Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Katherine Camp Query Critique

If you don't know what's going on this week or you simply don't remember please see yesterday's post here. Otherwise here is the email I sent Katherine regarding her query:

I have to start by saying that I think your premise is awesome. I’m a real sucker for Fantasy and I wish I had the stones to write it. This is great because you have the most important part covered. If your idea sucks it doesn’t really matter how good your query, or even your pages, are. No one will care. You don’t have to worry about THAT.

This query could use SOME work, but you’re off to a really good start.

The other thing is that by writing Fantasy, even if not traditional High or Epic Fantasy, you’re making it a teeny bit harder on yourself. I’m not saying don’t do it, but make sure you research your agents because not only is the market already saturated when it comes to Fantasy, but Fantasy is a bit of a niche market to begin with.

I’m not an agent so don’t take my opinion for scripture but that is what I’m told (and why I’m too wimpy to write Fantasy, even if it is my favorite genre to read).

THE QUERY...

Of course first I have the "Dear (Agent's name)" and then I usually have a paragraph or two where I explain why I chose to query them, whether it is their blog or just their stated preferences on their website or a connection on Twitter. I left that out. The meat of the query is below:

That’s perfectly fine; it’s the meat that matters anyway. I will point out that there is a running debate about this. Personally I prefer to put housekeeping at the bottom. Janet Reid of Query Shark points out that you only have a few words to catch an agent’s interest. Make sure that those words are YOUR STORY, not something else. Personalization is important, and respectful, but it can come after the meat.

That being said, this is only my OPINION. If you like the business first it certainly can work. Even better than simply following my advice, see if you can find out which agents like it which way, then cater to their preferences.

Briand Varryda’s life is pretty grim. Her uncle hates her and wants to banish her from his household, the villagers won’t look her in the eye because she dresses like a boy and explores woods full of wolves and bloodthirsty unicorns, and the guards constantly try to beat her up because she beats them at their gambling games.

I think you need to separate this paragraph. You should try to have a pitch/hook that is one sentence. You can get away with two or three if the idea is complex (like my own query) but make sure to keep your first paragraph short. This is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of the query. If the agent likes your hook they will be biased toward liking the rest as well. If they don’t like the hook they may not even read on.

I would suggest this hook instead:

(Age or occupation) Briand Varryda leads a grim life fearing banishment from her uncle’s home. She is a courageous, resourceful tomboy but she endures the scorn of the villagers for braving the forest full of unknown magical creatures, and must constantly duck the fury of the guards after taking their gold in games of chance that have always felt like second nature to her.

This isn’t perfect either, and still too long, but you get the idea. I actually really like the idea of bloodthirsty evil unicorns, so you may have to work that back in, but think about this part hard, because it is huge.

Nobody thinks she’s worth anything at all except as a butt for jokes and a punching bag for fists. She’s pretty good with a knife and she can play cards like a man, but she doesn’t know how to make her uncle stop hating her or fix her screwed-up life long enough to avoid banishment to a backbreaking apprenticeship.

I would either cut this paragraph or incorporate it into the first. This doesn’t tell us anything new. It does go into a little more detail about who she is and why we should care, but you don’t have enough space/time to do this in this way. I get the sense she’s a bit of a rogue, but clever, which is awesome … it makes for a very compelling and sympathetic character, and that’s important, but conveying why we should care, pretty much needs to be one of, if not THE, first thing in a query.

Oh, and she can control dragons with her mind. She’s a dragon-sayer, an ancient power from an ancient time. A time before electricity, steamships, and airships.

This is actually really cool. It set’s up what kind of choices she’ll have the ability to make, and makes her even cooler, but this is out of place. I’m guessing she doesn’t know this in the beginning? I think you either need to reveal this sooner, or later, or you have to incorporate it when you introduce the conflict. Speaking of conflict you should have introduced it all ready. I have a rule about queries that may not be widely known but it works for me. Always make sure your query includes the 3 Cs, in this order: Character, Conflict, and Choice. Who is the character, and why should we care/like/connect with her? What is the Conflict she must endure? And what kind of Choice will she have to make to overcome it?

You can almost lay those three ideas out in three separate paragraphs and then be good. Of course it’s not QUITE that simple, but it’s important to keep in mind.

But Briand doesn’t exactly want this “gift.” It’s the reason both the tyrant Prince Cahan and his rival, Prince Jehn of the Monarchists, are looking for her. It’s the reason the Monarchists kidnap her. A war is coming, and the Monarchists know they cannot hope to defeat Prince Cahan’s airships without the help of the old magic from the far north—dragons.

Okay, well this is really cool, and I am now officially interested in your book, but this is too much. This is synopsis (sort of) stuff in my opinion. First of all this gets a bit confusing with the two princes and their forces.

Another rule I have which can’t work for everyone but does for me is don’t name anyone in the query but the MC. It gets too confusing. Introduce some other peeps, sure, and set up who they are and why they’ll matter, especially if they’re the antagonists, but make sure to keep it simple.

I should clarify. This is your main conflict, which is key, but try to simplify. Example:

Briand soon discovers her gift is more of a curse. The Monarchists of the north intend to overthrow the tyrant Prince’s airships with the help of a dragon army. Of course they can’t even begin to put this plan into action without a Dragon-Seer. Enter Briand, stage left.

The names of the two princes don't really matter in the query. It just makes it get confusing.

And for dragons, they need Briand.

I do kind of like how setting this apart makes it stand out, but you're already almost out of room, so you may just want to incorporate this.

But she’s no chosen one. Briand’s only a dragon-sayer by accident, and she’s just a ragged guttersnipe—not to mention the fact that she’s female. She’s not even close to the lordly young man the dragon-sayer was supposed to be. The Monarchists don’t like Briand, and Briand doesn’t like them. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But the Monarchists weren’t exactly asking.

You can probably cut this whole paragraph. Not that it's poorly written or anything, it's pretty good, but most of it is repeated ideas that have already been laid out. The one new idea about Briand and the Monarchists being at odds might be good to include somewhere but you need to tighten all this up.

The Monarchists haul her to a fortress in the far north for safekeeping, and despite her best efforts, Briand finds herself befriending some of the members of the company. She even finds herself falling for the leader of the group, Kael. But she still doesn’t want to die for their cause, however noble it might be.

Now you're definitely getting into synopsis territory. This is too much and too long for a query. I mean this actually sounds like an awesome plot twist, and you can hint at the romance if you like in the query but you need to do it much more concisely.

When someone in their company betrays them to the enemy, and the monarchist refuge is burned, Briand and the rest must flee north to a place called the Stronghold to avoid being captured by the magical watchdogs of the prince, the Seekers, who slaughter whole villages and suck the thoughts from their victims’ minds. With the Seekers gaining on the group slowly, and a traitor in their midst, Briand has to learn how to handle her gift and call up a dragon before they’re all killed.

This is a decent summary of the final conflict, without giving away the ending, but you've already used too many words and paragraphs. Try to slim this all down to three main paragraphs that each covers one of those three main concepts: Main Character, Main Conflict, and Main Choice.

Although the Dragonsayer has both magic and dragons, I wouldn't think of it as a typical "S and S" fantasy or high fantasy. The story contains elements of historical fantasy as well as elements steampunk, blending dragons, castles, and swords with guns, clocks, and airships.

First of all I want to say that this genre bending concept is really freaking awesome. I would LOVE to read a book like this. However, I have no idea what S and S Fantsay means. Sword and Spell? I Googled it and got nothing. Still though, Steampunk crossed with Dragons and Bloodthirsty Unicorns? Epic win.

I have been writing seriously for two years now. I am not yet published.

You don't need this. Not mentioning any credits is fine if you have none.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Good.

Sincerely,

Katherine Camp

So, first of all in our correspondence Katherine pointed out to me that S and S means Sword and Sorcery, which I can't believe I couldn't figure out, but which totally makes sense.

Now, what I would like all of you to do is give her some more feedback, if you don't mind. Feel free to disagree with anything advice I gave her, as we all know that all of this is highly subjective and we accomplish the most by telling the absolute truth.

I think one of the main things that Katherine needs, after cutting for length and tightening up all these awesome plot points into 3 or 4 good, concise paragraphs, is a new hook/pitch. A new opening line that really pops. I'll share the first thing that popped into my head this morning, though I'll admit it's not amazing:


The Monarchists will need Dragons to defeat the Tyrant and his Airships, and for Dragons they'll need Briand.

What do you think? I bet most of you can come up with a better hook than that? Please share yours in the comments if anything comes to mind. Or any other feedback/questions/comments you may have for Katherine. This is all for nothing without some good back and forth discourse.

33 comments:

Em-Musing said...

Like your instincts. It's always helpful to see a critique with explanations.

Ted Cross said...

I think you are right about the hook. It's odd, but the more I read about query writing now, the less I think I know...

Emily White said...

I have to agree with you about the length. When I was reading it, I was surprised it actually fit on one page. A lot of the points, though *very* fascinating, didn't seem really necessary for a query.

Candyland said...

Yeah length is a big one. This is crazy long. Your suggestions are right on!

salarsenッ said...

Shorter is alway better in a query. This is great, Matt.

Jared Larson said...

I think Matt hit the nail right on the head. Be more concise. Know what you need to say and say it simply, with voice. My first query was lengthy, because of all the elements I wanted to touch base on. After cutting it in half on word count, literally in half, I found it much easier to read, and so did others. And I was making the exact same points, but with more of a PUNCH! When you cut off the fat, you tend to find more of those "lightning" words, that create a more powerful effect for the image you're trying to put across. Being concise breeds these lightning words. It forces you to think of the best to make it brilliant and stand out.
I really like your idea and plot. Very intriguing and it sounds like a really fun read. Hell, you have bloodthirsty unicorns! Who knew unicorns could be bloodthirsty. I always thought they were gentle creatures that would let me ride on their backs beneath the double rainbow.

Lenny said...

hi mr matthew and miss katherine! first for me its way too long and its got too much stuff so i got confused on it. i could like it to start with shes a dragon sayer and how she doesnt want it and its for boys not girls. that could get me wanting to know more about her. then you could say more. it neat reading how people could see it and how to help make it lots better. its a cool sounding book.
...smiles from lenny

Christina Lee said...

How about something like, Briand has a better relationship with the dragons she slays than with girls her own age. Or, mind control would be great on boys or annoying adults, but on dragons?
Yeah they pretty much suck too. Oh well, I tried!

aspiring_x said...

ooh! matt, i love the three c's that's awesomeness! and again super cool story here!

i suck at query writing but how about something like this for the hook (i know it's still too long).

Briand Varryda is despised by everyone she knows for her tomboy ways and ability to gamble the pants off the palace guards. They probaly would have treated her better if they knew she is the deciding factor in the war that splits their country. As for Briand, she is the last Dragon-sayer, and now she holds all the power.

dah! that stinks! good luck guys! :)

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Hey, Matthew! Great exercise. Your comments were spot-on, especially about the heading-into-synopsis-territory bits. Agents blog time and time again that they only need the hook and the main thrust of the story, not all the plot elements. And I agree about getting that hook right up there in the opening lines. Love your willingness to help deconstruct and demystify the query process. Pay it forward, man!!

Michelle McLean said...

Matt, I think your suggestions are terrific! The points I am still thinking of after reading it are blood thirsty unicorns, tomboy, historical steampunk fantasy, mind powers and dragons and air warfare. Just the things that stood out to me as being the most interesting.

I love your three Cs :) And I think this story could get a lot of attention with a revised query. Your suggestions were all awesome! Good luck Katherine!

Tabitha said...

This concept is so cool, and I've been looking forward to this. Thanks for hosting it, Matthew!

Okay, I will echo everyone else in that it's way, way too long. I think the first paragraph (not the personalization, the one that tells us all about Briand) can just be cut. In this paragraph, you tell us things that you show us in later paragraphs. For example, this: "she’s just a ragged guttersnipe...She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them" shows us everything about her character that we're told in that first paragraph. Also, Briand's voice comes across very strong, which also adds to her personality and shows us her character. So we really don't need to be told so much about her.

I think much of the rest has everything you need. Well, a bit more, so some trimming is needed. And you do need a much stronger hook. Perhaps something like this:

***
Briand can control dragons with her mind. She’s a dragon-sayer, an ancient power from an ancient time. A time before electricity, steamships, and airships. But she’s no chosen one. Briand’s only a dragon-sayer by accident, and she’s just a ragged guttersnipe—not to mention the fact that she’s female. She’s not even close to the lordly young man the dragon-sayer was supposed to be.

Briand doesn’t exactly want this “gift.” A war is coming between the tyrant Prince Cahan and his rival, Prince Jehn of the Monarchists, and the Monarchists know they cannot hope to defeat Prince Cahan’s airships without the help of the old magic from the far north—dragons. And for dragons, they need Briand. The Monarchists don’t like Briand, and Briand doesn’t like them. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But the Monarchists weren’t exactly asking. They kidnapped her.
***

After this, you only need one or two sentences to close. You don't need to provide details about the end of the story here (that's what the synopsis is for), so instead I think you should focus on the challenges that Briand faces--as in, she has to learn to control her gift or die, that kind of thing.

I think you have an amazing hook, and what you have here is really well written. If you can tighten it up, I'm guessing you're going to get requests out the wazoo. :)

Oh, last thing. Is this YA? Since Briand lives with her uncle, it kind of sounds that way. If so, you'll need to state that somewhere. Also, if you know of any other books or authors who you think would share a fan-base with your book, then you should state that instead of saying you haven't yet been published. This shows that you read widely and will likely be active in marketing/promoting your book.

Good luck!

Stephanie said...

You're so awesome Matt!

I think the glaringly obvious critique is that it is too long, and you pointed that out. I wish I had something different to say, but I agree with all your points. Best of luck to Katherine.

Bish Denham said...

You've done an excellent job here Matt.

I agree with everyone else, so I don't have anything to add. The concept is great, but it's too long.

Steph Sinkhorn said...

I am in agreement with most everyone else that this query is well-written, but much too long. It's incredibly difficult to distill a 80K-120K novel into three tight paragraphs, but it's absolutely essential in query writing.

I like Matt's three C's. My personal approach is the plot arc - after a quick introduction of your character, give the inciting incident, the raising stakes, and the choice that leads to the climax. Which is actually very similar to what Matt suggests ;)

I also agree that there were several repeated ideas here, which you can very easily condense together. We don't need the same idea said three different ways - say it once, in the best way you can.

One more exercise that has really helped me is trying to condense the pitch down even further. Three paragraphs is hard, but what if you only had two? One? What if you only have one sentence? Can you distill your novel's conflict down to one sentence? If you can do that, queries don't look so bad.

It's clear you can write, which is always the very best start. And I love the bloodthirsty unicorns and the airship element :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Great critique Matthew!

This sounds like a great story - I think you've got some unique elements tied together in a fun way.

For me, I'd like to see the dragon control issue right up top, and maybe some steampunk reference too. That should really attract some attention because it is different and cool!

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Okay, so I usually lurk in the shadows for these critiques, because you guys always cover everything SO well. But I feel bad that Matt is such a loyal commenter for me, and I'm a lurker for him so....

I'd have to agree that I think a better hook is needed. It'll be the hardest sentence you ever write, but it's SO worth it in the end.

In the query workshop I took, they said to try to build our hook to tell something about our book that's unique to our story. So saying "Briand Varryda’s life is pretty grim" isn't enough. Lots of books have characters whose lives are pretty grim. It might help if you throw in more stuff...but then you run the risk that your sentence gets clunky and feels like info dump.

IMHO, I think the first two paragraphs are all backstory, and I don't think that's the best place to start. You want to sneak that in as you go, not dump it all in their lap and risk losing their interest before they even get started.

Where does the story start? With her being a dragon sayer, right? I would start there, and build my hook there. What's different about your dragon sayer from other dragon books out there? Weave that into one kick butt sentence and start there. Then find a way to weave in the details about the uncle and being a tomboy and gambling.

I know it's hard, but it's amazing what a difference it makes. When I took that query workshop my first attempts were similar to this, backstory first. And the reaction was Meh. So I scrapped it all, spent hours tweaking and playing around until I finally got my hook. One killer sentence that I started it with, and then wove the backstory in after. The workshop instructor LOVED it. And it went on to have a 50% request rate when I queried. It's worth the time and effort.

Sounds like a great project though. Trust Matt, he'll guide you well. He's awesome at this stuff. :)

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon C. Larter said...

*door slams open*

*Simon rushes in, panting*

*skids to a halt*

RIGHT! I'm all pressed for time and stuff today, but I thought I'd pop in and throw my two cents on the floor before running away again.

1. I LOVE THIS IDEA! Mixing steampunk and traditional fantasy is a very cool idea. I'm getting images of dragons dive-bombing zeppelins and Hindenburg-type explosions and such. EPIC!

2. DRAGONS ARE AWESOME SO PUT THAT RIGHT UP FRONT! How about a first sentence like: "Seventeen year old Briand Varryda might be able to talk to dragons, but it sure hasn't made her life any easier. She's more at home in the wolf and bloodthirsty unicorn-infested forest near her home than she is in the village, where she's scorned for her tomboy ways and beaten at every opportunity."

3. COMPRESS COMPRESS COMPRESS! You've got such an awesome setup here, I think you can sketch it in with just a sentence or two. Like Matt said, it reads more synopsis-y than query-y. Um...yes. ANYHOW! What about a 2nd graf like: "While she wanted to leave the village, Briand never expected it would be at swordpoint, kidnapped by Monarchists who want to use her power to fight the tyrant prince of the realm and his airship armies."

4. One sentence about the romance, since that's all expected and such in a YA fantasy, but the sentence has to do double duty! Something like: Holed up in a fortress and unexpectedly falling for the leader of her kidnappers, Briand has to learn how to control her gift and call up a dragon before it's too late. Now if only the dragons didn't have their own agenda."

5. I'M DONE! I may also have had too much caffeine, or be a bit too enthusiastic. I think you see what I mean, though, right? Right? Right? Right? Right.

*runs off*

*slams door behind him*

*pops back in to apologize for slamming the door*

*runs off again*

Fin.

Lydia Kang said...

I always learn something from reading these critiques. The premise sounds like a fun one!

Old Kitty said...

"To defeat the tyrant Prince Cahan, the Monarchist need Briand the Dragon Sayer - except that she's a screwed up teenager far too busy fixing her screwed up life."

LOL!! Sorry, I'm not good with hooks!

Take care
x

Elana Johnson said...

Okay, warning: Long comment ahead. I copied and pasted the query into my word processor and went to town. Sorry if you hate me after!! (And I'll have to post it in two parts. Stupid blogger.)


Briand Varryda’s life is pretty grim. (Okay, this isn’t a hook. And you need one. If an agent will only read one sentence, and it’s this one, is this the one you want them to read? NO. Your hook should do two things: 1. Sum up your novel and 2. Compel me to read the next sentence. Easy, right? Uh… right. I will give suggestions at the bottom. *smiles*)

Her uncle hates her and wants to banish her from his household, the villagers won’t look her in the eye because she dresses like a boy and explores woods full of wolves and bloodthirsty unicorns, and the guards constantly try to beat her up because she beats them at their gambling games. (You don’t need any of this. I’d cut it.)

Nobody thinks she’s worth anything at all except as a butt for jokes and a punching bag for fists. She’s pretty good with a knife and she can play cards like a man, but she doesn’t know how to make her uncle stop hating her or fix her screwed-up life long enough to avoid banishment to a backbreaking apprenticeship. (Okay, but so what? Cut.)

Oh, and she can control dragons with her mind. She’s a dragon-sayer, an ancient power from an ancient time. A time before electricity, steamships, and airships. (AH-HA!!! Here’s the hook. Buried beneath three very long paragraphs. No one’s going to read that far. Ever. No one wants to dig down to find the story. They want you to lay it out for them neatly. So THIS is your hook. Something like: “XXX-year-old Briand Varryda possesses an ancient power from an ancient time before electricity and steamships: she can control dragons with her mind.”

Then you can continue on with something like: “But Dragon-sayer (love this BTW) Briand knows her gift doesn’t come without a price. In the midst of a war, dragons are crucial to each side’s success, and that means so is Briand.”

(So here, you’ve given me a little bit of setup (gifts, magical beings, there’s a war), all the while driving me to the conflict. That’s what books are about. Conflict. So you need to hook me to propel me to read more. The setup portion should be swift and be driving the reader toward the conflict.)


But Briand doesn’t exactly want this “gift.” It’s the reason both the tyrant Prince Cahan and his rival, Prince Jehn of the Monarchists, are looking for her. It’s the reason the Monarchists kidnap her. A war is coming, and the Monarchists know they cannot hope to defeat Prince Cahan’s airships without the help of the old magic from the far north—dragons.

And for dragons, they need Briand.
But she’s no chosen one. Briand’s only a dragon-sayer by accident, and she’s just a ragged guttersnipe—not to mention the fact that she’s female. She’s not even close to the lordly young man the dragon-sayer was supposed to be. The Monarchists don’t like Briand, and Briand doesn’t like them. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But the Monarchists weren’t exactly asking. (Okay I’d cut a lot of this to streamline. It has terrific voice, though, so we’ll keep some of it.

Something like: “She’s kidnapped by the Monarchists, who don’t like her much. Not that she’s losing sleep over that. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But they aren’t exactly asking. They take her to a fortress in the far north so she can speak to the dragons (that’s why they have her, right? Not for safekeeping – to get the dragons), and as much as she wishes she wouldn’t, she finds herself falling for the leader of the Monarchists (yes? “group” sounds weird to me), Kael.”


The Monarchists haul her to a fortress in the far north for safekeeping, and despite her best efforts, Briand finds herself befriending some of the members of the company. She even finds herself falling for the leader of the group, Kael. But she still doesn’t want to die for their cause, however noble it might be.

Elana Johnson said...

Okay, warning: Long comment ahead. I copied and pasted the query into my word processor and went to town. Sorry if you hate me after!!


Briand Varryda’s life is pretty grim. (Okay, this isn’t a hook. And you need one. If an agent will only read one sentence, and it’s this one, is this the one you want them to read? NO. Your hook should do two things: 1. Sum up your novel and 2. Compel me to read the next sentence. Easy, right? Uh… right. I will give suggestions at the bottom. *smiles*)

Her uncle hates her and wants to banish her from his household, the villagers won’t look her in the eye because she dresses like a boy and explores woods full of wolves and bloodthirsty unicorns, and the guards constantly try to beat her up because she beats them at their gambling games. (You don’t need any of this. I’d cut it.)

Nobody thinks she’s worth anything at all except as a butt for jokes and a punching bag for fists. She’s pretty good with a knife and she can play cards like a man, but she doesn’t know how to make her uncle stop hating her or fix her screwed-up life long enough to avoid banishment to a backbreaking apprenticeship. (Okay, but so what? Cut.)

Oh, and she can control dragons with her mind. She’s a dragon-sayer, an ancient power from an ancient time. A time before electricity, steamships, and airships. (AH-HA!!! Here’s the hook. Buried beneath three very long paragraphs. No one’s going to read that far. Ever. No one wants to dig down to find the story. They want you to lay it out for them neatly. So THIS is your hook. Something like: “XXX-year-old Briand Varryda possesses an ancient power from an ancient time before electricity and steamships: she can control dragons with her mind.”

Then you can continue on with something like: “But Dragon-sayer (love this BTW) Briand knows her gift doesn’t come without a price. In the midst of a war, dragons are crucial to each side’s success, and that means so is Briand.”

(So here, you’ve given me a little bit of setup (gifts, magical beings, there’s a war), all the while driving me to the conflict. That’s what books are about. Conflict. So you need to hook me to propel me to read more. The setup portion should be swift and be driving the reader toward the conflict.)


But Briand doesn’t exactly want this “gift.” It’s the reason both the tyrant Prince Cahan and his rival, Prince Jehn of the Monarchists, are looking for her. It’s the reason the Monarchists kidnap her. A war is coming, and the Monarchists know they cannot hope to defeat Prince Cahan’s airships without the help of the old magic from the far north—dragons.

And for dragons, they need Briand.
But she’s no chosen one. Briand’s only a dragon-sayer by accident, and she’s just a ragged guttersnipe—not to mention the fact that she’s female. She’s not even close to the lordly young man the dragon-sayer was supposed to be. The Monarchists don’t like Briand, and Briand doesn’t like them. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But the Monarchists weren’t exactly asking. (Okay I’d cut a lot of this to streamline. It has terrific voice, though, so we’ll keep some of it.

Something like: “She’s kidnapped by the Monarchists, who don’t like her much. Not that she’s losing sleep over that. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But they aren’t exactly asking. They take her to a fortress in the far north so she can speak to the dragons (that’s why they have her, right? Not for safekeeping – to get the dragons), and as much as she wishes she wouldn’t, she finds herself falling for the leader of the Monarchists (yes? “group” sounds weird to me), Kael.”

Elana Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elana Johnson said...

Trying again. Sorry I am lame. I copied and pasted the whole thing and critted it. Sorry if you hate me after!! I think I'll have to post it in parts.



Briand Varryda’s life is pretty grim. (Okay, this isn’t a hook. And you need one. If an agent will only read one sentence, and it’s this one, is this the one you want them to read? NO. Your hook should do two things: 1. Sum up your novel and 2. Compel me to read the next sentence. Easy, right? Uh… right. I will give suggestions at the bottom. *smiles*)

Her uncle hates her and wants to banish her from his household, the villagers won’t look her in the eye because she dresses like a boy and explores woods full of wolves and bloodthirsty unicorns, and the guards constantly try to beat her up because she beats them at their gambling games. (You don’t need any of this. I’d cut it.)

Nobody thinks she’s worth anything at all except as a butt for jokes and a punching bag for fists. She’s pretty good with a knife and she can play cards like a man, but she doesn’t know how to make her uncle stop hating her or fix her screwed-up life long enough to avoid banishment to a backbreaking apprenticeship. (Okay, but so what? Cut.)

Oh, and she can control dragons with her mind. She’s a dragon-sayer, an ancient power from an ancient time. A time before electricity, steamships, and airships. (AH-HA!!! Here’s the hook. Buried beneath three very long paragraphs. No one’s going to read that far. Ever. No one wants to dig down to find the story. They want you to lay it out for them neatly. So THIS is your hook. Something like: “XXX-year-old Briand Varryda possesses an ancient power from an ancient time before electricity and steamships: she can control dragons with her mind.”

Then you can continue on with something like: “But Dragon-sayer (love this BTW) Briand knows her gift doesn’t come without a price. In the midst of a war, dragons are crucial to each side’s success, and that means so is Briand.”

(So here, you’ve given me a little bit of setup (gifts, magical beings, there’s a war), all the while driving me to the conflict. That’s what books are about. Conflict. So you need to hook me to propel me to read more. The setup portion should be swift and be driving the reader toward the conflict.)

Elana Johnson said...

But Briand doesn’t exactly want this “gift.” It’s the reason both the tyrant Prince Cahan and his rival, Prince Jehn of the Monarchists, are looking for her. It’s the reason the Monarchists kidnap her. A war is coming, and the Monarchists know they cannot hope to defeat Prince Cahan’s airships without the help of the old magic from the far north—dragons.

And for dragons, they need Briand.

But she’s no chosen one. Briand’s only a dragon-sayer by accident, and she’s just a ragged guttersnipe—not to mention the fact that she’s female. She’s not even close to the lordly young man the dragon-sayer was supposed to be. The Monarchists don’t like Briand, and Briand doesn’t like them. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But the Monarchists weren’t exactly asking. (Okay I’d cut a lot of this to streamline. It has terrific voice, though, so we’ll keep some of it.

Something like: “She’s kidnapped by the Monarchists, who don’t like her much. Not that she’s losing sleep over that. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But they aren’t exactly asking. They take her to a fortress in the far north so she can speak to the dragons (that’s why they have her, right? Not for safekeeping – to get the dragons), and as much as she wishes she wouldn’t, she finds herself falling for the leader of the Monarchists (yes? “group” sounds weird to me), Kael.”


When someone in their company betrays them to the enemy, and the monarchist refuge is burned, Briand and the rest must flee north to a place called the Stronghold to avoid being captured by the magical watchdogs of the prince, the Seekers, who slaughter whole villages and suck the thoughts from their victims’ minds. With the Seekers gaining on the group slowly, and a traitor in their midst, Briand has to learn how to handle her gift and call up a dragon before they’re all killed. (Okay, you can cut almost all of this too. Now that we know the main conflict, we need a consequence sentence. Your last one here would work quite nicely, except for we wouldn’t know what Seekers are. So we’ll have to adjust.
Maybe something like: “With a magical army closing in on their hideout and a traitor in their midst, Briand must call up a dragon before they’re all killed.”

I’m not sure it’s as salivating-worthy as I’d like, because it’s a consequence for all of them, not just her, which is what I usually go for. But it’ll do as a diving board for other ideas.)

Elana Johnson said...

Although the Dragonsayer (is this your title? Titles should be in all caps: THE DRAGON-SAYER. And you had it hyphenated before. Is it hyphenated or not?) has both magic and dragons, I wouldn't think of it as a typical "S and S" fantasy or high fantasy. The story contains elements of historical fantasy as well as elements steampunk, blending dragons, castles, and swords with guns, clocks, and airships. (Meh. This is too much information, and it’s almost like you saying you don’t know where it goes. Own it! Say, “THE DRAGON-SAYER is a young adult steampunk fantasy, complete at XXX words.” Let the agent/editor read it and decide what it’s typical of, you know?)

So the whole query reads:
“XXX-year-old Briand Varryda possesses an ancient power from an ancient time before electricity and steamships: she can control dragons with her mind. But Dragon-sayer Briand knows her gift doesn’t come without a price. In the midst of a war, dragons are crucial to each side’s success, and that means so is Briand.

She’s kidnapped by the Monarchists, who don’t like her much. Not that she’s losing sleep over that. She’d rather knife them all in the back than help them. But they aren’t exactly asking. They take her to a fortress in the far north so she can speak to the dragons, and as much as she wishes she wouldn’t, she finds herself falling for the leader of the Monarchists, Kael.

With a magical army closing in on their hideout and a traitor in their midst, Briand must call up a dragon before they’re all killed.

THE DRAGON-SAYER is a young adult steampunk fantasy, complete at XXX words. The full manuscript is available upon request."



So what do you think??

Will Burke said...

Good points on the letter, and LOVE the genre-bending that's happening!

Vicki Rocho said...

I'm late to the game, and you've already got a ton of advice. You already know you need to shorten it up. Focus in on the most important parts of what happens. You've got a lot of details in here, but you need to look at it from a few levels up so only the most important facts remain.

Renae said...

Matt- You are so awesome for doing this! I went trough the entire query several times and I have to agree first of all that it is too long. And all of your other points were exactly right.

And having a hook at the beginning is a must. But I think she should use something eluding to the fact that Briand is a dragon-sayer. That is the hook that will draw an agent in and make them want to read more. You were dead on about keeping the housekeeping at the end. If we only have a a line or two to pull them in and make them want to read more, I would not use it on that. Once you have them hooked, they will get to that part.

Hope this helps! Looks like Katherine has a lot of fantastic advice here!

Julie Musil said...

Katherine, great story idea!

I agree about the length and the synopsis feel. I love Matt's idea of the three c's. I'll be using that one myself. It's not easy to tighten up and make the story idea shine through, but I know you can do it!

Julie Musil said...

Just read Elana's comment. I'd cut and paste! Awesome.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I'm waaay late to this (and it's waaay late here, and I need to get some sleep), but I think Matt and Elana nailed it.

Basically:

1) Open with a good hook, that introduces the MC and gives a sense of the conflict right away.

2) Don't repeat yourself - a lot of what you had here was redundant, because you said the same stuff two or three times. Make every word count.

3) Stick to the essence. Main character, main antagonist, main plot, love angle if there is one. No subplots, or if you need to mention one, then mention one. No names unless absolutely necessary. (The MC and love interest are necessary, I think; you can decide on the others as you see fit.)

Have fun, and good luck! I'll come back tomorrow with an idea for a hook.

(And I would TOTALLY read this!)