Friday, February 24, 2012

Deniz Bevan's Current Query Critiqued

Happy Friday, QQQE Massive. Today we have Deniz's query again, this time with my thoughts, in red.

Here we go:

Dear [Agent],

Rosa becomes separated from her family as they flee their Spanish homeland – and the Inquisition. Now her one hope of reaching Constantinople, and reuniting with her family, lies with a stranger, Baha, an artist from the Ottoman Empire. As they travel together, Rosa's drive to find her loved ones is matched by a deepening desire for the man at her side.

At first glance, this looks awesome. I mean you've got such a unique setting, I would personally probably request pages on that alone. But with a closer inspection, you're missing some key elements. We can tell from the genre you share later that Rosa is probably an adult, but we really need to get a better sense of character in the query. We've got a lot of tough, exciting things happening to her, but we have no idea who she is.

I think we can safely assume her family is not Catholic, and is therefore fleeing the Inquisition because they would otherwise face persecution, but I'd like to get a better understanding of why they'd head to Constantinople. Was that not the seat of the Catholic church at the time? The home of the Pope? Or was that much earlier? Either way, it would help your plot make more sense if we understood why.

Finally, who is Baha and why is he the only person who can help her? I mean, sure, he sounds very cool, and I love the idea of an artist (what kind?) from another culture being able to help her flee, but it doesn't make sense to me how he comes out of left field or why he has the power to help her when no one else can. I'm sure it makes perfect sense in your novel, but here I'm left scratching my head a bit.

And I'm not going to mention the em-dash. You guys know by now how I feel about em-dashes in queries.

Her family refuses to accept this man of a different faith, I thought she was separated from her family, and the plot was going to be how she returned to them? It sounds like maybe the separation is only part of the story, but be careful about making that kind of leap in a query. but when janissaries I'm no expert, but I think Janissaries needs to be capitalized. arrest her father and brother, Rosa and Baha risk everything to rescue them. Together they will prove that their love can withstand their differences... if the Grand Vizier doesn't throw them both into the dungeons first.

The rest of this is pretty awesome. It's quick, and to the point, but it packs a nice punch, and it really sets up your world and your setting in just a few short sentences.

OUT OF THE WATER is complete at 115,000 words. I admire your client [Name] and found your website through [his/her] blog. Based on [xyz], you might find my 15th Century historical romance a good fit for your interests.

I'd say this is pretty good, especially if the author the agent represents is someone you know well through blogging or conferences.

I have lived and worked in Turkey, and my non-fiction work, including travel articles, book reviews and personal essays, has most recently appeared in the trilingual (English, French, and Turkish) newspaper Bizim Anadolu. Initial drafts of OUT OF THE WATER were revised through participation in author Barbara Rogan's invitation-only Next Level Workshop. I don't know anything about this workshop, but it sounds prestigious enough to mention, so I'm going to assume it is. The rest of this is top-notch. Even though you're not published when it comes to fiction, you clearly have unique experience that directly relates to your ability to tell this story.

Thank you for your consideration.


Deniz Bevan

So, to summarize, as many people pointed out yesterday, this premise is so interesting, and lush, and unique, I think your query would probably do pretty well as is. In order to make it even sharper, and reflect a bit better how awesome your story is, it needs to open with a better sense of Rosa's character, and then include logic for why Baha can save her, and then explain how they get to Constantinople to deal with her family.

Other than that, I think you're already in great shape.

That's it.

What do you all think?


DeniseCovey_L_Aussie said...

I admire Deniz' writing and love her query. Her novel sounds so interesting I'd want to buy it so I hope it gets published.

Great comments on the query letter. I've learned a lot by reading these and I know that is the objective.


Rusty Webb said...

I liked the query a lot. I didn't notice the shift of emphasis in the story until you pointed it out. Keen observation.

DL Hammons said...

I'm late to the party on this one...having missed it yesterday. I agree that the setting and premise are unique enough to picque my interest...but in this case the query seems a bit thin in some area's. But countering my own thought, I was interested enough with what was here, that maybe the letter has already served it purpose. Tough call.

Em-Musing said...

...and THAT's why you're so good. I didn't see the holes till you pointed them out.

Sarah said...

My first impression of this query yesterday was that the premise sounded rich and intriguing, but for all that, the query came across as somewhat dry. I think that if you add the details Matt suggests, it could flesh it out a bit (the advantage you have is that this initial draft is beautifully lean) and give it a voice and a soul without losing the conciseness. Also--genre? Did I miss that? Best of luck with this, Deniz!

maine character said...

Besides what Matt said, I’d cut the first two commas from the second sentence to cut those pauses and create a bit of momentum.

And for your publishing credit, you could shorten it a bit like this: ...and my non-fiction work has most recently appeared in the newspaper Bizim Anadolu.

The whole thing sounds really compelling, and you show you know what you're talking about. Good luck!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Yeah, add a spark of personality to the characters and it would be great. I really liked that it was short as well.

Melissa Bradley said...

This query does pack a lot of punch, but I do agree on the fleshing out of Baha's character more as well as clearing up the separation between Rosa and her family.

Good luck, Deniz!

Matthew MacNish said...

I should have mentioned this: Historical Romance should be capitalized. I think that's why Sarah missed the genre.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I agree...structurally, I think the opening paragraph is good. However, it's a little vague. When it comes to queries, a little specificity can go a long way.

Think of it like this: an agent is plowing through queries a super fast rate. The more generic your details are, the easier it will be to forget.

The second paragraph feels a little like a jump from one story to the other. Is this the real meat of the story? Find your central conflict and make that front and center. Then briefly work in the other details.

This is a really short query, and that can work, but I read this and left still unsure what it's about. For a 115k word book, it might behoove you to give us a little more detail. Like, why does Rosa find Baha so irresistible? When an agent reads, they are looking for reasons to pass...your job is to make sure they absolutely, positively can not pass.

That said, this book sounds awesome :)

Mark Koopmans said...

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the comments, and for the help with all our queries :)

Bryan Russell said...

Nicely handled (on both ends).

farawayeyes said...

Love the premise. One I would read.

I too was a little confused about the family not accepting a man of a different faith, because I thought the WHOLE story centered around finding and reuniting with said family. Also, would like to know a little bit more about Baha.

Those two items having already been addressed; I liked the fact that it was short, to the point, and kept you moving right along. Left me wanting to read/know more. That's the idea, right?

Stina Lindenblatt said...

lol on the dash-em. You would shoot me if you read my query, Matt. :D

I thought the query was great, but you really nailed the issues, Matt (which is why you're the query master). At least they're simple fixes. Nothing that will cause any headaches.

Good luck, Deniz with querying.

Tonja said...

Great query. I agree about exposing just a little more about the character.

Talli Roland said...

Yay for Deniz!

This is a great query, and I agree with your points. A little bit of tweaking and it will be ever stronger!

SA Larsenッ said...

I missed this yesterday, but am loving the premise and unique setting today! I would like to see a bit more description or at least something that makes the MC warmer. I felt a little disconnected.

Best of luck!!

Old Kitty said...

I think Deniz's first line is spot on - it certainly grabbed my attention.

I think more about who is Baha and perhaps show (not tell) why he is pivotal for Rosa.

Good luck Deniz! Take care

Carolyn Abiad said...

This is really simplified! Having read a draft, I know this manuscript is full of detail, so I'm sure Deniz won't have any trouble adding layers.

I think mentioning Rosa's connection to the Sefarads of Istanbul will help us understand why her brother is in danger and ground us in your setting. Also, we need a clue as to why Ottoman artist Baha is roaming the Spanish countryside. It will make him more intriguing.

Good luck, Deniz! <3

Huntress said...

I thought the first paragraph was awesome as well until reading your points of interest. Adding your comments looks like a great way to punch it into gold.

Lydia Kang said...

It sounds like a great story! The opening para I think can be cleaned up, grammatically speaking. I agree with nixing the em dash and smoothing it out so there aren't so many commas.

Good luck Deniz!

Johanna Garth said...

The only thing I might change is nixing the I admire your [client] language. I've read that agents don't love that...but with a query as strong as this one it probably doesn't matter.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

In my opinion, this is one of those stories that isn't going to have broad appeal. But that may help it to find a home with an agent who does like historical type fiction and who will seize upon it. I think you've hit on some really good points, and I think that Deniz is really doing a good job in playing up the history in this because that's what is going to sell it. However there does need to be more input up front on the main character. Make her a part of the world. Let us feel her anxiety that causes her to go to Constantinople. And as usual, Matt is right on everything.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yep, what Matt said. I just wanted more understanding Baha and how he helps her, where he came from, etc.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

You know one thing that might help this query? To give the Inquisition a name. I was listening to NPR about a book a guy had written on a now infamous Inquisitor by the name of Bernardo Gui (SP?) Anyway...if Deniz had said, "Bernardo Gui, the most terrifying Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, had arrived in Spain to speak with Rosa ____." And then we feel the terror...see...and then she can go off and explain that Rosa needs to get the hell out of there before she gets strung up and executed.

Matthew MacNish said...

Like Tomas de Torquemada or someone.

Elana Johnson said...

Some thoughts:
Rosa (no last name? Characters are more complete with last names…)becomes separated from her family (when you mention this, the first thing I think is that she’s a teenager. So I agree with Matt’s comment about her age.) as they flee their Spanish homeland – and the Inquisition. (I like em-dashes, but if you’re dying to change it you can say, “…because of the Inquisition.”) Now her one hope of reaching Constantinople, and reuniting with her family, lies with a stranger, (I don’t think you need the words “a stranger”) Baha, an artist from the Ottoman Empire. As they travel together, Rosa's drive to find her loved ones is matched by a deepening desire for the man at her side. (I like all of this. I know nothing about where they’re going, so I defer to Matt’s comments.)

Her family (Same issues as Matt. I thought she wasn’t with her family…) refuses to accept this man of a different faith, but when janissaries arrest her father and brother, Rosa and Baha risk everything (“everything” is really vague. Do they risk their lives? I’d say that.) to rescue them. Together they will prove (why do they have to prove it? Because if they love each other, who cares what her family thinks? Is that part of the consequence too? Her family will disown her? I think you have room to explore the romance part of this historical romance a little bit more…) that their love can withstand their differences... if the Grand Vizier doesn't throw them both into the dungeons first. (This is the consequence? Imprisonment? Not death? Dismemberment? What did the Inquisition do to people – just lock them up? (I honestly have no idea, but this doesn’t feel “big” enough.)

Brinda said...

I really can't add any worthy thoughts to this discussion. I only wanted to wish Deniz Bevan good luck.

Michael G-G said...

This could turn into a long comment, so hold onto your horseshoes.

As I said yesterday, I was hooked by all the Ottoman empire stuff. Janissaries and grand viziers and inquistors--talk about a world full of intrigue and incipient danger.

That said, I think you have fallen into the "briefer is better" query trap. I know it well, as I was there too, once upon a query rewrite. You want to spare the poor agents' eyesight, but you end up giving them only half the sandwich.

We need to know more about Rosa. (Name, age, why she is a heretic.)I remember an agent once telling me at a conference, "you've got the who, what, why, where. How about the why should I care?" I thought Agent was mean at the time, but what I think she meant is, "what is it about this character and this story that is going to make me root for it?" I think you should proceed with that question in mind.

I agree with Query Ninja Elana above. When I got to the end of the query, I said "Prison? I think they should be in fear for their lives, at least!" Is it prison because you have a sequel in mind? If not, and even if the consequence is "just" jail, fudge it with a line like "that's if the Grand Vizier doesn't call for their heads first." The agent isn't going to care, once she/he gets hooked by your query and loses him/herself in your glorious pages.

All the best, Deniz--and I will read your novel when it hits the shelves.

nutschell said...

Sounds like an interesting book! And your critique is spot on as well.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Deniz, The first line seemed dry to me, even though it's a subject that would normally interest me very much. I think you need to convey more feeling in that opening line by using emotionally charged words and giving us a hint of the circumstances that separated her from her family. This might also help us connect with Rosa and get a sense of her age.

Also, I'd like to get a better feeling for Baha in that first paragraph -- more than just him being an artist. If there's a deepening desire going on, I want to know why!

Overall, the subject matter is very interesting. I see that Elana Johnson gives you some tips on where to raise the stakes for Rosa (What are they risking? Will their love overcome the obstacles? How much danger are they in?) but I would also like to see more voice and energy in the query. Make me interested enough in these two people to read the story!

Good luck, Deniz!

Jessica Salyer said...

This one threw me, but I do agree with Matthew about the first paragraph. Thanks again for sharing your query letter and great job as always Matthew.

Angela Brown said...

This is why I love the fact we don't comment on the query until the day it's critiqued. When I read it yesterday, I enjoyed the subject matter. I still feel it's a pretty good query that can be strengthened with the suggestions provided here, especially the ones touched on by different comments.

I wish you the best of luck with this project, Deniz. :-) Matt, another spot on critique.

Melodie Wright said...

Love this premise - reminds me of The Queen's Fool, by Philippa Gregory, where a young Jewish girl flees Spain's Inquisition with her father.
Anyway, my only question after read it is if this is a romance or not? Your query suggests strong romantic elements (overshadowing even the fleeing of the Inquisition, which was a seriously perilous journey in your time frame) but I'm guessing it's more interesting than a straight romance. Perhaps historical romantic suspense? If so, definitely mention that somewhere.

Jemi Fraser said...

Sounds like a great story, Deniz - and I think Matt's advice is spot on! Good luck with it! :)

Anonymous said...

I have to say, Matt, I'm always picking up something from your posts. More importantly, my query letter's improved from the tips you've pointed out in other posts. Great destination for anyone interested in writing a query correctly.

Rek said...

Good luck Deniz...And I have mentioned to her in comments that I like the premise of the book...regarding some of the comments, in some older societies, imprisonment meant for a life time with a chance of execution at the ruler's whim...the families of the victims lost all honour, exiled , excommunicated which was considered worse than death (even so today).

Maybe mentioning Baha's Islamic/Arabic lineage(my guess) and his chance connection with someone powerful would solve the problem of the help and family reluctance.

Angela Ackerman said...

It sounds like a very rich story, and you've given some thoughtful comments here Matt that I totally agree with. As I read I wondered if they reached Constantinople because she does appear to reunite with her family again, and her father & brother are captured. It might help however to spell this out.

As well, if Constantinople was a place of safety, what led to her Father and Brother's capture? Not saying you need to spell all of this out in a query, but rather suggesting a bit more detail about 'why they are travelling to Constantinople' is needed. If it isn't safe, but their best option, tell us that. If it's a risky but happens to be a gateway city that will help them go somewhere that is safe, allude to this. It increases the tension and the stakes if Constantinople is her family's best hope, but still dangerous.

Great job here--I think you should get a good request rate with this query :)

Tamara Narayan said...

I agree with Matt on fleshing out the details and with several of the other comments about the Grand Vizier line. The tone of this crucial line after the (. . .) doesn't match the the rest of the query. It comes off almost tongue-in-cheek. For some reason it reminds me of YA queries where you see "She now had to face life as a werewolf--talk about serious monthly problems!" Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it's something to consider changing.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to the party, but after reading the red notes, I don't really have much to add except, when can I read it?!

Also—and this one's for you Matthew—

Just a bunch of em dashes for giggles.

Deniz Bevan said...

Wow. Thanks so much everyone. You're all amazing. Sorry for the radio silence the past few days, I was out of town over the weekend - and didn't except this much helpfulness and detail!

I really like the items you've pointed out, Matthew; no one's ever mentioned those before. Of course there are reasons in the story [g] but I'll try to find quick query methods of addressing them.

Thanks everyone for weighing in! I think it's a good sign that I feel ready to tackle these changes and don't (necessarily) feel like curling into a ball in a corner and going "I suck!"

"I think you have fallen into the "briefer is better" query trap" - I think I have, Michael! Thanks so much to you and Elana for going through the whole letter.

Now, if only I could add the synopsis into the comments and then send this blog post to agents :-)

Beth said...

Love the setting and premise, but what seems to be missing from this query is the actual love story. The internal conflict. It's more about staying out of trouble and rescuing family than it is about Rosa and Baha and their own personal obstacles.