Friday, January 4, 2013

Laura Stephenson's Current Query Critiqued

You guys are used to this by now, right? Here is Laura's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

First of all, let's talk about formatting. That is a big chunk of text below this paragraph o' mine. Before I even start reading it, just the way its girth reaches off the page and pinches my eye ... makes me want to squint. I'm not saying every query has to fit into a neat little 250 word, three paragraph formatting structure, but I do think you should consider breaking this paragraph up.

Kalara Orlov isn't just any fantastically rich young woman living in a luxury apartment in NYC, attending Columbia University--she's also a mage. Hmm. This isn't bad, and at least you introduce an interesting character right away, but I'm left wanting a little more. More voice, more characterization, more something. While at a dinner party, she discovers the host, Brentley Whitcomb, I would say you don't need this guy's last name, but then you start calling him by it. is also a mage, and lets him know they have that in common in an attempt to network. Unbeknownst to her, Whitcomb is also a powerful necromancer who doesn't want anyone discovering he's selling the souls of the dead who go through his funeral home, so he tries to kill her. Natch. I would break paragraph here. That last sentence is pretty hooky. The attempt comes too close to working for comfort, Obviously? and she decides to elicit the help of a devil. Whoa. Okay. The guy who ends up answering her call is Evander, a devil's is there more than one devil in this world? son who's bad at being bad. Like Little Nicky? He draws up a very fair contract: in return for borrowing his power for five days, she has to give him a heart from one of his enemies so that he may eat and gain the power from it. If she fails to deliver the heart, he eats hers instead. This is pretty good. You've got conflict, stakes, and a choice. Well done.

As the days fly by, Kalara has to balance school, appearances, killing Whitcomb, Hah! LOL. and finding and killing an enemy of Evander's so she doesn't wind up dead at the end. All the while she's discovering that being evil, which she had been by caring only about riches and style, just doesn't pay off. And all the while, Evander is growing to like her, but since he's obligated to fill his contract or transform into a demon, he hounds her constantly to fill her end of the bargain. But she has too many things on her plate, and it all comes down to the wire. I'm not sure about this whole paragraph. It's got some nice voice at points, but as far as substance, it doesn't add all that much that we couldn't already infer from the previous paragraph. The one piece of new information is the possibility of romance, which is good, but you don't need all this other reiteration to get to it.

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO BEING EVIL, Awesome title. finished at 60,000 words, is a stand-alone comedic Urban Fantasy.

The one thing, which people mentioned yesterday, is that the voice of this query doesn't fully match the voice one would expect from a comedic novel (I also might use humorous over comedic, but it's just a matter of taste). You do have a couple funny moments, but overall this query reads a little dry for a funny book.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Laura Stephenson

Okay, in summary: you've got some great strong points. The plot, for example, or at least the inciting incident/hook part of it is very strong. The middle of this query too, in which a clear choice for Kalara is revealed, is great.

Then we've got the beginning, and the end. The opening isn't bad. It's got all the necessary elements, I just think you need to spice it up a bit, add some voice, and maybe be a bit funny, or at least irreverent. The end, depending on where you choose to end after this critique, needs some work.

I almost think you need to re-order things here. So that the potential romance comes up before the sadistic choice about murder or death. Try to write your query so that it progresses smoothly from Character, into Conflict, and finishes up with a Choice.

That's it.

What do you all think? Can you suggest a different opening for Laura? What about the end? How or where would you wrap things up?

25 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Agree about breaking up that first paragraph. I thought the same thing - whoa, that's long!

Sarah said...

I agree with Matt's feedback; I think this query read a little dry and synopsis-like, and therefore lacked that "spark" needed to entice an agent sitting down to go through 20-50 queries at a time. I'd prefer a bit less synopsis and a bit more world-building, actually. For example, "mage" can look different, with different powers and limitations, depending on your world, right? So when you say "mage", I have no idea what that means for her. Even one added phrase could solve that issue.

I agree you have excellent stakes here, but the second paragraph should ratchet up the tension, and instead it feels tepid, and also life-lessony (that sentence about caring only for riches), which is not what you want. Where's the ticking clock? "It all comes down to the wire" is too vague and generic to satisfy or hook. And even though you give her only five days, it doesn't really sound like that in the second paragraph somehow, partly because you use the verb "balance", which is not a very exciting and actiony stance for a character. And in the next sentence, she "is discovering". And after that, Evander "is growing to like her". If you rewrote this and used more dynamic, taut language (the first thing to do is change from present continuous tense to simple present tense, but then also choose more action-oriented verbs), I think you'd get a lot more mileage out of it.

This story sounds like a lot of fun and is worth the work to perfect the query so it gets some attention--best of luck with this!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

My number one thought, reading this query yesterday, concerned the vagueness of several key points. What is a mage? How does Whitcomb try to kill her? Why is the devil bad at being bad? Why does being evil not pay off?

I realize you can't tell the whole plot, but I feel as if catch phrases are being used in the place of more creative and informative ones.

Also, as Matt pointed out, the query should give us a taste of the humorous tone of the novel. Again, this can probably be remedied by removing vague phrases like "kill her" with something more specific and hopefully humorous in tone.

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Hi Laura! Like everyone else, I LOVE the title.

Matt's right, get rid of that whole "days flying by" paragraph. Tighten up your first paragraph. Take out the word "very" because generally it's a sign of weak writing. (Another example, "hounds her constantly" is repetitive - just hounds her is enough.) Maybe I'm out of the fantasy loop but does everyone know what a mage is? I don't, but hopefully an agent in that kind of genre does know, but if it's a word you made up, maybe some explanation is in order.

And, yeah, if this is a funny book, bring on the funny!!!!!

You're a brave woman, opening your query letter to fiends like us... best of luck with what sounds like an awesome story!

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I agree with the comments about tone. I had no idea it was humorous until you indicated in the summary. And even just one example of how the devil is bad at being bad would show so much more than telling us he is.

Great concept - good luck!

Slamdunk said...

I'll let your talented writers handle the specifics, but I am all for a 250 word three paragraph or something similar structure.

If someone has to read dozens of these daily, then they will appreciate structure that allows them to quickly hone in on relevant points--and then go back later and read the document more closely.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I always like to see your critiques. I never have much to add because you cover it all so well!

Stacy McKitrick said...

Maybe I'm being repetitous from what others have already said, but when more than one person sees it, then it's probably a problem!

Anyway, yeah, the first paragraph is way too long. I nearly glazed over it on my first read.

And this is a humorous book? So didn't get that vibe when reading it.

I think if you follow Matt's suggestions, you'll end up with a stronger query. The story sounds interesting, but you want an agent to think it sounds awesome! Good luck to you!

Tonja said...

My overal impression was that it was a little wordy with a lot of long sentences. I like the idea of breaking up the long paragraph too. Good luck!!

mshatch said...

Matt made all the right comments and suggestions. I agree that you need to be more specific about the devil's son. Do you mean Satan's son? Or do you mean a demon's offspring? I think of the devil and Satan as one and the same, the baddest of the bad, while demons are a dime a dozen. As for mages, well, sure I know what one is, but there are all kinds and some are good and some aren't and they probably all have specialties. If you get a little more specific about what kind of mages we're talking about you'll add interest to your query and your mc.

I love the title, too :)

Good luck with this!

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

Brevity is the soul of wit. I love your suggestions.

Laura Stephenson said...

Thanks for all your comments! I tried to incorporate them into this rewrite (but now there's 4 paragraphs instead of two. Facepalm):

Riches, youth, magic. Kalara is a classic evoker--hurling fire, ice, and electricity is her specialty. Why not enchanter you ask? She doesn't need magic to bewitch people, she was gorgeous and could throw out money like candy.

Meet Whitcomb, the host of a dinner party Kalara attends. She finds out he's also a mage, and lets him know they have that in common in an attempt to network. Unbeknownst to her, Whitcomb is also a powerful necromancer who doesn't want anyone discovering he's selling the souls of the dead who go through his funeral home, so he tries to teleport her into the Hudson River.

Her protection spell sucks enough strength from the spell that she winds up in a neighbor's hot bath instead. After some smooth talking and a teleportation spell of her own, she gets away, but she knows Whitcomb is strong enough to (figuratively) kick her butt. So she decides to elicit the help of a devil.

Enter Evander, the son of one of many of millions of devils working hard to corrupt humanity. He's fresh from failing his final test, influencing a man's dreams, due to a rather persuasive pomeranian. They sign an overly fair contract: in return for borrowing his power for five days, she has to give him a heart from one of his enemies so he can eat it and grow stronger. If she fails to deliver the heart, he eats hers instead.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Laura, this is getting better and shows off your voice, although it is still going to need some trimming and polishing. The first paragraph isn't quite right in my opinion (maybe because of the fragments?), although I really liked the second. I think you could delete the whole third paragraph (we don't need to know how she escapes right now). And the fourth paragraph is very promising. Work Kalara in there by name, do a little trimming and tweaking, and you are well on your way.

Charlotte Rains Dixon said...

I like the rewrite, too, though one reason the first paragraph doesn't work so well for me is the tense shift. Keep it all in present, which is more immediate. Also, still not fully seeing the humor. As the author of a comedic novel, getting the funny voice in the query was the hardest thing to do.

Laura Stephenson said...

Feedback on my rewrite? You guys are amazing. If you'll indulge me, I neatened it up a bit once more (though I'm not sure how to get humor into such a short piece, so I haven't fixed that yet).

Riches, youth, magic, she has it all. Kalara is a classic evoker--hurling fire, ice, and electricity is her specialty. Why not enchanter you ask? She doesn't need magic to bewitch people, she's gorgeous and can throw out money like candy.

Meet Whitcomb, the host of a dinner party Kalara attends. She finds out he's also a mage, and lets him know they have that in common in an attempt to network. Unbeknownst to her, Whitcomb is also a powerful necromancer who doesn't want anyone discovering he's selling the souls of the dead who go through his funeral home. He tries to teleport her into the Hudson River, and it almost works. She decides to elicit the help of a devil.

Enter Evander, son of one of millions of devils working hard to corrupt humanity. He's fresh from failing his final test (influencing a man's dreams) due to a rather persuasive Pomeranian. He and Kalara sign an overly fair contract: in return for borrowing his power for five days, she has to give him a heart from one of his enemies so he can eat it and grow stronger. If she fails to deliver the heart, he eats Kalara's instead.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Getting better all the time! Put Kalara's name in the first sentence. And that bit about enchanter, does that have to be there? Can you keep the gorgeous and money bit, but lose the extraneous info about what she's not?

Still like the second paragraph, but I would ditch the parenthetical info in paragraph 3 and just say "thanks to a Pomeranian."

Deniz Bevan said...

Love the title!
I think the only thing that bothers me about stories like this is that I want a sense of how it's explained/grounded in our world. That is, where did these mages come from and why do they do what they do? I know that's a tall order for a query...

Jess said...

Great critique for what sounds like a really cool story! I also love the title :)

Elise Fallson said...

Ok, I'm a little late commenting but the story sounds really great. All the best with your query, you've got some great advice up there! (:

Kristen Wixted said...

Oooooh, Laura! Laura is nice.
And THAT IS THE FUNNIEST TITLE I HAVE EVER SEEN.
Like, I don't even know what a mage is, (how un-fantasy am I?) and I still want to read it because I love the snark and I love the title.
So I guess i would recommend more snarkiness in the beginning. You kind of get going with a good voice as the query progresses, but the beginning could use just a dash of zing. "Living in a lux apt in NYC, attending Columbia..." that's interesting, but it's not zingy.
I was also confused about the whole "how many devils are there?" thing.
On the whole, a great query for a great story. :)

Crystal Collier said...

Hey, plot wise this pitch is pretty sound, although I do agree with Matthew on the final paragraph. The first one has so much intrigue and attitude. I'd really just drop it and stick to the first paragraph. After all, all you're after is a hook, right? And that first paragraph certainly hooks.

farawayeyes said...

Coming late to the party, I have the advantage of he two rewrites. It seems to be getting better, but I still don't feel the humor. That's one of the major points, I would work to bring out.

Seems we all agree - Great title.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Very fun story. I'm a fan of short, so would way consolidate the story portion to two paragraphs, each one no longer than four medium-sized sentences. That means a lot of consolidating, but making sure your engaging voice shines through. It's a tough chore for sure. Why do you think Matt has such a booming business here at QQQE? Good luck!

Kim Van Sickler said...

Very fun story! I'm a fan of short queries, so would way consolidate the story portion to two paragraphs with no more than four medium-sized sentences in each. All the while making sure your engaging voice shines through. But you can do it! Queries are tough. That's why Matt's got such a booming business over here at QQQE. Good luck!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Good critique. Interesting premise, and as you said, great title.