how to get a request for pages · query problems

Creating voice in the query

In writing you always have two ways to evoke emotion: content and how you communicate content. In novels and queries, the former means creating a gripping plot. The latter is what we call voice: how you say what you’re saying.

Some people have an easy talent for writing voice. I am not one of them.

For people like us, we can write a clear, concise query which sets up tension and stakes. That would be enough: in a good query, the story speaks for itself. But for the extra-milers, here are 4 steps to creating voice.

1. Genre

Ask yourself: what is the genre or audience of your book? What is its voice or thematic emotion? If this is a tragicomedy, a humorous tone should be your aim. If it’s a YA with dark themes, teen angst is a voice to work for.

The voice in the query should match the tone of the pages.

Humor comes from juxtaposing two things which shouldn’t go together (e.g. “dragon kibble”). Horror comes from looming evil that’s undefined. Thrill comes from everything having high stakes, high difficulty, and/or a time limit. And so on.

2. Trope

If your subgenre or subject matter has cultural associations, use them. In a query for a pirate novel, I saw phrases like “spineless crew” and “jumping over the side.” Both could be lifted right out of Pirates of the Caribbean — in a good way.

You don’t want your whole query full of clichés. But find a few strong images that can connect readers with familiar narrative ground. It promises: this book will make you feel the way those did.

pirate woman by muddy water with beer wearing big hat green feather

3. Detail & Conflict

Go word by word. (Queries are so short and important, you should do this anyway.) Juice up boring words by finding ones that make us feel the way you want us to.

Figure out the two sides to your conflict: what the protagonist wants and what’s stopping her. For example, she wants to stop the murderous maniac, but she’s falling in love with him.

Then collect strong words showing each side. Deadly and savage. Intimate bond. Use these clashing phrases to help us feel the dissonance inside the protagonist.

4. Example

If all else fails, copy the masters. Find one or two of your favorite books in your genre, or your comp books. Read the book jacket. Feel the tone. Take it apart if you have to. Then, with that voice playing in your head, apply what you learn to your query.


Photo by shellac.

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