character notes and failed queries, including side-by-side comparisons on screen

I love to start a post with a good old confession, so here it is: Last year I thought my manuscript was done, I thought I was ready to query, I thought that I just needed to keep drafting new versions of that letter and getting feedback and even paying professional editors for help until I had an amazing query that would get instant responses from an agent and I’d be on my way to publishing.

I spent six months trying. I went through almost a hundred drafts of that query letter and a few hundred dollars in editing fees.

And then I accepted a conclusion I didn’t like—a conclusion so depressing that I didn’t open a single writing file for the next six months.

It wasn’t the query letter or even the complex plot that was the problem. It was my main character.

Here’s a hiccup I’ve observed about main characters: they make or break a story, and it’s easy for an author to inadvertently make them flat because the author identifies with them and assumes too much is obvious. You’re used to being in your own head, and in some ways you don’t see yourself as clearly as others do, and this transfers to your MC as well.

I spent the second half of 2018 stewing over this. Not working on it in the butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard sense, but rolling it around in my head.

It reminds me of that Albert Einstein quote:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

queries and natal
diving into the proper question: who is my main character?

Finally, I dug deeper into what I knew of my main character. What does she want? How is that tied to the story? Who is she really? I even paid $25 for her 30-page astrological natal report, which reminded me of her interesting quirks and issues that I hadn’t brought out in the story yet.

Last week I sat down and tried the query letter again for probably the 100th time. The goal is to sum up the MC’s story in three short paragraphs that tell who she is, what she wants, what’s thwarting her, what’s at stake, and what she does about it. I had thought my book was just so complex with 400 pages and multiple viewpoints etc that it was too difficult to sum up in three paragraphs. But instead, when I heeded the editors’ wisdom and let my MC drive the query, a wild and fun story unfolded. The three paragraphs sounded like a book I’d want to buy and stay up reading because they showed a character I’d want to know and adventures I’d want to experience in her shoes.

I’ve heard you should write the book you want to read, but I had had trouble describing why I felt so passionate about my story. After writing this new query, the trouble is gone. I summed up the book to my husband on our date night and to my sister on her couch with confidence and enthusiasm I’d been lacking before. The story gels in my head. The plot twists make more sense. The whole thing feels just right.

Next step: revise my MC throughout the manuscript so she lives up to the characterization of the query. After six months of avoidance, I’m ready and excited to make that happen.

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