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What the Character Did, Might do, Should do, and Does

            After a long day of organizing, cooking dinner and taking a long nap, I finally get to my computer to write this. It’s amazing how much time I don’t seem to have when I’m out of school.

            Anyway, I noticed this problem in a lot of queries and summaries and synopses of novels I was helping critique online.

            It is important when doing any sort of summary that you focus on what the MC does, meaning what is relevant to the thing that happen in your novel, not the things that happened. I decided to best put it like this since my oven is having problems.

            If I get on the phone with the service people and they ask what’s wrong with my oven, I shouldn’t tell them how great my oven working two months ago, that it was cooking really evenly and fast, heating up nicely, and made me the best darn homemade biscuits I ever made, and then it stopped working.

            First of all, the fact that my oven made the best darn biscuits ever is irrelevant to the problem. Second, the fact that it used to work isn’t helping the service person assess the situation. They need to know what’s wrong with my oven now. So if I tell them that the pilot light won’t click on keep the oven heated when the oven is on temperatures higher than 400 degrees, that helps.

            Now let’s transfer this to writing a summary or query or what have you. If I’m writing a story about a girl who has to defeat the evil sexist maniac, the start will not look like this:

            Kiana didn’t think she was feminist. Sure she believed in woman’s rights, that woman should have the same chances of becoming president as men, and that women were smarter and had more common sense than men, but she was not feminist. She certainly was not trying to make a stand against the president after he declared martial law by starting a rebellion. She just refused to be any man’s slave.

            Most of that is all background. It really is. What gives it away? I used a lot of verbs in past tense; things like was, didn’t, were, refused. Next, I never say what she does. I say what she thinks should be done, what she refused to do, and what she believed, but not what she does in the story. As far as this goes, it’s everything that happened before the story, might be relevant later, but isn’t the story. I only hint to what the story might be about.

            Heavens forbid I do this for two paragraphs, which is what happens when writers try to focus on more than one character in a summary. But that an entire other minster. The point is, I’ve already messed up.

            The beginning should start more like this:

            After Kiana rebels against the new president’s executive order that declares all women slaves, Kiana sows the first seeds of a rebellion to fight against him. But that wasn’t her intention, and it’s the last thing on her mind when she goes on the run to escape being persecuted for her crime

            It’s not perfect, but the fact is that this is all relevant to the story, and it’s what is happening and not what happened before. Any background information isn’t important. Sure you can get away with it on a back cover blurb, but not in a query or summary to agents.

            My point is when writing your query, if you find yourself using verbs in past tense a lot, it’s the biggest indication that what you have is background and not “story.” Try to focus on everything that is happening and not everything that might happen… well, you can do everything that might happen in one sentence at the end when you make your stakes and risks clear. 

          But we don’t need to know what your character might do, should do, or has done for the entire query or summary. Tell us what they do. That is the story and it can be properly accessed for the most part, unless it's a misleading query...

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