Friday, February 17, 2012

Amber Mauldin's Current Query Critiqued

Welcome to Friday, people. I hope you're all as glad as I am that it's finally here. In quick news, I just want to suggest you check out The Secret World of Arriety. Miyazaki did not direct this one, but he did pen the screenplay, and like all Studio Ghibli releases, it looks like an instant classic for the family. Any movie that young kids will enjoy and doesn't bore me to death is a winner, if you ask me.

Anyway, today is about Amber's query. This is the hard but good part. As usual, my thoughts will be in red.

Let's do work:

Dear (Agent),

It's hard enough being a lanky, seventeen(-)year(-)old boy who sparks lightning from his palms anytime he gets upset, but when Gabriyel’s parents are murdered and his best friend Rhet is kidnapped all in one tragic night, an unruly band of misfits might be his only chance at saving him. Gabriyel must learn to harness his supernatural abilities in order to fight alongside an alliance of gifted individuals. The only problem is, he can't seem to stop fighting against them.

Okay. This is one of the better openings I've seen when it comes to getting a good sense of character into your hook, but some things are missing. For one thing, in a YA novel, it's almost always key to make the protagonist's age known ASAP. A 14-year-old can still star in a YA story, but it makes for a very different tale than one about a 17-year-old.

On top of that, I would consider your sentence structure. Your first sentence, consisting of three long clauses, is 51 words long. There's nothing wrong with long sentences, but there's a time and a place for them, and I would argue that the opening of a query letter is not it. Give your hook power by making it tight. Something like "16-year-old Gabriyel has always felt awkward in his lanky frame. It wouldn't be so bad if lighting didn't also uncontrollably spark from his hands every time he got upset." Obviously that's not great, and I'm sure you can do better, but the point is: try to limit your opening sentence to a strong but brief introduction of your character. The way you have it now, the second clause of the first sentence is your inciting incident, and the third clause looks to be rising action. You can wait a sentence or two to get to those things.

Finally, watch your pronouns and word choices. At the end of the first sentence, the him is a bit confusing. I mean, because it follows saving, it's not hard to puzzle out who you mean, but I had to read it twice to make sure, probably because the sentence is so long.

Awaking in a hospital from a brutal beating that left him unconscious for a day, cut, Gabriyel finds his world shattered. His parents have been murdered by the men that put him there, and his best friend Rhet is now missing, taken by the same men- try to avoid em-dashes in query letters, if you do use one, put two regular dashes in a row--a man named Samael and his legion of followers.

Most of this is a repeat of what you've already told us. Clearly there are some important new details, like Samael, and the fact that his men that put Gabe in the hospital are the same ones that murdered his parents, but the way this is written makes the first paragraph seem frivolous.  Either figure out a way to incorporate this information into your opening paragraph, or don't mention it until this one.

He excepts accepts the help of a dwarf(-)sized I would actually cut the sized, though. Just call her Dwarfish. woman(,) who is more than she appears, and she cut takes him into hiding. There he begins training for combat with an unruly group of supernaturally gifted teens who want to put an end to Samael's evil reign. This is the proper place for this rising action, I think. There's no need to mention this stuff in the opening paragraph. Feeling lost, alone, and angry at the world, Gabriyel must learn to control his temper and put aside his less-than-fond opinion of the group, in order to save Rhet. He needs their help. And soon he discovers there is more that binds him to this band of questionable heroes than the common enemy they share. This is a pretty good summary, and a decent sense of conflict, both internal and external, but I think you might add one more sentence, just to make it clear that they all go after Rhet together (assuming that's what they do).

Impenetrable, Working titles of unpublished manuscripts should be CAPITALIZED in a query letter. is a YA epic I would cut the epic. At 60,000 words it's not likely that epic. fantasy with Christian roots woven through the plot. I would not mention the Christian roots at this point. Not because Christian literature doesn't sell well--it does--but because the potential for alienating some agents is there. Get them to read your full, and make an offer of author representation, and then you can bring up the Christian symbolism, and that might guide your agent in what editors they want to submit to. Complete at 60,000 words, this novel, puts a unique spin on the classic story of the 40 days of temptation Christ suffered, but written from the POV of a hot headed disciple. You do need to mention your word count, but I would cut the rest of this. Again, discuss is on the phone with your agent. Based on your interest in (put my heavily researched information about books they represent, and what they are looking for) I believe this story is the right fit for you. Thank you for your time.

Okay, to summarize: you've got the beginnings of a good query here. Your character is pretty strong, and you've set him up for some great conflict, internal and external, and you only need to make a few changes before the strength of your story comes across clearly in your query.

My biggest problem is the repetition of ideas. A query needs to be succinct, and get to the point quickly. You don't have room to bring things up twice. Other than that, and a few other minor changes, I think you'd be well on your way to a great query if you can rearrange the opening, and remove the repetition.

Amber Mauldin

That's it.

Thanks so much for sharing your query with us, Amber. If this is your first one, I'm pretty impressed, because it's really a great start.

What do you guys think? Surely you can write a better first sentence or two than mine. Anything I missed? Anything you disagree with? Please let Amber know your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: I totally missed the fact that Gabe's age is clearly there in the opening. I can't believe I missed that. I must have been really tired. Good work putting that in, Amber, but make sure to hyphenate it. I could just edit my mistake out, but I'm not going to. It gives this critique character.


JeffO said...

I agree with you, Matthew. This opened really well but that first sentence bogged down, and the repetition in paragraph one and two, slowed things down for me a bit. I read para 2 and wondered why I was reading the same thing again.

I think the concept is great. I'm not much for Christian fiction myself, but the concept - a spin on the 40-day temptation of Christ told from the POV of a hot-headed disciple - intrigues me. That, to me, is a great pitch line. I don't think it will take too much work to get this query into good shape, it's really a matter of cutting and a little bit of tightening up.

BTW, Matthew, your blog keeps disappearing from my feeder list. Are you trying to get rid of me?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent suggestions. Shorter sentences will help.btook me a while to figure that out.

LTM said...

shew! I agree w/you, Matt. If this is Amber's first query, it's a great start!

You missed in the open, she does have the age of the protag (17?)--am I misreading? Anyway, what if she just drops "lanky" and goes with "It's hard enough being a 17 yo boy who sparks..." and ends with "all in one night, he's stuck. An unruly band of gifted misfits might be his only chance at saving Rhet, but Gabe can't seem to stop fighting against them. (new 'graph)

He must learn to harness his supernatural abilities and fight alongside them, but when he wakes up in a hospital after a brutal beating, his world is shattered. He accepts the help of a dwarfish woman..."

Heads up--FIX! "Except" means "all but," "Accept" means... well, to accept. *snort* :D

OK, I don't know if that open's better, but maybe less repetitive?

Good luck, Amber!!! :o)

Matthew MacNish said...

Wow. I must have been tired this morning. Gabe's age is clearly there, as LTM points out. Sorry, Amber!

Nicole Zoltack said...

I'm a fan of short, hookier openings so this is what I came up with:

It's hard enough being a lanky, seventeen-year-old boy who sparks lightning from his palms anytime he gets upset, but when Gabriyel’s parents are murdered and his best friend Rhet is kidnapped all in one tragic night, Gabriyel must learn to harness his supernatural abilities.

Jay Noel said...

I was going to say very similar things here - that first sentence is super duper long!

The query is a fantastic start.

I would say my only other red flag is the premise of the story (trying to read this from an agent's perspective). There's just been such a glut of books about teens with supernatural powers - especially where the main character has to train. Agents might be thinking, "Okay, here's yet another book about a kid who learns about his abilities, trains for a little bit, and becomes the biggest bada$$ and can kick everyone's butt."

I know this is supposed to just look at your query, but I hope I gave you something to think about when marketing your book. Just make sure your novel doesn't fall into tired, old formulas agents and publishers are sick of.

Example: I am Number Four. The main character is just learning to use his powers and really sucks at it. In fact, he needs the help of a fellow alien to save his skin against the bad guys.

Julie Musil said...

Nice query, Amber! I agree with Matt's opinion on the first paragraph. And I think the comma after "novel" in the third paragraph can be deleted, yes? No?

I actually like the idea of the novel being based on the 40 days of temptation. It makes it unique. I wonder if that could be kept in, but make it less biblical sounding? Maybe with the other references gone, that one would be ok? Just a thought.

Good luck!

Julie Musil said...

Sorry, I meant the comma after "novel" in the final paragraph... :/

Lori M. Lee said...

Love reading your thoughts.

That first sentence really is a mouthful, even though I LIKE what it's saying.

Bryan Russell said...

I agree wholeheartedly about the repetition. Every word in a query is precious, so spend them wisely!

Lots of great ideas and elements here, though.

Amber said...

Thank you everyone for the wonderful/ perfect suggestions!

First off I can't believe I missed the 'except'! I sooo should have caught that one myself.

Second...I was already thinking that first sentence was way too much. So it was great when it was brought up, you all helped me make up my mind. I will def. Brake that down.

Third...I totally hadn't noticed the repetition, so thank you for pointing that out.

Forth...@Jay- I really appreciate your advice. Queries are hard because I didn't want to boggle it down with all of the details, but my story is about all of the disciples coming together to form an alliance (but they are each very unique with different powers and personalities, quirky, sassy, snarky, teens) And (I had no idea how or if this should be in the query) every few chapters I cut to Rhet, and write a chapter in his POV showing his struggles, trials and temptations. I never write in 2 POV when they are together - I write just from Gabe, but while Rhet is in prison I show clips of his struggles. So I do feel my story is unique, it's just a matter of getting this query to show that :)

Matt- you are a query genius (even if you missed the age of my mc :) but I loved all of the red ink, and agreed with it all. Thank you everyone! Thanks Matt!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yep, definitely agree with matt. For me, the biggest obstacles were sentence length, and the repetitive second paragraph.

I'd also like more of a clear consequence. What happens if he fails? Will Rhet die? Presumably, but we don't know for sure because i'm a little unclear on the stakes. I don't really understand why the Samael killed his family and his friend, etc.

Also, i think the "Awaking" in the beginning of the 2nd paragraph should be "Awakening".

Wait. Nope. I'm wrong about that. Well sort of. I looked it up, just t be sure and it turns out that Awake and Awaken can be used interchangeably, so go with whichever you prefer.
The more you know!

Tricia said...

I agree with the others. I'll add that you might need a comparison title so agents get a better feel for it. This, to me, has a MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN feel to it.

Amber said...

Oh and some of you had mentioned about this being my first query. It is my second try at a query for this story (first try was more of a synopsis which my cp pointed out), but I had queried a couple of children pbs a few months back. So I'm new at the novel queries :)

mshatch said...

Matt made some excellent suggestions but I'm also going to agree with Julie about possibly mentioning that your story is based on the 40 days of temptation. You don't have to say it's a Christian novel. In fact, I agree with NOT saying it. Maybe something like this (but I'm sure you could do better, plus it's too long):

IMPENETRABLE is a YA fantasy that puts a unique spin on the classic story of the 40 days of temptation Christ suffered, but written from the POV of a hot headed disciple.

Good luck with this, Amber :)

Johanna Garth said...

I really liked this query! And I think I just learned that working titles need to go on all caps...see what I learn by reading this blog :) Thanks for the movie recommendation.

Scarlett said...

Hi, Amber! I agree with most everything Matt and everyone has suggested. I think you have an excellent start to this query! A little tweaking, and you're off!

If I were to point out one thing, not already suggested:

Re: "Feeling lost, alone, and angry at the world, Gabriyel..."

***Is it necessary to note that he's "feeling" these emotions? It feels wordy to me. Perhaps: "Alone and angry at the world, Gabriyel..."

Re: "Gabriyel must learn to control his temper and put aside his less-than-fond opinion of the group..."

***"...less-than-fond opinion" bothers me for two reasons. The hyphens here are distracting. And I think there may be a need for a stronger word choice. Perhaps: "Gabriyel must learn to control his temper and put aside his (loathing) OR (hostility) OR (contempt) of the group..."

And last...
Re: "...more that binds him to this band of questionable heroes than the common enemy they share."

***Word choice again with "questionable". Perhaps: "...this band of (unlikely) OR (unconvincing) heroes..."

I'm no query expert. Just offering my humble opinion. Best of luck to you!

farawayeyes said...

Once again words from the 'Master' make a good query better.

Good luck Amber, it sounds like a great story.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

She writes "It's hard enough being a lanky, seventeen-year-old boy who sparks lightning from his palms..." I would reduce this to 'It's hard enough being a 17-year-old boy..." and cut out the lanky and the lightning bit. I almost would move the details forward a bit.


Gabriyel already has it hard as a 17-year-old boy when tragedy strikes. His parents are murdered and his best friend is kidnapped. Now he must learn to harness his supernatural abilities...

Anyway...that's my two cents on the opening.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great suggestions Matt. I especially agree with shortening the sentences in the first paragraph and adding one last sentence to the hook at the end. But the story sounds great and we get a good sense of it, which is hard to do.

Huntress said...

Great crit. I go for simple nouns and verbs for strong sentences. Mostly short for drama.

Michael G-G said...

Amber, this is a good start, as Matt points out. If you cut out the repetition in the second paragraph, you will have a much stronger query.

I'm on the fence about making the connection between your novel and the temptation of Christ. I really like the "from the POV of a hot-headed disciple" line, which would be hard to give up, but I wonder if you wouldn't be turning off some potential agents?

All the best with this. I'll read it when it's pubbed.

Dawn Ius said...

Yes! Great suggestions. This query was pretty good to start, but my gut instinct was to vary sentence length and tighten it up.

Good luck with this one, Amber!

Marta Szemik said...

I agree that the first sentence is a bit too long, but the query is pretty good for a first start.
Shorter sentences are easier to process too, so I would work on that. It could also create more tension.
Great job!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Good analysis, Matt. Interesting story.

Susan Kane said...

Appreciated the comparisons, corrections. It was clear how much the original could be improved, esp. when you demonstrated it.


Amber said...

Thank you everyone. This has been so much help!

Nancy Thompson said...

Matt, you are so good at this! Perfect advice. Even so, the story that comes through the query sounds great. It shouldn't be too hard to pare it down & make it perfect.

Rusty Webb said...

Agreed with most everyone that the first sentence needs a bit of finessing, and there is some repetitiveness throughout, I think I saw the word 'unruly' used twice, which is probably one time too many.

With a few tweaks I'd think this is going to be pretty darn good though.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Hi there Amber,

Great query! Matt, I agree with pretty much everything you said.

I actually love the beginning, but agree that you don't have room for repetition. One way of addressing the long-opening-sentence problem might be to simply change the comma before "but" to a period and make it two sentences, but although that would be the quickest fix, it might not be the best fix.

And I agree about not mentioning the parts about it having Christian roots and being a spin on the 40 Days of Temptation story. I think if you're sending it to agents who rep Christian literature they'll pick up on it immediately, and if you're sending it to agents who don't typically rep it, they might be put off by the idea before they even read your pages.

Then again, this might be part of the personalisation you can do: mention it if the agent only reps Christian lit, don't mention it if they don't.

Good luck!