Wednesday, September 17, 2014

DL Hammons' Current Query Critiqued

Today we have DL's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Agent Name
Agency Name

Agent personal paragraph.

The word on a sixteen-year-old Knox Gidden is that he's nothing but military-brat, emphasis on brat. THIS is great. Query writers out there: READ THIS opening line. THIS is how you introduce a character in a query and make us care from the get go. If I had to nitpick this line, I would say that using "The word on," weakens it a tiny bit, but it also gives it nuance, because it means a lot of people see Knox that way, but it's not really true. Until recently he was fine with that. I'm not sure you need this. On the one hand, it's good, because it speaks of a call to action, but on the other, in the next sentence, you move on to something else. He's lost count of how many times his family has relocated (not really) and it's left him withdrawn, bitter, a loner with a tendency to act out by playing nasty tricks on moving day. I almost want to see "moving day" capitalized. Like it's this big thing, that happens so often, it's become a proper noun for Knox. "Moving Day." But after his mother died of cancer and a tragic prank-gone-wrong that put his brother in a wheelchair, a guilt-ridden Knox wants to clean up his act. The family's transfer to Ox-Bow, deemed their "final move", is supposed to be a fresh-start for everyone. Unbeknownst to them, something else has moved in with them.

Okay. So this is really good. It's very specific, it has a strong sense of character, who we can sympathize with not only because of his suffering, but because of how he chooses to react to it. That said, it's a little long, and we haven't gotten to an inciting incident just yet. I'm guessing you're about to, and if so that's probably fine, but I just wanted to point it out because that kind of one-two punch of CHARACTER-HOOK(Inciting Incident) is usually what bookends the opening paragraph in a good query.

After all the empty cartons have been dragged to the curb, one more box mysteriously appears. It's a dark, ominous box with curious etchings covering its surface. Don't get me wrong, it's a great line, but this is a query, not pages. You really don't need to describe anything this way. The box is already mysterious just for showing up. Unless the etchings are somehow completely integral to the plot, you don't need to bring them up. Of course all fingers point to Knox, which only gets worse when the box keeps showing up in his room. It's not long before Knox realizes he's on a collision course with something unnatural, an ancient evil that has chosen his step-mother at its next vessel to toy with. His only allies in this battle are Lewis, a kleptomaniac neighbor, Brodie, the beautiful girl who watches over Lewis, and Wilfred, a white-haired stranger who shows up claiming to know everything about the box and its purpose.

Hmm. This is a lot of named characters for a query, but I kind of think you make it work. It's four characters in all, which is a lot, but you give them each at least one uniquely identifying characteristic, and the way you bundle everyone together at the end except for Knox makes it work. Others may disagree.

Time is short for Knox and his friends. Can they find a way to save his step-mom before the malevolent force draws closer to ending the game and obtaining the two things it desires the most -- mortal fear, and fresh souls? Unfortunately, history says otherwise.

This, unfortunately, is vague. In fact, the second paragraph really doesn't give us a clear sense of the conflict either, which is where that usually takes place. I'll write more about this in my summary.

MOVING FEAR (an 80,000 word YA Horror) is a standalone with series potential which combines the type of haunting plot of Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood Anna Dressed in Blood with the creepy atmosphere of Gretchen McNeil's Possess Possess. In my day job, I write procedure manuals, but when the sun goes down, I maintain a popular blog that hosts a yearly writing contest judged by industry professionals. Link to it. Write Club is a big deal, and a lot of people know about it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

DL Hammons

Okay, so in summary, I think this query is in great shape. To be perfectly honest, if I was an agent looking for this kind of story, I would probably skip from the end of the first paragraph, down to the housekeeping, and then jump right into the pages.

I think you'll get a lot of requests if you send this query out as is. That said, there is still room for improvement (there almost always is). The main thing missing here is a better and more specific sense of exactly what the conflict is. Now, we have a vague sense of a spirit that lives in a box (or something) who may want to steal Knox's stepmother's soul (probably).

I get that you want to keep things a bit mysterious, and you certainly don't want to give away an ending in a query letter, but it might help to know a bit more about exactly what the malevolent force wants, how it accomplishes its goals, and what Knox and team can do to stop it.

One thing that comes to mind (and this may not work in a query unless it works in the story) is that what if Knox struggles about whether or not he wants to save his step mom? That would leave him a pretty nice sadistic choice, which is a great way to end a query and entice readers to want pages.


That's it!

What do you all think? Anything you would add?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

DL Hammons' Current Query

Everybody knows DL, right? Host of the Write Club? If not, make sure you go follow his blog.

Here's his query:

Agent Name
Agency Name

Agent personal paragraph.

The word on a sixteen-year-old Knox Gidden is that he's nothing but military-brat, emphasis on brat. Until recently he was fine with that. He's lost count of how many times his family has relocated (not really) and it's left him withdrawn, bitter, a loner with a tendency to act out by playing nasty tricks on moving day. But after his mother died of cancer and a tragic prank-gone-wrong that put his brother in a wheelchair, a guilt-ridden Knox wants to clean up his act. The family's transfer to Ox-Bow, deemed their "final move", is supposed to be a fresh-start for everyone. Unbeknownst to them, something else has moved in with them.

After all the empty cartons have been dragged to the curb, one more box mysteriously appears. It's a dark, ominous box with curious etchings covering its surface. Of course all fingers point to Knox, which only gets worse when the box keeps showing up in his room. It's not long before Knox realizes he's on a collision course with something unnatural, an ancient evil that has chosen his step-mother at its next vessel to toy with. His only allies in this battle are Lewis, a kleptomaniac neighbor, Brodie, the beautiful girl who watches over Lewis, and Wilfred, a white-haired stranger who shows up claiming to know everything about the box and its purpose.

Time is short for Knox and his friends. Can they find a way to save his step-mom before the malevolent force draws closer to ending the game and obtaining the two things it desires the most -- mortal fear, and fresh souls? Unfortunately, history says otherwise.

MOVING FEAR (an 80,000 word YA Horror) is a standalone with series potential which combines the type of haunting plot of Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood with the creepy atmosphere of Gretchen McNeil's Possess. In my day job, I write procedure manuals, but when the sun goes down, I maintain a popular blog that hosts a yearly writing contest judged by industry professionals.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

DL Hammons

That's it!

Please thank DL for sharing, but like me, save your feedback for tomorrow!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Patricia Moussatche's Current Query Critiqued II

This morning we have Patchi's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear [Agent name],

Last year, you showed interest in my novel The Legacy of the Eye If it was published, this goes in italics. If it wasn't, ALL CAPS. (Jane Austen's Persuasion meets 1984 in space). I am now seeking representation for my YA fantasy SHROUDED GODDESS.

Seventeen(-)year-old Sophie spends her days hiding her tribal heritage and fending off her baron-to-be cousin's groping attentions. She yearns for the freedom the tribes enjoyed before the Easterners invaded from across the sea.

Hmm. Okay, this isn't bad, but as I often see, most of this is the situation Sophie finds herself in, moreso than the CHARACTER she is.

One thing I think people often forget when they write queries is that CHARACTERS exist before STORIES. STORIES are important, of course, and they are a fundamental part of human culture, but STORY is nothing without CHARACTER. And what I mean by that is more than voice and arc and style and pluck and so on. I mean that as writers, we must remember that our CHARACTERS are people. They have a life before their STORY starts, and in order to really make our readers care about them, we've got to show them what kind of people our CHARACTERS are.

So, how does that relate to your query? Well, we get a little sense of Sophie from her situation--she's an aboriginal person living in a colonized state, and her cousin is both attracted to her (creepily, it seems) and about to become a baron. This is all well and good, and the most important detail here (when it comes to CHARACTER) is that she is constantly "fending" him off. This tells us a good deal about who Sophie is. What kind of person. What her CHARACTER is.

But you could do more. If you really want to get your reader to sympathize with your protagonist and care about whether or not she succeeds, introduce her to them with plenty of personality before you go into what's going on in her plight.

According to her grandmother, the only way to save the tribes from Sophie’s ravaging uncle is by awakening the Water Goddess, whom no one has seen since the invasion. Cousin, grandmother, uncle ... so it's all a family affair? This is getting a little confusing. They're all tribal people if they're all related, right? So where are the invaders? Her uncle and her cousin are serving the invaders as puppets or something? All Sophie has to guide her are the old stories and songs her grandmother taught her. And Gavin, of course. Sophie used to think he would save her from a forced wedding to her cousin, but her uncle rewarded Gavin's marriage aspirations to Sophie with a public flogging, his baronet father executed for treason, and his manor burnt to the ground.

Okay, this is getting interesting. We have a potential love interest, and he's being persecuted by her own family, who are in power (even though we don't exactly understand how or why), and that certainly sets up some great potential conflict. If you could just make the politics a little clearer, I think you'd be in good shape here.

Finding the Water Goddess is the easy part; getting help isn't. Not only is the goddess powerless, she is more interested in fashion than politics. Whoa. Nice twist. Her advice is for Sophie to seek help elsewhere, and that’s not a reply anyone wants to hear. Sophie's only hope to save the tribes and herself is to use her unexpected water-controlling powers to find another Goddess, one nobody knew existed, in a land with more scars than her uncle can lash out onto those who oppose him.

This doesn't really end on a sadistic CHOICE note, but you've sort of got one implied there. She can hunt for this other goddess, or try to convince the one she already found to step up. Not the toughest choice ever, but it could work.

SHROUDED GODDESS is a 63,000 word YA fantasy set in a world that mirrors South America during the Portuguese colonization of the 16th century. With Avatar waterbending Whoa. You mean Avatar: The Last Airbender? If so, that's AWESOME. in the rainforest, this novel It's not technically a novel until it's published. Right now it's a manuscript or a story. will appeal to fans of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Patricia Moussatche

So, in summary, I see two main problems with this query.

First, is the lack of sympathetic characterization of your protagonist before you get into the plot and conflict. I already went off about that for a while up above, so I'll move on to the second point:

The invaders. You bring them up in your opening hook, and then never mention them again. It seems to me that the uncle and the cousin are somehow working with or serving the invaders, but it's not actually certainly clear. Is that right? If so, you should probably clarify it a little better in this query. You've got the room.

That's it!

What do you all think?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Patricia Moussatche's Current Query II

We've had one of Patchi from My Middle Years' queries on this blog before. Please welcome her back, and like me, save your feedback for tomorrow!

The query:

Dear [Agent name],

Last year, you showed interest in my novel The Legacy of the Eye (Jane Austen's Persuasion meets 1984 in space). I am now seeking representation for my YA fantasy SHROUDED GODDESS.

Seventeen year-old Sophie spends her days hiding her tribal heritage and fending off her baron-to-be cousin's groping attentions. She yearns for the freedom the tribes enjoyed before the Easterners invaded from across the sea.

According to her grandmother, the only way to save the tribes from Sophie’s ravaging uncle is by awakening the Water Goddess, whom no one has seen since the invasion. All Sophie has to guide her are the old stories and songs her grandmother taught her. And Gavin, of course. Sophie used to think he would save her from a forced wedding to her cousin, but her uncle rewarded Gavin's marriage aspirations to Sophie with a public flogging, his baronet father executed for treason, and his manor burnt to the ground.

Finding the Water Goddess is the easy part; getting help isn't. Not only is the goddess powerless, she is more interested in fashion than politics. Her advice is for Sophie to seek help elsewhere, and that’s not a reply anyone wants to hear. Sophie's only hope to save the tribes and herself is to use her unexpected water-controlling powers to find another Goddess, one nobody knew existed, in a land with more scars than her uncle can lash out onto those who oppose him.

SHROUDED GODDESS is a 63,000 word YA fantasy set in a world that mirrors South America during the Portuguese colonization of the 16th century. With Avatar waterbending in the rainforest, this novel will appeal to fans of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Patricia Moussatche

That's it!

Please thank Patchi for sharing with us, and come back tomorrow!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Andrea Franco-Cook's Current Query Critiqued

Good morning. Today we have Andrea's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

Brief personal opening here-catered to agent.

An ancient evil looms over Soledad Mendoza, although she just doesn't know it. Bonus points for naming your protagonists (I hope) in your opening line, but otherwise this is vague and a bit cliche. Honestly, vague language is the main problem I see with queries that just don't quite work. More on that in a minute. For thirty years the widowed English professor has lived in the sleepy city of Charleston, West Virginia. Good. See how this kind of very specific language works so much better? We still don't have great sense of CHARACTER, but we have some, and we certainly have a clear idea of her situation. Her boredom and loneliness are often drowned in nightly jiggers of scotch and lesson plans. This isn't exactly fair. You can't mention Scotch in a query and not have me love it. But all this changes when her father's sudden death plunges her into a supernatural war, and a secret family history that began in a Mayan jungle during the sixteenth-century. Whoa, okay.

So, as opening paragraphs go, this is really uneven. It starts out vague, and with little sense of CHARACTER, but then slowly starts to improve, revealing at least a specific situation, and a character of good taste, if boring evenings, and then it kind of goes nuts.

You are also lacking a consistent sense of voice and tone. Up until the final sentence of this paragraph, it sounds like this book will be a quiet literary character study of a lonely widowed English professor. You know, something almost Franzen-esque, but then suddenly at the end here, you reveal a much more exciting story, with loads of potential conflict brought on by an unique and fascinating inciting incident. You don't want to surprise readers like this. Try to see if you can work that kind of supernatural thriller type tone into your opening lines as well.

Enter U.S. Senator Earl Edmondson Ugh. Not a query level issue so much as a story level one, but alliteration in character names always makes me cringe a little—a friend of her late father and a key power player in this war. His pact with a malevolent god all but assures the senator's ascendance to the presidency. However, his unholy aspirations are threatened when he discovers Soledad is set to inherit the Ouroboros amulet—a mystical weapon of indescribable power.

Hmm. This is getting kind of cool, but I have to say the dichotomy between how this query starts out (contemporary, normal, realistic world) and where it is now still feels jarring. Obviously all stories, even paranormal ones, start out in a somewhat comfortable beginning before the STORY/CONFLICT/PLOT begins, but that doesn't mean you want the query to work that way.

Just as her enemies are converging, in walks a Mayan winged-god, Whoa. Um ... okay. First, it should be "winged Mayan god." Unless winged-god is some kind of specific god-type in the world of your story, those adjectives are out of order. But otherwise, this is pretty cool. I hope he's hot. who may be her salvation or her damnation. He claims to have been her family's protector for centuries, but Soledad soon realizes she is merely a pawn in the god's supernatural game of treachery. As she struggles with her new found responsibility, Soledad must accept her fate and use the amulet against Edmondson if she hopes to stop him from taking over the White House. There's just one problem, her father took the weapon's location to his grave.

Oh. She doesn't even have it yet? Damn. That sucks.

Okay, so ... this query has a lot of cool elements. You actually end with a pretty good sense of a sadistic CHOICE. It could be a little clearer, but it's not bad. I won't nitpick this paragraph, but will try to cover the big picture in my summary.

Pawn of The Gods PAWN OF THE GODS is a completed 95,000 word Adult Urban Fantasy novel, and it is the first of a planned series. This tale of an ordinary English professor who is caught in a battle between good and evil flashes back and forth between the Sixteenth and twenty-first centuries, blending Spanish history with Mayan lore and apocalyptic Christian beliefs.

This is actually pretty good housekeeping, brief and to the point.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Andrea Franco-Cook

Okay, so in summary, this query has a lot of the elements that make queries great: clear CONFLICT, a sense of a tough CHOICE to be made, specific scenarios and situations, but it isn't quite gelling for me as is.

The biggest problem is your opening. "Widowed," "English professor," "sleepy city," these are all things that happen to Soledad, or positions she holds, are settings she is in. Drinking Scotch while being bored and lonely grading papers at night is really the only sense of CHARACTER we get for your protagonist.

That is not enough!

The most important thing in any query letter (frankly, in any STORY) is CHARACTER. If we don't care about your character, and sympathize with her as a person, we're not going to care (or at least not as much) about what happens to her or whether she succeeds at whatever she's trying to accomplish.

CONFLICT and CHOICE are great, and they are important, and you even cover them pretty well here, but we've got almost no sense of who Soledad is before her story starts. Sure, we can infer some things from her situation, and by the fact that she reacts to it by drinking alone with her boredom, but we need more, and we need it right up front in this query.

That's it.

What do you all think? Any other suggestions?