Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Distilled Spirits

Everyone hates the query, the synopsis, and the logline. The first is the two-hundred-fifty-word letter-to-the-agent, asking for representation. The second is the two-to-ten page (depending on guidelines) blow-by-blow of the manuscript. The logline is perhaps the cruelest injustice of all – the hook in roughly fifty words. They suck the spirit right out of our work, and often right out of us personally.

How are you supposed to capture all of the nuance and depth? The answer is that you’re not supposed to capture it, of course, and that’s what’s frankly so offensive. These characters are family. We’ve gone through with them all of the things we’ve dreamed up to put them through.

The reason why structure and genre matter is that they don’t just help to clean up our manuscripts to send along to an agent. They help us figure out the stuff that matters for storytelling. They help us figure out the difference between our story’s spirit and our story’s flesh.

Not to split hairs, but is your novel a romantic fantasy or a fantastical romance? Because in fact that’s not splitting hairs at all. Kiersten White’s Paranormalcy, which has a character-driven romance between Evie and Lend, along with the creepy pursuit of Evie’s ex-boyfriend Reth, contains a stop-the-bad-guy (or gal) kind of plot. The romance adds depth to Evie, and part of Lend’s job is to provide exposition about several major figures and helps with the world building.

A book whose central plot is the relationship with maybe a dash of adventure on the side – that’s a romance.

Which means, when you’re distilling the important bits of your book, the question to ask yourself is what thing is the most important? What if Lend wasn’t boyfriend material but still helped Evie along? The elf ex-boyfriend, on the other hand, is critical, but not because he was a boyfriend. Or “boyfriend.” Turns out he’s fundamentally involved in knowing who Evie is, where she’s from, and where she might be going. But Lend could be re-worked – a change in character in him would illuminate different aspects of Evie and give us a different story but one with a very similar plot.

All of which is to say, relationships are not the center of Paranormalcy. They’re there for dramatic tension. They’re there because they give the world depth. They’re because the reflect on the kind of person Evie is. (Side note: does Evie have a last name? Can’t remember.)

The same goes for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Publishers might call it “Harry Potter for adults,” but that’s horrifically inaccurate and any agent who reads that in a query, requests your manuscript and reads it might feel a wee bit let down. We want to set expectations according to what we’ve created. It’s marginally more correct to say the The Magicians holds the pent-up unhappiness of The Great Gatsby set in world that incorporates elements of Harry Potter and Narnia in good measure. (Haters: I’m not comparing Grossman to Fitzgerald. Stand down.) (Also: not recommending query-writing tips per se here – take this in the spirit it’s meant.)

Once you decide that Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is about Miranda growing up, then you know how to talk about the notes, the time travel, and Madeleine L’Engle.

We’re selling our stories. We’re selling them to agents and if they buy, they’ll sell to publishers. We’re selling our stories to each other. We’re self-publishing and self-marketing and all those other things when all most of us really want to do is write. I think about structure as the distilled spirit of a story, and it’s another kind of writing skill. It’s not that we’re losing the nuance – we should be concentrating it.

Serve cold to readers. You’re not trying to get them drunk – the query is an aperitif. You’re whetting their appetites.


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