Friday, December 9, 2011

Elena Solodow's Current Query Critiqued

Here we are, back in business. Let's get right to work on Elena's query.

My feedback will be in red.

Here we go:

Don’t be careful what you wish for--let the Tenders do that!

I get what you're trying to do here, but I don't think you need this. It is kind of a clever line, but it has very little meaning to a reader at the beginning like this, and even later, when we understand what it means, it's unlikely someone would come back to it.

On the other hand, it's awesome to see you know how to represent an em-dash in a query letter. As much as I love the em-dash, it does not play well with others; others being the hundreds of potential email clients an agent might be using, which may or may not work well with rich text and advanced formatting. If you want an em-dash in your query, readers, do it like this, with two hyphens/normal dashes.

In the year 2018, the North is ruled by wish-granting humans called Tenders. This is a much better hook. It's got world building, voice, and a great potential for conflict, all in a few succinct words. Seventeen-year-old Ibsen I agree with other readers that this is an awesome name. If anyone doesn't know the playwright Henrik Ibsen, go look him up, he had one of the coolest beards ever known to man. Goodman lives in the South, a segregated country where faith is the priority and Tenders are abominations before God. I like this concept, and I think the idea makes for an excellent punch at the end of your opening paragraph, but I'm not sure the execution is as good as it could be. For example "faith is the priority" sounds a bit weak to me. If Tenders are abominations (awesome wording there, BTW) then I think you can use stronger language in the phrase that precedes it. I haven't read this novel, so I'm not sure what to suggest, but I'm sure you can come up with something more vivid. Also, segregated how? What are the cultural groups that are being separated and/or oppressed?

Ibsen struggles to care for his schizophrenic mother love this while his sister Abigail works can you be more specific? What does she do? Farm, hunt, steal, or have a normal type job? to keep food on the table. She’s the only one to reassure him that their mother’s illness won’t infect him, does Ibsen not know that mental illness is not contagious, or is that not true in the world of TENDER? until she you may want to change this pronoun or the one at the beginning of the sentence. It's not hard to puzzle out what you mean, but it's not immediately clear whether the mother or the sister disappears. disappears and leaves Ibsen to tend to his mother alone.

Abigail's trail leads to the land of the Tenders, making her a traitor in the eyes of the South. In the eyes of the culture of the South, or in the eyes of some kind of institution that is in power? I think you need to be a bit clearer about who the enemy is here. No one ventures across the border and returns, but Ibsen will lose his mother, home, and sanity you could just say "everything." if he doesn’t get his sister back. His only guide is a girl who might be lying to him more than helping. She knows her way around the North, and she knows even more about the Tenders – (em-dash, use a double hyphen here too) because she is one.This is awesome, but I want to know a little more about how he found this guide. Does Ibsen head out on foot, leaving his mother behind, and then just randomly run into this girl on the trail? Or did he know her already or something?

As far as her being a surprise Tender, that's just great. Rarely does a twist work that well in a query, without having to over-explain it.

To find Abigail and survive the North, Ibsen must deal with the demons he's been raised to fear. This is the Tenders, right? In their world, he gets more than his sister – (em-dash) far more than he wished for.

Okay. So this query is describing what is obviously an exciting premise for a story. I love the feel of the Civil War remix, and the idea that this near future America is not quite what it seems, but you're lacking some specificity here. I mean I sense that the conflict is Ibsen looking for his sister, with the help of his Tender friend (pun intended) and then worrying about being persecuted by ... someone. My biggest problem is that we have no idea who would be after him, or what they might do to him.

Are we talking about some kind of neo-racist xenophobes who are so terrified of the Tender's powers that they murder them on site? Or is there some kind of government in place that has laws against associating with them? It wouldn't take much, probably just a sentence or two, but if you could set up who the enemy is, the conflict and stakes in your story would make much more sense--and pack more punch.

TENDER is a young adult dystopian fantasy complete at 68,000 words.

So that's it.

What do you guys think? Did I miss anything? Get anything wrong? What would you like to see more (or less) of?


Stephanie Lorée said...

Great crit, Matt, and great query, Elena. I think one of the biggest things to be careful of is over-editing in this case, but I do think Matt is right and the enemy could be clearer. Also, the "she" pronoun comment.

Otherwise, I think it's good as is. It does its job to incite interest, and that's the main thing you're gunning for in a query.

Best of luck to Elena and thanks for looking this over, Matt!

farawayeyes said...

Wow, I'm learning so much reading these.

First, Elena. I thought it was a great query. You had me. Still do. I want to read this.

Second, Matt. Your insight into the few missing sentences that would make this an exceptional query are well...exceptional.

Thank you both. Still taking it all in.

Slamdunk said...

Very helpful Matthew--keep up the good work.

I like the overall pitch and the whole North and South concept stirs my interest--I am a history enthusiast.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Perfect critique of this query, Matthew. Agree about the first line. It's perfect for a tagline for a back cover synopsis though.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Matt nailed everything i wanted to say. My main issue was the beginning little hook, which i thought actually pulled me out of the query, because when i realized Ibsen lived in a place where Tenders are abominations, the beginning hook didn't make sense to me, because it was actually the opposite for Ibsen.
If you cut it, i think your query will be much stronger

Donna K. Weaver said...

Exciting storyline, Elena.

Great critique as always, Matt. As for the segregation comment--in conjunction with the God reference--I read that as meaning the segregated country in the South is for believers (as in religious). I thought with some of the political divisions in the country (red/blue states), this was a believable premise for the seceding South would secede again to protect their beliefs and religious rights.

The whole Tenders thing I find intriguing.

Elena Solodow said...

Thanks so much for the comments, Matt! You're awesome. I felt that the ending needed to be stronger too. Previous versions had the greater conflict in there, but it was a little too much info, so I'll see if I can find something in between....hmmm. And I think I will be cutting the first line out. You're right.

Thanks again!

Kristen said...

I am a little confused about what happened to Abigail--disappeared meaning she took off or was taken? And why finding her is the solution to all his problems.

That's what's not clear to me.

It's a very tempting premise, though, the Tenders. Love that.

Em-Musing said...

I think your critique is spot on. My only comment is that 2018 doesn't seem that far into the future. Also,I use the em-dash a lot. You can get your keyboard to make them in "Customizing Keyboard"

Now—and then em-dash
Now–and then en-dash

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, this story sounds great! I think Matt did a great job on the feedback. The only thing I would add is the paragraph that starts "Abigail" I felt confused that maybe PoV had changed (how would he know?) but I think if you changed the order of the first and second sentence, that solves the problem.

Ashley Elston said...

I agree you need to clarify why the sister is gone. If she left on her own, why does Ibsen feel the need to leave the mom and risk everything to find her. Needs to have a sense of urgency to make taking that risk realistic. If she was taken, the search for her would make a little more sense.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great crit for an intriguing story line. Good luck with it, Elana! :)

Angela Brown said...

Great query and the crit you offered, Matt, should tighten it, clarify a few things and strengthen it to nab that agent MS request.

Michael G-G said...

I like this query A LOT. Except for the over-cutesy first line.

The lack of an antagonist, beyond that of the greater society, didn't bother me on first reading, but I do see Matt's point. I also wanted to know some little things: Is Abigail older than Ibsen? (I presume so.)In what way is the South segregated? But these are minor questions, and certainly didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of reading this query.

Are you going to include a bio? I always enjoy some little snippet about the writer.

Finally, any book with an MC called Ibsen is totally groovy, in my opinion.

Best of luck!

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

Okay...when Matthew says "I get what you're trying to do here" on the first sentence/hook that you use, take his advice with a grain of salt. It is going to work for some people...and by that, I mean work really well. But how are you going to know which people are going to like this? Matthew's advice is good because he's playing it safe. This is where I struggle...playing it safe to get the broadest appeal may net you an agent. But it may also make you not stand out at all. So my advice on the opening line is to figure out if you want to play it safe, or if you want to take a risk, and go from there.

I don't know if we need all the world-building in a query. It shows originality, but the story is about Ibsen and not about the Tender background. It's only important in realizing that Ibsen is a surprise Tender.

Matt's crit is great.

Nancy Thompson said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I agree that the first line does nothing for the query, so it should be dropped.

I'm concerned that 2018 is only a few years away, and with the turtle-pace of the publishing industry, I wouldn't want your book to be outdated before it was even published. For the rest of that line, maybe you could say the North is ruled by Tenders, then explain why they grant wishes and to whom. In the next sentence, you say the South is segregated which implies that the North is not. Why is only the South segregated? Or do you mean the South is segregated from the North? I'd clarify that because it's the conflict between these two entities that propels the story, so we need to understand it better.

The part about his mother's illness not infecting him is vague. Schizophrenia has a strong genetic component in the human race, so Ibsen has every right to be concerned on that level. You also should explain how or why Abigail disappears, if it's of her own free will, or otherwise, or at least why Ibsen believes she disappeared.

So obviously Ibsen follows Abigail, but who is tending to his mother while he's gone? A few choice words in a clause can clarify that. When you refer to the fact that no one returns to the South, is that because of something that happens in the North, or because they're no longer welcome in the South? And why would he lose everything by not getting Abigail back? And if no one ever returns from the North, how can he hope to get back to his mother? I'd also like to know where Ibsen meets his guide, in the South or in the North. If she is a large component, you should name her.

What is it about the North that Ibsen must survive? You haven't alluded to how they truly threaten those in the South, or even how the Tenders feel about those in the South. And lastly, my concern with the last line ("far more than he wished for") is that it's a bit vague. I get that you want to make the reader curious, but I think it should be a tad more specific, because at this point, I have no idea what exactly it is Ibsen fears from the Tenders.

I think this query just needs a bit more focus. Right now, I have far more questions than answers, and you don't want the reader tossing your query due to confusion. Overall, the story sounds fascinating, but it needs tightening and more specificity. Otherwise, the agent might assume these same problems exist in your manuscript.

I know personally how difficult it is to put your query out there, but it should definitely help you hone in on those ares that need attention. Good luck, Elana!

Christina Lee said...

I have nothing to add because your critique is spot-on. More detail will make it shine!

Old Kitty said...

I just want to know why the South don't have a name as scrummy as The Tenders who live up north! :-)

Then again there is Ibsen and Abigail - scrummy names but then the Girl Who Helps Ibsen has no name except she is a Tender!

Good luck with your query Elana - I like the mystery of Abigail's absence and the dystopian nature of the story! Take care

Sub-Radar-Mike said...

Solid advice, this almost makes me want to write a query of my own.

Johanna Garth said...

Great advice and I concur with the rest of the group. I'd drop the first sentence.

Jessica Silva said...

I think this query definitely works as-is, although Matt's right about the query lacking a real antagonistic entity. It COULD be the girl, but it could also be the South/the society he lives in at large. Since it's dystopian, I'd like to think it's the society. (Also, Elena, is there a reason you chose not to put this in Ibsen's accent? I think it could be cool, and it'd set up a lot of expectations for the writing of your story itself.)

I think the query could be a little restructured to focus on the catalyst more in the second paragraph (his sister disappears and he HAS to get her back. Perhaps clarification that he's scared for her safety?) and the obstacles in the third (no one's come back from the North, but he meets the girl. But she's a Tender!). If the South is supposed to be the antagonist here, then I'd perhaps slide in a last line about how the South will/won't receive them when he returns.

One problem I see, though, is that if the South views Abigail as a traitor, how will she ever be welcomed back into society? Even if he gets her back, wouldn't they just put her in jail and/or kill her? Moreover, since he's going to the North as well, that leaves his mother alone. So if the South persecutes traitors who come back, then both Abigail and Ibsen wouldn't be able to return without being persecuted. Essentially, the mother is alone no matter what. What makes him think he can take a little jaunt up North and be able to come back down WITH Abigail, who's already seen as a traitor?

And last, I don't think 2018 is a big deal. As far as I know, this feels like an alternate history set in the future type story, but maybe I'm wrong. The date could very well be 2010, and I don't think it would matter? The "fantasy" part of the genre reveals that this isn't necessarily *our* world.

Elena Solodow said...

Thanks for your comments everyone! They're all amazing.

Jess- I did try a version with Ibsen's voice, but it was just too short a space to get used to and came off as a gimmick. It would have been cool to do, but I just couldn't manage it. Every version with a normal voice came out better.

Angela Ackerman said...

I just wanted to say I really liked the query. Sounds a bit dystopian, but also fantasy. Nice blend.

My only additional comment is I feel like this bit here: be lying to him more than helping I'd like to see a bit more about this character. To me this is a good draw, so just something that implies a bit more of her personality or how they know each other...not sure. Love that she's a tender, but feel like a single adjective or descriptor here could give us more mileage than Lying more than helping.

Great query tho, and great advice, Matt!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Hi, Elena! I think most of my points were already covered in previous comments, but here they are again in case you're keeping tally.

1. I stumbled over the opening line. Normally you say, "Be careful what you wish for" but here you give us the negative "Don't be careful what you wish for." I *think* you mean "There's no need to be careful what you wish for because the Tenders will decide what wishes are right for you." Still, dropping it entirely might be a good option.

2. The year 2018 is a little too close. I think you could just remove the year from the query and say "In the not-too-distant future" or something like that.

3. I was thrown by the phrase "Abigail's trail" because at first I thought you had switched POV's to Abigail and were describing her route. Maybe that's just me, but you could get around it by saying "Ibsen follows his sister's trail" or something like that.

4. The mention of demons also stands out, because I think you're talking about Tenders but I'm not sure. Maybe change to "deal with the Tenders he's been taught to fear as demons" or something like that?

Overall, I think you need to work on a little more specificity to hone the conflict for us. These queries are so hard to write -- and heaven knows I sent out plenty of lousy ones before I finally hit on the right presentation, the one that got me requests. (Obviously I should have come to Matt for help, but I didn't know about QQQE back then!)

Good luck!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I really like this query though I agree with Matt's comments. The main thing I wanted to know more about was his guide and his relationship to her.

And Matt, I was going to ask the right way to do em-dashes. Thanks for answering it before I asked.

mshatch said...

excellent crit as always, Matt.

maine character said...

Here's my notes from yesterday:

Only two lines bothered me – the first one, which might be cut, and the second to last one, which read kind of awkward. Maybe “In their world, he finds not only his sister, but far more than he wished for.”

After that, everything's great. I'd just like to know more about what happens after he gets to the North.

So yeah, glad to see Matt thought the same, and I agree with the rest of his and everyone's comments, too. Good work!

Donna Hole said...

Elena; I have to agree with a lot of Matt's crits here. I'm intrigued by the "quest" aspect, and the obstacles stacked against Isben in the search for his sister; but I'm not happy with the fact that he would abandon his mentally ill mother in order to seek his sister.

I'm needing just a bit more intrigue in the desertion of the sister, and his decision that finding Abigale is more important than looking after a disabled mother.

I guess what I'm looking for in the query is the "precipitating event" that causes Isben's sister, and then Isben, to abandon their familial obligation. Who/what drove the from their comfort zone.

Both siblings seem dediticated to their home and community; all the way until they each desert their posts. I need a valid reason for the adventure, not just the telling of the adventure.

I also need to know Isben's personal motivation for 1) seeking his sister; and 2) following a woman (the suspected Tender) he obviously distrusts.

I like how you've built an intimate relationship between Isben and his sister, and the community ties to the village. I'm getting the sense that this is a multi-POV novel; and I'm seeing both Abigale and Isben as MC. If so, I'd like to see Abigale's perspective in the first paragraph, and what compelled her to leave her comfortable life; and then Isben's perspective as he tries to understand the changes in his life, and how he goes about adjusting.

It just feels like a two perspective story to me. While I get that Isben is THE most important character, I don't see his search for his sister the ONLY intriguing aspect of this novel.

Well done in capturing my interest in this novel. I am captivated by the characters that have been introduced, and the concept of "Tenders". I think the story plot shines through expertly in this query.


JeffO said...

Elena, kudos to you for putting yourself out here for critique. It's a brave thing to do. Second, I think you've got a really interesting story going here. But, there are some issues.

I do agree with just about everyone about the first line. For me, the problem is that it doesn't really seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the query. Also, I think the story is about Ibsen, not the Tenders. Opening with that line shifts the focus to the wrong place, I think.

I agree with a lot of what Nancy said with regards to Ibsen and his mother. He's her primary caregiver, but he seems to drop everything - including mom -to go chase after his sister. Obviously, Abigail is important to him (for several reasons, which you state quite well), but it feels funny for him to just take off like that. I'm sure in the story you address who he leaves Mom with, and it may be unnecessary detail for a query, but it feels like a big hole to me.

Nice twist on his guide being a Tender. I like that.

One phrase late in the query: 'Ibsen must deal with the demons'. Deal with how? Bargain? Lay a beating on them? It's a vague phrase. It might be better saying something like 'come face-to-face with the creatures/beings/whatever that he's been taught to fear his entire life' or something like that.

I do see what looks like a great story in here, Elena. Thanks for sharing.

Talli Roland said...

I don't know - I quite like the first lines. I think it does a good job at hooking the reader in straight away. But that's just me! I think it's a fab concept and a strong query, and with Matt's suggestions it's going to be even stronger.

Nancy said...

nice query, sounds like a great story. Nothing new here but you know what they say about several people saying the same thing. The year threw me from my first read. As did the Schizophrenia thing. If they don't know much about it you might want to mention just that mom is hearing voices or whatever her symptoms are. If they do, then like the other Nancy mentioned, both he and his sister have an increased chance of developing it. Matt had some great suggestions. Good luck.

Anita said...

You make me want to write a query!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Oh, very cool concept. I can see where this is leading. Excellent suggestions for tightening the query, Matt. I think the main issue is to get some basic concepts of the world straightened out because it is so different from our current world (which does beg the question of possibility with it being so near-future, but I'm not sure how it's explained in the novel). Lots of great potential in this.

alexia said...

Elena, this sounds super unique and awesome! Love it! I agree with Matt that I like the second line better as the hook. It's a pretty fantastic sentence.

Thanks, Matt, as usual!