Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Using your query letter and synopsis to identify plot holes

I'm in the process of editing/fixing/crying over/rewriting/preparing my latest WIP for querying agents. I learned a lot about the process and my own blindspots last year when querying The Librarian (including my own horrible titling skills). I'm honestly a little gun-shy this time around, which I think is a healthy thing. It's forced me to look at my work, really really look at it, because I don't want to screw up my one(ish) chance with this WIP because I didn't put in the due diligence. It was definitely my shortcoming last time around, and I prefer not to Napoleon my mistakes (i.e. repeat them).

One of the warning signs I didn't pay attention to last time that's screaming in my face this go round is the query letter/synopsis red flag. What's that, you ask? Well, gentle reader, let me tell you. It's the flag that gets raised in your head like a sopapilla flag in a Mexican restaurant (I might be hungry) when you're writing out that query and you can't figure out why something is happening. Or what drives the characters on to the decisions they make. Or what the inciting incident is in your story.

You know, things like that.

It's not so bad as all that, I promise. Well, sometimes it is. If I'd paid attention to the niggling thought in my head when I wrote the synopsis last year, I would have heard "Boy that sounds like a lot of subplots. Are you sure about all of those? And what is the MC's motivation? Why does she keep fighting what has happened to her?" But I didn't pay attention, and here we are.

The great thing about the query letter and the synopsis as editing tools is they quickly identify major story issues because you're consolidating down to the most essential elements of the book. It's easy to pretend like a subplot is super necessary because it's hilarious and you had fun writing it in 100,000 words, but it's hard to pretend the same when you've got 1,000 words to say the same thing.

Writing out my synopsis yesterday, I finally had to face that vague feeling I'd pushed away during all my last rounds of editing: that my beginning still wasn't working. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't solid. It was good enough for me to convince myself that I didn't need to change it again, but trying to summarize it in two paragraphs and make it sound interesting blew the problem wide open.

I threw myself a little pity party for about thirty minutes, but then the most amazing thing happened. I thought of a better beginning. Similar elements to my existing beginning, but now that I had the whole story in front of me I could see the threads that I needed to weave in the beginning to make the whole story work. And after I'd hammered out what should happen in a mini-synopsis, this great weight lifted off my shoulders. Because it finally made sense. I still have the hard work of actually writing it ahead of me, but at least I know where I'm going now, and I know why. I'm not ashamed of that synopsis, and my query just got a whole lot more compelling.

Use your query/synopsis to identify just a few of these potential problems:

  • Unnecessary subplots, or subplots that actually detract from the main story
  • Missing character motivations
  • Sagging beginnings, middles, or endings (because if you get bored writing the synopsis, imagine how your reader will feel slogging through 50,000 words of it)
  • Dropped story threads throughout the book
  • Fluff chapters (because if you can skip them entirely, they probably don't matter to the plot)
Have you ever used your query or synopsis to identify further issues in your story? What issues have you found in your own story after writing the query/synopsis?


Jamie Burch said...

I am going through something very similar right now! Glad you found a way to fix your beginning.

I'm going to borrow this list as I work through more revisions.

Good luck! :)

Christina Lee said...

EXACTLY the reason why I've always written my query *first*--I can totally see big picture things! Good stuff, YOU!

mshatch said...

I've just started revising my wip after a 3 week hiatus in which I played with a shiny new toy. It was fun and I look forward to getting back to it but now it's time for the real work: revisions.

That's a great idea writing the synopsis to help pin down the slow parts.

KatieO said...

Great observations and great checklist!

I never thought of using the synopsis and query this way but you're absolutely right, and I'll keep this in mind as I work on my WIP.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

You make a very good point! I've participated in a lot of query critiques over at Matt McNish's QQQE and I frequently see plot holes and missing motivation. When writing my critique, I always assume it's a problem in the query rather than the manuscript -- but I often wonder if the manuscript has the same problem and the writer just hasn't realized it.

I think I know where the biggest hang-up in my current WIP is, but writing a synopsis when I think I've worked it out might be a good test!