Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Abby Minard's Current Query Critiqued

Man. I hate my job. I've been so slammed this morning, I'm only just starting this post now, at 7 AM. Anyway, here is Abby's query again, this time with my feedback, in red.

The letter:

Dear ______,

Holding her dying father in her arms is just just is one of those words a lot of publishing professionals hate. If you keep this opening, you could replace it with only. the beginning for sixteen(-)year(-)old Nuala, a novice Ice Mage. I think Ice-Mage should be hyphenated. It's kind of a single noun construct. Jarlath, a power hungry Earth Mage, murdered him. Worse, he has found a way to acquire the energy of all four Elements: Earth, Ice, Fire and Wind -- a feat that takes a terrible act of sacrifice and murder.

Okay, so when it comes to content - I love this opening. I love fantasy, and I love elemental magic, especially your spin on it, since you've replaced the standard Water with Ice. However, I'm not sure about the execution. I think character needs to come before the inciting incident. I mean, opening with her father dying in her arms in certainly powerful in its own way, but we don't know who she is yet, and it's important to know and care about that first.

I would open something like this: "Sixteen-year-old Nuala is an uncertain novice Ice-Mage. Holding her dying father in her arms is only the beginning of her suffering (or stuggles, problems, whatever). When she discovers Jarlath, a power obsessed Earth Mage murdered him ..." That's not perfect either, but I'm sure you get the point.

I also like that you made an Earth elemental wielder the bad guy, since it's almost always the Fire guys who get the bad rap.

Nuala learns her mother’s suicide fifteen years ago enabled Jarlath’s rise in power. I like how this raises the stakes, but we need a better understanding of why. Was her mother in some kind of position of power? He now needs Nuala’s essence to complete what her mother did not finish. Be specific. What didn't she finish? If he succeeds, it could mean the destruction of the delicate balance that holds the Elements and people of Tartha together. Nuala is given the only clue to defeating Jarlath, spoken by Mother Earth herself: “Not one with four, but four as one”. I like this. Mysterious, but also a good plot ticket.

This paragraph is mostly pretty good, you're raising the stakes and heightening the conflict, and only need to clarify a couple minor things.

The timid I like this characterization, you should actually put this word right up front, where I wrote "uncertain" in my example. Ice Mage must now embark on a perilous journey in search of the key to solving the riddle while coming to terms with her father’s death and rumors of her mother’s betrayal. Now it's a betrayal? You really need to be specific about exactly what happened in the previous paragraph, otherwise, the mother aspect makes very little sense. She meets three other Mages along the way who seem to be sent from the gods: an answer to her prayers. I'm not sure about this. It kind of sounds either like hyperbole, or Deus Ex Machina. I don't think it's the latter, because it sounds like it comes too early, but be careful how you word things. With every strike from Jarlath, the four Mages form an everlasting bond of friendship, taking them closer to the answer on how to defeat him. How? How does their friendship provide the answer? With that comes a choice: risk their Elements and possibly their lives to save Tartha, or save themselves and watch their world fall to the enemy. This is great. Concluding with a distinct, tough choice is one of the hardest parts of a query letter, but you've killed it here.

So, to summarize, based on content, this sounds like one of the coolest stories I've looked at lately, from the query. I could be biased because of my general love of fantasy and elemental magic, but so what?

Now, that being said, there are some things you need to work on. You end it all rather well, and your opening is not half-bad either, but things are pretty muddied up in the middle. If you're going to bring the mother aspect into play, in particular, you need to clarify exactly what happened, why it matters, and how this backstory element pertains to the current conflict. I get the feeling Nuala's mom was someone in power, who conducted some kind of ritual to keep Jarlath or others like him from power, but it failed, killed her, and people thought it was suicide. But I could easily be wrong, especially considering you refer to it all as a betrayal at one point.

That one aspect, and maybe a little better characterization in the beginning, are the two biggest things you need to improve in this query. Otherwise, you're off to a great start, and obviously have a very cool story to tell.

ICESONG is a Young Adult Fantasy complete at 71,000 words and is available on your request. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Abby Minard

That's it.

What do you guys think? Anyone have a better opening hook than mine?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Spot-on, Matthew!

farawayeyes said...

Another good query made better with a few clarifications. I'm learning so much. I JUST need to eliminate a few words from MY vocabulary.

Thanks Abby and Matt for this lesson.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

It sounds like the mother's suicide may have given away her powers which could have been the betrayal? Very interesting premise!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Love the premise! Matt's crit is spot on.

maine character said...

I'm right with you on this - at first I couldn't figure out if Jarlath made her mother kill herself, to get her power, or if she did it to help him.

And I'm no expert on mages, but I don't think you need the hyphen in Ice Mage. Courtney Shafer's Whitefire Crossing has blood mages and sand mages... but I just checked, and they're not capitalized, so I'm not sure.

Love ICESONG for a title, and this: “Not one with four, but four as one."

Lola Sharp said...

As usual, I have little to add in the way of feedback because Matt is so damn marvelous at it.

Abby has an intriguing premise here.

I completely agree with Matt on Abby needing to deepen the MC's character up front, and clarify several points. Specificity and clarity. There are some vague sentences which are confusing and clunky. (Matt pointed them out.)

I also agree that I'm a little worried about 3 mages being plopped in her does sound like Deus Ex Machine, cheating. I would reword that in your query. (I also hope it's better explained in the novel.)

But, I do agree with Maine Character, I don't think Abby needs a hyphen in Ice Mage. Personally, I wouldn't.

I also LOVE the title, and the clue is rad. :) And, I agree with Matt, your final sentence, the what's really at stake sentence, is excellent. :)

Tonja said...

Good luck with the queries. Your story sounds great.

Michael Di Gesu said...


Matthew you really know how to pick a part a query... Well done.


I remember when you told me about this ions ago. I LOVE what you premise is and this book is one I would certainly want to read.

All the best with this. I hope to hear an agent snapping it up very shortly.

Abby Minard said...

Thanks Matt and everyone! Great advice- can't wait to tackle it! I'm trying to figure out how to put the 3 other mages in there because they really are an important part of the story- once they appear it becomes more of an ensemble cast and their involvement is crucial to Nuala's success. The story becomes more about the 4 of them, rather than just Nuala. But I can see how it comes across as a Deus ex machina in the query. I'll work on it- thanks again!

Old Kitty said...

Love the third paragraph - that's a gorgeous story there!

The first line for me needs tweaking - maybe like "the murder of her father is the start of Nuala's journey". Just my opinion!

I've not read Matthew's remarks in red - I'm trying to see how well I respond to other queries as I'm truly crappy at writing and critiquing both! LOL! Take care and GOOD LUCK Abby!!!


mshatch said...

wish I could add something but as always, Matt's done a terrific job at showing what's working and what's not.

Colene Murphy said...

Excellent points, Matt! Great job Abby, you really do have a great story there!

Sarah said...

Heh, you're so right about "just". I've had to go on "just" slaughtering sprees in my latest manuscript, because so many of them had crept into my writing. :/

Johanna Garth said...

Yes, Matt is so right about the word just. It's one of those find and delete words I look for in my own writing.

Michael G-G said...

Matt's just the best. But that's just my opinion. (Okay, I'm another one who uses "just" too many times. Thank God for search and replace functions!)

I think this is a really cool story, but I think you need to sell it a bit more in your query. I like the fact that the MC is timid and undertain, but is there a way you can SHOW this? Something like "16 year-old novice Ice Mage, Nuala (does she have a surname?) would much rather (do something) than face (something or other.) But everything changes when the power hungry Earth Mage, Jarlath, murders her beloved father."

I don't think Ice Mage warrants a hyphen, but I'm not a grammarian.

The ending lines are super cool, as Matt points out.

Good luck with this Abby! I wish you much success with the fabulously titled ICESONG.

Carolyn Abiad said...

Sounds very interesting. I wonder if she could give us more info about the team of four that are going after this Jarlath guy. Knowing more about these friends will give us more info about the main character, I think. Helps us put the prophesy in perspective too.

Since we don't have many words to play with, swap this for the info about the mother maybe. Her thread seems to complicated to included in the query.

Great advice, as usual, Matt. :)

Joshua said...

The only thing I might add piggy backs on the Ice-Mage hyphenate, and that would be to wonder if it needs to be Earth-Mage as well?

Jessica Salyer said...

I learn something everytime I read one of these. Great job as always Matthew.

Elana Johnson said...

I think your comments are spot on, and I hope your job gets better. :)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Hi, Abby!
Matt has addressed the plot in your query, so I'm going to address the character.

I don't know anything about Nuala other than that she's a timid novice who has now lost both her parents. For me to care about the plot and want to read your story, I'll have to connect with Nuala in someway.

Can you give us a taste of her voice and personality? I think Nuala needs to shine as a person in your query. What can you say about Nuala that will make her stand out from all the other queries an agent has read that day?

I think Michael G-G hit this same concept in the comments above.

Jemi Fraser said...

You've got some great advice already, so I'll just say you've got an intriguing story line. Good luck with it :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I can't believe, Matt, you did this all this morning. It would take me a day to come up with crit like this. Oh, who am I kidding. I'd never come up with crit like this. :(

Awesome job as always!

Rusty Webb said...

Nice critique... I am not as well versed in fantasy as I am Sci Fi, so I only really knew of Avatar, I didn't realize that elemental magic was a whole subgenre. Shows what I know.

Good critique.

alexia said...

I'm with Matt, I LOVE your storyline. You know I love fantasy, and I really like elemental powers, too. This is unique, which is a big plus!

I agree with Matt's comments. I had to read one particular sentence twice: "With every strike from Jarlath, the four Mages form an everlasting bond of friendship, taking them closer to the answer on how to defeat him." Specifically, the last part after the second comma. I think it could be smoothed out more to something like "closer to the key to defeating him" or "key to his defeat".

Good luck! I'm querying very soon as well, so we can suffer together :)

Jamie Gibbs said...

Excellent critique - I wouldn't have picked up on a lot of that, but your suggestions would make for a big improvement. I agree that Abby's story is awesome too!

Donna Hole said...

I'm a fan of elemental magic too. this sounds intriguing - Airbender in storybook instead of cartoon.

I have to admit though I didn't like replacing only one element with something else. This world is not planet Earth(?), so I'd like to see the elemental terms something completely different, or all the same. I'm also of Matt's appreciation that Fire is not the usual villian.

Matt has some excellent points on needing a few more details, but as concisely as possible. This is a bit long in getting to the main parts of intrigue. I can see a lot of intrigue in this story, and serious action scenes. I am already interested in this story.