Hopefully you all know how this works by now. This is the same query as yesterday, with Bryan's and my analysis added for your viewing pleasure. Bryan's thoughts are in the nice pale blue that blogger has provided with the new editor, and mine will be in dark red.
Dear Mr. Bransford, I spelled his name right! Booyah!
I stumbled across some of your comments as a guest-host at Absolute Write and was impressed enough to trace my way back to your blog. I've been happily lurking there ever since. As a fellow lifelong fan of the Sacramento Kings… um, well, I'm not exactly a Kings fan, despite being an NBA addict. I do, however, miss watching Vlade drop dimes… and drop to the floor. True artistry is hard to find. Personalization! I’m not actually as caught up with personalization as some people – great writing and a great sounding story should do the trick. I’m not gonna go out cyber-stalking just to fill in something here. But if you know something good, why not use it? I checked in at Nathan’s blog every day, mostly just because I enjoyed it, so it seemed worthwhile to let him know this. So, hopefully the personalization showed a few things. One, I was one of his blog readers and was familiar with his tastes (and his submission guidelines). Two, it shared something we legitimately had in common, and not just something manufactured for the query (Nathan and I still talk hoops). Three, humour (hopefully). Four, a bit about me. I don’t like obsequious kiss-assing, so I went with something funny, but also something that was a bit of a dig. Vlade Divac was a basketball player known for flopping to draw foul calls on opponents, so I’m teasing a bit here. A risk? Maybe. But it’s me. I’m confident, and I felt Nathan was the sort of agent who would roll with something like this. For someone who is "not caught up with personalization" Bryan sure lays the smack down here. This is a clinic in how to show that you know an agent, believe in yourself, and actually have something in common. Excellent personalization isn't going to sell a poorly written novel, but it probably could get an agent to look past an average query if your pages are good. Along with your NBA devotion, I was also impressed by the diversity of your reading interests and by your emphasis on representing stories that truly appeal to you regardless of genre or form. Considering this, I thought you might be the right agent to represent my novel, The Dreams of Crows, a dark epic fantasy with literary undertones. Always a little tricky, trying to slap that label on. I knew Nathan’s tastes leaned more to the literary, typically, than to fantasy, so I thought this might set it apart. And it’s accurate enough, since it was a dark fantasy and I was hoping to get across my attempts at a more style (and character) conscious epic than was typical. Not sure I’d phrase it that way now, but…
I have a little anecdote about Nathan that should shed a little light on this. I once asked him (he still allows direct questions in his forums) whether he thought it would be a good idea for me to query my novel as a YA Rural Fantasy. Using that made up genre is obviously a play on words against the more well known Urban Fantasy. I was worried that some agents might get offended by my silliness. Nathan replied by saying that he thought the joke was funny, and then by pointing out that if I was the kind of person who came up which such things, would I really want to work with an agent who was too uptight to take the joke in stride?
Good point Nathan.
I'm not trying to say you shouldn't get your genre right, or as right as you can at least, but I just don't think we should all stress over it as much as we do. If you ever sell your novel it's probably going to get marketed as something different than you originally thought anyway.
And in theory I prefer starting with the story blurb, rather than an intro, but I figured if my personalization could make him laugh I’d be on good footing.
After killing his father, Japheth flees into the wilderness only to be captured by Legion soldiers. I was hoping this would be a good hook, as well as introducing character and conflict. Hopefully it begs a few questions, the sort that make you want to read the book and find answers. What’s up with his Daddy? And it’s also my dark little twist on the fantasy standard of the orphaned hero. He's given a choice: face a trial or join the Legion. The choice is not so simple, though, as a war between empires looms on the horizon. Japheth, however, has no desire to face the Strangler's Rope, and so he becomes a soldier, as his father was before him. Conflict, a bit of setting and world building, choices, personal conflict… hopefully this starts building interest and letting the reader into the world of the story. Embroiled in the politics of the Malisc Empire, Japheth is sent to Maresh, his mother's homeland, a place simmering with rebellion. Balanced between two empires, between love and betrayal, Japheth must find a safe path to travel, guided only by the Ghost King, an enigmatic figure with uncertain motives. Unclear where his loyalties lie, he is given little time to decide, for war descends on the city known as the White Garden. Amidst death Japheth finds his path in life and an answer to his question. He is a soldier, and his loyalty is to the men who stand at his side. Here we have the conflict (politics, rebellion and war) and rising action, a touch on themes like manipulation and free will, and a hint of the internal conflict and resolution (without giving away the climax). I’d probably want a few more plot specifics if I rewrote this. And, funnily enough, most of the stuff that’s touched on is actually part of the sequel/second book now. Hopefully a bit of the flavour of the story comes through, though. I usually try to think of the blurb as a little story itself, with a hook and conflict, rising action and climax. The query has its own dramatic arc, one that should reflect that of the novel – a wee miniature version, really. Honey, I Shrunk My Novel…
At this point I want to point out what I meant yesterday when I said that Bryan's query is a little unconventional. At first glance (especially without the analysis) it doesn't really follow the standard hook, character, conflict, choice, punchline that I tell you all about so often and try to advocate here on my blog. Part of the problem may be that the meat of Bryan's query, the story, is all one paragraph. On closer examination though, it does have a bit of each of those elements.
One thing I might want to see more of if I was to critique this query, would be more about Japheth's character in the opening. We soon learn he's old enough to become a soldier, so he's probably at least 18, but I would like to know a little more about what kind of man he is. Clearly he's killed his own father, but I get the impression that he had good reason to do it, which is actually a pretty clever way to give us some insight into his character, but I wouldn't mind something a little more overt. Is he a moral man? A clever rogue? At the end we are told that he is loyal to his fellow soldier, and that clearly indicates that he is a good person, but did he start out that way, or did his journey change him?
Actually now that I think about it, that's really not required. I mean the query certainly has me curious, and that's a very good thing. Were I the agent being addressed in the letter I would read the pages without question.
My professional publishing credits include two previous literary stories (The Windsor Review), as well as an interview and an article on writing. I have participated in many writing workshops, and hold both a BA and MA in Creative Writing, as well as a degree in Education. I currently haunt numerous writing blogs and sites while running my bookstore, Inklings Bookshop, from its cozy home in Windsor, Ontario. Just the basics here. I’d been published, what I did for a living (particularly as it had minor relevance). Though this makes me nostalgic, as the store has gone the way of the dodo.
There isn't much to be said here. If I wanted to have such an excellent writing and publishing related bio I would have had to spent a lot less time dicking around in my twenties.
I have appended the first five pages of The Dreams of Crows. I always attach a few pages, unless they specifically ask that I don’t. Smart. Upon your request, I'd be happy to send you a partial or complete manuscript. Hopefully this shows I have some idea of how the system works. Thank you for considering my work for representation. I look forward to hearing from you.
I queried this novel only once, to the fabulous Nathan Bransford, so this query has only had that one test drive. Still has that new car smell! It drew a very quick request for a partial (the man is prompt, I tell you), and then an almost-as-quick request for a full. This led to edits and resubmission on my part, and then an ever-deepening series of edits as we started working together. And that is that, as the saying goes.
So in other words Bryan is batting a thousand with this query. Must be rough. I'm kidding, but in all seriousness I think this query is an excellent example of how you can stretch the rules a little, especially if your personalization and writing credits are this good, and still catch an agent's attention. I'm going to try to get Nathan to come chime in here today, but I'm guessing, based on what I already know about the quality of Bryan's writing, that he could have mailed Nathan a napkin with a scrawl reading "please read my pages" and as long as the pages were attached, the results would have been the same.
The query letter is a very important step, and we should definitely do all we can to make it the very best it can be. But in the end, an amazing query is not going to sell a bad story, and a bad query, while it probably most often will, will not always get in the way of a good story (I have evidence of this in the archives, trust me).
Thanks so much for sharing this with us Bryan, it really is a unique look into the process. You are one righteous cat, homeboy.
Readers? Questions? Thoughts? Propositions? Please share them in the comments.