Friday, March 23, 2012

Christine Hardy's Current Query Critiqued

All right. First things first, my bracket is officially busted. I had Michigan State taking it all, and they really laid an egg against Louisville last night. I had been riding first place (and then third) in Nathan Bransford's Bracket Challenge the whole time, until last night. Oh well. It was a fun ride.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, ignore the previous paragraph. If you know exactly what I'm talking about, make fun of me in the comments.

Anyway, today we have Christine's query letter again, this time with my feedback, in red.

The query:

Dear [Agent],

Sometimes the aftermath of peace is war. What does this mean? I mean I know what it means, but why is it here, opening your query? You don't really want to do this. This sentence is not only vague, meaning it has no real bearing on your story, but it's also obvious, logically. What I mean by that is in wartime and peacetime, there are only two options: either you are at war, or you are at peace. So: obviously the aftermath of peace is war ... eventually. It's kind of like saying sometimes the aftermath of night is day.

Ten years after a civil war nearly destroyed the kingdom of Belhanor, rebellion is lifting its bloody head again. This is a much better place to start. This is specific, this is grounding, and this has a touch of world building. A Restorationist movement seeks to restore the pre-war order of lands that were apportioned away from the rebel lords as punishment, resulting in nighttime raids on disputed lands and the threat of open war. I'm a bit ambivalent about this. On the one hand, it's some great writing, and I get the sense that the voice here really matches the way your manuscript is written. On the other, this is a confusing way to open. It's sort of cart before the horse. You're setting up some decent sense of conflict, and giving us a glimpse of an interesting world, but we need to know who is going to need to overcome this conflict first.

Captain Faldur Relszen of the King’s Rangers wants to stay well out of the affairs of the magically-gifted nobles, but when the shadowy leader of the Restorationists enters his territory, he is forced to investigate. Faldur is heartbroken to learn it is none other than his friend, Prince Raynor, the king’s younger son. Raynor is planning to kidnap his older brother Melbrinor’s bride-to-be and use her as bait to lure the crown prince to his death. Faldur promises Melbrinor that he will bring her safely to the capital. In this paragraph, things continue in a similar way. You've got great writing, voice that fits the tone of the story you're telling, but otherwise, things get confusing fast. First of all, if you count Marenya in the next paragraph, you've got four named characters in this query. That's at least two, and possibly three too many. I get the feeling that your manuscript is told by multiple POV characters, and that's fine, it's certainly been proven to work well in fantasy, but other than mentioning that in your housekeeping comments, you can't let that muddy up the extremely critical need for clarity in a query letter. Who is this story really about? I get the feeling it's Faldur and Marenya. If so, name only those two, and refer to these other characters only by their positions, roles, or titles.

Another problem is the names of your characters. They're very cool names, and I bet they fit in well with the cultures that exist in the world of your novel, but if you must name more than two characters in a query, having their names be long and confusing fantasy names doesn't help.

Along the way they are attacked by Restorationists. The bride’s cousin Marenya, whom Faldur secretly loves, allows herself to be captured in the bride’s place so the injured captain and the future queen can escape. Faldur is forced to leave her behind for the moment in order to fulfill his duty. Meanwhile, Marenya discovers that Raynor the prince is under magical thrall to his great-uncle (the instigator of the previous rebellion) but desperately seeking a way to break his control. Faldur and Melbrinor the elder prince pursue the errant prince into the heart of the great-uncle’s mountain stronghold, while Marenya searches for a way to free Raynor and stop another war. The problem here is that trying to keep all these characters straight makes it almost impossible to tell whether there is a clear sense of conflict. Now that I've changed some of them, it seems to me that you do a pretty decent job of setting up a decent conflict, and some very high stakes. The one thing that's missing from your conclusion is a difficult choice your characters will have to make in order to succeed.

THE GOLDEN GRYPHON is a heroic fantasy complete in 100,000 words. I've never heard of heroic as a specific sub-genre of Fantasy. Usually the categories go like this: High/Epic, Low, Urban, Sword & Sorcery, and so on. I'm not an expert in this, so I'm going to ask some friends who know better to confirm.

I am a statistical analyst who has contributed to numerous statistical reports and medical journal articles, an activity that has trained me to write carefully and concisely. I don't think you need this. It has too much potential for shooting yourself in the foot when the inevitable typo is discovered. I have written devotionals for our local Mothers of Preschoolers newsletter, published how-to articles for an online dollhouse magazine, and I blog about writing at thewritershole.blogspot.com.

I am sending this because to you because [personal details] I would be happy to provide further material for your consideration. You may reach me at hanorja@yahoo.com or REDACTED.

Okay, so let's try to summarize here. I think you have the roots of a good query here. You clearly have the writing chops, and I can tell, after sifting through my confusion, that you've got a vibrant and entertaining world here, but your main problem is too much detail, and too many named characters, so much so that everything else gets buried.

I would re-write this. I would open with Faldur, introduce who he is, what his background is, and show us why we should care about his struggle. Then you can sprinkle in your world building elements (or even fit some into the way you introduce him) as you set up the main conflict. Try to see if you can get your query to work as three main paragraphs:

1) CHARACTER. Introduce us to Faldur, sprinkle in some bits about the world he lives in and his backstory.

2) CONFLICT. It seems to me the kidnapping is the inciting incident, and then the pursuit and the recon into enemy territory is the main plot conflict. See if you can clarify all that in your second paragraph.

3) CHOICE. In your final paragraph, make it clear what difficult choice your protagonist will have to make in order to overcome the obstacle from paragraph two. You can also use this paragraph to raise the stakes, and then summarize everything.

Sincerely,

Christine Hardy

That's it.

This one was tough. It's clearly a good story underneath, but there is a lot of information to process. What do you guys think? Can you write an opening hook?

41 comments:

Tasha Seegmiller said...

One of the reasons I struggle with some high fantasy is because the names are hard and I completely got lost, well, skipped ahead with the influx of so many names I just couldn't figure out. I know this is a characteristic of this genre, but I just quit reading.

There is a lot of love subplots that seem to really add to the general idea - I wonder if just hitting on those as themes would help too?

Good luck!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Agree that it needs to open with a character, someone we can care about.
And did you know of the multitude who filled out an ESPN bracket, ALL of them are now wrong? Usually a couple have perfect brackets, but two second seeds going down early really blew that out of the water.

Bryan Russell said...

First, I like this, and I was intrigued. The writing is strong, and the underlying story and conflicts seem interesting. But underlying might be the key word, here, as I had to dig a bit to piece things together. I agree with Matt that this could be simplified and streamlined. I think you could still open with the rebellion conflict, but only if you involve the MC in it right away.

-- Ten years after a civil war nearly destroyed the kingdom of Belhanor, rebellion is lifting its bloody head again... but Captain Faldur just wants to keep his head tucked far away from the affairs of the magically gifted nobles.

You get the idea. Tie the character into the conflict immediately, and hopefully in a way that shows a bit of his character. That way the worldbulding can be seen from his viewpoint, rather than a bunch of abstract facts.

And some of the later facts can be simplified. We don't need to know that Melbrinor goes with Faldur. If we find out when reading the book that Faldur doesn't go alone, that's fine. But in the query you can just say Faldur goes to do whatever...

Anyway, I'm intrigued. The lines have flow, and there seem to be interesting conflicts here - find the best way to present them and I think you'll have a winner.

Bryan Russell said...

@ Matt

I think heroic fantasy is generally used as a sort of synonym for epic fantasy, particularly for the ol' good v. bad type.

Matthew MacNish said...

If Bryan thinks heroic fantasy is a sub-genre used publishing, then it's probably fine to keep it. He certainly knows what he's talking about.

JeffO said...

I have to agree with you on this one, Matthew. The writing is strong, but as the query went on I found it losing steam. It bogs down under the weight of too many details, too many names. I definitely see this as an epic tale with many people and much intrigue and action, but Christine needs to drill down to the core action.

What do you all think about including biographical info? I've seen some agents suggest not to bother with it unless you've got serious publishing credit (I don't) or expertise (like an ex-CIA agent writing a spy thriller).

mshatch said...

Great comments Matt. I think this sounds like a cool story but as it's written the query doesn't do it justice. Starting with character and ending with the stakes would really help, I think.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

The major problem I have with this query is that, after reading it, I don't know what this story is about. I've read a lot of high/epic/heroic fantasy, and they generally tend to include a ton of subplots and people and history, but they can all still (usually) be distilled down into a paragraph which tells you what the heart of the story is.

If you've read Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, you know how complicated it gets. The first book has so many characters that it includes an index in the back. But it also has a heart. Amidst all of the subplots and characters, it has a core. This is from Amazon: The peaceful villagers of Emond's Field pay little heed to rumors of war in the western lands until a savage attack by troll-like minions of the Dark One forces three young men to confront a destiny which has its origins in the time known as The Breaking of the World.

And there it is. A story about three young men confronting their destiny.

That's what this query, in my opinion is lacking. I don't yet care about the politics or any of that stuff. I'll get to that when I read the book. I want to know what the core story is about. Is it a conflict between two friends–Faldur and Raynor? Is it a romance? Is it a story of one person's quest to stop a new civil war before it begins? And if so, why is it so important to him?

Once you figure out the heart of your story, you can flesh out some of the details, but keep it simple. Keep it straight forward. Provide enough detail to whet the reader's appetite, but not enough to confuse them.

As to the personal details...unless they have direct bearing on your book, most agents will glaze over them...but they won't hurt you either. If you've written stuff, include it. If you're a Medieval scholar writing a fantasy book, include it. If you're a rocket scientist writing a fantasy book, skip it...unless your fantasy book also contains rockets, which would be cool.

Matthew MacNish said...

@ Jeff - I think a good story will stand on it's own. Agents sign debut authors who've never been published every day. If you've got no credits, there's no need to even mention it. Let the story (and the query) prove you can write.

farawayeyes said...

I have to admit I was relieved to read Matt's suggestions and the other comments. I was so confused, I worried that is was just me.

I couldn't agree more about the over abundance of names and their corresponding situations. While there were many interesting elements and signs of really good writing in this query, I could find nothing to really care about. I'm sure it's there, but buried deep.

I would be interested to know what Christine does with this info. and see her revised query. As a 'name dropper' myself, I appreciate her courage in helping me to learn.

Thanks Christine and thanks Matthew.

Kristen Wixted said...

People told me to pick the most interesting part of the story, even if it doesn't happen first, and pair the query down to that. The query does not really need to give information in a chronological way so much as it needs to get the agent to ask for pages.
I would completely start over with this query, that way the confusing bits would be gone.
And the useful info about the story is already in Christine's head.

Matt, "laid an egg?" Excellent use of figurative language. ;)

Suze said...

Off the cuff, I'd say this reads a bit more like a synopsis than a query letter -- both of which are quite the challenge to execute well.

Joshua said...

The thing that tripped me up the most was in the first full paragraph. Matthew pointed out an ambivalence to the second half of the paragraph, but the use of "Restorationist" so close to "restore" made me stop. The sentiment makes sense, but an alternate word for the latter "restore" might make the sentence flow better. Maybe something like "win back" - "A Restorationist movement seeks to win back the pre-war order of lands..." - would work better? Or even an alternate "re-" word ("reinstate" or "rescue") so "Restorationist" and "restore" don't hit so close together, especially since you use the former in each of the next two paragraphs. Truthfully, just the name "Restorationist" implies they are trying to restore something, hence using an alternate word to reinforce the name of the group.

It's the one thing that really tripped me up more than anything else. Except I thought there was some unspoken rule about not directing people to "find more information at my blog," in which case that whole second to last paragraph - about statistical analysis and the blog address - is unnecessary.

Hektor Karl said...

I could make fun of you... if I hadn't picked Mich State to win it all as well. So instead it'll have to be commiseration.

Sarah Pearson said...

I think I would really like this story. I love epic fantasy stuff, but I agree with what has already been said. It's a bit confusing and there are definitely too many names.

I'd be interested in seeing a revised version of this.

Rusty Webb said...

Wow. One of your better critiques I'd say. Great job.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Good critique, Matthew.

It needs more focus and a clearer sense of the plot. Agents and editors of fantasy expect unusual names, but there are just too many listed in this letter.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

The query is too long, certain things can be combined and Matt has pointed those out really well.

The protag needs to be emphasized more and tied in with the world-building.

And if there's world-building that you want to mention that's outside of the protag's motives...cut that. It doesn't belong in a query.

An expose on the civil war that almost destroyed the nation and the class issues currently tearing it apart is nice blurb stuff but not query stuff. Say "Faldur is a King's Ranger but he hates all the nobles because they are stuck up jerks and wants nothing to do with that..."

As an aside, you have a really good opportunity here to allegorically compare the situation in the U.S.A. with the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the TEA party to what's going on in a fantasy.

Fascinating premise for a fantasy (I would just stick with "fantasy" and not attach an adjective to it). Heroic, epic, or any other kind of word will just harm the query. The agent needs to be able to tell from your letter what kind of story it is.

Nancy Thompson said...

Matthew is the query god! All great advice. I don't read fantasy so I found this query a bit tedious, meaning there is so much in there, I got lost & stopped reading. Part of it was all those names. And part was because there's too much info. It needs to be pared all the way down to the character intro, the conflict,, then the choice. Choose your words very carefully. The intro can be used to world build. The way it's written now, it feels too much like a synopsis, which is a bit dry. You're obviously a great writer. Writing queries is like a science. It needs lots of experimentation.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Excellent critique, Matt. I completely agree about the confusion because I thought the same thing yesterday as I was reading it.

This is wonderful teaching example though because it gives you an opportunity to comment on a number of different things that we need to consider as we write our queries--things we frequently don't think about.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Matt, your advice is spot on! And my bracket has been toast for awhile now. I only have one final four team left. At least I have them (UNC) winning it all.

Eric W. Trant said...

I wasn't confused, but then I've read some of your work in beta, so it makes sense to me.

There are a lot of exciting things in your book to mention -- the lions are a great hook! And you didn't even mention them.

I would nuke the first sentence, and begin with "Ten years after..."

Nuke the "... none other than his friend..." to read: "He is heartbroken to learn the king's younger son is planning to murder his brother, the crown prince, and vows to stop him. During the conflict, Faldur's bride is captured, and later discovers the young prince is under his great-uncle's control. Together with the crown prince, Faldur and his band of elite Rangers battle the great-uncle to free both his bride and the younger prince."

Or something like that. Matt is right about the names. Rather than names, mention their function, and center the whole query around FALDUR, who is the only dude you name.


- Eric

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I agree with everything Matthew says here. The query reads like a plot synopsis, and that rarely works in a query. Focus on character, conflict, and stakes. Don't worry about presenting plot elements in chronological order. Think of a movie trailer and give us the elements most likely to draw us in.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I agree with everything Matthew says here. The query reads like a plot synopsis, and that rarely works in a query. Focus on character, conflict, and stakes. Don't worry about presenting plot elements in chronological order. Think of a movie trailer and give us the elements most likely to draw us in.

Tara Tyler said...

i had msu in finals losing to kansas... i also had fsu in final 4. i'm close to out and my 11yo is kicking butt! he picked norfolk!

love the query advice. going to redo mine. again!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I love epic fantasies so am glad you're sharing one here Christine. And I know it's hard to make an epic fantasy concise. I've struggled with that too.

Your story sounds really interesting. I think if you start with one of your main characters, drop some of the details that are vague that Matt mentions, and tells us the stakes to the character at the end that it'll work better. Good luck with this because we need more epic fantasy stories.

Johanna Garth said...

Great query Christine but the comment that hit the home most for me was about the names. I'm not a huge fantasy reader so the names always throw me a little.

Jemi Fraser said...

I found there were too many names as well - and I agree that the story and the world sound exciting. Good luck polishing it up - shouldn't take much :)

maine character said...

Matt covered it all well, though I did like the paragraph about the nighttime raids and disputed lands 'cause made me feel you know about world-building and the realistic repercussions of war.

You don't need to say you write concise, 'cause you've already shown that. In fact, I'd take out that whole paragraph.

Your story definitely sounds solid and intriguing, and all the best with it.

kelworthfiles said...

Good luck to Christine, and I think that you had some good notes on her query. I have problems still with hooks, but I think I'm improving with them.

Shannon said...

Thank you, Christine, for sharing your query. It's not an easy thing to do. :)

Based on what I can glean from your query, it appears as if you have done an excellent job at world-building and your writing is strong.

As many others have mentioned, I got lost in the details. By the time I reached the second paragraph, I was hopelessly lost.

I encourage you to implement Matt's excellent feedback. Best of luck!

Christine Hardy said...

I know I'm chiming in late here. It has been a really long, really horrible day and I didn't even peek at this. That's how busy I was.

The problem I have is this: Faldur and Marenya are the main characters, but they aren't really central to the plot. The plot revolves around Raynor, and F and M sort of get sucked into it and have to figure out what the heck to do.

The premise is that I have two characters who don't think they are important. They are used to being overshadowed by all these other larger-than-life figures and all this turmoil, but suddenly they're in the middle of it and have to come into their own. For Marenya, she's really got to buck up and overcome some terrifying circumstances. They basically take turns sacrificing for each other and for Belhanor.

It's not a typical plot-driven fantasy. I think of it more like a literary fantasy because the characters are the central drivers. Their growth is the real meat of the story. The rest of it is just a framework.

So, yeah. It's tough. I truly appreciate all of your comments.

Time for another beer. Cheers!

Christine Hardy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donna Hole said...

I agree there is too much detail in this query - too much of the story is given away. Shortening to two or three major plot points, Faldur and Maryena's positions and roles in the brewing conflict, their relationship to each other, and the stakes would make this query shine.

The story sounds exciting, active for both magic and battle potential. Of course, having read several passages of Golden Gryphon might cloud my reasoning . .

As for the "heroic fantasy" phrase; I tend to believe ALL fantasy is about heroics.

.......dhole

Christine Hardy said...

I just want to thank everyone for taking the time to read and comment. I'm very impressed at the effort Matt and all of you put in to help me out.

I must say that I'm also surprised by the number of people who think the book may have some merit despite the query. Or perhaps you're just being nice because it's Friday. ;-)

I've decided that writing a query for a novel is like trying to wrestle an alligator into a shoebox. I guess you have to turn that bugger into a little pair of shoes before he will fit.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt is spot on as usual. Ditch two of the characters and tighten and cut some of the details and i think your query will really shine. I think it's all there, you just have to uncover it.
But, i've also never heard of heroic fantasy. Do you mean adventure? If not, i'd just leave it at plain old Fantasy, if it doesn't fit in any of the subgenres. That's what i do and it works well for me.
The story sounds great btw.

Deniz Bevan said...

Great analysis, Michael. I agree - the query's the place to keep things simple, and with lots of new names to keep track of, it's better to stick to titles and roles and make sure the conflict really shines through.
That said, the story itself sounds intriguing!

Deniz Bevan said...

Matthew, not Michael. Where's my brain?

Rek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rek said...

An intriguing story given that fantasy, sci-fi and thrillers form a big part of my reading.
Why not begin with Raynor's act of kidnapping under magical influence and how it threatens the fragile piece? Move on to the other two, their role in battling and saving the already ravaged nation from another war, their love and lives in the process.

Jericha Senyak said...

Sounds fascinating, Christine! And Matt, it's so useful to read your comments. Great critique. I'm really with Shaun on the find-the-heart-of-it, though -- and Christine, you kind of went ahead and said it, right there --

>>I have two characters who don't think they are important. They are used to being overshadowed by all these other larger-than-life figures and all this turmoil, but suddenly they're in the middle of it and have to come into their own. For Marenya, she's really got to buck up and overcome some terrifying circumstances. They basically take turns sacrificing for each other and for Belhanor.

I feel like that's much more interesting to me than the synopsis. Anyone who reads a lot of fantasy is used to long complex plots, and so hearing the details of another one isn't as compelling. What you just said, up above, is what sets your story apart from the rest -- I'm fascinated by the idea of reading an epic story from the point of view of less than epic characters. I want to know about THAT!

Good luck to you!