a plot catalyst (centaurs attacking his village), the subgenre (epic fantasy). Since it's a plot-driven novel, I've added some plot details (The King's notice, Silika being kidnapped) and I hint at future events and the themes.

Now, I'll give you a bad example:

Ragad's fire-mage ability makes him the perfect candidate to travel to Tristana's capital Dalen to petition the king for aid after the vicious centaur attack on his village of Tillia. While he's there his lover, Silika, is captured by centaurs. Ragad, together with Atuid the Bard, track the centaurs to Fatmatta, a village racked with political unrest, where he is mistaken for an assassin and jailed. After a daring escape he stows away on a Maanei boat, where mermaids give him a magical amulet that will defeat the centaurs. Meanwhile Atuid has come under the spell of the evil Wizard Garrad who controls the centaurs. When Ragad finds Silika he discovers the Centaur King is his own father, enchanted by Garrad. Atuid knows that if the centaurs don't leave, their magic will tear apart Tristana. Will Ragad use the amulet to destroy his father in order to save the kingdom?

It's only 150 words. It still has many of the same elements as the pitch above the centaur attack on the city, Silika's kidnapping, the political unrest and yet it is not successful. There are too many characters (Ragad, Atuid, Garrad, Silika, Centaur King) and too many place names (Tristana, Dalen, Tillia, Fatmatta, Maanei). This query gives us no sense of the characters or places. There is no emotional conflict, and this story sounds boring.

The author has rushed to bring the reader to the climactic story question (Ragad's use of the amulet) and, in doing so, has attempted to summarize 100 000 words of manuscript into 150 words. No wonder it doesn't work. By concentrating on the first 30-50 pages of the book and hinting at the story to follow, the author can create a much more convincing hook.

This method won't work for every author and every book, and there are many successful published authors who wrote queries much like the second example above. But the market for fantasy is becoming tougher every day. It takes practice and the right techniques to create successful queries. By using the above technique, would-be authors are well on their way to writing interesting hooks that stand out in the slush-pile.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
-- Oscar Wilde