Friday, June 28, 2013

Neil Thomas' Current Query Critiqued

Damn. Got into the office 30 minutes late this morning, and the phone has not stopped ringing. This will have to go up late.

Anyway. Let's get to work. This time we have Neil's query, along with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

An oath designed to protect the weak and powerless may have instead doomed them all for eternity.

This is vague. I'm guessing you'll explain it in a moment, but if so, then why include it? Epic fantasy can often break a lot of rules, even when it comes to queries, but if you're gonna break rules (in this case, the rule would be open with Character, and a sympathetic one(s) at that) make sure you do it on purpose, and that it works.

Rhymar, a reluctant prince on a quest to prove his mettle and worthiness for the throne, This would make a much better opening line. This is actually a great intro. I like this guy already. Reluctant is actually one of my favorite characterization words (I've used it myself in a query, because it says so much in one word). struggling to fill the boots of his lost (missing?) and far more adept older brother, discovers the evidence Of the Oath being doom? This is where you get into trouble. You need to build your world quickly in a query, and while the opening line does make this phrase here make some better sense, we still can't understand exactly what any of this means. deep in an ancient city in the mountains. A mage of unequaled power is not bound by the Hart’s Oath—a spell all mages must bind to their gift before they are trained in the arcane. Okay. Now it makes sense. But ... consider rewriting this whole opening so that things lead logically to each other. I'll try to share an example after this paragraph. The Oath prevents them from using their magecraft to harm any other. But this nameless, unbound mage lives in secret beyond the mountains to the east, gathering his forces, and consolidating his power. He plans to sweep over the lands unopposed and rule all of Ureth for himself. And because of the Oath there is no one who can oppose him. Well, no mages anyway.

Okay. Let's talk about standard query format for a bit. Usually, in a query, or at least in the important part (the plot summary), you want to briefly summarize a manuscript so that it entices an agent to read pages. That's really all you have to do. Normally, that's handled in under 250 words, in such a way that you introduce a sympathetic Character, who experiences an inciting incident that leads to a clearly defined Conflict, which then escalates into a situation in which the character must make a sadistic Choice.

So that's Character, Conflict, and Choice. All in 250 words. This can be really hard. Especially when your manuscript is set in a secondary world that has rules that must also be explained. So let me try to show you an example opening that might hopefully include all of this:

"Rhymar, a reluctant prince on a quest to prove his worthiness for the throne, struggling to fill the boots of his far more adept elder brother, discovers evidence of a broken oath deep in an ancient city in the mountains. Hart's Oath--a spell all mages must bind to their gift before they are trained in the arcane--has been (circumvented, broken, bypassed, sundered--I'm struggling to think of a better voice appropriate word here) by a nameless unbound mage who is gathering his forces beyond the mountains ..."

See how, while still totally imperfect, and a bit wordy, this gets all the important details across to the reader without the unnessecary additions, and while also starting out with a bang by using your biggest assest: Character?

Except, perhaps Delaney—this a strange girl from another world that has no power, Is it the other world that has no power, or the girl? If it's the girl, "that" needs to be "who." but whom the unbound mage desperately wants dead. I'm thinking maybe this is a detail that can be skipped in the query.

After his entire honor guard is slaughtered by vile creatures not seen on Ureth for centuries, Rhymar and his few remaining companions must now protect this rude and unruly girl and escape the ancient city and the mountains. But do they head west to get word to the twelve kingdoms of the threat they face? Or discern the mage’s weakness, and travel instead east to the forbidden lands and deal with him directly before he launches his assault? This is actually a really great ending. A nice, clear-cut choice.

But any plan they have may be thwarted by Rhymar’s own secret—unpredictable, debilitating headaches that render him incapacitated. You don't need this. It totally deflates the high note you just ended on.

Okay, I'm going to summarize here, because the rest is just nit-picky details.

Basically, this query is actually pretty damn good. You've got some awesome details here that will probably entice agents who represent adult fantasy to ask for pages. Even if you didn't change anything, I could see you getting some requests.

But you want to put your best foot forward, right? That's why you're here.

So, the main thing I think you need to do is fix the opening so it really hooks the reader. You want to punch them in the chest, you know? 

So start with your character, prove your world is unique, and get right to the conflict. You don't need a bunch of minute detail to get this across. Remember, you want the agent to skip ahead to your pages as soon as the query looks like something they might like.

So all that said, I think you've got everything you need already here. Cut a few extraneous phrases and details, word your opening so that is progresses logically still, but much quicker, and then decide exactly what you want to do about Delaney and the middle. I expect it all works perfectly in the story, but in the query it's a bit out of left field, and it breaks up your pacing and tension. I'm not sure you can cut her all together, but maybe trim how much you say about her so that she doesn't take over the whole thing so much.

A STORM FROM THE EAST is a 140,000 word epic fantasy novel in the tradition of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series and R.A. Salvatore. I would think hard about what you want to make comparisons to. Goodkind and Salvatore are both great, very successful writers, but I wouldn't say they fall in the exact same sub-genre of fantasy. Goodkind's works tend to be more traditional epic/high fantasy, while Salvatore is known more for his tie-in fiction, which spins tales in existing franchises. I'm a big fan of both writers, but make sure any comparisons you make in a query make it clear you know your market. It is a return of the classic quest story with a fully developed, unique world and a rich cast of strong characters. But the story employs unconventional elements as well, and presents a different approach to the use of alternate, parallel worlds. These two sentences are okay. But you don't need them. If your query and your pages don't show this, it's not going to help to tell it in the query. The novel would appeal to young adult and adult readers of speculative fiction. Cut it. It might appeal to YA and adult readers, but it certainly won't be marketed to both. Crossover appeal is great, but bring that up once you have an agent on the phone.

This is my first novel and my first attempt at publication. Don't ever include this in a query. It's not necessary. If you have no publication background, that's fine. But leave it out. Agents sign first time authors all the time, but mentioning it in the query just makes you look inexperienced.

Neil Thomas

That's it!

This one was a lot of work, but I like that. I think we all together learn the most from the hard ones. And that doesn't mean this query is bad either, I actually think it means the opposite.

What do you all think? Can you suggest an even more succinct opening hook? Can anyone who reads fantasy confirm or deny my concerns about comparing Goodkind to Salvatore?

Otherwise, have a great weekend!


A Daft Scots Lass said...

You have a great weekend too.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Agree on the first line. Shortened, it would be a good tagline leading into the synopsis on the back of the book, but we're not to that point yet.
I was a little confused in parts as well. But really, it is difficult to sum up epic fantasy in such a short amount of space.
And Goodkind and Salvatore are indeed different. (I've read a lot of Salvatore.) I'd almost say don't compare to anyone.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I agree with what Matt has said here, and Alex is right about that first line. It sounds like a tagline or even part of an elevator pitch, but it's not how you want to start a query.

I just wanted to mention the word count, though. I know adult epic fantasies are long, but 140,000 seems VERY long. Maybe it's fine, but make sure you've researched how long a work like this should be (something I failed to do on my first book) so you get it in the ballpark.

Bryan Russell said...

Also, somewhat off topic, I'd recommend doing everything you possibly can to cut the word count of the actual manuscript. Maybe it's at too late a point for that, but 140,000 words is going to make agents and editors start twitching.

Sheena-kay Graham said...

You are a true maestro Matt. I'm certain Neil will have a much better query thanks to you.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I definitely agree with everything Matt said, especially about cutting your last line in the summary. With that there, it just muddles your choice and, like matt said, deflates the excitement you'd already built.

Good luck!

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said... tore this guy up. It's all good advice though. You were all dressed up in your kung fu query fantasy ninja slice outfit today!

"Kapow" it's too long. "Kapow" the first sentence may be unnecessary. "Kapow" consider actually just rewrite the whole opening.

I lover your query fu, shidoshi.

Elise Fallson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elise Fallson said...

LOL @ Michael. But now I'm so scared of Matt's 'Query fu, shidoshi' :P
But, after reading the comments, I absolutely agree with your critique. Good luck Neil. I'm sure after this, your query is going to be awesome.

Margo Berendsen said...

Starting with the character really does make a difference. Matt's right on here, this is a strong query but his suggestions make it stronger.

One more thing I'd like to see if at all possible: one specific and unique thing about this fantasy world that makes it stand out, that would make it memorable and distinct... I've read so much fantasy, I'm always looking for the stand out feature when I try to decide what to read next. For instance the stand out feature in Garth Nix's fantasy world is that there's two kingdoms, one semi-modern, and the other an old kingdom where modern technology doesn't work at all.

Kimberly Gabriel said...

As always, I love your advice Matt! Spot on. I think this will really help Neil strengthen his query. I can't wait to read his revised query with your suggestions.

Have a happy 4th of July Matt!

farawayeyes said...

A day late and a dollar short AGAIN. I've moved. and both my computer and the landlord provided Internet connection here, are giving me fits.

Anyway, the original version of this query really had me confused (not very hard to do) but the revisions suggested by Matthew cleared a lot of that up.

I think 'High Fantasy' is confusing enough. Add that to keeping the plot summary to 250 words and you really have your work cut out for you. All that said, the queries that attract my attention are the ones with a really strong voice and a good sense of character.

I think Neil has a great start here, and some good advice to take him the rest of the way.

Neil Thomas said...

Thank you everyone for your amazing feedback. I can't wait to put all your ideas into the query. This has been an astounding experience! Invaluable!

Neil Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allison said...

It is hard to summarize epic fantasy in a short space! I remember being advised by an agent not to make comparisons at all--let the story speak for itself.

Allison (Geek Banter)

mshatch said...

I agree with everything Matt said. The elements are all there, they just need to be re-arranged. Oh, and if ALL mages must bind their power to the oath then it follows that the evil mage isn't a mage - unless you say that all mages WITHIN the kingdom must bind themselves to the oath. That way you're separating the mages in kingdom from those without who aren't required to swear any oaths. It's just a little thing but...sometimes it's the little things people (and agents) notice.

Brenda Pierson said...

So I know I'm late (darn vacation) but I wanted to chip in on the author comparisons. I actually think Goodkind and Salvatore can be lumped together if it's an epic fantasy that employs some sword-and-sorcery and good ole fashioned fantasy elements. Take the Sword of Truth and Salvatore's Corona novels (The DemonWar series, personally I think they're his best) and the parallel makes sense to me. Plus there are a lot of readers who are fans of both, therefore this would appeal to all of them. But whether this means anything all depends on your opinion of author comparisons in the first place.

Jay Noel said...

How the heck do you put a 140,000 word epic fantasy into 250 words?

I applaud Neil on even making such an attempt, and Matthew for taking it on and helping to strengthen it.

I agree that "Rhymar, a reluctant prince..." should be your first line. It's strong and sets up your character right from the get-go.

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