Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 2 – Personalizing the Stakes

Yesterday, I blogged about using specific stakes in your query. Today, I’m going to talk about making the stakes more specific by making them personal to the main character.

Once again, you’ll want these three queries pulled up for reference.

Mine

Joy McCullough-Carranza

Rebecca Petruck

Personalizing the stakes in your query is something that tends to be easier for those who write “quiet” stories, and a little harder for those who write more commercial, action-packed books. What do I mean by personalizing the stakes? I mean tying the stakes back to something the main character desperately wants or needs personally. So while the story may be about saving the world, or finding a lost treasure, or capturing the bad guy, it also fulfills something closer to the main character’s heart. Readers connect to characters, not to plot lines, so making the stakes personal is key to making your reader care.

The key to personalizing your stakes comes at the very beginning of the query. When you introduce us to the main character you give us a brief snapshot of what has shaped them, what their normal is like, and what they desire. If you do this a the beginning, then take us through the inciting incident, the goal and the obstacle, once you get to stakes, you tie it back to something emotionally powerful from the very beginning when you introduced us to the character.

Look at how Joy did it. Beginning: She’s never singled out for anything, unlike her siblings, who are all prodigies at something, even if it’s just being adorable (like two-year-old Claude) 

End: But then awful Hayden starts closing in. If Natalia doesn’t choose an activity she can do with Winnie, Hayden will swoop in and steal her away, just like she stole Natalia’s previous best friend. If Natalia seizes the chance to shine like her siblings, she may risk the best friendship she’s ever had.

See how she referenced what Natalia really wanted in the beginning and then again at the end? That’s personalizing the stakes.

Now mine. Beginning: 11-year-old Kate doesn’t believe in magic, though. After all, she believed her dad when he promised to stay with Mom through happiness and sorrow. But when sorrow poured into his heart like a mudslide, he left without saying goodbye. Kate’s not going to fall for her grandma’s silly idea that magic can bind families and heal hearts.

End: But if Kate’s plan fails, it will prove Everyday Magic is just another broken promise and Kate will lose more than a hike up the Mist Trail with her dad. She’ll lose faith in things like friends, forgiveness, and most of all, family.

Do you see how I brought back the idea of broken promises and believing that people won’t let you down? But specifically in relation to her dad and grandmother?

Personalizing the stakes is just as important in action adventure books too. Let’s think about what a query for THE HUNGER GAMES might look like.

You could just tell us that Katniss volunteers for her sister Primm and that only one person survives. Life and death are pretty compelling stakes, right? But what if you zoom in more. What if you paint a brief picture of how Katniss provides for her family and loves her sister. Then you introduce us to Peeta, the boy who saved her family from starvation. Then you give us the stakes. “If Katniss wins, the boy who saved her family will die. If Katniss loses, how will her family survive without her?” Isn’t that a lot more compelling than just life or death?

What about HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS?

I’m choosing this book because the stakes are easier to work with. They focus squarely on Hogwarts shutting down and Hermione dying. Those are just fine stakes. But let’s zoom in again. If you tell me in the first paragraph about the boy in the cupboard under the stairs who lived with his aunt and uncle who hate him, then you give me the inciting incident, goal, obstacle, and when you come to the stakes, don’t just say, “Harry must find the Chamber of Secrets to save Hogwarts and his best friend.” Tell me, “Harry must find the Chamber of Secrets or he’ll lose the only place that’s ever truly felt like home and the only people who feel like family.” Those are personalized stakes. That is powerful.

Next, I’ll try to hit on hooks and internal vs. external goals/stakes in your query. Hope this was helpful!

Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 1 – Specific Stakes

It has been an exciting week reading all your queries and pages in my Pitch Wars inbox. I saw a lot of talent and a lot of great stories. But I also some queries that didn’t live up to the awesomeness of their pages. So with that in mind, I thought I’d write  a few blog posts on pitfalls to watch out for, especially when writing a query for a book that’s more literary and quiet (since that’s what I know and that seems to be hardest.)

Today let’s talk about stakes in your query.

First, you’re going to want to open up a couple windows in your browser so you can take a look at these three different “quiet” queries that snagged an agent. I’ll be referencing them as examples.

Mine

Joy McCullough-Carranza

Rebecca Petruck

The biggest thing I saw this year was a lack of clear stakes. “Stakes” are what your character has to gain or lose from their goal in the story. Literally, “What is at stake?” And if you want me to care about your story, the stakes need to be personal to the main character and they need to be specific.

The part of your query that focuses on stakes is usually the last line or two of your query. You’ve just spent all this time telling me about characters, their desires/motivations, the inciting incident, the goal and the obstacles. Now you have to tell me what happens if your character succeeds or fails.

In my query, the line about stakes is, “But if Kate’s plan fails, it will prove Everyday Magic is just another broken promise and Kate will lose more than a hike up the Mist Trail with her dad. She’ll lose faith in things like friends, forgiveness, and most of all, family.” 

Stakes: Losing a special hike with her Dad. Also, losing faith in things that matter.

In Joy’s query:  “If Natalia doesn’t choose an activity she can do with Winnie, Hayden will swoop in and steal her away, just like she stole Natalia’s previous best friend. If Natalia seizes the chance to shine like her siblings, she may risk the best friendship she’s ever had.”

Stakes: This is set up as a choice. Either choose to hold on to a best friend or choose to stand out like her siblings.

Rebecca’s is a little different. “Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl. Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count.”  

Stakes: Do you see how she put the stakes first (relationship, state fair, girlfriend) and then the conflict? (Wayne is a brother but he feels more like an enemy and that needs to be resolved.)

These stakes are all specific. Let’s take a look at phrases that AREN’T specific.

Phrases to Stay Away From

Vague stakes usually rear their ugly head in the form of cliche phrases. Beware things that sound like the following.

“or their family will fall apart.” How? How will it fall apart? Divorce? Running away? Grief? Tell me! This also goes for “or the world will end” or “Life as we know it will cease to exist” or any of those kind of phrases. Get. More. Specific.

“[Main character] will have to learn/find out…” This is soooo tempting to do. Especially in more character driven novels. But this can not be the only way your stakes come into play, with your MC learning to trust or believe or have faith, or whatever. Your MC can’t just be learning something, they have to be acting and choosing, right? Make sure you tell me that part. Your query will be stronger if you go straight to phrasing it as your character acting rather than learning.

“Or [main character] will never love/trust again.” Again, this could be true from an internal conflict perspective, but it’s not specific enough in a query. I admit, I used something like this in my query, but if you go through and read it, you’ll also realize that I’m referencing an important part of the “hook” of my book. Even so, if that had been the only thing I’d put in for stakes, it wouldn’t be enough. The big birthday trip with her dad is also at stake. You don’t have to include both internal and external stakes in your query, but you do HAVE TO include the external stakes. That’s where you get your real specificity from.

Do you see the difference between vague and specific stakes? I have lots more to write but I’ll have to do it in another blog post. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to make your stakes more specific by making them personal to the character.

 

Etiquette and Survival in Pitch Wars

The submission window for Pitch Wars is coming up! It’s so exciting! I can’t wait to read all your beautiful words. Seriously, August 3rd can not get here soon enough.

I wanted to give everyone a few tips about surviving the next few weeks before picks are announced. But I can’t do too much better than Mary Ann’s post here and Mike’s post here.

However, I’m obviously still writing a blog post, so here are a few more thoughts.

Enjoy the #pitchwars thread on Twitter, but don’t live there. That leads to insanity. Make sure that you have other things to distract you or it will be an incredibly long three weeks. Plan outings, read books, write your next book. I promise, you are not going to be able to decipher any sooner than everyone else if you got into Pitch Wars or not by what you see on the hash tag. So get on there, joke around, have fun, but then get off and give your eyeballs a break.

As stated in other blogs, don’t announce your requests on the twitter feed. It’s just bad manners. I know there is a facebook group for hopefuls, and maybe you can talk about it there depending on the privacy and dynamics of the group, but your best bet is just to go and squee to a couple CP’s through email or private messages.

Don’t freak out if you don’t get requests. This could be for a number of reasons. Some mentors will choose without making requests. Or you may just have chosen the wrong mentors (which stink, but it happens.) Or you may have a perfectly good manuscript it just isn’t striking a huge chord with anyone. Or, more likely, we can just only choose one and there are so many people entering, there are going to be a lot of great manuscripts that don’t get in. But also, it may be that you need to keep working. And if that’s the case, that’s okay! It really is. Take what you learn and improve and get better. I’m still learning things about the craft of writing. Still recognizing my weaknesses and working to improve. Don’t call it a setback, use it to move forward.

Use the feed to find CP’s. If you haven’t done it yet, do it in the next few weeks, because after picks are announced, it really drops off. This way, you win no matter what.

Get used to waiting. Really. Three weeks is nothing in publishing. Heck, three weeks in publishing is like the freaking Indy 500. So this is good practice in patience. This is being a writer. You just earned another badge. 🙂

When August 25th rolls around, if your name isn’t on the list, please don’t throw a fit on the twitter feed. I’ve seen this happen each time the last two years. Somebody doesn’t get in and they start tweeting about how they are going to quit writing and this was the last straw and there’s no hope for them. Don’t do this. We understand it’s upsetting, but it really doesn’t look professional and just looks like a temper tantrum.

That being said, allow yourself to feel your feels. This is something I am working on myself and something I tried to foster in our 2015 Pitchwars mentee group during the agent round. Your feelings, whatever they are, are valid. They do not have to change because you are faring “better” or “worse” than someone else. As writers, we mourn together and celebrate together. Because even though we are at different spots on the journey, we have all been or will be, where each other are at. So don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be feeling this way or that way. Just give yourself a little time to feel whatever emotion it is. Get it out to a friend if you need to, and then keep going.

That being said, remember that most people will not get into Pitch Wars. If you don’t get in, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

This will not make or break you. It is an opportunity, but it is not THE ONLY opportunity. You can make it without getting into Pitch Wars.

Now breathe, relax, and just know that no matter what happens, it’s going to be okay.

Keep writing, keep working, you’ll make it.