Friday, January 21, 2011

THE DREAMS OF CROWS

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.

It's on:

Dear Mr. Bransford, I spelled his name right! Booyah!

Gangster.

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.

Sincerely,
Bryan Russell

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.

37 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm not big on personalization because most of the time it doesn't sound personal, more like major ass kissing. This was great! But Nathan is (was) the kind of agent who would appreciate the humor.

maine character said...

Lisa Brackmann's query to Nathan also used basketball. I think I see a pattern.

Thanks, Matt, for sharing that point about your Rural Fantasy. It's like telling a favorite joke to possible dates - if they don't like it, it immediately weeds out the ones you shouldn't be with.

And thanks for sharing this and your comments, Bryan - really hoping to read your DREAMS OF CROWS soon.

salarsenッ said...

I'm liking the 'rural fantasy' thing. lol Great idea!

For me, personalization depends on the agent, editor, etc... I think the most important thing is to research the person you're asking to work with you. Because ultimately, that's what you're doing.

Laura Pauling said...

Great q uery! Sometimes I don't think it matters if it's unconventional or conventional - it's more about the story!

Sarah said...

Yes--you can stretch the rules and get great results, if you can write and plot well enough to back it up. Obviously, that's the case here. Wishing you the best of luck, Brian! This book sounds awesome!

lbdiamond said...

Wow.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

It's official: I'm a Bryan Russell fan. Definitely going to look for and read his work. Thanks for sharing another insightful, well-analysed query.

Shannon said...

I'm with Nicole - I'm a fan. =)
Excellent query and suburb analysis. Thanks dudes.

Katie Mills said...

thanks so much to the both of you for making us privy to this. (yes, I just said 'making us privy'. And I don't even know if I spelled it right. I need more coffee) Got picked up by NB on your first run? Holy crap! I can see why- the story and query are fab!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i LMFAO at your "Gangster" comment.
True Story.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

also, OMG on just sending the query out once. That is amazing!

Candyland said...

Bryan continues to impress. He's seriously DOPE.

BTN Hip Hop said...

bryan is one funny guy

Paul Joseph said...

Once again, a sincerely helpful post that gives us something tangible to walk away from. The commentary is beyond valuable (and I, like Nathan, greatly appreciate Bryan's humor. It's nice to see a query that is unique - one that maintains serious and professional without being soooooo formal.) Another one to be bookmarked!!

Carolyn Abiad said...

I like the one, streamlined paragraph. No messing around with heavy details that need explaining, yet plenty of hints. Thanks for sharing!

Justine Dell said...

I didn't think he could get any doper *snicker*. One query? He only sent out ONE query? Whoawhoawhoa.

Sometimes uncoventional does it! Query Shark, aka Janet Reid, had the same type of thing up on her blog a while back. Crazy, crazy query, but it worked!

N.I.C.E. 'nuff said.

~JD

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Thanks for sharing this! It's wonderful to see the insights behind the words. :)

Nathan Bransford said...

Great query and great analysis!

Needless to say I was drawn into this query, not just because I knew Bryan around the Internet but it struck me as a compelling plot with what felt like a fully-realized world. The plot paragraph is rich with detail, backstory, and mystery, without being bogged down. And of course once I read the partial it didn't disappoint.

If there was one suggestion I'd offer for the future, I would be careful about the stop-start rhythm of the plot paragraph. There are interjections ("not so simple, though, as a" "Japheth, however, has" "Malisc Empire, Japheth is sent to Maresh, his mother's homeland, a place" "between two empires, between love and betrayal, Japheth must find") that can break up the rhythm and risks taking the reader out of the world.

Still, obviously this query did its job and it's a good example of how to balance personalization, plot, writing credits, and general awesomeness. Great post.

Elana Johnson said...

I hate you a little for querying one person and landing representation. So yeah. You're on this huge pedestal, and then there's me, down below, full of hatred. :)

But not really.

I really like the query. It's proof that there isn't a 100% do it this way way to query. Mine had almost no personalization, and it still worked.

The only thing I would suggest to make it better would be to add a cliffhanger consequence statement. I sort of felt like you wrapped it up for me, and didn't leave me salivating to read more. You know? But then again, I'm an advocate of hooking, setting up, conflicting, and then stating what will happen if they can't overcome the conflict in such a way that I'm dying to know what they learn and where they find the loyalty they need to survive. You know?

But it's a fabulous query!

Melissa Gill said...

I think this is an excellent illustration of how knowledge of an agent can really help you get a foot in the door. Nathan (great guy that he is wouldn't have been a good fit for me. (The Kings fell out of favor with me when they moved from Kansas City in 1985). I wish all agents were as open and approachable as he was. But this is a great query that shows a lot of voice.

Christina Lee said...

Okay well, I have nothing to say after reading your analysis and then Nathan's in the comments, except it was a pleasure and good luck (though you probably don't even need it -geez)!!!

Nate Wilson said...

I always enjoy seeing successful queries that veer from the norm. And even though Bryan's query gives away the story's end, I'm still interested in reading it, so clearly he did this right.

In fact, I hope to follow in his footsteps by sending out only one query and getting Nathan Bransford as my agent. Especially since this would mean I've also created a time machine.

Gangster.

Melissa said...

I like it

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I agree with Nate. Queries that rock the norm have this dropping effect on my jaw. And I find rhythm plays a very important part in this. If the rhythm is choppy in the writing it can be rather painful to read. If the rhythm is smooth, it's bliss.

Steve said...

I'm sold. I'll buy a copy. Just let me know where to send the money. American money, not that funny money with geese on it.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Steve

Don't mess with the geese. They're tougher than they look.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

And thanks for all the kind comments, everyone! It's been a blast this week.

Queries are interesting little buggers. Nathan is right in that this query has too many interjections, but I think I was trying to get in a number of elements from the story without the query getting huge and ponderous, and without it getting too scrambled and out of sync.

And it's funny, too, how much the story has changed since I first sent this off. Ah, revision...

LTM said...

still giggling about "rural fantasy"--good one, MMR. I agree w/Natey, if your agent can't laugh at that, do you really want him/her w/you for the life of your career?

We know this query worked, so great job, Bryan! And all the best in your future~ :o) <3

K. M. Walton said...

Bottom line, Bryan, your query enticed the agent to request your book. So, kudos.

And best of luck on the rest of your query journey.

Jeffrey Beesler said...

Oh, and Matthew, I left an award for you over at my blog today. Check it out when you get time!

Ted Cross said...

Batting 1000 is awesome and must feel truly great. I used basketball in my query to Nathan also, though not intentionally. It had just happened that I had recently almost won his March Madness contest, so I thought the mention would help him to recall me better. He is quick, like you say. I got a partial request almost immediately, though sadly I wasn't as good as you and didn't progress to the full stage. Great job, and I wish I could read your book.

Talli Roland said...

I'm with Stina - sometimes, personalisation can sound a bit too brown-nosing, but Bryan did this really well.

Thanks, Matt and Bryan!

JM Leotti said...

Terrific post! Learned so much. You guys are the Dynamic Duo of queries! Thanks so much for sharing with us novices!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great analysis. I enjoyed the comments too. Like Elana, I like to end the plot part of the query with consequences.

I thought the personalization was great. It really showed how much he knew about Nathan, not just reading a few blogs or interviews.

Oh how I wish I could just query one agent. Most of us are probably jealous.

ali said...

Congrats on the shout-out from Nathan, Matt! And the analysis/comments on Bryan's query were really interesting. I learned something, thanks!

Dawn Simon said...

Great post and great query. I love that you sent it out only one time. That's amazing! Thanks for sharing, Bryan and Matthew. It's so helpful to see other people's letters.

Pen and Ink said...

Excellent analysis. Impressive letter. I thought you did a great job of telling just enough of the story. I will pass this one on