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I'm an attentive follower of Janet Reid's Query Shark, and I've learned a lot. But Reid doesn't represent speculative fiction, which seems to present wrinkles of its own.

Particularly, Query Shark often stresses the importance of quickly introducing the main characters, and describing what happens in the book, what the conflict is, what choices the protagonist needs to make.

But in an SF/F book, if the speculative premise is complex and at the heart of the novel, this seems difficult to do without at least some explanation of the premise. The book itself, if it's good, will explain the premise gradually and with a lot of showing-not-telling. But the query seems like it might get bogged down if the premise and the worldbuilding aren't reducible to a clear one-line tag.

Here are some examples of SF/F novels I would have trouble constructing a query for:

  • Hyperion, by Dan Simmons: The setting is a mish-mash of genre tropes and original mythology; they all intertwine eventually, but I'd be at a loss to try to briefly introduce the setting as a whole.
  • The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, and The City and the City, by China Mieville: These books are, largely, explorations of their central premise. They're hardly without plot or character, but understanding these is contingent on continuous new understandings about the speculative premise.

Are SF/F agents more open to infodump-ish introductions? Or is there a better way to construct a query for a book whose characters and plot rely on a complex speculative premise?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Your premise may be central to your story. But that doesn't mean that it requires paragraphs of explanation, or that you should sideline the characters and just talk about your awesome idea. Rather, if you find that the explication of your idea is taking too much time, you probably just aren't cutting it hard enough.

To illustrate, let me post the first three paragraphs from the query letter from a novel I completed last year:

Haris is an Apostle, a first-contact specialist dedicated to renewing ties with forgotten human colonies. He arrives in secret on the planet Hesychia disguised as a native, leaving his high-tech home to live among the crippled beggars, silk-swaddled nobles, and stern monks of the low-tech world. His mission is to integrate himself into their society and convince them to rejoin the interstellar community. But nothing goes as planned.

Two different religious factions pursue him from the moment he arrives, and he finds himself betrayed and sold into slavery. In captivity he meets Layra, a slave girl who claims to be his wife and knows everything about his mission. Haris cannot understand how everyone he meets seems to know him already, but Layra explains to him the astounding truth: on Hesychia everyone remembers the future.

Some who remember Haris support his goals, while others are out to hinder and kill him. With Layra's help Haris must find out which are which---if he can even trust her. And though Layra remembers that Haris ultimately succeeds, Haris discovers that memory can deceive.

(The omitted fourth paragraph has the title, wordcount, and boring biographical details.)

I'm posting this, not because I think I have the awesomest query ever, but because I faced many of the same problems that you are facing. The setting is complex, as the book contains both an advanced space-faring society traveling from world to world, and a low-tech society that the protag visits. On the low-tech world I have to allude to the problems of the class and religious structure, including multiple religious and political factions, and somehow get across the idea of how all of these connect to the central idea of the story, which is a society built around a shared memory of the future.

How do I get all of this into the query letter? Mostly by leaving nearly everything out. I mention exactly two central characters, never mentioning the antagonist or the supporting cast at all. The POV character of the first chapter never even appears! Almost all of the setting is compressed into a single sentence in the first paragraph. And the exciting central premise is relegated to the second paragraph, with most of its implications left to the reader's imagination. It's okay to leave things unexplained in the query letter, so long as you can entice the reader to keep looking, and convince them that you have answers in the full MS.

I happen to have a paperback copy of Hyperion on the bookshelf behind me, so let's look at its back cover copy. (A common querying technique is to pretend that you're writing the back cover copy.) How does it present the premise and characters?

On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope--and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

This copy presents the Shrike as the main character, which is an interesting choice since the Shrike is arguably the antagonist. But this works because there is no one protagonist in Hyperion, but all seven main characters have the same antagonist. Furthermore, we very quickly get exactly what Reid recommends: the situation (mysterious creature on a backwater planet), the plot (seven people coming to supplicate/confront him), and the stakes (fate of the galaxy). None of the seven protags gets named. The setting is almost completely omitted. The cruciform parasite, which is arguably the most important idea of the series, never shows up either. It's all boiled down to the absolute minimum.

So it can be done. For your novel, peel away the layers of complexity that you've lovingly arranged and get down to the bone. Figure out what the most interesting and most important thing is. Present that. Leave everything else out.

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I don't think they are open for infodumps, because they do not have the time to read them. And after the tenth infodump you get easily bored.

I do not know the books you have mentioned, so I cannot help you there. But normally the agent (or publisher) just wants to get an idea what your book is about. To do that you do not need to explain a complex plot/world in every excruciating detail.

I made a post here on Writers.SE, where I summarised LotR in two sentences. I only mention a dwarf-like man carrying the ring, that it must be destroyed and that the antagonist devastate the world otherwise.

With this information you can show the main plot. You do not need to mention Aragorn, Helm's Deep, the towers, elves, orcs, Gollum or big birds carrying wizards. You can skip a lot of the complexity. Well, in a query I would mention some of the above. E.g. elves and orcs, they are important for the setting; Gollum, the Deep and the towers are not.

Now you can say that LotR isn't such complex, but well ...

Maybe you can post a (lengthy) query letter of Hyperion and we try to find out if it is possible to leave out information to make it shorter. (No, I do not know if Writers.SE is the right format to do that, but luckily I do not care anyway.)

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Anything which would allow me to remove something of Dan Simmons would make me happy. ;) Seriously, if the mods say that's on-topic, I think it would be a good exercise. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 3 '11 at 12:14
    
@Lauren: Mods are overrated :] –  John Smithers Aug 3 '11 at 13:53
    
It's funny, I debated giving LotR as an example. :) Yes, you could summarize the plot into just a few sentences. But I don't think that's a good way to pitch the book to somebody who's never heard of "epic fantasy" or "elves" or "magic rings" and doesn't know why they might be interesting. –  Standback Aug 3 '11 at 14:21
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@Lauren - I'd consider "what can be removed from this overly lengthy query letter" a perfectly valid critique question. –  justkt Aug 3 '11 at 15:11
    
@justkt, I hope so. While writers.se isn't great for critiquing stories, it seems like it'd be perfect for critiquing query letters. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 4 '11 at 2:44
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