Friday, July 19, 2013

Sarah Ahiers' Current Query Critiqued

All right, this is going to be hard enough already, so let's get right to it. Today we have Sarah's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The query:

Dear Agent,

In the country Kingdom of Lovero where families of assassins lawfully kill people for the right price, sixteen-year-old Oleander “Lea” Saldana must sets out on a path of vengeance against the most powerful assassin family of all.

Okay. Hmm. This isn't bad. You've built the world in one nice succinct sentence (actually a single clause, if I remember my eighth grade English), and you hint at a probable inciting incident, but I want your opening paragraph to slam me in the chest a lot harder than this.

I really love this story, and I want to see it on the shelves at the bookstore, so I'm going to have to kind of go off in this critique. Prepare for long windedness.

So - although the world of ATR is a really rich and well painted one, and the unique elements of its religion and culture really make for an engrossing read, like every single story ever written, what actually drives this tale more than anything else is CHARACTER.

Lea is - she's just fucking awesome. There, I said it. In the beginning of the story, especially, she has a naivete and innocence to her, that while she isn't stupid by any means, sort of endears you to hear as a reader, because by the end of the opening scene, you're presented with this incredible dichotomy of personhood in which a sweet, not completely innocent, but perhaps too trusting girl also turns out to be a stone-hearted killer, and not only any old assassin, but one of the very best in her world.

Now, I know that took a while to say, but my point is that even though your world is incredibly strong in the story, and that's certainly a selling point you want to make clear in the query, I still think you need to begin with character. Everything always starts with character.

That said, you don't actually have to lose the world building in your opening hook to include more character. I would suggest you keep the first clause about the Kingdom, but instead of going into the revenge or the Da Vias, introduce us to Lea in a way that we understand her dichotomy, and we care.

Then you can get to the inciting incident right away in the next paragraph.

The list of things Lea can count on in her life has never been long: her mother will try to poison her to make Lea a better assassin, she can beat her boyfriend Val in a fight, (Oxford comma) and her bone mask will keep her safe from the angry ghosts as she kills clips someone her mark in under the cover of night. But when she trusts Val, a member of the powerful Da Via Assassin Family, and reveals the secret location of her home, she is betrayed and her family is slaughtered while Lea barely escapes as the sole survivor.

Okay. This is so hard. You've got a lot of great elements here. Lea's character is revealed against the backdrop of her family, and that makes for both great drama and characterization, but ... I'm not sure you need all this.

For one thing, if you change your opening hook to introduce Lea sooner and more fully, you're not going to need to do so again in this second paragraph. You do want to work the bone mask detail in, because that's just so damn awesome, but you could easily include that in the line in which you introduce Lea, and then that would give you room to make this second paragraph all about the inciting incident. 

I for one think it's important to know that the Da Vias invaded the Saldana stronghold, in what at least at the time seemed to be a power-grab, and Lea was forced to watch her entire family die a horrible fiery death. It's a pretty big deal, and motivates Lea's actions through the rest of the story. 

So, in other words, if you lose the detail about her mom's penchant for poisoning (it's awesome, I know, and I hate to see it go, but you need the room) and the detail about her being able to beat Val (introducing her in the opening as the best assassin implies this already, along with making sure it's clear his family is also assassins), then you'll have plenty of room to expand on the inciting incident.

Now there’s only one thing left to do: make the Da Vias pay.

The only problem is, the Da Vias have gone to ground and the one person who can find them is her missing uncle, banished from the Saldanas family years ago. Even if he can be found before the Da Vias realize Lea escaped their knives, Lea can’t trust him. Hells, she can’t trust anyone ever again, and definitely not her uncle’s too-attractive-for-his-own-good apprentice, Alessio, no matter what her heart and body tell her. How can she trust Alessio when the last boy she loved destroyed everything? How can she fall for Alessio when revenge is all she should care about?

I don't think you need these last two sentences. We can already infer both of these questions from what we know of the story that's already presented to us.

But when the Da Vias kidnap her uncle, Lea has a choice: use him as a distraction to finally kill the Da Vias, or trust Alessio and save all that remains of her family.

This though, is killer. One of the best sadistic choices I've seen.

ALL THAT REMAINS is a YA fantasy novel complete at 102,000 words. It would appeal to fans of Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING trilogy and Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE. I've always read that the titles of published works should be in italics, not in ALL CAPS, like the working titles of unpublished manuscripts, but I know you've done your research. I have a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, served as the fiction editor for 2003 Wayfarer, the literary magazine of the U of MN, am a SCBWI member and have been accepted into the Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (January 2014). My young adult horror short story “Smothered” appears in DARK MOON DIGEST YOUNG ADULT #1.

Otherwise, this is all money. Congrats again on getting in to Hamline, by the way. I have so many friends that were undergrads there.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Sarah Ahiers

So, in summary: I mean, there's not a whole lot to add. I already went off about what I think. The thing is, this query is already really good. The story and the world and the characters are all very strong, and that comes through already as written. But ... it could be a little better.

I really do think that if you change your hook so that it's world clause followed by awesome character clause, and then you spend the second paragraph describing the inciting incident in more detail, you'd be in great shape. Except for the details I pointed out, the ending is great.

That's it.

Man. That was hard as hell. I hope it helps, Sarah! What do you all think? Anyone want to take a stab at writing a new opening hook example?


Shaun Hutchinson said...

First off: I want to read the heck out of this story. It sounds phenomenal. You make it sound phenomenal.

To the query! I actually like the opening hook. That one sentence initiating us into the world grabbed me. It made me want to know more. My advice is to be more confident. Really pare this sentence down to its strongest, most basic elements. Because, Matthew is right that you want to get to character first, but I'd argue that a strong opening sentence like this would grab a heck of a lot of attention. You've got two great elements: Families of assassins and vengeance. If you can get those in using about half the words you'd have one powerful hook.

Lea rocks. That next paragraph proves it. It's just a little confusing. There are a lot of plot points here. Maybe consider trimming it down. Do we need to know about the bone mask and ghosts? Is it vital?

I think this is a strong story and a pretty strong query. Just make sure that you keep it really tight and make certain your word choices are strong. Lea is a bold character in a bold story, make sure your word choices back that up.

Good luck!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think the beginning does need more character and two sentences rather than one long sentence. All of your suggestions are great, Matthew.

mshatch said...

Boy, after that, I want to read this story even more!

I agree with Matt about cutting those lines about trusting Alessio. And I think he's right about the italicizing of published works, too.

Awesome query.

Eliza Tilton said...

I would almost start with the line about trusting Val and her family being slaughtered. I know I sat right up when I read that. Bone mask? Definitely leave that in. Great stakes and last line. Sounds like a book I'd read.

Summer Frey said...

I also agree with Matt, and I also think it's hard because I've read this and know how awesome it is! I personally would like to see as much world detail worked in as possible, because that's what makes this story so BA beyond the character.

"Even if he can be found before the Da Vias realize Lea escaped their knives" --- this is a little clunky to me. Maybe it's because it's in passive voice? "Even if Lea can find him before the Da Vias realize she escaped their knives, she knows she can't trust him..." or something along those lines.

In the second paragraph, the repetition of Val's name bothered me for some reason. I agree with Matt about cutting that part out.

Otherwise, I really like starting it with the one-line pitch and I know this story is a rockstar. Can't wait for the query to hit!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Thanks guys so much!

I'm really torn on the first paragraph so i'm really happy to hear your thoughts and suggestions especially in regards to that. It's the first time i've ever done a little hooky sentence and though i think it has benefits, i also see the downfalls everyone mentions. I'll have to tinker some more.

Most of the second paragraph came out because i got a crit from an agent on my last query that said i didn't put enough about the fantasy world in my query for a fantasy novel. That i had focused too much on character and plot and junk. So that paragraph is almost 100% in reaction to that feedback. I see that i missed the mark some there, too, so tinkering here i come!

Matt, you did an awesome job, even if you were worried about it. You and the others gave me the exact sort of feedback i need on this to make it shine. Internet confettis for all!!

Elise Fallson said...

This sounds like something I'd pick up in a book store and buy. Again, Matthew's suggestions are great. The bone mask element really sparked my interest as well as Lea's resolve for vengence. She sounds like a kick-ass character and I like kick-ass female leads, makes me wish I was reading the book and not a query. Good luck with this, Sarah!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think Matt's critique is excellent. Do what he said!

One small additional thing bothers me. The line "when she trusts Val" struck me as odd. He was already introduced as her boyfriend. I realize that on a world of assassins, you might not even trust your boyfriend, but I think you could be more direct. Maybe "when Val discovers her family's secret home" or even just "when Val betrays her."

Michael Offutt, Kaiju Smack Down Artist said...

Sarah's story sounds brilliant. I'm glad you eviscerated this query though. She likes assassin's so you assassinated her query.

D.G. Hudson said...

This is the type of feedback that is most helpful. I wanted to know more about her own family before I heard about the rival family.

Good points, Matt.

Margo Berendsen said...

Couldn't help myself, love tinkering:

Sixteen-year-old Oleander “Lea” Saldana has an unusual family. They're assassins. Her mother will even try to poison Lea to make her a better assassin. Raised in such a family, it's maybe not the best idea to fall in love with a boy from another powerful assassin family, the Da Vias. When Val Da Vias finds out the secret location of Lea's home, he betrays them and her family is slaughtered.

Lea barely escapes with her life, and with one remaining motivation: make the Da Vias pay.

The rest is really good and my only addition to Matt's comments is that the "Even if he can be found" doesn't really add anything because it's implied (or at least, I assumed) she did find him because she also finds Alessio.

Agree, one of the best sadistic choices I've seen!

Sheena-kay Graham said...

Lea Saldana is a teenage girl with vengeance on the brain. With her family slaughtered she'll need all her skills to destroy the Da Vias Assassin Family. In the Kingdom of Lovero where assassin families can kill for the right price, this will be no walk in the park.

That's my little stab at an opening. I'm sure this query will only get better with your advice Matt. Sarah already has an awesome story.

Rena said...

Sarah, This Rocks. I agree that something isn't as bazooka-to-the-face about that first paragraph as I'd like it, but I do adore your world.

I'm really terrible at query letters (they always start to sound like used car commercials), so the best I can say is focus on aspects that will help us follow your character along. For instance, you might mention how she wanted to wear pretty dresses and makeup, but fell in love with clipping people because she's awesome.

Right, see, used car salesman. Just something to think about (and it's so exciting that this is getting a query letter).

JeffO said...

Jumping in without reading the other crits. First, really interesting story, and I think the query is well-written.'s really long. Here's what I think: cut the first paragraph, or fold it into the second. The second is pretty strong. Start it with "The list of things sixteen year old Lea Saldana..." Finish with "When Val betrays her and her family is slaughtered, Lea sets out on a path of vengeance...."

I wold also say tighten up the fourth paragraph a little--it feels to me a little like it rambles around a bit. And one personal bit: I hate 'But when' sentences (I don't know why, it's a mysterious pet peeve), and you've got two of them here.

Overall, nice job, and good luck!

Damyanti said...

This sounds like a book I would want to read. I think everyone has already given Sarah much better pointers than I ever could, so I'll skip.

farawayeyes said...

Holy carp Batman, you really went this one 'One Better'. Sounds like an interesting story, with an incredible protag. I would read it for sure.

Jay Noel said...

Matt's right, character is the most important thing. However, I know many publishers and agents really want to know what genre your book will fit in, so you've got to weave some of that into it while maintaining the strength of character.

I really want to read this book!!!