Friday, July 8, 2011

Josh Hoyt's Current Query Critiqued

Okay. Back again? Excellent. Thank you so much for you willingness to lend a hand. My own personal belief is that as writers we're all in this together, and there's nothing more important than helping each other out, so I really appreciate everyone's willingness to jump in, and share some feedback with Josh.

Now, I haven't done one of these for a while, so before I get to the specifics of this query I just want to say a couple things about query letters in general.

There is a lot of advice out there, some of it conflicting, but probably the most important thing is to know the agent you plan on submitting to. They each have different expectations, and submission guidelines. Often the query is just a teaser for the five pages they'll allow you to include.

Anyway, I have a bit of a formula I like to use when I try to advise people what needs to be in their query letter. I call it The Three Cs. In my opinion, the most important aspects of a query are: Character, Conflict, and Choice. In other words: Who is this story about (usually one named MC/protag but there are variations), What sort of adversity do they have to overcome (internal and external plot can be discussed, depending on importance) and What choice (or choices) do they have to make to accomplish their goals?

Every query also needs a good pitch and/or opening hook, but I always advise people to make the character part of that. If we don't start off with a compelling character, most people will not read on.

Obviously there's more to these things than just that, but let's get to work. My critique, thoughts and advice will be in red.

Dear [agent name]:

I am pleased to submit for your consideration, THE ORDER OF THE ROSE, a 78,000-word young adult fantasy novel. This is what I call housekeeping, and my advice is to save it for the end. There are some agents who prefer it up front, so be sure to find out before submitting, but my opinion is that you have very little time (words) to get the reader (probably an assistant) interested in your book. Get right to the story, because in the end the story is all that matters. The novel is centered around these previous five words are not necessary, what else would you be talking about besides your novel? Tom Tom? Tom who? This is a simple and almost cliche name for a character, but it can work. I just think you need to add a last name, and something else that identifies what kind of person he is. Remember, character is more important than anything, and before we know what happens to him, we need to get a sense of who he is. You can add an occupation, call him a part-time cut-purse, a failed clergyman, whatever, a 16-year old this should say 16 year-old, or sixteen-year-old who is hunted for his unique distinction of being the only male able to wield magic in centuries. For this reason, he is chosen to restore The Order of The Rose. Okay. Now this sounds cool, it's certainly an interesting premise, but this is still more about plot than character. That'll be okay, if you fix the opening to tell us who Tom is, but I think you should think about how you write your sentences. Both of these are passive, using state of being verbs, but more importantly, they don't really tell us as much as they might seem to. Who chooses Tom? What is the Order? If you choose to answer those questions later in the query, that's fine, but I don't see that you do, from my reading.

Torn from his mother at a young age I like this verbiage, because it's a lot stronger writing than what comes before it, but what does it really mean? Did she die? Was he kidnapped? Exiled? Be specific, Tom was past tense left in an orphanage some people may say this is redundant, and it might be, depending on what torn from means to fend for himself until being rescued by a wealthy revolutionary leader WTH? In real life revolutionary leaders are usually poor, but I can accept that it may be different in this world, but this is still too vague a description of this person. You don't need to name him, in fact I would suggest you don't, but some explanation of why he's "rescuing" Tom from the orphanage is important. The revolutionary leader trains present tense Tom to use guns and swords as well as subterfuge in hopes that he can help overthrow the government. What happened to the Order? Is this guy the one that chose Tom for the Order? If so that is not clear the way this is currently written. During training Tom discovers his patron is not the only one who else, and why? interested in his new found abilities. He soon comes to find that not everyone who is looking for him, cut this comma, also: people are looking for him now? wants him alive when all is said and done.

Tom meets a ghost of the old Order who speaks to him, “You are our last hope. You must make things right.” This comes a bit out of left field, and I have to wonder what it means. You need to be a little more specific here. If Tom fails to restore The Order of The Rose and bring an end to the corruption, the land will be ripped apart. literally? By what forces? It is then when Tom finally realizes the weight he carries. Though he fears what he will become of him, he knows he must protect his friends who are the only family he's known. or? This is where you need to clarify the CHOICE. The third C.

Okay. So the biggest problem with this query is that you have a lot of vague mentionings of what sounds like high stakes conflict, but we can't really tell for sure because we don't know what is actually going on. Be specific. Tell us why the Patron Saint of Orphaned Revolutionaries rescues Tom. If it's his magic, how does he know about it, and why is he trained in guns and swords instead of staves and spells?

It also seems to be lacking a bit of voice, but I don't think that's as big an issue considering the fact that fantasy is often not as riddled with voice as say a YA PNR.

And I have to say that the concept here sounds very cool to me. I get a kind of arcane Gregorian monk feel from this query letter, and though the execution needs a little work, I think you have something interesting here.

I am getting my second master’s degree in school psychology and I already have a Master’s degree in counseling. As a result, I have come to better understand the people around me. I use this knowledge for my blog, How to Diagnose Your Character, in hopes to help writers create accurate characters for their novels.

This is debatable. This isn't really publishing credits, and I'm not sure it's directly pertinent to your ability to tell this story. I would skip this whole paragraph in the interest of having more room for words directly describing the story.

If you would like to consider THE ORDER OF THE ROSE, I’d be happy to forward you the complete manuscript.

Put your housekeeping here. TITLE, Word Count, Genre, etc. Any personalization for a particular agent can also go here, unless you find they prefer it up front, like Nathan Bransford.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Joshua Hoyt

So that's it. What do you guys think? Please feel free to disagree with me, and let's see if we can't help Josh write a better opening hook.


Jessica Bell said...

Matt, I just have to say, that your query critiques are getting better and better and better every time I read them. I have nothing else to add. In fact, I'm pathetic at queries.

Josh, take Matt's advice. He's got this query thing down pat. Good luck with your submission!

Fineprint: Matt, care to take a squiz at my query??? Not to publish here, just to get your input? ;o)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Yeah, you're getting tougher, Matthew! I did like the brevity of the query.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Matt, I love your 3 C's. Such great advice.

Joshua, I love fantasies so am excited about your manuscript. I love the title.

I agree with Matt's critique. I know it's hard with fantasies (I struggled with my query for SO long) to get the history of the world out briefly as it relates to the conflict and then how it relates to the main character.

I think you should cut out the ghost quote. You already told us in the first paragraph that he is unique. I'd recommend not focusing on it again because I think some agents think that the main character being "the one" has been done a lot in fantasy. Good luck with querying.

Andrew Smith said...

Matthew definitely knows his query shit. Queries are like invitations to a party. The invites might be really bitchin', but it's the party itself that's going to attract the invitees to hang.

Agents get invited to a lot of parties.

I think the way to get one to come over is to make sure you tell them about some definite thing yours has that the other hundred and fifty parties going on at exactly the same night and in the same town don't.

If you do have something that sets your "party" apart from the others, then you absolutely MUST make that evident in your query. This query doesn't tell me what that might be. I'm not saying the work doesn't have essential and compelling, unique traits... but if it does, the query doesn't make it sound like it.

Look at Matthew's questions and dig for it.


maine character said...

I usually don't comment on queries 'cause I don't know what I'm talking about, but I thought this critique was right on the mark. It might be tough to take, but it'll definitely make this query stronger.

Also, I get the feeling Andrew throws great parties.

Huntress said...

Personalizing the query to a specific agent is difficult for me. I am horrible at small talk.

To a degree, it seems disingenuous. Yes, I have read and researched what a particular agent likes/dislikes, but I haven’t necessarily read anything they’ve represented. I am impressed by their track record otherwise I wouldn’t submit to them. So at some point, I get all kinds of snarky and I feel like I am continuously saying, Hey, I like what you like and, gee, shall we dance?

*rolls eyes*

Matthew MacNish said...

You have a point, Huntress, and I think that honestly, personalization is not that important. Story will always trump it.

Andrew Smith said...

Matthew, I love reading the query excavations on this blog. And, in response to your email, I PROMISE I will look up my query for my first novel (the only query I ever had to write, as it turns out).

It was HORRIBLE. EMBARRASSINGLY BAD. I did everything you're probably NOT supposed to do.

Laura Rennert just has a nose for good parties, and can sniff past the crappiness of the invite.

I will look for it, though.

Keep in mind, too, that in those days (I think I signed with her in 2004), despite the fact that it was only a few years back, nearly everything done by agencies and editors was on REAL PAPER and sent by snail mail.

When we put Ghost Medicine out on submission, I can remember how I had to print out 10 copies of it (and it was about 500 pages), pack them in a box, and FedEx them to the agency.

Thank God we don't do stuff like that anymore (although Liz, my editor at Macmillan) does like to send pass pages and corrections to me on paper -- which I love.

E. Arroyo said...

This is great. Taking notes.

Josh Hoyt said...

Wow great critique and thoughts. I have some ideas on answering the questions you asked and will get to work on making it better. Thanks so much for the help.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i would add a 4th C as well - Consequence - what happens if they make the wrong Choice? What is at stake?

for the query, i agree with what Matt said. I think you just really need to work on making every word count and using specifics in the query.
Godod luck!

Dawn Ius said...

Wow. Great advice.

Good luck with your submission, Josh.

Old Kitty said...

Yay for a thorough critique of the Josh's query, Matt!!

I would add to maybe give names to the "revolutionary leader" and the "government". I'd ask for a setting of some kind - a name for your fantasy world? Who are these nameless people who want a piece of Tom?

I would list as many writing credits/published stories rather than your degree or non-writing qualification too maybe.

And a little bit more about the Order of the Rose. Why the Capitals apart from it being your rather fab book title?

GOOD LUCK!! Take care

Michael Offutt said...

This is an excellent query critique and I think you hit everything that I might have picked out.

Suzie F. said...

Hi Josh! Thanks so much for offering your query to be critiqued. I learn so much from these. I'm an unpublished writer, but I have critiqued queries for a friend. I am by no means an expert.

My first thought was your query is too vague. I'd suggest adding some specifics without getting wordy.

1st P: I agree with Matt. My biggest question was, What is the Order of the Rose?

2nd P: I'd cut the line about the orphanage and combine the first 2 sentences.

Torn from his mother at a young age, Tom fended (or fends depending on the tense you choose) for himself.

A question: Does the revolutionary actually rescue Tom?

I'm going to disagree with Matt about naming the revolutionary leader (sorry, Matt). I wouldn't mind a mention of his name here, IF he's an important character. You've only named Tom, so we're not dealing w/ an overabundance of names. I think it might take some of the vagueness away.

I'd also cut "During training" and start the sentence with "Tom." You may want to rework this sentence. We already know about his patron's interest so this is redundant. Consider something like: Tom soon discovers that his abilities attract others who do not necessarily want him alive. (sorry, my sentence isn't that great, but do you get what I mean?)

3rd P: I agree with Matt and Natalie that the ghost comes out of left field. Is it necessary to mention? Is the ghost a recurring character who accompanies Tom? Matt's right - this is the paragraph where we should learn specifically what's a stake for Tom.

You also use a lot of cliches in this paragraph.

"end of corruption"
"ripped apart"
"the weight he carries"

I think that if you drop these and focus on the specifics in short, sharp sentences, your query will leave us wanting more.

Josh, you are so brave for posting this and I think you have a great story. Best of luck!

Kristen said...

I always have trouble with the bio paragraph too. Hard to know what to put in, what to take out. I like to think that if I wrote a cover letter for an entire ms, that's where I would put in the kind of paragraph about psych. and blogging Josh has here.
Just a thought.

Bish Denham said...

I have to agree with everyone else at how good you have gotten Matt.

As for a comment, Josh, I'd open with that line about Tom losing his mom, it sets us up right away wanting to know why and how that affects him. And I too want to know know more about this mysterious Order of the Rose. What is it?

Emily White said...

I have to agree with everyone else, Matt. Your critiques are getting better and better! I can't think of anything to add that you haven't already said.

Josh, this is great advice. Critiques can be tough to take (believe me, I know), but this is definitely a good one.

Marsha Sigman said...

Great critique. I can't think of anything else to add either. Except to ask Matt what are his thoughts on query length? Just in general.

Also I want to be invited to one of Andrew's parties.

Matthew MacNish said...

Marsha asks a good question, and I want to answer it here for everyone.

Query length is like everything else we do: subjective.

In general, I would say that shorter is better. The whole point of a query is to get an agent to read pages, so the less it takes the better. I don't like to get too specific about stuff like this, but a lot of the best queries I've seen are around 200-250 words. Some even less.

However, my own query (which you can find at the top of the blog), which won a contest at WriteOnCon last year, is 309 words long WITHOUT housekeeping or personalization, so there are exceptions. I still kind of want to make mine shorter, but it's a WIP.

I think really the best advice I can give here is that the query: length, voice, diction, pace, humor, attitude, and everything? It should match the story. Everything has to serve the story. That's the bottom line.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Great critique, Matt, I can't think of anything to add... I agree that query length is subjective, but I felt like this was a little too long for the way the query was written. But like you said, it's a matter of opinion!
I really like the premise of this story, and I think this query has a lot of potential!

Paul Joseph said...

I'll be honest - I haven't ready many of your critiques (okay, any of your critiques) because when I hear the word query, I think communicable disease. However, today I took a gander and you did an excellent job. You had a lot of insight to offer; you definitely know your stuff. Well done!

K. M. Walton said...

You go, Matt! Your critique was spot on.

Tamara Narayan said...

Excellent critique by our host! And kudos to the query writer. Submitting one of these babies for people to pick apart is not easy.

I wonder if you’ll get far with this title. It makes me think of Umberto’s Eco’s The Name of the Rose. But, as Stephen King writes throughout the Gunslinger series, the world has moved on. But you might think of some alternatives just in case.

I agree with Matthew and many of the commenters on the vagueness. This may be the queries greatest weakness. In SF/Fantasy, it has become problematic to put the words “boy” and “magic” together without the reader thinking about Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Bringing your character to life--in a unique way--with a few key images, abilities, and/or personal history is so tricky, but so needed. Please add specifics on this character’s magical powers and why they make him a target. You write that he is the only male with magic. Is this significant? Are there lots of females with magical powers? Nothing else in the query relates back to Tom’s magical powers and this feels like an oversight.

Being an orphan is almost a cliché. Do you need it in the query? If the first five pages focus on this part of the character’s life, I would think yes. But bring it to life. Something like, “After witnessing his mother’s head parted from her body by a soldier’s sword, young Tom spends his adolescence stealing bread from orphanage storeroom and feeling the whip for his transgression.”

Finally, get rid of the words “when all is said and done” in paragraph two. They don’t add anything. Queries are so short; every word counts.

Madeleine said...

Thanks for the pointers on the 3 c's I will bear that in mind with my stories and query letters. :O)

M Pax said...

The 3 C's is great advice. Will make sure I have them in mine.

Great concept, Joshua. Good luck!

Nichole Giles said...

Great advice. Good luck to Joshua with his query!

Carol Riggs said...

Great critique, Matt! I agree about using the MC's last name too in the query, and the 3 C's are a super and easy way to remember what to put in a letter. I always put the title and word count later in the letter too.

I kinda agree about the voice (lack of it), but maybe when a few more specifics are added, more of a flavor will happen. Definitely omit the credits--like you said, they aren't really credits agents or editors care about. If Josh belongs to the SCBWI, that IS something to mention (an active member of), however. It shows you're a serious writer that way, not just a hobbyist. A lot of agents DO prefer the personalization up front; it makes the initial connection.

RaShelle said...

Great advice, Matt. The story does sound interesting. Good luck!

Michael G-G said...

Kudos to you, Josh, for posting your query. The story sounds interesting.

Matt has done a masterful job here and anything I add feels redundant. I agree with Carol Riggs that you should mention writing organizations in your bio rather than your degrees (except if you have an MFA in Writing) and your blog. I put my blogs in my signature line, on the off-chance that a busy assistant/agent will take a gander.

I think the best thing you can do is answer Matt's questions and spice up your query's voice.

Best of luck!!!

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

I love the three C's concept, and The critique made some excellent points. If and when I get to a query stage, I know to whom I'll be pandering to get a look at it :P

Elana Johnson said...

I don't have much to add here, because I've critiqued this query before.

I like Matt's focus on the three C's. I think this query lacks a bit of character, a bit of voice, if you will. I'm not sure that it can/should be fixed, as it should mirror the tone of the novel.

It is a little bit vague, but overall, it does get the job done. I think the main danger is that the agent/editor reading it won't be propelled through the whole thing and/or encouraged to request.

That said, if you're going for drastic, you could cut the entire first paragraph and start with the hook for your novel. I'm not sure you have one, and you need one. Something like, "In a world where only women wield magic, sixteen-year-old Tom LastName surprises everyone at his orphanage when he casts a spell to keep the bullies at bay."

Or some such. It gives us a bit of info about the world, introduces the character, and provides the inciting event for the revolutionary leader to come.

I do agree with Matt's assessment of the vagueness of the events that follow. Those could be spiced up with details.

Shannon said...

Thank you for being brave enough to share your query out here. :) The story sounds interesting.

I agree with everything in Matt's assessment (well done, Matt!). The things that stuck out for me include:

*I agree with needing Tom's full name
*I want to more about Tom. What kind of kid is he?
*What is the Order of the Rose?
*How was he torn from his mother?
*How did Tom have to fend for himself?
*Why was he rescued? And why did the leader train him? Does the leader know about Tom's ability to wield magic?
*Who is looking for him? And why are they looking for him?

Best of luck! I can't wait to read the revision!

Sarah Pearson said...

Wow, the three C's. Seems so obvious when you put it like that!

Thanks Matt, and thanks to Josh for sharing.

Josh Hoyt said...

I went camping last night and when I got home I found some wonderful advice. Thanks everyone for all of the encouragement and support. I will be looking at working over this with all of the advice in mind.
Thanks again Matt for hosting and critiquing my query letter.

Missed Periods said...

I agree that the query was too vague, and in a way that's a good thing because I wanted to know more. Not that I'm saying to keep it vague, but it has such potential.

Missed Periods said...

I agree that the query was too vague, and in a way that's a good thing because I wanted to know more. Not that I'm saying to keep it vague, but it has such potential.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great critique of an interesting query!

Josh, I think I'm sitting with Matt, Elana, and Tamara on this. Your first paragraph (aside from housekeeping, which some agents do prefer to have at the beginning, so make sure you personalize each one you send out; it's a simple cut-and-paste thing) is KEY, and this opening (and query), while delivering the information, is pretty dry.

I want to go back to what Elana and Matt have both already mentioned: voice. Re-read the first chapter or two of your manuscript, and look again at the information in your opening (Tom Lastname, a baguette-snatching (or whatever) orphaned 16 year-old, is chosen to restore The Order of The Rose because he's the only male able to use magic) and deliver it in a voice that matches your manuscript.

Then, do that to the rest of your query, taking out vague-but-intriguing phrases and replacing them with specific-and-intriguing phrases. For example, "Torn from his mother at a young age" becomes "After his mother was kidnapped by the country's womanizing dictator when he was only two..." Or whatever actually happened. "Overthrow the government" becomes "assassinate the Dictator, who has outlawed magic" (or, you know, whatever you have going on in your book). And please tell what The Order of The Rose is, because it seems pretty important, but it isn't clear.

I agree about cutting the ghost quote, and the stuff about your degrees and blog. If you are a member of any professional organization, definitely include that info.

And good luck! I think you have a great premise; you just need to tease out those details that will make this query sing.

Rosalind Adam said...

Some really useful pieces of advice here. Thanks. I've arrived at your blog from Bish's blog.