Why A Query Hinges On Character

Querying is all about character.

You’re selling a character. Not a world, not a setting, not a plot, not a vibe—but a character.

Your character works as a direct arrow to the heart of the agent. The character is what makes them want more. Agents are only humans, after all, and humans naturally seek emotional connection in everything they do. Secure this emotional connection—and you’ll secure a full request.

So, how do you do this? How do you best sell your character?

I’ve written a lot of queries for myself in the past decade, and I’ve critiqued a lot of queries as well. For students, friends, and colleagues. I find that there’s something comforting about the analytical approach to a query. It’s an ingredient list; if you check off enough ingredients, you’re good. A query is not as subjective as a book. It’s safer, in a way. In this sense, it’s your job to give it enough experimental edge, while still keeping it safe, so that agents can’t resist wanting more.

In my opinion, you have two jobs to do for a solid query:

  1. Sell your story via your character.
  2. Keep the selling 90% on-script… and 10% off-script (that’s your edge).

Below here, I’ve compiled a list of the feedback that I often end up giving during my query critiques. I’ll happily and confidently call them universal query advice. As you read along, you’ll find that character is what drives the query forward. And that’s both your written characters, but also yourself as a sellable character.

What should I Include in my pitch?

This is where you want to sell your character. Paradoxically, the best way to sell your character is by investing the agent in the character’s physical journey. This sounds contradictory, I know. Like the best of both worlds. “So, Amalie, I have to emotionally connect the agent to my character… via the plot?” Yes. Yes, you do. Because the point is to show the external plot through the internal lens of the character. That’s two birds with one stone, baby (or two flies with one smack, as the Danish saying goes). You do this by asking three questions:

  • What does your character want? (external/internal goal)
  • What stands in their way of getting what they want? (conflict)
  • What do they stand to lose if they fail? (stakes)

By framing your pitch around your character’s goal/conflict/stakes, you will automatically hook the agent emotionally while also giving away the right amount of plot. You will end up with something along the lines of this:

  • Louisa wants to save herself from an unwanted marriage (internal goal), and so she decides to steal a specific jewel as blackmail material (external goal).
  • The owners of the jewel have it locked up in a vault, thus standing in Louisa’s way (conflict).
  • If Louisa doesn’t get the jewel, she will end up marrying against her will, losing her independence, unless she finds another way of escaping the marriage (stakes).

While I don’t believe that conflict-driven narratives (as they are prominent in western culture) are inherently better than any other type (see kishoutenketsu, daisy chain storytelling, robleto etc.), I can only advice you that most agents seemingly get invested in conflict the easiest and fastest. They get involved in drama. And no matter what type of story you write, I bet that it has drama which you can hone in on as a way of investing the agents.

This is also where I want to mention survival stories. There is a general misconception that the struggle to survive isn’t a choice/conflict in itself, but I believe that’s a lie. Surviving absolutely is a choice and conflict. These characters are working on overcoming trauma that has affected their mobility to act and make choices on a fundamental level. They can’t make any active choices yet, because they first have to regain that ability. That is their active choice, namely to regain the ability to make choices. And that does count.

How do I make my character instantly relatable?

Your fastest (and easiest) chance of making your character relatable happens during the first line of your pitch. When you introduce your character, try to add a key personality feature that immediately makes the agent feel as if they truly know this person. Something along the lines of these examples:

Do say: “Twenty-year-old Louisa, clumsy to fault, must…”

Do say: “Twenty-year-old headstrong Louisa isn’t prepared for…”

(By contrast, don’t say: “When twenty-year-old Louisa discovers…”)

How do I build up stakes in a pitch?

Ideally, you should have stakes weaved throughout your entire pitch, and they should gradually build up and expand in scope. It should be an organic escalation as viewed through the lens of the character.

I like to imagine these stakes as a blooming flower. Narrow to broad. Bud to bloom. To that end, it starts with personal/low stakes and finishes with global/high stakes. Again, narrow to broad.

If you focus on selling your character in your pitch, then this journey from personal stakes to global stakes will happen naturally. You will end the pitch with something along the lines of this: “But when Louisa’s steals the jewel to save herself from an unwanted marriage, she ends up embroiled in an international smuggling scheme that threatens all of her kingdom and not just her family.”

Should I start with my pitch, or my metadata?”

I personally think this is a matter of where your novel falls on the marketability spectrum. Typically, the books that adhere to genre have a stronger commercial appeal, which makes them easier to market, which means they often have a snappy hook. In that case, I’d say to put the pitch first—because it has that snappy character-focused hook.

If your novel adheres less to genre, plays with genre, or blends genre, then you might be better off putting your metadata first. I say this because the metadata helps set the right expectations for the agent, which means they’re less likely to make the wrong assumptions and are thus less likely to be disappointed. Novels that adhere less to genre are harder for agents to navigate in terms of expectation, so it can often be a boon to put the metadata first in your query, before your pitch, if you have a novel like this.

Please note that metadata includes the title, the wordcount, the agent personalization, and the published comparative titles for your novel (comp titles).

How should I add specificity to my comparative titles?

When it comes to comp titles, it’s once again a matter of setting the right expectations for the agent so they don’t go into your book assuming wrong, which leads to disappointment, which leads to rejection.

Firstly, you should always specify why you’ve picked your comps, and you should specify individually for each comp. Don’t bulk together in one sentence, but separate in the same sentence.

Don’t say: “My book shares an atmosphere and theme like C.L. Polk’s Witchmark and Stewart’s The Bone-Shard Daughter.” 

Do say: “My book has the wintry atmosphere of C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, and a similar thematic core of familial obligation as Stewart’s The Bone-Shard Daughter.”

You can also safely use the “my book will appeal to fans of Erin Morgenstern’s prose” framework. Here it’s important that you use authors who are universally known for excelling at something (such as Morgenstern’s prose), and that this author writes within the genre of your book somehow. Otherwise, the point of setting the right expectations for the agent is lost.

For comp titles, it’s also advisable to use ones that are less than five years old. This shows you’re active in the market of the genre you’re pitching. If it’s a book series, then you can go by the release date of the last book (even if the first one is older than five years). In this same way, you can go the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” route. That is, you can say “Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies!” or “the Great Gatsby, but in space!” or “The Godfather, but with fairies!”

I personally think the best comps are those that focus on either a) atmosphere/setting, b) characters, c) theme, and d) prose. The last thing you want to compare is plot and overall style. Ironically, this is because these are almost too specific to the individual books and individual authors. When it comes to setting expectations, too much specificity can lead to agent disappointment just as easily as too little specificity.

What should I include in my bio?

A lot of people think that because they have no publishing credentials, they have a bad bio—but that’s not necessarily true. Just like you’re selling your characters in your pitch, then you’re also selling yourself (as a character) in your bio.

The bio isn’t just about showing what products you’ve made, but also to show your determination and your discipline in your chosen career field. Remember, you’re asking an agent to work with you for years to come. You’re asking for a business partner to choose you. And business partners as just as impressed with your products as they are with your initiatives.

If you’ve been a host at a conference, or participated in a special workshop, or have edited an anthology, or is the founder of a recurring online writing event, or is a volunteer in a writing program… then put this in your bio because this shows involvement. It shows that you’re committed, and there’s nothing that a potential business partner admires more than that.

There’s more advice than this to be had, for sure, and it’s always important to cross-reference any advice you’re given, but these are the most universal tidbits that I can give you based on my own experience. I hope it can help ease some concerns of yours.

Happy querying!

I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines!

Understanding Story Structure via Midpoints

This idea seems really simple, right?

The midpoint is, of course, the middle of a story.

What’s hard about understanding that, yeah?

Well, for me, it used to be incredibly hard—because it left me with the problem as to what a middle actually does for a story. What’s the point of a middle? Quick, tell me the answer, in one sentence, go, go, gogogogo—but you can’t, right? And if you can, it doesn’t feel like enough, does it?

We all know what a beginning and an ending both do. They start and conclude. Build and tear down. It’s the framework of a barn. The outline of a geometric figure. Two points that naturally connect. It’s payoff. It’s cost and outcome. It’s cause and effect. The midpoint doesn’t do any of that. In fact, the midpoint can sometimes feel as if it stands in the way of the barn framework and geometrical outline—and that’s where a lot of writers go wrong, I think, in that they view the midpoint as an obstacle. They want to get from point A-B rather than A-B-C.

And I think that’s a very natural thing, actually. And I think it relates to how we learn about stories as children, in part. As children, we’re told stories because they have universal, basic lessons that help us grow as human beings. They have morals. Ideas. Values. This is all very intangible stuff—and intangible stuff is clearest if you think of it as A=B, not A=B=C. Beginning and end. Payoff. No middle in sight.

In my opinion, two factors contribute to the “sagging middle syndrome”:

  1. A lot of writers (myself included) naturally understand stories via A=B payoff.
  2. A lot of writers (myself included) are inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader.

I already talked about the A=B payoff, so let me talk about the second factor.

A lot of writers make the mistake of keeping their cards too close to their chest, afraid that the mystery of their book will disappear if they don’t—but that only means they end up leaving the reader too confused, with too much mystery, and that leaves the reader frustrated.

Think of it like a carrot on a stick that you’re dangling in front of the reader, yeah?

You have to show that carrot, enough of that carrot, for the reader to keep running for it.

For me, what I tend to initially think of as the ending of my story… is actually my midpoint. This is because I’m inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader. I’m afraid of showing them too much of my carrot. And this is a mistake. It drags the pacing down. It undermines the full potential of my story. I always have to let go of that fear when I start a book. Always.

It amounts to this: “Don’t save the cool stuff for later, but trust that even cooler stuff will come if you don’t.”

A lot of agents will also tell you that this is a mistake writers make when they write trilogies. They save too much of the cool stuff for the later books. When the agents reject their books, the writers say that the really cool stuff happens on page fifty, so please keep on reading. These “laters” are red flags. If you save all the cool stuff for later, then what about now? We’ll never get to the cool stuff later because we’ll never get past the uncool stuff right now, you know?

I don’t claim to be an expert in story structure, but I will claim that story structure has been my greatest weakness, which has led me to study it in far greater depth than I’ve studied anything else insofar as storytelling goes.

And this is why I’ll confidently say that I never understood how story structure worked until I understood that the midpoint is what makes or breaks your book.

More specifically, it makes or breaks the pacing of your book.

And, honestly, pacing can make or break your book in turn.

Or, at least, the first draft of your book.

Focusing on the midpoint in a first draft will give you solid pacing from the get-go, meaning less developmental edits for your later drafts, and it will also allow for more freedom insofar as acts go.

If you have a solid midpoint, then it doesn’t really matter if you have a three-act structure, or a four-act structure, or a seventeen-act structure, you know? You have a middle. You have a focal point that can stretch in two directions, left and right, up and down, and then you can stretch it however much you want in both directions, yeah?

You can think of it like drawing a circle with your compass; the tip of the compass is your middle and the circle you draw is your story. Or the potential for your story, I should say, because starting with the middle as your focal point demands that you scrabble through a lot of potential beginnings and ends before you find the ones that fit together—but once you do, your structure will inherently be well-paced.

This is less of a linear way of thinking about structure.

If this “freehand compass method” clicks with your brain like it does with mine, then it assures that the middle of your book won’t sag, and I fully, absolutely, 200% recommend that you try thinking of structure like this.

And, because I’m a proud nerd, please have a very simple, conceptual visualization of what I mean by this method:

ESL Writers – How Our 1st Language Affects Our 2nd

This article starts with a re-tweet that I came across the other day.

This one, below here:

This tweet hit home for me.

I saw myself reflected in it.

It spurred me to consider whether there might be a link between my own underwriter nature in English and the fact that my mother tongue is Danish (ergo Germanic). Maybe my English writing is concise and abrupt because Danish as a language is more concise than English? Because it has a smaller vocabulary than English, and thus it’s hard to make it flowery/lengthy?

I know my conciseness in my English stories often is my weakness in that I say too little and leave reader confused, even though I personally think I say enough and that the rest can be inferred (spoiler: it often can’t, shucks). This past year, I’ve worked a lot on my prose, trying to explicitly be more lengthy. Both to improve my craft—to expand what I can do with my craft—but also because I want to get better at hitting the proper (read: market-friendly) word count in my first drafts.

All this rumination about myself made me want to see whether my ESL friends felt the same. Whether my friends, for whom English is a second language, can see threads of their own native language weaved into their English storytelling, and how these threads show themselves.

So, of course, I went and asked them on twitter.

I had an Italian and Spanish friend both say they’re overwriters in English, which would fit the theory that native romance languages foster descriptions and complex sentence structures for ESL writers.

I also had a Brazilian friend who said the same, namely that they’re an overwriter in English as a second language and that Portuguese as a native language has lush prose.

Then I had a Hungarian friend who also saw themselves reflected in this theory, saying that Hungarian can be quite rambling, and that this fits their own tendency to overwrite in English. 

Lastly, I had a Dutch friend who finds themselves an underwriter in English, fitting the idea that Germanic languages are very matter-of-fact compared to English. Just like Danish.

I think we can infer a lot from all of this, and I suppose this is where my fondness for cultural studies makes me go full nerd—because I think we’re looking at something that goes beyond language here.

First off, I think it’s fascinating that there is this difference between storytelling and writing when it comes to your second language, even if you’re perfectly fluent in that language. There’s something to be said for your formative years, here. I’ve read more English than Danish in my life at this point, yet it’s obvious that my rudimentary understanding of “How To Tell A Story” remains rooted in Danish, not English. This also shows that storytelling is more than written text. Even more than oral storytelling. We’re going beyond stories, grasping for culture itself as a concept.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?

Language is inevitably linked to culture, after all.

It reminds me of another tweet I saw recently, namely that the stories-within-stories concept is told best by non-western ESL writers. Based on my current knowledge of this, I agree. EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE, by the Viet-American Nghi Vo, comes to mind. The plot of that novella focuses on a cleric who listens to stories about the recently deceased empress. The cleric isn’t the actual story; the story that the cleric is being told is the actual story. CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN also comes to mind, by the Filipino-Canadian K. S. Villoso, in which the narrative oscillates between past and present with the main character chronicling their own story to us, the readers.

The tweeter argued that non-western ESL writers are good at this type of narrative because their culture looks at storytelling differently in that they generally revere and preserve the past more, while being less focused on the future such as western culture traditionally is. I can see this being true, and I can see this making non-western ESL writers into masters of the story-within-story narrative.

To sum up, I find it so fascinating how writing and storytelling aren’t only two separate crafts, but also that you can essentially write in your second language, yet at the same time be storytelling in your native one.

I mean, not to toot my own horn and the horns of my ESL friends, but that’s massively cool, isn’t it?