How to Write Specific vs. Vague Conflict In a Query

This is a blog post by Meg La Torre from Savvy Authors. I found it so helpful to the query process, I had to share. Let’s face it; Queries are damn hard to write. Too much plot, not high enough stakes, no or too much conflict can mean the difference between getting a Literary Agent or a form rejection letter. Meg gives us a few nuggets to help write your query just right.

The purpose of a query is to entice a literary agent or editor to read (more of) your manuscript.
Some literary agents will only read the manuscript pages if the query entices them enough, other agents will read both the query and pages for each submission they receive, and yet others will read the pages before they query. But in order to receive a partial or full request, it’s essential for agents to finish reading your submission thinking, “I need more.” And there’s an easy way you can do that within your query: specific conflict.
When I worked as a literary agent and read through the query box or perused the feed of Twitter pitch contests, writers would often over-simplify their stories or plot. This over-simplifying not only doesn’t provide an overview of the story in the plot summary (also called the story blurb), but it doesn’t leave a reader eager for more.

Let’s Start With a Few Examples of Vague Conflict:

1.) Michael is faced with a dark secret that turns his world upside down. If he doesn’t learn how to control his new powers so he can fight off the impending evil, the darkness will devour the world and everything he loves.

2.) Mia has always wanted a normal life. When she finds herself on a mission to learn about her family’s history, she learns of their dark secrets, which, if revealed, could change the course of history.

3.) Trae’s father committed a crime that tore an empire apart. Or that’s what everyone has been told. He must befriend murderers and thieves and outsmart politicians to prove his family’s innocence and prevent civil war.

In These Examples:

We don’t know who the protagonist is (vocation, motivation, etc.) or what s/he wants.
The plot appears to be moving the protagonist (rather than his/her desires or actions impacting the plot).
We know nothing of the individual circumstances leading up to the inciting incident, who the antagonist is, or what the force is the protagonist is facing.
Without any specific examples of what the protagonist is facing, the stakes’ impact is lessened. For example, in #2, what are the family’s dark secrets, specifically? Why would those secrets change the course of history? What would happen if those secrets were revealed? Why weren’t they revealed already?
In general, the following phrases are all vague conflicts (and should be swapped out for specific conflicts): “dark secret,” “turning her world upside down,” “dark past,” “darkness will devour the world,” etc.
If an event happened that has sparked the inciting incident, such a father’s crime in example #3, the reader needs to have a general idea of what that event was.

Let’s Rewrite These Three Examples to Include Specific Conflict:

1.) In Short Hills, most sixteen-year-old boys get cars for their birthday. Michael received unfortunate news: he was from a long line of witches. The best part? As a male descendant, he didn’t get powers, not cool ones anyway. But he did inherit the family’s enemies—including, but not limited to, the town mayor, chief of police, and wealthiest families in the community, all of whom were set on exacting revenge on his family. And for crimes his ancestors supposedly committed. Michael must learn how to control and interpret the strange visions he’s been getting since his sixteenth birthday before the town can awaken a sleeping demon that is said to steal witches’ powers—by stealing their memories.

2.) While unearthing what some historians theorize to be the ancient city of Atlantis, Mia discovers strange artifacts with her family’s crest. Upon touching the artifacts, she begins blacking out and waking up days later without memory of what happened. Desperate for answers, she travels to libraries in Southern Europe and North Africa, where she learns the true location of Atlantis—and how her family was the reason it was sunk beneath the sea.

3.) Ten years ago, Trae’s father stole the king’s scepter. In most kingdoms, you’d think the king would waggle his jeweled finger at his smiths and demand they make a new one. Not in Galoecia, where people are sentenced to death for stepping on a royal’s shadow. When Trae discovers his father’s secret journal, it seems he never stole the scepter after all. If his deceased father’s writing can be believed, he was framed for stealing the scepter and executed as a disrupter of the peace. To get to the bottom of the mystery, Trae must befriend murderers and thieves—the last people to see his father alive. But if he doesn’t find the evidence he needs and soon, civil war will break out on the streets, with Trae right in the middle of it.

Granted, all of these examples are too long for Twitter pitch contests (and probably too short for plot summaries, which are often three paragraphs long), but hopefully, you get the idea.
Pitches and plot summaries both need to have story-specific conflict and stakes. If the conflict is vague enough that it can be applied to stories other than yours, take a look at the writing and see how you can tweak it to convey the uniqueness of your story. By conveying the uniqueness of your story in a query (as well as having a polished manuscript), you may just land yourself a few partial and full requests from industry professionals.

For additional information on querying and a class taught by Meg, go over to www.savvyauthors.com/blog

About Meg:

Meg LaTorre is a SFF writer, YouTuber, developmental book editor, writing coach, creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, and former literary agent with a background in magazine and book publishing, medical/technical writing, journalism, and website creation. On Meg’s YouTube channel, iWriterly, she geeks out on all things books—from the concept to the bookshelves (and everything in between). Meg also launched Query Hack, a query critique platform where writers can submit their manuscript queries or Twitter pitches for FREE feedback. She has written for publications such as Writer’s Digest and Savvy Authors on topics related to writing and publishing, participated as an editor in Twitter contests, including #RevPit (Revise and Resubmit) and Pitch to Publication, and can be found teaching online classes throughout the year. To learn more about Meg, visit her website, follow her on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, sign up for her monthly newsletter (Book Nerd Buzz), and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.

Never Again by Jaime Lynn Boothe – a review

Four out of five stars. Never Again

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Sadly, a disclaimer: This book will make you cry. Jaime Lynn Boothe writes with so much emotion you will feel like you just experienced what the character did. This is a great inspirational book for Women’s Church Groups and Book Clubs. It will give inspiration to anyone who has lost a loved one. The writing is excellent.
My only reason for not giving that fifth star was I wanted the plot to move a little faster. I almost thought there was no plot until I was sixty percent through the book. Then I saw where the author was leading. I’m sure there is a sequel out there, at least I hope so.
I must tell whoever reads this review, I have beta read a new novel by Jaime Lynn Boothe, soon to be published. He is a wordsmith with the emotions let me tell you. Watch for his next novel, it will be amazing!

A Writer’s Life

I belong to a group of writers on Facebook. We write different genres and are at various stages in the process. Our common thread is the process of getting published. What is wonderful about this group is how we share each others highs and lows. There are lots of lows when in comes to attempting to get published. No one could do this without a great support group.

I am giving you an idea of how it feels to be an author in search of a publisher by posting this from Steve Grossman’s Facebook Page (with his permission). Steve is querying a magnificent story called Palimony, which can be Beta Read on Goodreads. It is a witty and humorous look at divorce and second loves. I ask as many of you as can to go to Goodreads and select this novel. It’s really good!

Now here is what being an author is really like; take it away Steve!

 

Trying to do the “debut author” thing is not for the impatient. Things happen at glacial speed. The writing takes forever, then you rewrite and edit to get ready for an actual editor to edit all the things you should have edited but didn’t. There is copy editing, content editing ,developmental editing. and picking an editor is like picking a spouse. Pick the wrong one and you are permanently screwed. Then there is the query. Think of packing for a ski trip using only a zip lock sandwich bag. Describe a book of 70-120K words in 300 words, 50 of which are blowing smoke up an agents ass about how they, and no one else are the perfect agent for you. Researching each agent is at least an hour a piece, and since your odds of getting a query letter returned is less than one in a hundred, you are gonna have to query lots of agents. I have done about two dozen and have had two request manuscripts. If I was a baseball player I would be sent to the minors or cut, but apparently I am doing pretty good author wise.
When you get a manuscript request its like getting a huge marlin on the line on a fishing trip. Except you don’t know if you reeled it in for about 6-8 weeks, and even if you do land an agent they in turn have to sell to a publisher which also takes time. If you have seen the movie “Sideways”, Miles got an agent but his book never found a publisher.
So anyway I have had a number of beta readers and am looking for more. I have had a professional first edit for content and got some good suggestions and had a good chemistry with the editor who seemed to get the humor and plot. She was a wise 60ish hippie who had seen a lot, a brash Texas woman who understood New Jersey sarcasm.
If you don’t like rejection, being a writer is not for you. Trust me career wise and personally I have known my share but people are passing judgment on something you have poured your soul into and send you a form letter if you are lucky saying, good luck but this piece of crap is not for me.
I had the good fortune to have two agents request a full manuscript. I intend to query at least 100 more perhaps 200. Perhaps I wont need to. But anyway I did get a note back from the first agent. Top west coast agency, lots of book to film deals, she is number two with thriller even though that is not my genre Here is the letter after six weeks.
Thanks Steve,
Thanks so much for your patience as we considered the project. There was a lot to like here–we loved the concept and the dialogue is really quite good. But ultimately we found it isn’t quite ready for prime time. It has some pacing issues and at 439 pages, it’s just too long for a debut. Though working on pace will help cut those pages/word count.
So I wish you the very best of luck. This is a very subjective decision and another agent or editor could likely disagree with us.
My best,
Jill
OK…some nice stuff but still net result ZERO. After imagining who was going to play what character in the movie version it was pretty deflating. I thought problems she mentioned could have been fixed if she asked for a rewrite but what do I know.
To cheer me up a writer in my group said “Now you know why Hemingway spent so much time drinking at Sloppy Joes” to which I replied “Now I know why he took a gun and shot half his face off” to which she replied “OK so I guess Hemingway wasn’t the best example” “Not really”
As if by some cosmic coincidence I got a Review from a service called Readers Favorite, designed to give you a critique of your work. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as important as an agent wanting your stuff but it gave me the fortitude to go on despite the odds. I know I have a lot of rejection ahead of me before pay dirt but this review helped me at least temporarily forget the agent rejection for a few milliseconds. I don’t know who this reviewer is, but I owe him big time for his sense of timing and impeccable taste in literature. If anyone wants to be a beta reader I can use all the eyeballs I can find.
Review #1: Review by Ray Simmons
Review Rating: 5 Stars – Reviewed By Ray Simmons for Readers’ Favorite
I was curious about Palimony by Steven Grossman. That’s the number one reason why I decided to read it. I was wondering how anyone could make divorce humorous. To be honest, I was skeptical as to whether it could be done or not. That was because I had never read anything by Steven Grossman. He has a unique touch when it comes to voice and tone. He is very easy to read. The words almost fly off the page, pushing you to read them faster and faster. I don’t think divorce is anybody’s favorite subject for a novel, but Steven Grossman handles this sensitive subject with the skill of a world class surgeon in an operating room. He is brilliant.
I would have to say, hands down, that the strongest feature of this novel is the writing. Sure, the characters are great. The plot is insanely good. Setting, and the other elements of a good novel are all done in a very satisfying manner because the writing propels them into the realm of excellence. He starts with a great idea. Two friends trying to trick their wives into paying less alimony and he turns it into a masterpiece with each sentence that he writes. Palimony is humor at the highest level. I loved the dialogue. I loved the irony and, most of all, I loved the writing. I think other readers will love it too. Especially those baby boomers who have gone through a divorce. And that’s a lot of people.

 

Thank you, Steve, for sharing your writers journey. Many of us share the road with you.

Live and Learn

I recently started tweeting. I’m connected to literary agents, publishers, fellow authors, and most anyone who likes what I tweet. The people you follow can send direct messages which is cool, especially when it is a literary agent talking about the manuscript you are sending to them. The whole Twitter experience is great for quick interaction with a variety of people. It also gives me a place to promote my books.

Unfortunately, predators also troll through Twitter. I have had an experience with one of those this weekend.

I received a direct message from someone offering website design. Most of these types of adds I just thank them for thinking of me and if I decide to use that service, I’ll contact them in the future. I wish I had with this one.

My website, even my WordPress one, is still daunting to get everything where I want it and work the way I want it. So when I received an offer to work on my website, I took it. BIG Mistake. Fortunately, no money ever exchanged hands. But I woke up this morning to find this person hijacked the entire site and deleted all my content, adding his own. I have worked all morning attempting to fix my website with what little knowledge I have. I apologize for any blog posts that have come to you in the last twenty-four hours. They did not come from me. I’ll get them taken down as soon as I figure out how.

I hope this person didn’t change the blogs I follow. Some of you I could not live without reading every post (Opinionate Man). Jason, I may have to hire you to fix this!!

Now I have a new password and I hope all is back in order. I’ve lost all my past blog postings. Some I have stored in Word on my computer, but most were typed directly into WordPress. I’ll not do that again. I will probably expose the person in the future; I want input from WP first. I hope my fans will still follow me. Thanks.