Friday, January 6, 2012

AIR PIRATES by Adam Heine

First off: sorry for the double post today. I scheduled myself into a corner, but both posts were too important to move. If you took the time to read (and comment on) both, then you rock. If not, that's okay, too.

Okay, guys. This is very exciting for me, because it takes us back to one of the coolest things I used to do on this blog. Sharing examples of successful query letters. I finally get to add another one to that list.

And this one is going to be very cool, because it comes from my good friend Adam Heine, who not only wrote an awesome book, but just recently landed his agent. So, if you've never read one of these before, it can get a little confusing. I like to do tag-team analysis, so here is how it works: Adam's query will be in plain text. Adam's analysis of why he thinks his letter might have worked, will be in blue. My random interjections, stupid jokes, and occasional tidbits of sage wisdom, will be in scabby-red (note that my blog design template turns hyperlinks into a more blood-red).

Okay, here goes...

Honestly, I don't actually KNOW why my query worked, but I guess it did (11 to 17% request rate, depending on how you count). I'll try to say why I did what I did. We'll see if that helps.

It does.

For Hagai's 17th birthday, he receives a stone from his mother that shows visions of the future. The thing is, Hagai thought his mother was killed ten years ago.

The Hook. It's hard to get everything critical in just a sentence or two. I think the trick is knowing what's NOT critical. Here, I wanted his age, the inciting event (the stone) and why it was inciting (the sender, his mother, is supposed to be dead). I'd cut "that shows visions of the future" too, except then he just gets a stone, which is somewhat less exciting.

I get the feeling Adam's just being humble here, which I completely respect, but I'll go a little deeper. The key, IMHO, to what he's done here, is how he conveys so much information in so few words. One way he achieves this is by combining Hagai's age with his birthday, which is masterful, if you ask me. Another is that he deftly weaves backstory into the same two sentences as his hook and inciting incident (which may or may not be the same thing, depending on your story and your query). The final thing, and this is not always that easy, depending on your character, is Hagai's name. Knowing Adam, and knowing his love for all things Asian (much like my own) I get a hint for the kind of world he's built, just from his MCs name. It's subtle, but it's there. This can be very important in some genres, like fantasy, or completely unnecessary, like in contemporary romance (assumption).

The bravest thing Hagai's ever done is put peppers in his stew (People seem to like this line. I guess this is what they call "voice." Fortunately for me, it's the same voice I use in the novel, so I didn't have to cut it.), It is voice, but it also characterizes our MC a bit, so again, Adam's killing two birds with one stone. but when the stone shows his mother alive and in danger, he sets out to find her (increased stakes and what Hagai does about it). Initial conflict. Air pirates are hunting the stone too, and it's not long before a young pirate named Sam nicks it. Hagai tracks Sam down and demands the stone back--politely, of course, because Sam's got a knife.

Here's where things got tricky. The book actually has two POVs: Hagai and Sam, but every attempt I made at writing a query that mentioned this, or that restarted the story from Sam's POV, didn't work. The best I could come up with was to make Sam the Second Character in the query and show his goals. The hard part was ignoring all of his backstory which, honestly, is like 2/5 of the novel.

I absolutely subscribe to Adam's method, here. I'm sure someone out there has done it, but I cannot personally recall reading a query told from more than one point of view (usually 3rd person) where I thought it worked. A query is not a synopsis, and it really only has one simple job: entice an agent to read some pages.

Oddly, Sam offers him a job. He needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer hiding among the monks (a couple world tidbits here), and he reckons Hagai is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees (see how quickly I came back to Hagai?), Yep, we do, and it's a point well taken. The novel is almost always going to be so broad and complex that there is no way to fit it all in a query letter. Just cover the key elements. intending to turn Sam in at the first opportunity. But when the seer says Sam is the key to finding his mother (increased stakes), Hagai chooses his mother's life over the law (what Hagai does about it). This is called choice. When I give query advice, I tell people to focus on the three Cs: Character, Conflict, and Choice. Who is the story about, what do they have to overcome, and what will happen if they can't (or choose not to)? Adam's covered all of them succinctly, and in an entertaining way.

Though Sam has the Imperial Navy and the world's most ruthless pirate on his keel (more stakes) and voice, Hagai joins Sam's crew (more Hagai doing), headed toward some godforsaken island he's never heard of (also this whole sentence gives a couple more world tidbits). He doesn't trust Sam, and the stone haunts Hagai with visions of his own death (more stakes? Honestly at this point I think I was just slapping stuff on). This also sets up some rules of how your world works, assuming the stone is some kind of magical artifact. Nonetheless, he's determined to change the future and find his mother, if it's not already too late (parting emotional shot). This also summarizes the conflict, stakes, and choice in one decent sentence.

AIR PIRATES is an 84,000-word YA steampunk adventure (genre, but not a very clear one), I like genre-bending, I do it myself. set in an alternate world (a phrase I felt necessary to use only because "steampunk" usually implies "19th Century Earth;" I still don't know if it was necessary). I think the clarity is there. I think it would appeal to readers of Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN trilogy (comparison; I usually don't do these at all because they're too much of a stretch, but after reading Leviathan, I felt like it was exactly the sort of thing I would write (if I was a genius). The wording is critical though: "I think it would appeal to readers of" rather than "my book is as awesome as"). At this point, with a query this good, I don't think the comparison was necessary, and I'm sure Adam's agent didn't use it in her decision whether or not to read pages, but this is a good example of how to handle it. My short story "Pawn's Gambit," set in the same world as AIR PIRATES, has appeared in BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES and THE BEST OF BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES, YEAR TWO anthology (professional credits; I'm lucky to have one, but for years I left this part blank, and that's okay too). Yep, it helps, but is not required. If you have no credits, just leave it blank.

So, just to try to summarize, if I can wrap my head around all this, I think the biggest strong point in Adam's query writing skills comes in his ability to combine ideas he needs to convey into single concepts. Like a sword with a soul-trap enchantment, it accomplishes two (or more) things at once. This is especially evident in his opening hook, but if you look closely, his query letter is full of examples of it.

He doesn't spend a lot of time going into detail about the conflict, and in fact we have very little idea about most of the plot, but it works just fine, because we know just what we need to know, and nothing more. Keep in mind that an agent will see the pages to get an idea of the writing, and will then go to the synopsis to find out what happens (plot).

What do you guys think? Can you make heads or tails of all this colored text? Does Adam's book sound as awesome to you as it does to me? Do you like Naruto? What about Avatar, the Last Airbender (no, not the film)?

NOTE: Adam is also going to be featured on Mother. Write. (Repeat.) today, chatting with his agent, Tricia, about how they hooked up (not like that). So you should definitely read that as well.

52 comments:

Adam Heine said...

Love your comments, Matt. You said everything I couldn't say (or in a couple cases, just forgot to). And I totally agree on the comparisons; even though some agents say they want them, I almost always left it out because it's so hard to do right (and less is more in a query).

And Naruto: so awesome. Last Airbender (series): tied in my head for the most awesome series ever.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

After reading this, I still have no idea how I conned my publisher into reading my manuscript!

DL Hammons said...

I really like the blend of comments. This helps me a lot! Congrats Adam...and well done Matt!! :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Adam's book is amazing, his writing is ninja stellar, and the query shows it. Done and done. :)

Wish it were always that simple, eh? So excited for Adam (still!) and can't wait to see Air Pirates on the shelves.

Christine Danek said...

Congrats to Adam. I had no problem reading the text. This is very helpful. Since I'm a visual person, the way you have shown this helps me see what he did. Wish it was that simple, but overall a great lesson. Thanks Matt and Adam.

Christina Lee said...

I think Adam is being humble too (which is why he's such a nice guy)---but this is GREAT and I wish him much success!

Nicole Ducleroir said...

I thought the query was fantastic, and thanks so much for both the blue and red comments. Very insightful! Congrats to Adam!!

Jen Daiker said...

First off - Congratulations Adam. That was an amazing query. I'm with everyone you spoke of, I loved the pepper line! That really did show a bit of personality and for a novel I wouldn't normally read, I'd now be more inclined to pick up a copy.

I love when you take the time to explain the thought process. It really does help others who try to make their query work. You give me the guts to go back and rework mine!

Thanks as always Matt for such a wonderful blog post!

JM Leotti said...

Love Adam's writing style, fantastic query! I will keep an eye out for his book, for sure! Wonderful comments as always, Matt. Extremely helpful post. Thanks guys!

Bryan Russell said...

Awesome. I should have known Adam would have a great query.


I was going to make a joke, but it was somewhat x-rated, and think of the children! The YA readers! Scars for life! Like watching a Kardashian!

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm going to add another comment here, just so you guys can see what Adam's query looks like without all the colored ink - er, pixels.

For Hagai's 17th birthday, he receives a stone from his mother that shows visions of the future. The thing is, Hagai thought his mother was killed ten years ago.

The bravest thing Hagai's ever done is put peppers in his stew, but when the stone shows his mother alive and in danger, he sets out to find her. Air pirates are hunting the stone too, and it's not long before a young pirate named Sam nicks it. Hagai tracks Sam down and demands the stone back--politely, of course, because Sam's got a knife.

Oddly, Sam offers him a job. He needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer hiding among the monks, and he reckons Hagai is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in at the first opportunity. But when the seer says Sam is the key to finding his mother, Hagai chooses his mother's life over the law.

Though Sam has the Imperial Navy and the world's most ruthless pirate on his keel, Hagai joins Sam's crew, headed toward some godforsaken island he's never heard of. He doesn't trust Sam, and the stone haunts Hagai with visions of his own death. Nonetheless, he's determined to change the future and find his mother, if it's not already too late .

AIR PIRATES is an 84,000-word YA steampunk adventure, set in an alternate world. I think it would appeal to readers of Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN trilogy. My short story "Pawn's Gambit," set in the same world as AIR PIRATES, has appeared in BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES and THE BEST OF BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES, YEAR TWO anthology.

Marta Szemik said...

That's a very good query. It's not surprising someone noticed it. I like the story as well. Definitely a book I would read. I'm for anything with adventure in it, even if it's for the younger generation (ie: Percy Jackson - though a little different genre).

Talli Roland said...

Great comments! I love how Adam's voice shines through in this without a lot of extraneous detail. A very strong query indeed.

Siv Maria said...

So much info in one post and all of it great. Left me wanting to read this and check out Adam :) Thanks Matt.

Slamdunk said...

Helpful exchange Matthew and Adam.

One common thread with these letters is the ability to provide lots of info that appeals with limited text. Well done Adam.

vic caswell (aspiring-x) said...

i'm so happy for adam!
thank you guys for breaking down his query for us!
((the last airbender is the BEST CARTOON SERIES EVER!!!))

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

great query!
I've also used leviathan as a comparison and i think my turn of phrase for my steampunk set in a different world was "contains aspects of naval steampunk".
Can't wait to read this book

Cynthia said...

Congrat's- Great Query. Such a learning experience. Thank you!

Lydia Kang said...

This is a pretty awesome query, thanks Matt and Adam!

Kristen Wixted said...

It's like a puzzle, writing a query. Your colorful blog post illustrates that really well. I think I would need to read it several more times to suck all the info out of it.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Very interesting and helpful Thank you.

Yvonne.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I love it when you showcase successful queries, Matt.

This is my favorite line: Hagai tracks Sam down and demands the stone back--politely, of course, because Sam's got a knife.

That says it all. :D

RachelMaryBean said...

Thanks for the post, Matt, these are so helpful.
Adam, congratulations of getting an agent! This query makes me want to read it. :)

Donna K. Weaver said...

All the colored text made perfect sense to me. I love seeing what's right and the explanations (from both of you) on why.

I definitely want to read the book.

Kelly Bryson said...

I was just over on Krista's Mother Write Repeat, and am so glad I came over to read this excellent query.

And I love Leviathan, also wish I was genius enough to have come up with it;)

Congrats Adam!

Lauren Alissa Hunter said...

This was so helpful. Seriously, I have looked at so many query related resources over the last few weeks and this is tops. I am so glad I found this site!

Julie Musil said...

I love, love, love how you guys broke down this great query. Thanks so much!

Patti said...

The different colors wasn't confusing at all. What a great query and I love how you both interjected your thoughts at different points.

farawayeyes said...

I'm in awe. So much information in so few words. Color coded explanations very helpful. I'm printing this one out as reference. Thanks Adam and Matt.

Myrna Foster said...

Adam introduced me to "The Last Airbender," for which my children will always be grateful.

It's a great query, and I love how both of your comments break it down. Very helpful. Thank you!

Jessica Silva said...

for some reason, this makes me want to sit down with my query and identify the exact reasons why I include every element and how I expect those elements to work in the query. or I guess I could try to send my query to you to critique here someday/when I'm not shy.

I like this query, even though it seemed a little long to me. but I'm also particularly drawn to 1) steampunk and 2) adventure and 3) LEVIATHAN so I don't see any reason why I wouldn't be drawn to this. good thing I already follow Adam's blog so I can be on top of publication news...

Angela Brown said...

This was extremely helpful. Getting a chance to see the breakdown of a successful query really helps to pinpoint ways of improving my own...which needs quite a bit of help to say the least.

As for Naruto? What? That's the #1 Knucklehead Ninja!. Better believe it, love it.

And TLA is the best series ever. Cartoon, yes, but just takes everything that makes a series lovable and ties it up in an artistically pleasing package. IMHO.

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Hooray for happy and inspiring things like this. Congratulations!

Carrie Monroe said...

This is great. Thank you for sharing this successful query and the comments. Very helpful.

Suzie F. said...

Terrific query, Adam. I'm sure it took a lot of time and hard work, but you made it sound effortless. You've boiled the novel down to the essential info and hooked us with voice and plot breadcrumbs that lead us to wanting more. Excellent! I can't wait to read it.

Brinda said...

This is a great feature because it reiterates the points I've heard over and over. Those are also the points we tend to forget once we get wrapped up in telling EVERY detail about a story when it's only supposed to tease. I liked seeing both his comments and yours.

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

That's a good query. I love reading these and seeing how successful authors achieved their dreams.

Elana Johnson said...

BRILLIANT query! Thanks for sharing it, and yes, I can't wait to read Adam's book!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Awesome query! I agree with Stina - the best line is: Hagai tracks Sam down and demands the stone back--politely, of course, because Sam's got a knife. lol

Damon said...

yeaaahh what a great thing you post,,always a great post =)follow

maine character said...

Excellent query, for all you both said, and especially the voice, like the bit with the knife and the use of the word "keel" for just the right detail.

Will definitely check this one out, as it seems to combine my love of the East and nautical stories.

And yeah, getting a stone that doesn’t tell the future would definitely be a less exciting opening. Charlie Brown: “I got a rock.”

Donna Hole said...

Nice to see a query that worked. Now, if I could only do that with my own :)

.......dhole

Rusty Webb said...

Again you perform a service for us all. Thanks a ton.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query. It's really helpful to see ones that have worked and why. Thanks for a great series.

A Beer for the Shower said...

Congrats to Adam. I hope his first agent is infinitely more productive than mine was. His book sounds groovy and I wish him all the luck in the world. Cheers!

D.G. Hudson said...

Thanks Matt and Adam for sharing this query letter. Good luck, Adam, with Air Pirates! I like the premise, and the plot.

Anytime there is a mother-child link, the ante is upped for the success of the book, IMO.

erica and christy said...

Congratulations, Adam! Thanks to both of you for this post. The query letter and both sets of comments was very helpful and clear. Pointing out the stakes and the choice, how the character chose to deal with the stakes helped me to pinpoint problems in my query. Christy

BragonDorn said...

We love double posts! Glad to read what you've got on your mind. :)

Susan Oloier said...

That was SO well done--by both of you. I don't usually like long posts (because I typically get interrrupted by my kids and lose my train of thought), but this was worth it! I can see why Adam landed an agent. Congrats to him.

mshatch said...

very, very cool. This sounds like an awesome story and great job by both parties showing how and why the query worked. Even better is that we will all soon get the opportunity to read the story :)

Chris Phillips said...

Congrats, Adam! Love learning from success.

Nancy Thompson said...

Wow, this was days ago! How did I miss Adam's query? I've been waiting and waiting! But the wait was worth it. Smashing query, and an insightful critique on how it worked. Thank you both!