Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Toni Sinns' Current Query II Critiqued

Wow. So I apologize, but this post probably won't go up until 9 AM. I've been at work for two hours, and the phone just now stopped ringing. It's not even 8 AM. But it's almost noon in the UK, and that's the problem.

Anyway, enough of me bitching about work. Let's get to work. Er, wait.

Here's Toni's query, with my feedback, in red.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

Anistasia Cloud, an ex-mafia I'm not sure there's really such a thing as ex-mafia. Unless you make it into witness protection, I don't think La Cosa Nostra allows people to just back out. princess, and John Kusagari, a local street racing ring master, become a dynamic duo in the short two months left of their Junior year at Brooksville High. Not only do they have to face the high school drama of being seventeen they also have to face the secretes is this a British English spelling? Because this looks like the verb for secretion. from their past.

I'm not really sure about this entire opening. The one thing you have going for you is a unique premise, but the way everything is delivered here isn't working for me. For one, we've got no sense of character, just her situation. For another, you tell us all about the high school situation, but unless that's mostly backstory, you want to show us. Finally, you introduce another character much too early. I realize you mentioned yesterday that the book is told from alternating POVs, and I know that's hard to convey in a query, but I would focus on hooking us with one character, then lead into the other more gradually, and mention the two POVs in your housekeeping paragraph.

Anistasia is on the run with her older Brother Xander from a mafia her father sold her to when she was only eight. So I like the concept behind this, but I'm not sure how believable the premise is. For one thing, the Italian Mafia rarely deals in human trafficking or sex slavery, so if that's what you mean you might want to reconsider. Also, if she and her brother are on the run from the mob, it's a little hard to believe she can safely attend high school. One option might be to make it the Russian Mafiya, Vory, or Bratva, who are well known for dealing in those kinds of crimes. Growing up in the Italian Mafia provided her with an array of special skills she uses to stay one step ahead of her pursuers. What did she do for this mob? Because it's highly unlikely that she was sold to them, and then trained to be a thief or an assassin or something like that, but if that is what happened in the story you're telling, be sure to make it clear in the query, because that would be cool.

However, when she moves to Brooksville and meets up with John she starts thinking about staying around for a while, which ultimately could be her death. Obviously, but still, this is a good raising of the stakes. You might want to consider fitting this into your opening, because at first, I thought she'd always lived there.

John is a local boy that took over the underground street races every other Friday night. I know I always say be specific, but I don't think we need this detail. Using the code name Blaze, as he races, helps keep the law and his mobster father Sebastian out of the know-how. I think you mean uniformed, but it's confusing, because know-how is not the same thing as know-of. Protecting his Mother April mom and younger sister Naomi has been his job ever sense his older brother Hunter died. But when he runs into Anistasia he can’t help but think about her all the time fall for her. Is there enough of him to help Can he protect one more? I would skip asking questions in a query if you can. Just say something like, John will have to decide whether he has the time/energy/dedication/whatever to protect one more person.

I GOT YOU COVERED is the first book of the Blazing Charm series. It is completed with 53,768 complete at 55,000 words. I have available the outline for the complete Blazing Charm series. You can mention series potential in a query, but make sure the first novel can stand on its own. With your recent move into Juvenile writers I believe my YA, action, romance will be a good fit for you. This must be specific for one agent, because not all of them have recently moved into this market. I would also refer to it as Children's Fiction, or Young Adult Fiction, rather than "Juvenile writers." I would also refer to your genre as something like "a Contemporary YA Romance, steeped with action and suspense." Maybe not those exact words, but just be clear that Romance and Contemporary are accepted sub-genres, while action really is not.

I currently have one self-published poetry book on Amazon in paperback and kindle version. Unless it's sold thousands of copies, don't mention previous self-published works.

Thank you for your consideration.


Toni Sinns

Okay, to summarize, the organization and execution of this query needs some work. You do have the hardest part down: a cool and unique premise, that clearly shows a story that will be full of tension. It's possible some agents would request pages based on that alone.

But you want this query to make sense, and to force an agent to have no choice but to request pages. I think if you re-structure, you can make that happen.

Open with Anastasia, give us a pinch of her backstory right away, show us what kind of character she is, and then lay out the inciting incident that she has just arrived in Brooksville, New Jersey (my assumption) while on the run from the Mob, who she used to do X for. Then you can get into high school, and describe the fact that the main conflict is: do I stay and love John, and risk capture and death, or do I run, and live? This makes for excellent high stakes that require a difficult decision, which is exactly how you want to end a query.

That's it.

What do you all think?


Hart Johnson said...

It DOES sound like it's an interesting story, but Matt, I agree with you that it needs some rearranging and plausibility checks. And I recently had to decide on just ONE PoV in a query for a book that had two--I agree it is MUCH easier to write a coherent hook by limiting that. Nice critique.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt was spot on as usual.
There were definitely too many characters mentioned in the query. I would stick with John and Anistasia and that's it. I wouldn't even refer to her brother by name, since he's really only mentioned once.

I get a good sense of what's at stake here (her life) but i'm not as clear on the conflict. I get that she falls in love and wants to stay with John, but i'm just not quite clear on how that's strong enough. I think you really need to ramp up their connection in this query.

I also wondered about if you were talking about human trafficking or not, and then questioned why you were using the italian mafia as opposed to russian.

You have a good beginning here. It won't take you much to make this query stellar.
Good luck!

farawayeyes said...

So nice to see something different and exciting in this genre. As usual Matt asks all the right questions and gives the greatest answers. I don't think you will go wrong by following his advice here.

Thanks Tori. This is one I would read.

storyqueen said...

I have to admit, my first thought was Russian mafia, too, what with her name being Anastasia and they things she has endured. It was a bit of a jolt to read the words "Italian mafia".

But Matthew, you are right, the hardest part, the part of writing the book (!) is done. Now Toni just has to make sure that the query reflects that book in the best possible way.

You've given lots of great tips!


Sarah said...

Great feedback, Matt. I think this story has great potential to be an absolutely thrilling read. However, the writing in this query is somewhat rough, and apart from my concerns about the structure of the query (which you covered), I became worried that the actual manuscript might contain very similar errors (arbitrary capitalizations, secretes/secrets, that/who mix-ups, comma problems)--and an agent would likely be concerned about this, too. They're really very small errors, but they have a cumulative effect. I suggest a careful editing of both query and ms before pressing the send button. That said, I loved the question "Can he protect one more?" and think that's a very intriguing place to end the query. A ton of potential here! Good luck!

Slamdunk said...

Well done Matthew and Toni. I like the book's premise.

Good points with the "former-mob" label and the ensuring that a book can stand on its own before discussing a series. On the mob, I always wonder about those "former mob" experts on tv--makes me think less of them for sure.

Flemish said...

As always Matt does a great job analyzing. I agree. There are a few things that threw me off. One is the premesis of the story. Ex mafia and a local street racing ring leader at 17? To me at that point I'm out. However if the premises would be that Anastasia dad was a mob boss and John the son of a Yakuza boss who did a lot of street racing I would be more inclined to read the rest of the query. The dynamics of why it must be like to be a child of a mobster would be interesting and of course the forbidden love between rivaling crime syndicates. On the side Anastasia and John have learned some tricks from their family.
Just my two cents in this. Some things that bugged me was the sentence structure in the query.
But after all you are getting advice and most important you are writing and doing it. Never give up and good luck.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to everyone that has offered suggestion so far. I will take it all in and try to make my query flow better.

Also in all of the questions about the sold to the mafia part it is because her father owed money to the mafia and wasn't able to pay. So instead he more or less gave his daughter to them in return for leaving him alone.

Also she was raised in the mafia and was bumped in rank quickly so she wasn't taught just one thing. She was the top girl in the mafia and was being forced to marry the Mob Boss. Her brother helped her escape she wasn't let go which is why she is now on the run.

Just saying all that so maybe it would help someone give me ideas to make the query cleared up.

Thanks for all your help and for posting my query Matt.

Barbara Watson said...

Matt, you are always so thorough. I always pop over to these query critiques so I can learn more about the crafting of them. All of that to say, Toni, I'm learning and have no input for you, but I do want to thank you for putting this out there to help the rest of us learn. Go forth and make your query stronger!

Matthew MacNish said...

@ Gracie/Toni - That information does help, but you should still clarify what skills she learned while climbing the ranks of the mafia. It always helps to be as specific as possible.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I love the name Anastasia. It's so beautiful and just rolls off the tongue.

Tricia said...

Since Matt is so good at what he does, ususally I have nothing to add. I was going to point out grammar issues, but Sarah beat me to it. But it is a genre I would read, so I thought I'd chime in and say I agree will all the suggestions to make this a better query. Good luck.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You covered a lot of issues and handled them all very well. Critiquing queries isn't my gift but I do know I was believability in a story like this.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Interesting premise but the query is a bit scattered.

First off, I question the concept that her father sold her to the mob to pay off debts UNLESS this plot point will come to play later on (like, her father wants to rescue her or Anastasia has some deeply rooted anger toward men because of her father's betrayal). Otherwise, I'd take another look at how she entered the mob service. Maybe a mobster killed her father and raised her as his own. Maybe she's the daughter of a mob guy who was killed and is just being raised by them like an extended family. My point is that it feels really implausible that a parent would sell his daughter to the mob to cancel a debt, and if you're going to keep that angle, you have to sell it hard and make it believable.

I'd cut the first paragraph completely and start with the second. However, you need to tidy this up some. Your hook here is that Anastasia is on the run from the mafia. I'm not sure where the brother fits in (seeing as you mention that their father only sold her to the mafia), but if he's only a bit player, cut him for clarity or make it clear that their father sold them both. Something like:

Anastasia and her older brother Xander are on the run from the mafia, on the run from the people who raised them after their father sold them to pay off a debt. However, when she gets to Brooksville and meets underground street racer John, she stays longer than she should, a decision that could prove fatal.

That's still really clunky, but there's the hook (that I see). Now, you can fill in some details in the next paragraph...some conflicts, some character bits, a brief (BRIEF) description of those mafia skills. Enough stuff that an agent reading would understand how you were going to turn your hook into a 250 page book.

Like Matthew mentioned, ditch the talk of series and make sure that the book can stand on its own.

This is a really neat concept, and I hope to read it some day!

Jessica Peter said...

I'm far from a mob expert, but I've done some research since my city has a pretty heavy Mafia presence (or it has in the past).

First, I agree with other posters that the buying people behaviour doesn't sound like the Mafia - the Russian mob, maybe. The (Italian) Mafia is all about family. Buying a girl wouldn't make much sense. . .

Then I have a problem with language. When you talk about "the Mafia", it refers to Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian crime group. Yes, it's used casually in other ways, but it does sound like this is what you mean. Therefore, you need to capitalize Mafia. Also, saying "Italian Mafia" is redundant - if it's the Mafia, it's Italian. And saying " a mafia" doesn't make sense - if you mean THE Mafia, say so.

Scribbles From Jenn said...

The way you transform the query letter is amazing. Everything is so clear to me after the changes are made. I wish my foresight was as clear as my hindsight.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Another good critique. You touched on all the things I noticed (and more, Oh, Guru).

I would add something about this sentence:

"John is a local boy that took over the underground street races"

John is a who rather than a that.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great critique, as always. It sounds like a really interesting premise.

Martha said...

Just popping over to follow before the A-Z challenge begins :)

DL Hammons said... I said...just a few nips and tucks. :) You nailed it again.

Rusty Webb said...

I did think this query needed some reworking when I first read it, but like always, I couldn't really put my finger on what exactly was making it not work for me. You summed up my impressions very well, cool.

mshatch said...

Matt hit it perfectly with all his comments/suggestions. This IS an interesting premise. I think the one thing I'd like more of is something to connect me to the character(s). I get she's been sold but the way this is told doesn't make me sympathize as much as it could if it was told in Anastasia's voice.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I agree with Matt's summary, and with the comments that while the stakes are great, the stuff leading up to the stakes is a little fuzzy.

I don't understand how she got to be enrolled in a high school mid-year with no parents to handle that, and if she has been there all year, how she continues to be able to hide from the Mob. She ran away from them, and they don't just let that kind of thing go for a few months while they figure out what to do with you. So, really, I'm not sure if the issue here is with clarity, or basic premise.

I'd like to see this if you started over with a very clear intro of character and hook (that she's on the run from the Mob), with just enough backstory to keep us from being confused, and then get into the conflict.

I don't even know if you need to mention High School, since it might need more explaining than you have room for. It may be better to simply say that she's on the run and meets a guy.

One other minor point: it's always a good idea to get someone to proofread your query letter. You have a few typos in here, and it detracts from the professionalism of your query.

You've got a very interesting premise here - good luck with your querying!

alexia said...

Cool premise! I agree with Matt's comments. Should we be scared you know so much about the mafia, Matt? One thing that occurred to me though is that if you create an alternate reality/world for this, you could make up just about whatever rules you want for these mafia groups. That's just my urban fantasy brain talking, though. Good luck!

Angela Ackerman said...

Great advice Matt. I agree, sounds like a good premise, but query wise, too much is packed into the first para. It almost feels to me like the second para is really where things should start, that it feels like the hook.

Querying is tough, but keep working at it and you'll find the magic! Good luck!


Nancy Thompson said...

To correct Jessica, there is no THE Mafia. You do need to specify it was the Italian Mafia as there are many forms of Mafia across several nationalities. I, myself, wrote a novel about sex trafficking in the Russian Mafia. The biggest problems I see with this query in addition to those Matthew mentioned are:

It's confusing about Anastasia's origins in the Mafia. I can't believe an Italian father would SELL his own daughter into the business.

For me, there are credibility issues with her age, skills, & affiliation.

There are enough grammar, spelling, & punctuation errors in this query that an agent would likely believe your manuscript suffers from the same.

Overall, it's sounds like an interesting premise, one that could sell, but I think you need to deal with both the credibility & grammatical errors, as well as the mechanics of the query itself. Then make sure your ms reflects that too.

Anonymous said...

Agreed on all of Matthew's notes.

Not to be nitpicky, but Fourth Paragraph, should be "since" not "sense."