Ever since I was a child, I've always loved writing stories and being creative with my words. My teachers fell short of calling me a liar because I loved telling tales and embellishing my stories. Whenever my teachers asked us to write "fiction" (usually short stories in less than 500 words), I was so excited. I loved creating characters and thinking of twists, etc. I guess that was when I first realized I wanted to be a fiction writer, although I didn't know such a thing existed back then.
But when it comes to "formal writing" (letters, proposals, memos, etc.) I sucked. My stories would get A's, but my letters and memos would get C's, and I hated writing them.
Writing queries brings back all those bad memories. The idea of trying to sell a 120,000-word novel in less than 200 words is mind-boggling to me. How can I effectively convey the concept of the idea, develop the characters, and make it "sizzle" all in 200 words (this post, for example, is already longer than 200 words, and I'm not even done yet).
After drafting 12 versions of my query letter, I was still reluctant to workshop it because I truly believed it sucked. I sucked. I have nightmares and cold sweat just thinking about it. But I decided to put my fear aside and workshop it anyway, and my fear was confirmed: While it was a "decent" query -- competent and grammatically correct -- it had no X-factor. It didn't wow anyone. The best comments I got were along the line of "I like it" or "the story sounds fantastic, if only you can really convey it effectively."
I was pleased in that most people who gave me advice said the story did sound interesting. So at least it's not a dud. Now, how would I make it sizzle? I had no idea. I workshopped it for about two weeks and got increasingly frustrated, not because I thought my critics were crazy and unkind, but because I understood what they were getting at, but I couldn't see a way to do it. It was like seeing a mirage in the desert: I know it exists, but I don't know where it is and how to get there.
Then a fellow critter, Jim, who can be abrasive at times but also straightforward without any bullshit -- and I admire that kind of brutal honesty -- engaged in a lively debate with me. True to form, I started arguing because a) I was frustrated with myself for not getting it, and b) I wasn't exactly sure what he meant. I was trying to reconcile what I knew with what I needed to do.
And then something clicked.
It was this opening line of my query: "My father spent four years in a labor camp during the Pacific War."
By itself, it says everything I NEEDED to say, but it was flat and uninteresting. It sounded like something an indifferent intern would write just to meet a deadline. However, I was intent to make this my opening line because my dad's personal experience really was the inspiration of my story and I wanted to make this personal and unique. Then Jim said, "Why not make it dramatic and personal?" and he offered two suggestions: "I remember the pain in my father's voice when he told his story" and "My father weighed 85 pounds..."
At first, I rejected both suggestions. I thought the first one was cheesy, and the second seemed overly dramatic. And since this story isn't my dad's biography, I wondered how relevant it was anyway.
Then something really clicked.
Show vs. tell.
I've always advised other writers to show, instead of tell, when they write their stories, because "show" is more exciting and immediate and personal than some narrator "telling" us how to think or feel.
So why shouldn't a query be the same? Why am I telling you who the character is and how he/she feels and what is happening, if I can show you? And that's what the line "my father weighed less than 90 pounds" is -- show vs. tell. Instead of saying my father survived the camp, the visual of him weighing 90 pounds is so much more powerful and evocative.
And from there, I crafted another, almost completely different, version of the query. Suddenly, it has life. It has pizzazz. Most important, it has my voice, because that's what I do best: storytelling by "showing." I found myself using vivid imaginaries and strong verbs instead of vague descriptors. I found myself using visuals and facts to convey ideas. Instead of saying "he survived," I was showing it. And that tactic made a world of difference. From the tepid line "My father spent four years in a labor camp during the Pacific War" came this opening:
My father once said, "What doesn't kill you only makes you a guilty man." He weighted less than ninety pounds after four years in a labor camp during the Pacific War, and he believed he should have been the one who died.