I’m mad. I’m not just a little mad, either. Smoke is billowing out of my ears. I submitted my query to be critiqued on Absolute Write Water Cooler, and I swear, it's impossible to make those people happy!
I noticed the people on the forum were saying mostly the same things, so I grouped all the comments into three categories. Hopefully, the advice will be as helpful for you as it (eventually) was for me.
Problem #1: Show, Not Tell
One person wrote: There is a huge difference between saying "Sergeant Riggs was manic depressive and a dangerous, loose cannon" (Lethal Weapon) and painting out the scene at the beginning where he wakes up next to empty bottles, stares at a woman's photo, and puts the pistol in his mouth, shaking and crying, willing himself to squeeze and finally giving up, unable to do so.
I think the reason show-not-tell is difficult is that I see it in my head, so it’s been “shown” to me. No matter how little I describe or how distant or convoluted my writing is, I still “see” it. But my readers don’t.
The people on the forums demonstrated this idea by rewriting a few of my lines.
I wrote: Tuccia has always been an adamant servant of the gods, but now she is angry at them for letting her friend die.
Someone else wrote: Disgusted with the senators, disgusted with the Gods, Tuccia storms from the temple. A marble Zeus watches her exit, and she stares up, feeling a newfound hatred coalesce inside her.
I wrote: She feels guilty for her anger, and this guilt makes her insecure.
Someone else wrote: In the weeks after the execution, Tuccia becomes a recluse. She gains weight and has nightmares where she tries to save her friend, only to be executed as well.
That is NOT what happens in the story, but they make a good point.
Problem #2: Don’t Tell the Story
Everyone in the forum kept saying, “Don’t tell the story, don’t tell the story.” I was confused because they had told me to cut out so many things that there wasn’t much left, and all of a sudden they told me not to even tell the story. This was when I changed from productive to fuming angry.
My fingers shook as I punched on the keys: If I can't tell the story and I can't tell the theme of the story, or the history, or the background, or the ending, what CAN I talk about?
They explained that when you tell a story, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. In a query, there’s not enough time for a complete story. Some of my query drafts talked about Tuccia getting initiated as a child, summarized the events leading to her trial, talked about the trial, and one of them even told the ending. That’s a full story arch.
In response to my despair, someone wrote:You can't TELL any of that stuff. You want to SHOW (not tell) the story, ideally a small snippet of it that will be enough to entice them. In your case, you're trying to cram enough in that you don't have the room to build up a few scenes adequately.
All you are trying to do with your query is make the agent want to read your MS. Give us a visual moment of your MS that makes us want to read more. Think of this as a back-cover blurb, not a full synopsis of your novel.
Problem #3: Answer the Three Questions
They said there are three questions a query should answer, and I shouldn’t write anything in the query that doesn’t contribute to answering these questions:
What does the MC want? (a miracle)
What is she willing to do to get it? (trust the goddess, Vesta)
What happens if she fails (stakes)? (she gets executed)
Some of my drafts talked about what a Vestal Virgin was and didn’t even address Tuccia’s trial. Some of my drafts talked about the trial but also talked about other parts of the story leading up to the trial. There was only one thing I needed to focus on: the trial. It sounds simple enough.
Why was this so hard for me? Because the trial isn’t what the story is about. It’s only the ending. The story is about Tuccia progressing as a person through challenges that test her faith, the last of which is the trial. Writing a query that only answers those three questions threw away everything I loved about the book. Now that I think about it, I see that this is necessary. I can’t put everything I love about a book in a query.
I’ve written another query and I'm going to have others critique it (again). Hopefully I can get a few stamps of approval.
Tuccia trembles at her trial as she waits to be executed for a crime she did not commit: losing her virginity. For other Roman women, this would not be an offense, but for a priestess of Vesta, such a sin could displease the gods and condemn Rome to ruin.
Tuccia’s accuser is an angry priest who failed to seduce her. With a priest’s testimony against her, no one will believe Tuccia is innocent. There’s only one person who can save her life: the goddess Vesta. If Vesta will allow Tuccia to perform a miracle, it will prove that she’s favored of the gods.
Tuccia has distrusted Vesta ever since a Vestal Virgin was wrongly accused and executed for the same crime. She must depend on Vesta now, because if she doesn’t save her, Tuccia has no hope of surviving.
Sacred Fire is a historical fiction of 88,000 words.