Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Samantha Jean's Current Query Critiqued

All right. So here we have Samantha's query letter again, this time with my feedback, which is in red.

Dear [AGENT],

I chose to submit my story manuscript for your consideration because of your expertise in the young adult genre, and because [personalized tidbit about agent/books or authors successfully represented by agent].

Almost-fifteen-year-old Lilith Butler’s life is a suburban girl’s heaven: perfect grades, loving parents, sister-like girlfriends, and her long-time crush is finally paying attention to her. This is pretty good. You quite skillfully fit in backstory and set up Lilith's world (not quite world building, because it's Urban Fantasy, but still good). The only problem is, I would like to know more about who Lilith is before her story begins. We get some sense of character from these external things that surround her, but it would be better to know what kind of person she is, independent of what goes on around her. That is, until the arrival of an uninvited guest two days before her birthday unearths buried family secrets which turn her existence into anything but heavenly. Normally this would be way too vague for a query letter. You need to always be as specific as possible. You might be able to get away with some of it here, though, because you explain the details in a moment.

Accepting she was adopted at birth and lied to ever since is difficult, but believing she’s related to mythological creatures and destined to become one of them? Yeah, right. This clears up half of the vagueness in the previous sentence, but it would be better if you could clarify who this uninvited guest is, and how he or she knows, and reveals, this information.

But one’s true nature cannot be denied. This is slightly cliche. Not too bad, though.

Forced to forget her life as a mortal, Lilith goes to live with her father is he the guest? Did she know him before this? on his farm where she is indoctrinated into the ways of the Vrykólakas, I looked this up, and it's basically a Greek vampire, which sounds pretty cool. an ancient race hidden from modern human society. It’s far from easy adjusting to life as a tame, blood-drinking immortal, tame AND blood-drinking? That sounds like an odd but interesting contradiction. especially with off-limits Devon Green is this the name of a character, or a park in London? providing constant temptation only a field away. However, denying her desire for Devon is as impossible as ignoring the haunting memories of her former life. Her former life as a suburban girl? Or does she have memories of another life, even before that one? Add learning she has a key role to play in the ongoing war for Heaven and has to learn to fight enemies she’s never heard of including demons whose bite means eternal death. Dividing these sentences here makes them fragments. It's okay to break grammar rules on purpose in a query for effect, but I don't think it works here. And top it off with the risk of capture by Lucifer, the Lord of Chaos, if she ever leaves the protected confines of her family’s farm, and eternity is looking bleak.

You've got some fascinating elements here, and the stakes clearly seem to be raised to the utmost, with not just death, but eternal death awaiting Lilith. However, the main conflict of your plot gets confused near the end here. You mention the war for Heaven, and Lilith's role in it, but then it seems from your final sentence in this paragraph, that Lilith is choosing not to enter this war, and rather remain safe at her family farm. When I think about it, it seems likely that she has some kind of internal struggle over this for a while, and eventually decides to leave this haven and join the fight. If that's the case, you need to make it clearer. If it's not, and something else takes place, well, then you need to make that clear.

Lilith’s unwillingness to embrace her destiny without first finding closure for the past leads her to follow her heart into a battle for more than just her immortal soul. I suppose this bit does clarify her decision to leave, but it gets muddied up a bit by the vague mention of her past again. The only past we know of from this query is the one of a normal suburban girl. If there is something more substantial than that, like previous lives as an immortal or something, you need to be specific.

TÉLOS is a 115,000 word work of clean, you don't need this. YA is generally not clean, because teenagers tend to swear, and have sex, or at the very least, want sex, badly. Adult thoughts and urges tend to be particularly present in the Urban Fantasy sub-genre. If you've written a story that does not contain those elements, that's fine, but you don't need to point it out in a query. Besides, your editor very well may tell you to tone up or down the level of clean or not clean, in the long run. YA Urban Fantasy, and this is my first novel. There's no need to mention this. By not having any publications in your bio, and agent can infer you've never been published. Mentioning this being your first novel is just a strike against you.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

In summary: you start out pretty strong, setting up an interesting dynamic of normalcy into sudden surprising paranormal elements. You weave backstory seamlessly into your hook, which is well done, and with only one or two more words about Lilith's character, I think you'd have a great opening.

The problem is when things begin to get vague. A mysterious stranger. A trip to her father's farm, when it's unknown whether she is familiar with this place, or her father. Mention of some former life, which I suspect is not the life of a suburban teenager. A war for Heaven, deadly demons, Lucifer ... none of which become clear exactly how they relate to the conflict Lilith must overcome.

I like the mention of a difficult choice she must make whether or not to leave the farm, but I can't tell exactly how long she stays before deciding to enter this war. I get the feeling she may not leave until the last third of the book. That's fine, but try to make it clearer in your query.

That's it.

What do you all think?

NOTE: It's my turn as an A to Z challenge co-host, to post an introduction over at the A to Z challenge blog. So if you'd like to get to know me better, please go read that post.


Kristen Wixted said...

You can NOT be tame and blood-drinking at the same time. No way. That's the kind of thing agents tweet and laugh about, so be careful there.
Also, the "farm" threw me. What kind of farm? Because if it's cows and sheep and rows of corn, it's a weird setting for all this, but if it's some kind of herb farm, or something, maybe it all fits better. Or something, a little more about the farm.
I think your basic letter is solid, though.

Wow! Never been first before. ;)

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing this Samantha. This sounds like an interesting story. I dd think like Matt said that we need to know a bit about the conflict. You do a good job telling us about the world of her father without too many words. That's hard to do. Thanks for sharing this.

Christine Hardy said...

Edward Cullen from "Twilight" is tame and blood-drinking, so that's how I took that part.

I assumed Devon Green was the name of a town and that it's set in England. Is that right?

My comments (copied from the last post cuz I didn't realize how this works):

Okay, it's tomorrow. First of all, I very much appreciate that it's clean. As a mother of a soon-to-be ten-year-old, I am astonished by the raunchy stuff that is out there for "young adults" that I wouldn't even consider reading as an "old adult."

I am not a query expert, so I'm giving my un-expert opinion.

First of all, it looks very interesting and I think you did a good job with getting key information in there. I am wondering about some story elements.

1. If she's of this race that drinks blood, has she not ever had any desire for it before? I would think she would have some signs that she doesn't fit in, i.e. that her life isn't really as perfect as it sounds in the beginning of the query.

2. How can she fight demons if she can't leave the farm?

3. Re: a Demon's bite meaning "eternal death." Death is eternal, so maybe you can clarify that. Do you mean eternal torture?

4. Lucifer is a specific Biblical demon, the prince of darkness, ruler of this world, the father of lies, etc. I haven't heard him called "Lord of Chaos" before. Not that you can't call him that, just be aware that there is already a character of Lucifer in religious mythology that people will identify with, so it should be clear in your book how that label came about for your Lucifer and how your character fits with the mythology.

That's all! Nice work, IMHO.

Samantha Jean said...

:) Thanks Matt! I thought the vagueness might be an issue. Your suggestions are very helpful, and I look forward to tackling this query to really make it shine. Thanks to everyone else who has or will make a comment. I appreciate all the feedback I can get!

Happy hump day everyone!

Samantha Jean said...

I don't know if I should give clarifying details here or not. Obviously, with so many having questions about the same thing, the query needs to be clearer.

Devon Green is a boy. He's hot. She has an attraction to him which messes with her being a good little girl and obeying Daddy's rule to stay away from him. The setting is actually in the southeastern part of the US.

Tame blood-drinker because they try not to kill their 'victims', and the farm is actually a full-funtioning animal/vegetable farm to help the Vrykolakas maintain their lifestyle without attracting attention.

Lucifer is the Devil, the same as the biblical character. I took the name Chaos for the realm where Hell (Gehenna - the lake of fire) exists from Paradise Lost by Milton. The story is influenced by Greek mythology, Jewish Mysticism, and Christianity, and mixes these elements but isn't ABOUT religion so I didn't mention that in the query.

And it is a clean YA because I have kids, and I read aloud to them nightly. If I can't read it without blushing, changing words, or deleting whole sections, then it isn't suitable for the younger YA readers. That was actually part of the reason I started writing.

Christine Hardy said...

Good for you, Samantha! :D

I agree with your motivation. I think about that a lot, myself.

farawayeyes said...

Thanks for your courage Samantha. We all learn through your bravery.

I too felt a sense of vagueness and yearned for clarification. I constantly remind myself that a query is NOT a book jacket blurb. In a query you DO want to tell all or at least enough to avoid confusion and do more than pique the interest of an agent. A difficult task when you basically only get one page of space.

Devon Green made me smile for a number of reasons. Unless your married to that name, you might want to rethink 'hot boy's' moniker.

Sounds like a great premise and your query is off to a great start. Good luck,

Matthew MacNish said...

I think Devon Green made me think of a park, because Devon (like Devonshire) sounds so British, and in Britain they often refer to a park (lawn) as a green. LOL.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt is spot on as usual. Some additional thoughts i had that he didn't cover.
The second sentence in the first paragraph (well, the first paragraph of the synopsis. Not the "i'm qurying you because" paragraph) felt long to me. That whole paragraph is only 2 sentences. I would either shorten that second one, or split it into two.
I also had issue with the vagueness, especially in the beggining half. Clear it up there and you can free up space in the second half for more conflict details.
Also, i think 115K is a trifle on the high side for a debut YA. From Colleen Lindsay's excellent post on word counts:

For mainstream YA, anywhere from about 45k to 80k; paranormal YA or YA fantasy can occasionally run as high as 120k but editors would prefer to see them stay below 100k. The second or third in a particularly bestselling series can go even higher. But it shouldn't be word count for the sake of word count

So, not that it's a deal breaker or anything, but if you keep that word count, you'll need to have a stellar query and stellar sample pages with super tight writing, so the agent knows the high wordcount is neccessary and not because of purple prose or whatever.

Otherwise, i think you're pretty close! For clarity's sake, i had no problem recognizing that Devon was a boy. I wouldn't change his name, i would just ditch his last name in the query and use a descriptor (blond-haired, blue-eyed Devon from the farm next door, or something). And also, i didn't have any problem with tame blood-drinking because not only does that desctiptor apply to the Cullens from Twilight, it also applies to Angel and later to Spike on Buffy and Angel.
So I would't worry about that.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Sigh. *descriptor*

maine character said...

Really liked this. The voice, the reluctant and distracted hero, and the stakes.

Thanks for the clarification on tame - it sounds like they get their blood the same way we milk the cows.

And with Devon Green mentioned in the same sentence as a field, I got the image of a park as well.

The only suggestion I'd make is a comma after "she’s never heard of."

Nancy Thompson said...

Vagueness aside, some of those sentences are way too long. In order to show your ability to compose concise, tight sentences in your story, you have to give example in your query, but don't fragment them. Your query needs to show your expertise in writing every bit as much as your manuscript. Having said that, the story sounds wonderful!

Johanna Garth said...

I was wondering about the "clean" when I read it yesterday. Thanks for addressing that Matt!

Samantha Jean said...

@ Maine Character - "Thanks for the clarification on tame - it sounds like they get their blood the same way we milk the cows."

Too funny...they actually refer to it as milking the cows. :)

Thanks everyone!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sarah pointed out my first thought - it's really long for young adult.

Joshua said...

I can't get past the first sentence. I think it's the "Almost fifteen-year-old" part. Saying "Lilith Butler's fourteen-year-old life is..." and then we can make the connection that she'll be fifteen by the "...two days before her birthday..." phrase.

Agreed that 115K makes it a long one.

Michael G-G said...

Like Joshua, I also stumbled on the "almost-fifteen-year-old" start.

I wonder if you couldn't start with something like "Two days before her fifteenth birthday, Lilith Brown's suburban life is shattered by the arrival of an uninvited birthday guest."

Then tell us who the birthday guest is, and the result of his/her appearance.

I found the third and longest paragraph to be confusing. As someone pointed out, the sentences are long and they don't read as smoothly as they could. How about:

Now she learns she's part of the fight for Heaven, battling enemies whose bite would mean everlasting death. Add to that the risk of capture by Lucifer, the Lord of Chaos, and eternity is looking bleak indeed. (Or some such. The point is to shorten the sentences and make them punchier.)

I like the title of your novel, and think you have an interesting story here. Best of luck!

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I would go with something other than "almost fifteen". Just say fourteen and then the reader can figure out she's getting a birthday through the rest of the paragraph. Matt's analysis, is of course, brilliant.

Old Kitty said...

I just want to know why Devon is off limits?!?! :-)

Oh and who is the uninvited guest?

And why is she being forced "to forget her life as a mortal?".

Good luck with your querying Samantha! Sorry, I seem to be full of questions and not much help!

Take care

Stina Lindenblatt said...

They're tame and blood-drink in Vampire Academy too. :)

Great work as always, Matt. Was Lucifer the uninvited guest? I wasn't sure in the end.

Dianne K. Salerni said...


Agents get a lot of queries that start with "just an ordinary girl" or "a girl with the perfect life" whose world is turned upside down by ... add inciting event here. I'm going to disagree with Matt (sorry, Matt) and suggest not opening with the ordinary aspects of Lilith's life.

If I were you, I'd open with the inciting event -- the unexpected and unwelcome guest. You can let us know later in the query just how much his revelations cost Lilith in terms of the perfect life she leaves behind.

I agree with Matthew about the conflict being a vague. Be sure to share with the agent enough specific details to wet his/her interest. Don't worry about spoilers. If grabbing the agent's attention comes at the price of a spoiler or two, then so be it.

Sarah said...

Great feedback, Matt.

I thought this story sounded interesting, but my chief concern was that the query itself sounds relatively generic until the third paragraph. It's important to keep in mind that when you query, you are competing with the other hundreds of queries arriving in the agent's inbox each week. So many of them will begin very similarly to this--a girl with a normal life who finds out she's supernatural in some way. And every word counts. I think it's essential to try to make use of every single sentence to really give the agent a sense of the voice and originality of the story. I mean, are you saying this girl goes from normal to blood-drinking over the course of a week? I'd think she'd have some reaction to that, and it would be more specific and dramatic than "far from easy." You have the opportunity to infuse this query with Lilith's voice, and I think that would help it sound unique.

And finally--I can tell you that 115k is on the seriously heavy side for YA UF. I got at least one R from an awesome editor because my YA UF was just over 100k (now that it's gone through final edits, I'm happy to say it's 97k). As you're preparing to query, I strongly suggest you look for ways to make the ms a bit leaner.

Best of luck to you!

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Thank you for sharing the process, Samantha Jean. Congrats on getting to the querying stage.
Love the Greek vampire element. I would like to see a few words that are character indicators for your MC--timid, tough, merry, willlfull--but keep in mind that I don't have the creds that the others here have.

alexia said...

I like the premise and you have some nice voice in your query. I agree with Matt (as usual). Some additional thoughts - this sentence seems grammatically awkward to me: "That is, until the arrival of an uninvited guest two days before her birthday unearths buried family secrets which turn her existence into anything but heavenly." I guess the part "turn her existence into anything but heavenly". Also, "unearthed" preceding "buried" is slightly redundant. I also would not put your word count in your letter in this case, since it is pretty long for a first book. Good luck! You've done a nice job.

Matt, I tagged you on my blog!

Jemi Fraser said...

Sounds like you've got some unique elements in your story! I wondered about the guest too - and Devon. Is he the crush mentioned before - or is that boy out of the picture now? I don't think it'll take too much for your to clear things up - good luck with it! :)

Lydia Kang said...

The novel sounds interesting but I agree about needing some of the vague elements replaced. Still, I'd read it!

Ishta Mercurio said...

Wow, there's a lot to like here. And I agree with pretty much everything Matt said - specificity will be your saviour.

I hear what everyone is saying about the tame blood drinker reference, but it just doesn't work for me. Probably BECAUSE of Twilight and Vampire Academy and all of the rest, it makes me think, "I've seen a lot of this." Not that I think you should change your story, because it probably works really well within the manuscript, but i wonder if it should be in the query.

Good luck!