Query Construction: PAPERFLESH

I thought it might be of interest to talk a little bit about the semi-template I use for drafting queries. For those who are wondering, yes you still benefit from writing query letters, even after finding an agent 🙂 Any queries I write will hopefully become pitch letters in due course, meaning I have the chance to give input for any pitch that an editor sees, and they’re also incredibly useful in the drafting phase.

At present, I have written 3 chapters and a detailed outline for this novel; no more of it exists. Writing the query has helped significantly in pinpointing the direction and tone of the book, and also caused me to rethink my ending several times.

My basic template is as follows: Context, Motivation, Complication, Action, Crux, and Punchline. As ever, feel free to modify or tinker with whatever works for you, and if none of it works for you, jettison this lot entirely. There are many approaches to query letters and this is just one about thousands 🙂

Building the Query Template

HOUSEKEEPING 

This section includes your title, genre, wordcount, and perhaps a cheeky summary. It can also include comp titles and so forth. 

Set in an alternate 90s Britain, Paperflesh (100,000 words) is a moody speculative thriller about a woman who puts no limits on the price of love.

Usually, this section goes at the end, but in this case I’ve put it first because my MC has a masculine name, and this is my way of clueing the reader in that she’s female. Clarity trumps style every time, in queries!

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CONTEXT

Who is your MC, and how are they situated at the start of the novel? I usually try for 1-2 sentences that have a smidgen of worldbuilding (indicating secondary or primary world), and as little info as I can get away with about my protagonist.

Devon Fairweather belongs to a family of ‘bookeaters’, a shadowy people who live at the fringes of human society and consume written texts for sustenance. 

In this case I needed to fit in: Devon’s full name, the fact that she belongs to a clan or family, and a brief explanation of what bookeaters are. The fact that she lives in the UK is irrelevant, because I cheekily snuck that into my housekeeping above (along with the timeperiod.) 

 

MOTIVATION

Arguably, the most important part of your query. What your MC cares about and why is the foundational pillar for what they do in your book, and how they handle things going wrong. Without motivation, there are no stakes, and without stakes, there is no conflict–and by extension, no plot. 

However, her young son suffers from a rare condition: he devours minds instead of books. His touch steals memories and personalities, leaving behind vegetative shells. The bookeaters typically enslave such children to wield them as powerful tools against the Sabbatarians, a rival organisation who are at war with the Family. 

Devon’s son is her driving motivation throughout this book. He has a condition which makes him powerful, vulnerable, and exploitable, all in one go. Her desire for him to have a better life propels her out of her status quo (her original Context) and into action.

 
ACTION

If your protagonist does not drive the plot, you do not have a working book. I cannot emphasize this enough. (NB: I specified protagonist in this instance, as sometimes your protagonist is different from your main character.) 

Unwilling to subject her child to such a fate, Devon flees her ancestral manor in the Yorkshire moors, taking her son with her. 

Devon’s action is initially simple: she goes on the run. Depending on your story and your query, you may want more in this section, and less in others. If you were writing a synopsis of your story, the action is often the inciting event or first plot point (but not always.)

 

COMPLICATION

After a character takes action, things don’t go their way. A classic example is the story of Jonah and the whale: after Jonah runs away, a storm at sea strikes, and he is swallowed. These are things which your characters endure, and it is okay for them to not be fully active here. 

Life on the run isn’t easy. Devon must continually sacrifice humans to her son’s ever-growing hunger. Worse, every mind he consumes overwrites his personality afresh. The costs to her conscience, to his innocence and sanity, and to the lives they ruin, climb with every step. 

Devon’s complication is that her son’s needs are literally overwhelming; the price she pays for her decision is very high. She wants a solution which doesn’t involve capitulating to her Family.

 

CRUX

The point at which everything crashes together! Context, action, motivation, and complication should all build naturally into a crux. You’ve created the conflict; now spell it out. 

Desperate for solutions, Devon seeks out the Sabbatarians, the enemy of her enemy, who have a treatment for her son’s condition. Their drugs allow her son to reclaim a mostly-normal life, while the Sabbatarians themselves offer kindness, sanctuary, and a real sense of family.  

Here, Devon reaches for a third option (neither returning home, nor giving up, but seeking help from outside sources). 

 
PUNCHLINE

The problem is clear, and the solution is at hand. What does your heroine need to do to win? 

There’s just one problem: Her story is a lie—and she was sent here to betray these people. 

At this point, my example breaks down a little bit, because Paperflesh doesn’t have a traditional punchline, in the sense that it’s an about-face on the novel’s plot. However, it does technically fulfill my template in the sense that Devon seems to finally have a solution to her problems, except that she isn’t in a position to claim it, because she isn’t the right person (literally). 

 

Put it all together…

Set in an alternate 90s Britain, Paperflesh (100,000 words) is a moody speculative thriller about a woman who puts no limits on the price of love. THE TRAITOR, BARU CORMORANT meets GONE GIRL, in a contemporary spec fic setting reminiscent of TOUCH (Claire North). 

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Devon Fairweather belongs to a family of ‘bookeaters’, a shadowy people who live at the fringes of human society and consume written texts for sustenance. However, her young son suffers from a rare condition: he devours minds instead of books. His touch steals memories and personalities, leaving behind vegetative shells. 

The bookeaters typically enslave such children to wield them as powerful tools against the Sabbatarians, a rival organisation who are at war with the Family. Unwilling to subject her child to such a fate, Devon flees her ancestral manor in the Yorkshire moors, taking her son with her. 

Life on the run isn’t easy. Devon must continually sacrifice humans to her son’s ever-growing hunger. Worse, every mind he consumes overwrites his personality afresh. The costs to her conscience, to his innocence and sanity, and to the lives they ruin, climb with every step. 

Desperate for solutions, Devon seeks out the Sabbatarians, the enemy of her enemy, who have a treatment for her son’s condition. Their drugs allow her son to reclaim a mostly-normal life, while the Sabbatarians themselves offer kindness, sanctuary, and a real sense of family.  

There’s just one problem: Her story is a lie—and she was sent here to betray these people. 

 

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