Friday, August 31, 2012

Jessica Salyer's Current Query Critiqued

So ... it's Friday. The Friday before labor day. But I actually wrote this last night. Because I have a four day weekend! Please forgive my enthusiasm, but I'm pretty much a slave at work lately, so any reprieve is nice.

And now, here is Jessica's query, with my feedback, which this time, just to mix it up, will be in this blue.

The letter:

Dear Awesome Agent,

Emma Potter who? believes she’s an average seventeen-year-old girl until an uneventful road trip becomes anything but when a truck blows a tire and slides into her parent’s lane. Okay, so considering the fact that your first sentence may very well be your most important - this isn't bad, but it could be better. For one thing, I tell every query seeker the same thing: more character from before the story starts. That always helps. But also, I think this opening hook needs more of a gut-punch. We can infer the accident that's supposed to happen, but your next sentence kind of subverts that, and all the tension is let out of this query. A collision is inevitable, but the truck flies over the car, leaving it completely unscathed. So ... this is cool in the sense of describing a clearly powerful inciting incident, but I'm not so sure about how it's delivered. It's mostly passive voice, and even if it wasn't ... I think this final punch of your opening paragraph would be better served if it made it clearer that the truck evading the car was based on your character's power, because as it reads, it sounds somewhat random.

Within twenty-four hours, Emma is whisked onto a plane and shuttled halfway across the country to her new home, Potter Valley. She’s required to attend a high school for students with ‘special powers’ like hers, known as Guardians. Countless secrets are revealed, none more troublesome then than the prophecy, which dictates that once the three founding Guardian families are reunited, a war will break out. More importantly, the side Emma chooses will win. All right. I initially debated breaking this paragraph up, and inserting some in-line notes, but overall, I think this all suffers from the same main thing. It's lost the defiant YA voice that the first paragraph had. It's also a lot of passive sentence construction, as a reader pointed out yesterday, but more importantly, it lacks the main thing the second paragraph in a query needs: the main conflict. I mean the choice of Emma choosing a faction certainly has potential, but it's not that clear whether that is the true heart of the story. There's a prophecy, and there're these families, but what does it all mean?

Thrust into a world she didn’t know existed, the cause of a war she didn’t fully understand, how can Emma choose which side to fight for? And once the choice is made, how can she defend herself with a power she knows not how to wield, against those who have trained for this confrontation their whole lives. This is better, especially in the last sentence summary, but the beginning of this paragraph is especially vague. We have a vague concept of the "world," but the war, and Emma's understanding of it, are particularly mysterious. Can you elaborate at all on the sides? Why there is war, and why she cares? And, if at all possible, this choice is obviously implied, but if you can make it clearer what the consequences are, and why (or if) she chooses to fight for or against whichever side she does, it would help if the negative potential of her decision was clearer.

AWAKENED is a XX,XXX word YA Paranormal (BTW a "world she didn't know existed" CAN signify a fantasy or sci-fi book, but I think that was a metaphor-at-risk-of-being-a-cliche) novel manuscript complete at xx,xxx words with series potential. I’m an active member of SCBWI. The full manuscript of AWAKENED is available upon your on request. This is all nit picky crap, but don't go over board with this housekeeping stuff. Most agents don't care about this part, they care about the meat of the story, but a major gaffe in this section might scream - amateur.

Thank you for you time and consideration.

Jessica Salyer
http://www.JessicaSalyer.blogspot.com You should incorporate this link into the body of your email, and eliminate the HTML. If you don't know how, we can talk privately.

In summary - I know I cut it up, but I do think this query is good. It covers the basics, and may get past some agent's assistant screeners, but you really do want it to pop in order to stand out.

The hook, I think, is your strong point, even if it's not perfectly executed here. I mean a young girl, who suddenly has telekinesis, and yet still doesn't fit in at a school for those like her? That's an awesome premise, but it's not as highlighted as it can be in this query.

As the query (story) escalates from there, things get very vague, fast. We can, thankfully, infer some of the good stuff, but we do need to know more about exactly which sides are available to Emma, and why choosing one is so hard (more specifically, because we do have a hint of that).

That's it.

Thanks so much for reading, everyone. I actually have the day off, so I wrote this last night, and am now focusing on the writing work I need to do this weekend. Please share your thoughts in the comments, and otherwise, keep on keepin' on. Word up.

20 comments:

Candyland said...

"Timmy is brilliant," Beth said.

Also, I think the comments are spot on. While everything is there, when I first read, I thought the same about the opening. IT could be stronger. But it's easily fixable.

Great job!

Em-Musing said...

I didn't understand the first sentence until I blinked a few times and noticed your blue 'who'. Other than that eye rubbing confusion, I think your comments clearly make the right points.

farawayeyes said...

Another good query made better. Thanks Matt and Jessica.

Sarah said...

I agree completely with Matt on most of this feedback. You must keep in mind that you are competing with thousands of other hopefuls, and this one page letter is your first impression--and possibly your only chance to intrigue. Fair or unfair, this is it. So ...

Many, MANY agents have stated that beginning a query with so-and-so "thought she as an average girl until ..." is highly cliched at this point, so I'd stay away from that opener if I were you. Unfortunately, going to a new school for kids with special powers is also very frequently done, so I'm afraid that you are already at a disadvantage in making this stand out. Especially when the kid who ends up at the school for special powers has the last name "Potter." You DON'T want the agent to chuckle and think "Any relation to Harry?"

The key to overcoming this disadvantage and showing the agent that your story has not been done thousands of times before is to really hone the voice, the details, and the specificity. Don't start with "average girl"--I'd actually suggest opening with the first day of school and detailing why it's not exactly the beginning she expected or hoped for (because, you know, never mind finding her locker--she's got to figure out how to walk down the hall without exploding the joint with her thoughts, and forget trig--she's got to figure out how to get an A in Mystical Assassination Techniques I<--I'm obviously just making that up, but what I'm suggesting is that you SHOW the mysterious world Emma's thrust into rather than telling us it's mysterious). Also--do you realize the only character you introduce us to is Emma? You never mention anyone else specifically--not a love interest, or a friend, or a mean kid or a villain or her parents or a teacher ... this is a major sign that the query is way too vague.

I suspect that beneath this vague query is a truly unique and fascinating story. It's hinted at here--I can tell it's in there! The problem is that a hint is not enough, and the one thing I disagree with Matt on is that this query will get past agents' screeners as is. It's too generic. I suggest you start over and use the basic structure you have, because it's quite good, and so is the writing. However, instead of vague generalizations, be super-specific. Every single sentence should belong in only your query because it's unique to your story. That shouldn't make it much longer, but it will make it more compelling and interesting.

Best of luck with this--you're doing the right thing by seeking feedback. I think this has a ton of potential, and that with the right rewrite, you'll be getting requests!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Just needs some passion behind it - that will help bring out the voice.
Great suggestions! Jessica was so worried...

Elise Fallson said...

Great suggestions Matt and commenters. I also think adding something about Emma's love interest would be a good idea. Maybe even talk about the Guardians and their enemies... just a thought. Your word count is only around 210 so you have room to add a bit more specifics if you're aiming for 250. Just my 2c.

Good job girl! (:

Bryan Russell said...

I agree with Matt on the big picture. There were some minor grammatical things, too, but as this needs a bit of rewriting to tie it together, I won't bother. If you want a professional editor to give the revised version a quick (and free!) scan, drop me a line.

SA Larsenッ said...

I agree with most of Matt's critique, especially his comments about the first sentence. I also like what Sarah had to say. Good luck with this!!

A Daft Scots Lass said...

All the best, sweetie.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I was wondering if the Potter reference was deliberate -- especially since it's Emma's last name and the name of the valley. If it is, I think it's important you make that clear.

I agree with Sarah on the "She thought she was an average girl" line. I'm not an agent, and I've still seen that line countless times here at Matt's blog.

In order to make this query shine, you will have to reveal some secrets. I know it's difficult to spill the details about Potter Valley and Guardians because you want to surprise the reader, but don't hold them back in a query. The agent needs to know what you plan on surprising the reader with so that this manuscript will catch his/her eye.

Jessica Salyer said...

Thanks for all the great suggestions and encouragement! I really appreciate it. I will definitely rewrite the beginning and change the bit about the school. It's not a school just for people with powers, regular kids go there too. And great pick up Dianne... that's exactly why her name is Potter. :) Thank you, Matthew for sharing your wisdom with me.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I like the blue comments. They are easier to read than the red. Great new pic by the way, Matt.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great critique Matt. And there were a lot of good suggestions in the comments. Jessica, I think you've got a good start to the query. If you make it clearer in paragraph one about Emma's sudden powers causing the truck not to hit them and some of Matt's other suggestions, you should be able to spotlight what's unique about your story. It sounds like a great story.

Matt, hope you have a great weekend and get lots of writing done.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great crit, Matt. I didn't get the connection between the car and her powers when I read it the first time yesterday either. Putting that in the first paragraph will give it some punch :) Good luck - sounds like a great story :)

Sarah Ahiers said...

Once again, Matt is spot on! He tagged everything i thought of

Donna K. Weaver said...

Well done, Matt. The story's intriguing. I'd read it.

Jericha Senyak said...

In addition to Matt's always-savvy comments, I think a lot of Sarah's suggestions are great, too. Myself, I think the Potter thing is a problem - especially if the reference IS deliberate, in which case you run the risk of looking like you're trying to capitalize on another author's creation.

I'm also curious about the Emma Potter/Potter Valley connection. Clearly there is one, but Emma clearly wasn't aware of it, and I want to know what it is. You could even use it as a way to tie your query together: "Turns out Emma's family is a whole lot more important than she'd ever suspected. In fact, they've got a whole magical vale named after them. But the surprise of being whisked away to a fancy new school in Potter Valley pales in comparison to what she discovers when she arrives... " or whatever.

Good luck! Sounds like it could be super fun and fascinating.

Alexandra Shostak said...

It's safe to say that I've just stopped having opinions on query letters until I learn your opinion, Matt.

Kidding! ...mostly

Christina Lee said...

Jessica good luck with this!!!! Matt, spot on!

Jay Noel said...

Oops. Thought I left a comment on this last Friday. I said that Sarah really nailed it, along with Matthew's detailed feedback.

Sarah was right on about the screeners (gatekeepers). There's going to have to be something in this query that screams DIFFERENT and UNIQUE to get past them.