A week or two ago I came across a Tweet by literary agent John Cusick with a link to his excellent post on “Foolproof Query Letters.” The two visuals above are thanks to Mr. Cusick’s article. Basically, what he says in the post is that (after making SURE you get the agent’s name right) your query letter should consist of “X is Y until Z.”
In about the same time frame I also came across the new issue of Poets and Writers (July/Aug 2015) and read Ben Percy’s The Literary Life essay, “Preparing for the Worst.” In it, Ben writes about planning out a story before beginning it, a strategy for which I am all in because I am old and don’t have time to waste. Figure out what your character wants, Ben says. Create the worst possible outcome for this desire. Then reverse engineer the story, he says, from the darkest night back: create an escalating series of failures up to the big kahuna, “the biggest failure of them all (from which redemption is possible and success appreciated.)”
And so the process for my novel ms #3 emerges:
1. Write the John Cusick foolproof query letter FIRST but change “Z” to “until worst possible scenario Z.”
2. Use it as the skeleton for the planning process Ben Percy adheres to.
Recently divorced Betty dreams of being a volunteer firefighter in her new town. She makes the force but it turns out she’s a crappy choice: she’s physically weak, not particularly brave, and surprisingly claustrophobic. When all of these lead to bruises, escalating conflicts with co-workers, paralyzing self-doubt and eventually to an incident in which she and a child sustain devastating burns, Betty finds out her ex positively influenced the selection process. Betty and the child recover, however scarred, and forge a new future together.
Or how about this?
Jack Jones wants desperately to retire early from his job at his group family practice clinic, where he is burned out from caregiving and feels the younger physicians love technology and money more than their patients. His wife, Emma, reluctantly agrees although the burden of income and insurance benefits will be hers alone for a decade or more. Two weeks after he retires Emma suffers a catastrophic stroke, putting Jack right back into caregiver mode and now, for the first time in years, financial stress. Assignment to a primary care clinic in Tanzania opens Jack’s and Emma’s eyes, literally and figuratively, to things they have left behind in pursuit of 21st century American dreams.
Hmm. This is kind of fun.
The point is this: You can write until the cows come home, free-write until your arms fall off, let your characters decide everything last thing that’s going to happen but they will lead you, trust me, to many time-consuming dead-ends. The most time-consuming of which is the dead end you get to at page 300.
If I want to sell a book, and I do, I think it’s got to stand up to the query-letter test, aka the elevator pitch test. In other words, it has to have an easily explained plot, a beginning, a middle and an end and someone has to make a journey from what s/he wants to what s/he gets.
This time around, I’m going to try deciding all of that before I start writing the story.