Friday, May 11, 2012

Nabila Fairuz Rahman's Current Query Critiqued

Happy Friday, everyone! I wish I could say that with more energy, but I'm exhausted. Anyway, we've got Nabila's query again today, and those of you who've seen me do this before will know that my feedback will be in red.

The query:

Dear _____

After a fire burned down her home and her father and brother were lost to piracy, I would normally advise you to begin with character, but this opening line sneaks in great backstory, and it mentions pirates, so I'm not sure you can improve on that. I mean hello? Pirates. Anna and Shelly Manhar did the only thing they could: become pirates themselves, in order to find their family. You need to really think about this. It's possible that Anna does not die until the story has already begun, and if so, perhaps that's your inciting incident, but you absolutely should not introduce these two characters at the same time like this. We need to be certain who your story is about, as soon as possible. But when Anna dies in a mission gone awry, Shelly is left all by herself. Determined to carry on with the plan, Shelly gathers a crew and sets sail, looking for vengeance.

You've got a lot of awesome in this paragraph, but you need to re-structure things. First of all, I get the feeling this is a Young Adult novel (in the sense that Shelly is a teenager for most of the story). If that's the case, we need to know how old she is, ASAP. If not, her age is not as important, but we do need to know more about her character, ASAP.

I would suggest you re-write this opening to something along these lines:

Fearless seventeen-year-old Shelly Jones thinks she's lost everything when her father and brother are lost to piracy soon after the family home burns down, but she soon learns life is crueler than she ever could've imagined. She and her little sister Anna take the only path they can to find their family: join the swashbucklers who rule the high seas with gunpowder, blade, and cannon. But when Anna dies in a mission gone awry, Shelly is left all by herself. Determined to carry on with the plan, Shelly gathers a crew and sets sail, looking for vengeance.

That's not perfect, but I'm sure you get my drift.

But sailing is never easy for a pirate, and This sounds kind of cliche, and you don't need it. Words are at a premium in a query, so make sure every single one counts. Shelly shockingly finds out discovers that her once lost brother is now has become a navy officer, ergo making him her enemy. Furthermore, he is working for the very same man who is responsible for Shelly’s predicament. Huh? If you're going to introduce us to the antagonist in your query, you need to be more specific. Who is this man (you don't necessarily have to name him) and how is he responsible for Shelly's plight? Did he burn her house down? Why? Torn between her desire for revenge and her goal to reunite her loved ones, she learns that what she knew about her family was not entirely true, Vague. Be as specific as possible. and her own past is as mysterious as the girl who follows her around everywhere she goes. What girl? Either leave this out, or make it clearer. As her (mis)adventure takes her from one edge of the Caribbean Sea to the other, Shelly finds new friends while trying to stay alive, learns that families come in all shapes and sizes, and understands that hidden treasures are kept hidden for a number of reasons, one of which is so that the world remains safe. This doesn't end badly, but you should try to focus on a difficult choice Shelly must make to achieve her goals. I get the feeling she's going to have to choose between fighting her brother and his navy friends, or running.

Despite being a student of engineering, writing has always been my passion. You don't need this. THE UNTAMED ONE, is completed at 91,112 90,000 words, is my first novel. You need to tell us what the genre is, and this is as good a spot for that as any. I also have my own blog, named “My Own Little Corner”. I'm undecided on this. Your blog is so new, I'm not sure whether an agent is going to take that as a good or bad sign. Let's see what my readers think. If you are interested, I would gladly send you either the first few chapters or the manuscript. The manuscript is available on request. Thank you so much for your time and consideration. Looking forward to hearing from you.

In summary, you've got the makings of what is obviously an awesome story here. Even through some of the issues with the query, I can tell there is an exciting and moving tale underneath. What you need to focus on is tightening this letter until you can get the three main points of every story across: Character, Conflict, Choice.

Introduce us to Shelly first, show us who she is, and give us a reason to care about her. Then sprinkle in the backstory, and show us the inciting incident (this can be the house burning down, her sister getting killed, or almost anything, it depends on the story).

After that, use your second paragraph to focus on the main conflict of your plot. It sounds like fencing with the navy, and her brother, is the meat of the story, so expand on that, and be specific about exactly what happens.

Finally, finish up with a tough choice Shelly has to make. Obviously, she doesn't want to kill her brother, but can she save him from the navy without risking her own life (or something like that, whatever it is)?

That's it!

I would also strongly suggest you read The Dust of 100 Dogs, by A.S. King. First, because it's awesome, but also because your story sounds somewhat similar.

What do you guys think? Anyone disagree with me? Surely one of you can write a better opening hook than I did. Please vote on whether you think Nabila should mention such a brand new blog in her query.


maine character said...

My notes from yesterday: Take out ergo, Sea, and the lines about being a student and the blog.

Other than that, plenty of drama, high stakes, an emotional roller coaster, and I especially like how the family she sought to find aren’t who she thought.

Matt's critique really got to the guts of it, and the only place I'd disagree is how I liked the mystery of the little girl who follows her. It was just enough of a hint of some revelation to come.

Joshua said...

Looks like Matthew hit on everything that I was going to say. Plus, his suggestion for the opener was better than mine, and infinitely more insightful and knowledgeable, that I won't even mention my thought about it here. (I was thinking too literary instead of pitch.)

As for the blog, I've always heard that it's not a good thing to mention it, and with it being such a relatively new one, it doesn't quite set up the "Hey, look at my blog I have 2,000 followers and 90% of them are active, so that's a built-in seller" kind of thing. My .02 anyway.

Sarah said...

Great feedback, Matt. Nabila, as you rework the query, take a close look at every word and phrase. For example, something like "After a fire burned down her home" feels redundant, because what else would burn down her home? So you can either say "After her home burns to the ground" or "After a fire destroys her home" to eliminate the redundancy. Also, you use a singular pronoun in the first part of that initial sentence (her), but then you refer to 2 characters in the main clause, which would require a plural pronoun. These kinds of things would likely pull an agent right out of the story, and you don't want that! Especially because this sounds very exciting and you want that agent to be swept up in all of it.

One thing I struggled with, though: I don't know what kind of world this is, but the idea that two teenage girls would have access to a ship and all the resources/personnel it would require to even set sail ... seems quite implausible. If they joined as deckhands and disguised their gender, perhaps, but that's not indicated here. I'm concerned that it stretches the bounds of credulity a bit too much. Therefore, I believe you need some indication of how they become pirates and what that means. In any century, piracy is an incredibly deadly and male-dominated activity, so since this defies that general convention, you'd have to explain (briefly! concisely!) how that is even possible for an orphaned teenage girl. Why on earth would a crew follow her or obey her orders? Who is she that she has the skill and strength to get (I assume) grown men who are essentially criminals to follow her?

Regarding the blog, I don't think it should be mentioned unless it has a clear niche or it has a truly impressive number of followers. Otherwise, it probably wouldn't seem relevant to an agent.

Best of luck with this! Querying is so difficult and frustrating, but you've got an intriguing story and PIRATES. Keep at it!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Fixing the vagueness will fix most of the problems with the query. As for the blog, unless you have massive followers, I wouldn't mention it either.

Ciara said...

I think Matthew hit on most of the points. The story does sound intriguing. I would avoid mentioning a new blog. You need a following before you really put it out there. It doesn't take long, work at it and then share. Like everything else in life, it just takes time.
Good luck with the book submission!

A Daft Scots Lass said...

I was having a particularly shite Friday up until I read your post.

farawayeyes said...

FIRST, this sounds like a story I would LOVE.(I absolutely adored 'Dust' and agree, you should read it.)

SECOND, in that Hook. I would like to see PIRATES mentioned right away. Maybe something like;
'Seventeen year old Shelly Manhar never thought she would become a PIRATE until...(OR - but when...)'.That's just me, but come on, you're talking about PIRATES.

ON THE BLOG THING, I would never in a million years mention MY blog, but that's because it's so crazy or I mean eclectic. I can't see the value to a potential agent, but then that's just me. The other opinions seem to make more sense.

**QUESTION** Why would it matter to an agent if you had thousands of followers? Do they really think this makes you more saleable? (OK, I made that word up, but you know what I mean.)

Matthew MacNish said...

@ eyes - A blog with a lot of followers can't hurt, but it's not critically important. Basically, a hugely popular blog won't sell a bad book any more than the best query in the world will.

Bryan Russell said...

I agree with what Matt said about restructuring and clarifying, but if you keep that opening line, you need a comma after "home" to prevent the reader from thinking that the fire burned down her house, her father, and her brother.

Elise Fallson said...

Hi Nabila, sounds like you have the ingredients for an awesome book! Matthew did a great job with the critique, I certainly can't add anything else to it. I like his hook but I also liked farawayeyes as well. As far as mentioning the blog, I would leave it out. Talking about your book is your focus here, not your blog. Good luck with everything!!

Eliza Tilton said...

Adam nailed the big stuff. I questioned how two girls became pirates and then one got her own crew. That part didn't feel plausible and made me question the query. If you can add in a sentence on how they pull that off, you'll be fine.

The last paragraph got a little clunky wih the following girl and vauge aspects. I likd the brother conflict. I'd like to know how he was lost to piracy in the beginning.

If you have a popular blog like Mother.Write.Repeat or Miss Snark, I would mention it. Otherwise, leave it out. If an. Agent is interested they'll google you.

Eliza Tilton said...

Matt* sorry, blaming that on pregnancy hormones.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Opening line "After a fire burned down her home and her father and brother were lost to piracy..." Okay, I don't like the passive voice. In my opinion...axe it from the query because it might lead someone to believe you write in passive voice which (to me) is not good. I would go with "Anna and Shelly Manhar lost their father and brother to pirates following a house fire." No more passive voice, intro of characters right up front.

You also might want to consider writing this query in first person regarding the protag. It could be kind of gimicky but might work here before you launch into an expose on the book. Example: "I am all alone in the world after a fire burned down my home, and pirates took my brother and father..." That could be kind of awesome.

Query writing is so tricky. Best of luck.

Jess said...

I think Matt hit on everything I would have mentioned! Sounds like a great story~ hope Matt's advice gets you requests!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I'm not even sure you need to mention the sister's name since she doesn't really play a part in the overall book except as her motivation. Otherwise, great breakdown, Matt. I'm curious about the genre of this.

Nancy Thompson said...

Yes, Matthew did well here. And Sarah's comments on plausibility are quite valid & should be addressed. It's widely accepted to list your blog as part of your signature at the very end. As for writing a query in first person, that's a huge no-no, but it could be used as an exercise to get into character. Then just switch back to third. But don't ever send a query written in first.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Very vague - needs very tight details but not so much that it grows too long.

In response to Michael's comment - DON'T change to first person unless your book is written that way. Otherwise, the agent/publisher will expect the book to also be in first person.

And list what genre of YA, not just 'YA.'

Angela Brown said...

Writing a query takes guts.

Submitting it to Matt's place for a critique takes balls.

I'm not there yet :-)

So I commend you, Nabila, for your bravery in seeking improvement. The notes made by Matt are very spot on and the commentors have added some additional feedback.

I wish you the best as you revise and submit your query.

Nabila Fairuz said...

Thank you so much everyone for all the wonderful advice! I'll be sure to follow them! And thanks Matt for all the help!

One thing I get confused is to what the genre would be. I did write the story aiming at YA, but I don't know under which category of YA it falls. Any ideas?

deathwriter said...

This is such wonderful advice. I'm going to a writer's conference next week and they have a query gong show. Attendees can bring their query letter and it's read in front of a group of 6 agents. The agent gongs when they find a problem. I went last year and it was hilarious. Well, not hilarious for the people who were skewered.
It was also very illuminating to hear what the agents had to say.

alexia said...

Great crit as usual, Matt! I agree with your points. Definitely spice up that last sentence - I want to feel more end-of-the-world tension here.

As for the part about whether to mention your blog, I personally wouldn't do it in the body of the query, I'd just include it in your email signature, or letterhead if you're sending the query snail mail.

Traci Kenworth said...

I don't think she should mention the blog. I found your remarks very educational and helpful at looking at my own work. I'm getting a better idea as to what to include in a query and how to go about doing so, thanks to you!!