Friday, December 16, 2011

Donna Weaver's Current Query Critiqued

Good morning. Or, well, at least neutral morning. The one thing I can confirm is that it's morning.

Today we have Donna's query again, except this time, with my feedback, which is in red.

Here we go:

Dear [Agent's Name]:

Lyn needs something to distract her from the fact that her dead fiancé turned out to be a cheating scumbag. I love the way you sneak this backstory in, that's done very well, but I would like to know more about Lyn as a character first. Other than what's happened to her, what kind of person is she? What she plans is a vacation diversion: an uncomplicated, unromantic cruise. Do people go on cruises by themselves? I suppose they do, but I'd never considered it before. What fate provides is Braedon. Here is another missed opportunity for a bit of characterization. I get it that we learn a lot more about him in the next paragraph, and that's great, but even one or two more words here would help this pack more punch.

Against the backdrop of the ship’s make-believe world, what does this mean? Is it some kind of fantasy theme cruise? Lyn finds herself drawn to him. His interest in people, his gentle humor, his love of music, and even his willingness to let her take him down during morning Karate practices. Hah! Love this. Unexpectedly, her long-dead emotions come alive again.

However, fear is an emotion, too. Mmm, I don't know if everyone will agree, but for me this is a tasty little twist.

Unaware of the sensitive waters he navigates, Braedon makes his move. It sucks I'm not sure this is the voice you want, unless the book is written that way. How old is Lyn? when it happens to be on the anniversary she came to forget. Came to forget, or ached to forget? I think you could stand to use some stronger wording for things like this. He doesn’t ask for much, just a chance, and part of her wants to give it to him. But Lyn's painful memories are too powerful, and she won't trust another fairytale. I like this, it really reveals the tender position her heart is in, while wording her inability to trust, in a clear, but stylistic way.

Later in the cruise the estranged pair finds themselves on the same snorkeling excursion. Awkward enough, but then paradise turns to piracy when their party is kidnapped. Lyn must overcome her fears to fight alongside the man she rejected, first for their freedom and then their survival while lost at sea. This whole last paragraph is awesome. I don't read much romance, so up until this graph I was kind of ... this query is good, but the book probably wouldn't be for me. But then you hit me with this twist, and tied it to the foreshadowing (yes, a query can foreshadow, for a few seconds). I think this conclusion really sums up the final conflict and the choice Lyn must make quite well.

And fate isn’t finished yet. I'm not sure you need this, though. You already just finished with a bang, and this is vague, a bit cliche, and just weakens the punch you just gave.

A CHANGE OF PLANS is a clean adventure romance at 96,000 words. I currently serve on the Board of the League of Utah Writers’ Utah Valley Chapter and am the Social Director for the iWriteNetwork. [Here is where I’d put the personalized information about the specific agent.] I know there's ongoing debate about this, but I put personalization at the end when I query, too. Now, I want to talk about genre. Personally, I would drop the clean, and call this a romantic adventure, or adventure-romance. I'm no expert on this, but my understanding is that romance is clean by definition, and if there is explicit sex, it's erotica. I'm not sure, but my friend Tawna Fenske will know, so I'll ask her to stop by.

So, in summary, I think you've got a good query on your hands. The structure is nearly perfect, you open, introduce us to the characters, set up the internal conflict, and the choice that goes with it, then escalate to the external conflict. Character. Conflict. Choice. That's exactly how it should be. What I want to see changed is your opening hook, and better introduction to the character behind your characters, if that makes any sense.

That's it!

What do the rest of you think? How could Donna open with a stronger hook, add more characterization, and still keep the nice backstory set up without using too many words?

Does anyone who read or write romance know if I'm right in my assumption? Does anyone have any other suggestions?

38 comments:

Richard said...

I definitely didn't like "And fate isn't finished yet." It almost makes it sound as if your query letter isn't finished yet.

"And what fate provides is Braedon" is very weak. I would say something like, "And what fate provides is a man who upsets her plans...or, upsets her balance...or reignites her fire, anything that gives an idea of what's going to happen and who he is.

I know it's being picky, but "His interest in people, his gentle humor, his love of music, and even his willingness to let her take him down during morning Karate practices," is not a sentence.

In general it's a good query letter, one that piques my interest.

Angela Brown said...

The points Matt highlighted are very helpful, particularly the removal of the cliche "fate" sentence. This line took a way from the powerful paragraph before it.

I would also agree that you can remove the word "clean" since you probably haven't written an erotica or romantica-styled novel.

Overall impression: I like :-)

Donna K. Weaver said...

Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to do this! So much already to think about. Can't wait to see what others have to say

For clarification, there is also a genre called erotic romance which is not as graphic as erotica. I'm guessing most of the bodice rippers on the grocery store shelves are erotic romance.

So, romance is not by definition "clean". Clean means the reader isn't going to see any sex scenes. Another term used is "sweet" but with kidnapping by pirates and people dying didn't seem a good description for this particular story.

Jessica Silva said...

I'm not a romance reader and I don't know much about selling romance to an agent, but I think this query really worked as-is. I would lose the last line, and the "fear is an emotion" line confused me. I was a little confused by "makes his move" right after that line--my mind immediately went to "...vampire?" So perhaps a little clarification there could go a long way :) but for me, this was good!

maine character said...

About all I can add is "karate" is lower case unless used in a title.

And I love adventures at sea.

Joanne said...

I like the hook with the kidnapping/piracy, Donna. It's a nice twist in the plot that I didn't see coming, and so really piques my interest!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Erotica has very specific guidelines as to what defines it. Sex is there as part of the character growth. There are a lot of romances with sex in them (some of it's fairly graphic and some isn't). However, the sex scenes aren't there as part of the story goal. They are there as part of the romance. Erotica is more complex than most people realize.

The point is, it's okay for Donna to say it's 'clean'. It just means there are no sex scenes, or the sex scenes are implied.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Love the query, btw. Especially the pirate twist. :D

farawayeyes said...

Donna and Matt: Thank you for the opportunity to learn. Characterization is my weak spot also. It's hard to fit everything in and keep the query to one page.

I too love the line "Fear is an emotion too", and thought the line "And fate isn't finished yet" a little confusing.

I want to read it and I will.

Bryan Russell said...

I like this query. A few tweaks and it should be on its way. Adn while I agree with Donna there's a wide range of erotic content in romance novels (there are whole lines, for instance, in Harlequin that are sorted according to this criteria), I'm still not keen on the use of the descriptive "clean" here. Is it really needed at this point? I don't think it will help an agent/editor read the first few pages, or even ask for further pages. I think they'll get the feel from reading the book, if it gets that far, and the information is more relevant to marketing down the line (with the exception being if the agent only handles "clean" romance, and you want to specify that to avoid confusion).

As for little details, I also found the "make-believe world" confusing, and I concur with the others about the "fate" line at the end.

Also, it should probably be "...drawn to him: his interest in..."

You could easily cut "again" after "come alive" (as it is already implied, and the sentence flows better without it).

I love the phrase "paradise turns to piracy," but the problem is that you just stated it wasn't paradise, and that in fact it was a very awkward situation. More of a bad to worse scenario than a paradise to piracy scenario.

If you have "for their freedom," you should probably have "for their survival" (parallel construction).

Also, it should probably be "of 96,000 words" rather than "at 96,000 words."

And maybe (to chop that big name into more manageable pieces) something like: I am currently a member of the League of Utah Writers, serving on the Board of the Utah Valley Chapter, as well as the Social Director for the iWriteNetwork.

Anyway, those are the nitpicks. What I love about this query is how it progresses, and how the stakes increase.

Starts out with a woman who is both mourning and angry. Enter guy, enter further complications. More problems are made. And then enter piracy and kidnapping. I like how it builds, the reader is pulled forward. You get a sense of the story, which is too often missing in stories.

Good luck!

Bryan Russell said...

Missing in queries, I mean. Must've put on the wrong head this morning.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

yeah, a clearer, stronger beginning and I think she has it!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Donna does a terrific job telling what the story is about without giving away too many details. Just enough to pique the interest. I have nothing new to add. The original critique and other comments covered it all quite nicely.

Pat Hatt said...

Great query and critque. I also think it was covered well and just a few more points character wise at the start are needed.

Elena Solodow said...

I agree with Matt that I wasn't exactly hooked until the last paragraph with the kidnapping - that's the information that makes this totally unique. Romance definitely isn't my genre, so it's impressive that you can create an interest with that paragraph alone. I think if you spiced up the opening paragraphs, as Matt suggested, it will really make this shine. I've found that unique details always add flavor to a query, so work on avoiding the cliches and adding specifics from the book in. You'll be all set.

JeffO said...

Overall good query, Donna. A very interesting story, and love the pirate twist. A couple of things jump out to me:

There are a couple of spots where I thought there might be too much distance. Phrases like 'the fact that', 'finds herself' distance me a bit from the story.

I do agree, you might want to provide a bit more information about Braedon right up front. "What fate provides is Breadon, a super-cool guy blah blah blah."

I didn't have a problem with the ship's make-believe world. I kind of liked that. A cruise is an escape from reality, and that's what Lyn is using it for.

Love the use of the water metaphor in para 4, fits brilliantly with the setting. Also agree, no to 'sucks'. It just doesn't sound right at all.

'Later in the cruise' just doesn't sound right to me, either, but I don't have a suggestion.

Good, solid effort, Donna. You've got a good foundation to build on.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

This is one of the better queries I've read in a while - well done Donna!

Where there is so much debate about the clean, I wonder if you could leave it out and then *when* you get your agent, the two of you can debate whether it is a necessary adjective. I think adding it now may limit your response, with people thinking it is targeting a very narrow market.

Angela Cothran said...

I loved it too Donna. When are you going to let me read it :)

Christina Lee said...

Pirates--arg, ahoy mateys (yeah, I'm lame)! :-)

This sounds like a GREAT premise and I like the fear being an emotion bit but feel like I want to make that sentence more catchy, like, "And even her long buried fears rear their ugly head" (or something, I don't know).

Good luck!

Tara Tyler said...

great crit! i agree and am taking notes to work on mine! and Donna, sounds like a fun romantic adventure =)

Old Kitty said...

Yay a normal blogpost not in the deja vu blogfest! LOL! I'm kidding! LOL!

Ya know - the first sentence grabbed me instantly and I love the idea of going off by oneself on a cruise! And the idea of then being caught up in an adventure with unpronouncable Braedon (well for me - I'm reading Brendon!!).

Yay!! Good luck Donna - this looks good! As for the query letter - Mr Matthew says it all! :-)

Take care
x

Michael G-G said...

Matt MacNish does it again, even with a wonky laptop!

This query is very cleanly written, and I thought the final paragraph was brill.

I agree with Matt about some character insight upfront.

And I thought the line "It sucks when it happens to be on the anniversary she came to forget," was the only weak link. "Sucks" seemed not to fit the query's tone, and "came to forget" is a little awkward. "Wanted to forget?" instead.

By and large a great query, and I wish you best of success, Donna.

Beverly Diehl said...

I'm a romance reader & writer, so let me chime in here. "Clean" is the wrong terminology - you're thinking song lyrics, not romance. This flags to an agent/editor that perhaps you haven't done your homework re: familiarizing yourself with your genre.

Romance comes in sweet, spicy, erotic. Romance means it ends in a HEA (Happily Ever After) or a HFN (Happy For Now), whereas in erotica, there's smokin' hot sex scenes, but the characters may or may not end up together at the end.

Totally agree with Matthew that we need a smidge more to connect with Lyn in the beginning. Lyn, a twenty-five year old hairdresser; Lyn, a thirty-year old auto mechanic, needs a distraction from ...

Yes, people do go on solo cruises, but as Matthew states, unless the cruise is actually themed, make-believe isn't quite the right term. It's more of a temporary village/community (or so saith a friend of mine who frequently cruises solo). Agree with all the other points Matthew & others mentioned.

Sounds like a great premise though, I would totally read it. :-)

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

romance novels can definitely have explicit sex in them, so i think the "clean" is fine.
I feel like the first half of this query is spot on.
But after the fear line it loses me. I get confused and have to re-read things to understand what's going on.
Ok, wait, i re-read the whole thing and it makes sense to me now. I don't know, though, if that's because i had to re-read it to follow it, or if it was my fault for misunderstanding something the first time. So probably my crit is worthless at this point.
Though i think you could lose the "later in the cruise" bit, because it makes it sound like you're listing scenes in the novel, which is a query no-no. The paragraph holds up fine without it.
Good job and good luck!

Tawna Fenske said...

Matthew asked for my two cents on the genre thing, and I apologize for the quick drop-in. This may have already been covered by other people's comments....

The query sounds intriguing, and I like Matthew's suggestions.

I stumbled over "clean" because the word that followed immediately was "adventure." I couldn't figure out what the hell a clean adventure was, and figured it might be a clever way of saying the writing is crisp and tight or something like that.

There's a HUGE array of different heat levels that fall between "sweet romance" or "inspirational" and something like erotica or erotic romance, and I'm not sure it's necessary to categorize it at this stage. My books probably fall toward the steamier side of things, but would never be categorized as erotic romance or erotica, whereas one of my critique partners publishes books on the very, very tame end of the spectrum. I don't think either of us would feel a need to define the heat level at the query stage.

Let your story speak for itself, and know it's pretty likely you'd be asked to tweak the heat (that sounds like a great porn title) anyway. My editor has made substantial changes to my heat level in all three of my contracted romantic comedies....it's just the way things roll.

Unless you're writing inspirational or erotica, I'd leave off descriptors like "clean" at this stage. Just let the story pique someone's interest, and worry about the rest later.

Tawna

Elana Johnson said...

Lyn needs something to distract her from the fact that her dead fiancé turned out to be a cheating scumbag. (If you’re looking for a new hook/beginning, you might go with “With the anniversary of her fiancé’s death looming, Lyn needs a distraction—especially because his mistress attended the funeral and she just can’t get the fact that he cheated on her out of her head.” Okay, maybe that sucks, but it could be a start?) To get out of town, she plans is a vacation diversion: an uncomplicated, unromantic cruise. (I don’t mind her going on the cruise alone, but maybe she plans to go with a sister or friend and that person has to cancel. Maybe?) What fate provides is Braedon.

Against the backdrop of the ship’s make-believe world, Lyn finds herself drawn to him. His interest in people, his gentle humor, his love of music, and even his willingness to let her take him down during morning Karate practices. Unexpectedly, her long-dead (long-dead? This part struck me. How long has it been since the death of the scumbag fiancé? For some reason, I thought it was more recent than “long-dead.”) emotions come alive again.

However, fear is an emotion, too.

Elana Johnson said...

Unaware of the sensitive waters he navigates, Braedon makes his move. It sucks when it happens to be (I’d delete the “it sucks” part (I agree with Matt on the voice issues) and put an em-dash here. So it’ll read: “Unaware of the sensitive waters he navigates, Braedon makes his move—on the very anniversary Lyn came to forget.”) on the anniversary she came to forget. He doesn’t ask for much, just a chance, and part of her wants to give it to him. But Lyn's painful memories are too powerful, and she won't trust another fairytale.

Later in the cruise the estranged pair finds themselves on the same snorkeling excursion. Awkward enough, but then paradise turns to piracy when their party is kidnapped. Lyn must overcome her fears to fight alongside the man she rejected, first for their freedom and then their survival while lost at sea.

And fate isn’t finished yet. (Yeah, I’d axe this too. The query consequence is good without it.)

A CHANGE OF PLANS is a clean adventure romance at 96,000 words. I currently serve on the Board of the League of Utah Writers’ Utah Valley Chapter and am the Social Director for the iWriteNetwork. [Here is where I’d put the personalized information about the specific agent.] (Nice.)

Donna Hatch said...

I liked the query and agree with most of what's been said. I hate the term "suck" btw and cringe whenever I read it but definitely gives it more of a YA feel than adult.

With regards to "clean romance" this is a term used to state that there is no "on-screen" sex, either because it never happens or it's "off-screen" or vaguely implied. "Sweet" is often used interchangeably, but usually has less mayhem, murder, and piracy than clean. There are many degrees between clean and erotica--sensual, hot, and spicy come to mind, so the term clean is appropriate here.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Hi, Donna!

Others have addressed small issues of wording, so let me address a more global issue: structure. You have 3 paragraphs and an extra sentence describing Lyn's romantic history and her short-lived romance with Braedon on the cruise ship. You have only one paragraph describing the sudden, surprising events that throw them together again in an adventure for survival, but I'm guessing this makes up a substantial part of the novel, yes?

A couple readers mentioned they weren't hooked until that point. That's because it ought to come sooner.

I think you can sum up Lyn's motive for taking the cruise and her acquaintance with Braedon (followed by her hasty rejection of him)in one paragraph. Skip the make-believe backdrop and karate. She met a guy who liked her romantically and she blew him off in panic.

Then hit us with the snorkel trip gone awry. Spend more time with that paragraph, describing a bit more of their adventure. You can even take stuff deleted from the earlier paragraphs and put it here. (ex: Lyn may not have been ready to trust another fairy tale romance, but the tale has suddenly become more Grimm than fairy and if she doesn't trust someone there won't be a happily-after-ever for anyone.)

Okay, that was terrible, especially the pun. I couldn't help myself. :D

But I stand by the shift in emphasis. Less backstory, more of the situation that shoves your characters into life-changing events.

Donna K. Weaver said...

For clarification, the book's not about the pirate attack. It's an inciting event but meeting Braedon is the first inciting event. But everyone wants to make it about the pirates.

So it begs the question. Do I ditch the reference to the pirates if it makes the book's main theme seem something it's not?

Donea Lee said...

Hi Donna! Looks like you've got some fabulous advice here. Although - I did pick up that people seem to focus in on the pirates, the kidnapping, and that she's on the cruise alone. I know that she's not alone and that the pirates don't hang around for long.

A line or two about trying to survive on the island might not hurt. Also - you could switch up the line about her taking a uncomplicated vacation to add that her best friend talks her into going.

I agree about nixing "sucks" for voice and "clean" isn't needed. They'll get the sense of the type of romance it is when they start to read it.

I'm so glad you've hooked so many people here, though! Anyone else reading this - I've read it and Donna's story is wonderful!! :)

Donna K. Weaver said...

At Matt's suggestion for subsequent posters, the pirates don't show up until about page 72 and that event last 8 pages. The book has 3 parts and that happens toward the end of part 1.

As Donea mentions (thanks, by the way), they end up marooned on an island and have to survive there. That's part 2. Trite or not, the query was referencing some of this in the last line that so many people don't seem to like.

Jemi Fraser said...

I actually didn't mind the last line - it made me smile :)

I think the piracy line should stay - it works to add intrigue, but doesn't (to me anyway) imply the whole story is about it.

Good luck with it - sounds like a story I'd enjoy :)

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Wow-you got some great input here. I don't have anything new to add, except I heartily concur that we need to know more about your MC right away. Is she feisty? Demure? Re-evaluating career as well as personal life? I don't really get a sense of her until the karate detail--which is terrific, by the way.
I'm okay with the fate thing, because I've read plenty of romances, and part of the appeal of the genre is knowing that stuff like "fate" happens.
Pirates. Are. Awesome.
Thank you, and Matt, for sharing and helping us all along. Best wishes for the best holiday season ever.

Nancy Thompson said...

I agree with what Matthew said about giving Braedon a little more characterization in the first paragraph, and the make-believe part is probably not even necessary. I love the line about fear being an emotion, too. I worry that "make his move" sounds too predatory. And "sucks" definitely reads as unsophisticated. Lyn sounds more mature than that.

My only problem with the next paragraph is starting if off with "Later." It doesn’t feel nearly as eloquent as the rest of your query. But the twist and the choice are both delicious! BTW - I get why you put in that last line. I think you want the reader to know that, even after all the pirate drama, there’s more in store for Lyn…and Braedon! And I agree, you should drop the clean part from the genre classification.

I know how nervous you were about putting your query up, but I think you did a great job. I have a clear idea of what’s going on, who Lyn is and what her dilemma and choices are. But I do need a clearer picture of Braedon and maybe your setting if think it's necessary to include it. Overall, it just needs a tweak or two for clarity and consistency.

Lost_without_a_Map said...

I'm not into romance. I only have my pillow at nights; but, if you turn this into some erotica, you got me ;}

mshatch said...

I think Matt's suggestions were perfect. I'd definitely get rid of the suck, and end the query where he suggests. And I might write this part this way:

Unaware of the sensitive waters he navigates, Braedon makes his move - on the very anniversary Lyn was hoping to forget. (I stole a bit of Elana's) Liked the make-believe reference since cruises are kind of a fantasy place far removed from the real world and the paradise turned to piracy. And whatever happens within the romance, be it piracy, kidnapping, murder, or mystery, it's part of the romantic story and I've read my share of romances to know that all sort of adventures occur within the romance genre. So by all means, say pirates. savvy?

Pearson Report said...

Wow - there is some amazing advice and insight here!

Donna - sounds like you've got some pretty helpful folks here. I read your query, I certainly was pulled into its potential but cannot comment further...I'm just not experienced enough to do so. (I'm in the learning stage of queries)

Matt - this is a great site, I've added myself as a Follower in hopes to keep that learning curve going.

Cheers!

Jenny @ PEARSON REPORT