InboxWednesday – Spines and Queries

Good morning. Thanks for coming. Dive in, the inbox is fine.

As we do every Wednesday, I snag an email from the pile and answer it. Today’s email is actually a comment left on Monday’s blog post. This is from Greg, who is awesome:

The entire time I read this I was thinking of how this relates to making the query letter concise. Maybe you could relate or connect this to synopsis and query letters. I know it would at least help me and maybe grease someone else’s skids.

So let’s talk spines, queries, and concision. And to do that, I’m probably not going to be concise.

As we said Monday, a spine is a stack of beats with an emotional connective cord, and when you can be objective about it, you’ve got some query content. Being objective about the spine works with the idea that the query isn’t a synopsis, so it’s not that you need to recap the spine, but instead present it from a distance.

The query is going to be distant from the story to some degree, because it’s not written by a character, not written in-world, it’s not a manuscript excerpt. In order to make the manuscript attractive, it has to be distant, so that we can be drawn in and read it.

Let’s do an example.  We’ll create a story with four beats first

Tom is a struggling shoe salesman.
Tom makes his own shoes, and is mocked for it everywhere he goes.
Tom prototypes a shoe so awesome that NASA buys it.
Tom makes buttloads of space money.

To turn these beats into query ammo, we’ve got to find the best stretch of words within each of them, and either use them directly, talk about them using other words, or a combination of the two. So let’s highlight some words within the beats, and number them:

Tom is a struggling shoe salesman. (1)
Tom makes his own shoes, and is mocked for it everywhere he goes. (2)
Tom prototypes a shoe so awesome that NASA buys it. (3)
Tom makes buttloads of space money. (4)

Yes, astute reader, I wrote four backloaded beat explanations. It’s easier to explain this way, but I want to point out that you don’t always have to write backloaded sentences in order to talk about something.

Using these highlighted phrases, we can write a query, or at least part of one. Let’s just focus for now on these phrases as part of one paragraph in the query.

The shoe struggle is real (1). Tom faces mockery and derision as a laughingstock in the cutthroat world of shoes (2). It’s only when he develops the Q-4 hypershoe that people start to take notice, but even when NASA comes calling (3), can Tom stand up to a changed lifestyle (4)?

It’s not the prettiest query paragraph, but it works for our example. Each of the four beats got rewritten so that they read smoothly, and I presented them linearly so that the paragraph came together quickly (because it’s an example). In your own queries, you don’t have to do any of those things, and shouldn’t always – let the ideas develop and connect with as natural a feel as possible so that you avoid the “Oh and one more thing” feeling.

I picked four there because it’s an example, but if you have more (and you likely do) you’re going to have to prioritize the better beats to query with, and that means taking your spine out of order. Here’s a longer example:

Mandy  has terrible luck with finding a job and sticking to it
Her last job, bank teller, ended when her branch was robbed for the third time.
Convinced she’s cursed, she finds a psychic  who can “help her.”
The help she receives comes in the form of a magic ability to alter other people’s luck.
Mandy tests this power out, with some comic results.
She uses it to set up a date with a person way out of her league but uses the power to keep things going.
Mandy starts to worry though that the person only loves her due to this power.
She returns to the psychic to remove the power.
When she goes back to the psychic’s storefront, she finds her new relationship trying to kill the psychic and steal the magic for themselves.
A fight breaks out.
Mandy uses her power to keep herself safe, but can’t mount any offense.
Mandy uses her experience from her job as a bank teller to lock her now-ex in the vault.
They escape, swearing vengeance.
Mandy goes on a quest to gain the skills she’ll need to stop him, and keep down a job.

You can’t fit all those beats into the same query. One of the advantages to mapping out a story’s spine is the ability to use the pieces to write multiple and different queries. Looking at the list, I could write this with almost a rom-com serial tone, where Mandy just can’t get her shit together despite her likely minority best friend starts every sentence with “Girl,” and the gay friend is catty and often sleeping around.

I could write this with a supernatural or urban fantasy bend, making the magic truly spectacular and extraordinary, playing up the outside-the-norm and framing her partner as a monster.

Because I have multiple directions, the queries can look radically different. And that’s to my advantage. The problem though, is that however I frame the query, that’s going to be the lens through which the MS is read. And if I overhype Mandy’s inability to get work and the magic takes a backseat in the MS, it’s going to make the urban fantasy feel sort of rushed or tacked on.

There’s a balance between the content of the MS and the upsell you use in the query. You’ll find your balance through trial and error, but I can point out that sticking close to your spine, and understanding the emotional cord (throughline) will help you direct the query both to the most receptive audience as well as the best version of itself.

A query is a blend of fact and feeling, and to sell both, work on word choice. State the beat outright or describe it where needed, and don’t lock yourself down to a strict … well, anything. There isn’t a “best single query” template, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to experiment on both an in-sentence and on-the-page level.

The story’s spine provides ammunition for the query, as well as being a kind of spine for the query too. You’ve got these ideas, these emotions, to get across, and a limited space to do that in. Yes, that’s not easy. But it is doable, so go work on it. Build a spine, identify beats you can put into a query that support an emotional throughline relevant to genre and submission and keep writing.

See you on Friday for what apparently will be the 400th blogpost. I feel like we should have a cake or something.

Happy writing.


Posted by johnadamus