Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Writing A Query Letter - Part Two: The Setup

Okay, once you've hooked the agent to read your whole query letter, you've got to deliver. You can't just have a hook and then let everything else slide. Following the hook, you need to get to the problem. This requires a little bit of setup. Yesterday, you may have noticed that I included the age of the protag in my hooks. Of course I specify my genre, but the agent knows right away which age group it is. Little details like that contribute to the setup in your query even if they're not in the setup portion.

In the setup, you have a few goals:
1. Provide a few details about who your main character is. You've hooked the agent to find out more about your main character, so give them what they want.

2. World-building information if pertinent. For fantasy and science fiction, a little taste of the world would go in the setup section of the query. For mystery, horror, thriller or other genres, including the setting here wouldn't be a bad idea.

3. The catalyst that moves the main character into the conflict (tomorrow's post).

Let's look at this hook I posted yesterday. Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

Here's the paragraph right after it—the setup.
Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a guy she's never met. (details) When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. (Details = Annie inherits magic. World-building = magic-keeping mother, hmm...) Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother. (More details = Annie's mom is sick. World-building = magic can't fix everything. Catalyst for next para on the conflict = magic can't fix everything, Annie's powers are new and she can't do what she wants with them.)

This setup paragraph is three sentences, only 65 words. But (I think, I hope, I pray) it tells more about Annie, more about the magic, and drives the agent toward the main conflict in the story. That's what you want your setup section of the query letter to do. Don't bog us down in too many details. Don't introduce your entire cast of secondary characters. Don't try to impress with sentences that are 65 words long by themselves. Just lay it out for us. Remember, you want to get to the conflict. Think of the setup as a bridge from the sharp hook to the cliffhanger conflict.

Okay, your turn. Using this hook I posted yesterday and the setup paragraph below, can you tell if I've met the goals for the setup paragraph?

Hook: In a world where Thinkers control the population and the Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a spectacular job of shattering them to pieces.

Refusing to listen to the Tapes, stealing an old ID card, and walking in the park after dark with a boy land Vi in prison. The Good are usually separated from the Bad, but Vi finds herself sharing a cell with beautiful Bad boy, Jag Barque.
In these two sentences (47 words) can you find the details? Can you identify where more is revealed about the world Vi lives in? What's the catalyst that will propel the agent forward to the conflict?

Now these examples might not be stellar. Remember, they're just my query letters, and I'm no expert. The first one has seen some good requests. The second hasn't been queried yet.

Your job: go examine your setup paragraph. Does it reveal details, build your world (or identify the setting), and propel you toward the conflict? Can't even find it? Um, Houston you have a problem. You need to be able to clearly identify your setup so you can know if you're, well, setting up your conflict.

Didn't see part one of Writing the Query Letter – The Hook? Click here to see it. Watch for the next section, Writing the Query Letter – The Conflict, tomorrow.

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