Thursday, April 15, 2010

About My Query XXII

In Rachele Alipine's guest blog post tomorrow she mentions that her query received some revision advice from Kate Schafer Testerman and her readers at her Ask Daphne! About My Query blog. For those of you who don't know it's a service she holds on her blog that is a lot like the Query Shark, Evil Editor, or the Public Query Slushpile. Readers submit their query and get feedback from literary agent Kate Schafer Testerman and the readers of her blog.

Me and my query got a lot of assistance from this service as well a few months ago so I thought I would share some of it with you all. You can read the whole post here: About My Query XXII.

She always begins with a fun bit about shoes:

Happy Friday, readers! Ready to chime in with your thoughts and advice on another About My Query? Then let’s get going, with monk shoes for Matthew — did you know a “monk shoe” is a style of shoe with no lacing, closed by a buckle and strap? Men’s footwear is such a learning process for me! And speaking of learning processes…

Dear Daphne,

I am writing to you seeking representation for my young adult fiction novel, which has the working title “Warrior-Monks” and is complete. Warrior-Monks is intended for young adult readers ages 13-17, who are buying books in droves these days, but I am certain that once you read the manuscript you will find that it is mature enough and compelling enough to enthrall even the most discerning adult reader as well. I also feel obligated to inform you that this is not an exclusive submission and although I do not yet have an offer of representation there are several other agents who have requested and are currently reading full or partial versions of the manuscript.

The book is about a teen aged boy named Lee, who is from a broken family and who eventually ends up being sent to a unique reform school in Northern Idaho after he is expelled from a normal boarding school and kicked out of his aunt and uncle’s home. He is very worried about what will go on at this school but eventually discovers that he enjoys the curriculum. They teach him things like Aikido, Meditation and Calligraphy and take him and several other students camping and backpacking in the mountains in Montana as he grows and puts his self-conscious and shy tendencies behind him. The story does not begin to incorporate any magical realism until about halfway through, when the students begin to discover some magic of the everyday sort in the curriculum, which is based on east-Asian calligraphy and Buddhist/Hindu mysticism. It is an introspective and character driven novel in which the plot is not necessarily the focus but still has enough interesting occurrences to move the tale along as the reader comes to know and love the characters.

I have never been published but I am confident that many authors like Christopher Paolini and Brunonia Barry have proved that you do not have to be a highly experienced or best-selling author to write an incredibly entertaining book.

Please feel free to reply to this email, or to call me on my mobile phone at any time at 555-555-1212, or even to write to me at home at:

1234 Main St.
Hometown USA, 00000

Thank you for your consideration of this proposal. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Her feedback:

There’s lots to work with here, Matthew, but I also think there’s a LOT you can cut. For instance, your first paragraph? Should read “I am writing to you seeking representation for my young adult novel, Warrior-Monks.” Slash and burn! First of all, of course you know how I feel about the phrase “fiction novel.” As for telling me your novel is complete — well, of course it is. There’s no reason you should be querying if it’s not. You certainly don’t need to tell any agent who would be interested in representing YA about the YA market, and saying it’s “compelling enough to enthrall even the most discerning adult reader” shows a lack of interest n your preferred market. If you’re writing for YA, write for YA. It’s more than worthy enough.

A lot of this advice is similar to things I've pointed out before. Guess where I learned them first.

So, moving onto the second paragraph, I think you need to find a way to make the hook stand out. What’s your one-sentence description of the book? Start there, and expand on that. “Sent to reform school by his aunt and uncle, his last living relatives, Lee discovers a hidden mysticism in the curriculum, and XXXXX,” in which “XXXXX” represents what happens. Having fully-developed characters in your novel is a great thing, don’t get me wrong, but something has to HAPPEN. I absolutely would not say that “the plot is not necessarily the focus,” and I can’t imagine a YA audience falling in droves for a pure character study. How does Lee put his shy, self-conscious tendencies behind him? Does he become friends with the other students? Do they have to band together against something? Why was he kicked out of his previous school and sent to reform school anyway? What else can you tell me about the other characters?

All great points.

As for waiting until halfway through to bring some magic realism into the tale, I worry you’ll lose your audience long before that, if you promise them a mystical story and put off delivering. Think of some great books you’ve read, particularly in the genre you’re writing. Consider the famed five act story structure:

* rising action
* climax (or turning point)
* falling action
* resolution

I think the introduction of magic certainly needs to happen in the second section, especially if it’s going to have an effect on the resolution. But that’s story structure, not query help.

She's right of course and I never should have put it that way in the query. The magical/fantasy elements are introduced pretty early in the novel, they just don't become part of any conflict until much later. I'm not sure why I struggled with laying that out so much in my early queries.

Back to the query — put your address and phone number below your signature line, with a link to your website or blog, if you have one, and don’t waste space in your letter with your contact information. If you really want to mention that your query is non-exclusive, put it here in the closing, although unless an agent specifically asks for exclusivity, most of us assume you’re querying widely.

I now know all of this as query basics 101, but you have to start somewhere and my jumping off point was buried deep in the quagmire of ignorance.

Readers — any other comments?

Some of the more astute comments from her readers:

Lydia Says:
September 25th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

I would definitely cut the line about how Christopher Paolini has proved that you don’t have to be an experienced first novelist to write a first novel. I don’t think any agent reading this is going to smack herself in the forehead and say, “Oh my god, you’re right! You DON’T have to be published to be awesome.” So it just comes off as patronizing and desperate.

I was trying to follow that advice that's out there on the web about comparing your project to one that is similar and was successful, but I went about it all wrong. And as I've pointed out before, this kind of thing is insulting.

Jamie Harrington Says:
September 25th, 2009 at 8:27 pm

For some reason this comes off as a little egotistical. The whole “lots of other agents have this, so you better get on it if you want your shot at repping me” sentence, and then the whole you don’t have to be experienced to write a first novel thing…

No one needs to know it’s your first. Just leave that part out. In fact, I’d leave pretty much everything out EXCEPT the story. (I’m guilty of short query-itis though) If you don’t have any credits, etc. to your name-then there’s no reason to call attention to it.

Good Luck!

I don't know about this. The part about the query not being exclusive was meant to be polite, but I can see how it might have come across that way. Either way it's not necessary.

Karen Says:
September 25th, 2009 at 10:07 pm

I agree with everyone here. That first paragraph should go almost entirely. The only thing that should be in there is the title, WORD COUNT, genre and the hook if you have it. The rest of it should go.

I feel like the second paragraph is more like a conversation instead of a summary. You want it to read like the blurb on the back of a book cover and you’ve never picked up a book and read, “This book is about a teenaged boy…” No, they are always something like, “Sent to reform school by his aunt and uncle, his last living relatives, Lee discovers a hidden mysticism in the curriculum…” as Daphne has pointed out.

And as others have said, never put in the query that you have never been published. The agent will know that by the lack of publishing credits in your bio paragraph.
From what I can dig out, you may have a decent story here, but you are really going to have to rework the query to make the story shine through.

Hope that helps!

Of course I skipped the word count in this submission because I didn't want the feedback to focus on that.

Krista G. Says:
September 26th, 2009 at 9:47 pm

I agree with Jamie Harrington that the tone comes off as a bit egotistical, and that immediately turned me off. Tone aside, though, I tend to shy away from statements that tell me how I’m going to feel about a book (i.e., “I am certain that once you read the manuscript you will find…”). Let the writing speak for itself.

The second paragraph is pretty unwieldy, both in size and content. You might consider breaking it up into several smaller paragraphs so as to be easier on the eyes. As for the content, give us more specifics about Lee and his experiences, and tell us these specifics from Lee’s perspective. That will give your pitch more substance; as it is, we seem to be skimming over the surface of the story, not diving into it.

Your biographical paragraph is more lecture than biography. Agents already know that you don’t have to have any real credentials to write a novel; they sign debut novelists all the time. So just give them a few highlights about yourself, focusing on any professional experience you may have with the issues in your novel. Less is almost always more in a query.

Oh, and just one more small suggestion: Instead of encapsulating your title in quotation marks, try using all caps. Quotation marks are only appropriate to set off titles of smaller works, like articles, and italicization doesn’t always transfer well in e-mails.

True, true and ... true.

I then posted this comment with a revision:

Matthew Says:
September 28th, 2009 at 10:30 am

If anyone has time I would really love to hear your thoughts on this revision:

Dear Daphne,

I am writing to you seeking representation for my young adult novel, which has the working title WARRIOR MONKS.

Fifteen year old Lee is a reluctant juvenile delinquent. He never means to get himself into trouble but trouble seems to have quite a knack for gathering him into its clutches nonetheless. All of that begins to change, however, when his cruel Aunt and Uncle, his last surviving relatives that the courts have assigned as his guardians and conservators ship him off to a unique reform school in the bitter wilderness of Northern Idaho. He is so terrified by the idea of the place that he runs away from home, but soon enough he ends up accepting the inevitable and eventually discovers magic and mystery in his strange and wonderful new home.

The school is meant for wayward teens with criminal or behavioral problems but it turns out to have a mystical twist on the standard curriculum. They teach Lee and his group of new found friends everything from East Asian Calligraphy and Yogic Meditation to Aikido and Kenjutsu. Bit by bit they learn to use these talents to harness the magical energy that the Chinese know as Chi. Once the students are proficient in their new found skills their teachers lead them out into the wilderness for a journey of self discovery. After achieving success (more for some than for others) they are forced to band together and defend themselves from a wild and mythical primal enemy.

I have never been published but I love to read and feel that fans of Christopher Paolini, Jonathan Stroud, Michael Scott and Tamora Pierce would enjoy this story as well.

Thank you for your consideration of this proposal. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

It's better of course, and this was one of the first versions of my query that actually fit with the format of what a good query should look like. It still wasn't great but it's evolved a lot since then and is still growing and changing as the novel gets edited.

There was really only one reply:

Jenny Says:
September 29th, 2009 at 8:19 am

Although the revision is much better than the original there are still a few things that could use some work. I like the idea of a reluctant juvenile delinquent. It drums up some sympathy for the character right away. But there is a disconnect between the first two sentences and the rest of the query that leaves me wondering what him getting into trouble has to do with the bulk of the story. How does he get in trouble, what happens to him that he doesn’t intend, how will this knack for finding trouble effect him later on, etc?
Be careful with your long sentences. Readers tend to get tripped up by them. Also, the line about trouble “gathering him into its clutches” sounds a bit cliche.
To me this story sounds a lot like Harry Potter … mysterious, magical school, cruel aunt and uncle, defending against an overwhelming enemy, and so on. How is your story fundamentally unique? Tell us in the query.

That was the first time I realized that about the similarity to Harry Potter. I was like s@#t! at the time. I never meant it to be so close and it is a little darker and more grown up but if you replace the wizardry with martial arts and east Asian mysticism the stories are really similar. I've since decided that's okay. I've read all the Harry Potter books and I figure I could do worse if my story has to get compared to something.

So this post became epically long, sorry about that. But hopefully it's a good warmup for Rachele's post tomorrow. MAKE SURE you all come back for that.


Bish Denham said...

You are so brave to put it all out there!

Piedmont Writer said...

I'm glad you're feeling better. That's nice for you to show us your journey. We've all been there. I don't think any of us can write a great query right off the bat. Mine was 15 revisions until I finally got it. Don't sweat it, it'll all work out. Looking forward to tomorrow.

JustineDell said...

Why? Is her post long too? LoL - kidding ;-)

Hope you are feeling better today, Matt!

Looks like you got some good feedback from the agent. Some of the commenters where a little snarky if you ask me, but maybe they just don't know anything about being tackful. Anyways, I am still DYING to see a new version!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


JustineDell said...

I mean...the NEW NEW version. ;-)

MissV said...

Feeling better today?

For what it's worth, I never made the Harry Potter connection before it was mentioned here. Now I feel like a dolt for not making the connection before (or maybe that's a good thing?)

Shannon said...

Thanks again for putting yourself out there, Matt. Like Justine, I can't wait to see your new query! Let's see that bad boy!

Matthew Rush said...

Hmm, thanks for all the interest. I've laid off on revising the query lately because I've been editing the novel so much, and well ... major things may end up changing.

That being said maybe I'll put up the latest version of the query next week.

Slamdunk said...

This is an excellent way learn. Thanks for being forthright.

Loren Chase said...

This is so informative and it's given me a few things to keep in mind when I start querying. I really didn't make the Harry Potter connection until it was pointed out. Oops. And I've actually been thinking about taking Aikido lately. Really interesting post:)

Crimey said...

You're on the right track. I don't think any of us wrote a stellar query the first time around. I'm not currently querying (will be soon) and I have worked on my query letter off and on for a month and I keep a track of it. I have rewritten it 9 times since the first version. That's how it goes.

FantasticFiction said...

Very good advice from her! Just out of curiosity if I wanted my query critiqued by Daphne, how do I go about doing that?

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

Good Morning Matt!

So glad to see your post today and love the adjustments for reminders. ;o)

I am terrified of when it is time to query! *shivers*

Thanks for a great post!

Visit My Kingdom Anytime

Candyland said...

It's great to get feedback that helps, without making you cry. (Maybe it's just me??!!)

Creepy Query Girl said...

Every jump you make just gets better and better, closer and closer to that ideal query. It's wonderful that you're putting your early query and critiques out there like that- it might save other debutants (and AGENTS who have to read these) a lot of time! So thank you!

Jonathon Arntson said...

So freaking thorough! I love it.

Sheri Larsenッ said...

Looks like awesome feedback! Nice to hear some positive stuff, too, huh Matt? Thanks for sharing.

Falen said...

i LOVED this post. I also liked seeing how your query changed with the input the others gave you.

Tracy said...

I'm with Justine, I want to see the new version when it's ready. See how much of all this good advice you're able to put to good use.

Then again, if the revisions are still unsettled...

Elana Johnson said...

Kate Schafer is a class act all the way around. Thanks for sharing her comments here. There's so much to learn from seeing how a query is dissected. :)

Kristopher and Crew said...

Nice. I like that you have interesting posts like this. Not only do we have your insight on your query, but also your insight on her insight on your query. Love it.

Angela said...

This is such a great post to learn from. Thanks for sharing it!

Anonymous said...

There is so much great information in your posts! I can't wait to learn more.

Slushpile Slut said...

So nice to see the query writing and revising process all laid out in this post...Also glad to see you have the right mindset needed to take the critiques and thereby become a better writer...Hats off to you Matt...Keep up the great work :)