Friday, May 2, 2014

Augustine Chan's Current Revised Query Critiqued

Two weeks in a row, we've got Augstine! This can be interesting, because it's always fun to see how a query letter evolves, and what gets cut and what gets added. Augustine is obviously a talented writer, but queries are damn hard, so let's see if we can help him out. As usual, my feedback will be in blue.

The query:

Dear [ ],

[PERSONALIZATION HERE: I am querying you because you are the author of one of my favorite books. (xx)]

Personalization can be so tricky. What I do (not that my habits should be considered rules or anything) is include personal personalization up front. So if I know the agent from a conference, or if one of their clients is a close friend of mine, or if I really loved an ARC I just read of one of their author's books, I will include that up here. 

However, when it comes to more professional personalization, like say, "I believe my manuscript compares favorably to these particular titles from your list," I will usually include that kind of detail in the housekeeping paragraph at the bottom. As always, there aren't necessarily hard and fast rules for such things.

Now, to this new version of this query, what I notice at first glance is that it is long, and filled with large blocks of text. I pasted this query into MS Word, and it is 519 words long, without personalization. That's too much. The general guideline is 250 words for the "meat" of the query, the part that describes the story, and then maybe another hundred for personalization and housekeeping. At first glance this query needs to be heavily trimmed.

I am seeking representation for THINK OF THE CHILDREN, an adult coming-of-age debut that’s complete at 97,000 words and None of this is necessary. Words are at a premium, so don't include ones you don't need. "I am seeking representation," is completely redundant. That's why you're sending a query. There is no other reason to send a query, so don't point out the obvious. The title, word count, coming of age and all that can go elsewhere. One option is the subject line of your email. Another is the housekeeping paragraph at the end. Either way, don't delay getting to what matters: STORY. which is told over the span of a single, pivotal day. This is an important detail, but don't put it here. Start with your next line, the one that introduces CHARACTER. Daniel Hoover, a twelve-year old latch-key kid who lives in a rural Midwestern town, has a special bond with his single mother, but she holds down three part-time jobs and so he never sees her. In her absence, he looks after his mentally-challenged younger brother, he keeps the household running, and he balances his mother’s checkbook. In spite of this, he has never been in trouble at school and manages to become a division-level wrestling champion with an unblemished academic record.

Okay, there's a lot to unpack here, but this opening is still not cutting it for me.

First of all, you're missing the most important part of any story, let along query. STORY always begins with CHARACTER. You introduce Daniel to us, sure, and we get a decent glimpse of his life and his situation, and it's one we can sympathize with, but all that information is external to Daniel. In order to truly care for him, we need to have an idea of his heart and his mind. What kind of person is Daniel before his story starts? He's a young boy, and from that we can certainly infer certain things, but give us more. What kind of things would Daniel love to do if he was not so busy running his household? Is he a mischievous boy? Fastidious? Obsessive? Curious? People, and therefore CHARACTERS, are unique and singular things. No two have ever been exactly alike. Let us into Daniel's heart, so we can feel a bit of his soul lifting off the page, and then once we care about him, we can start to be introduced to his story, and the conflict that follows.

That is the main problem with your opening. It lacks the sense of CHARACTER that the best queries always include. But there are other problems. There is also some contradictory language. His mother is never home, but Daniel has a special bond with her. That's not impossible, but it's certainly improbable, and you don't want improbability making a query look a little off. Furthermore, Daniel handles his brother, the house, and the checkbook, and yet he is apparently a perfect student, with no behavioral problems, who excels at sports. Again, this is not impossible, and this is more a story level problem than a query level one, but that's a scenario that sounds pretty hard to believe, so it makes a reader wonder if the story itself feels as far fetched as it seems in the query.

Which is why Daniel has everything going for him. Again, this is a complete contradiction to what you've just told us. Except that he trips over words when he talks, rendering him awkward during conversations despite his large vocabulary. Yet his academic record is unblemished. And except for no parental supervision, which he craves. Awkward phrasing. Look beyond it. Very awkward phrasing. Look beyond what? You've also jumped into second person here. His life will change completely if he wins a sports an athletic scholarship to the elite Fieldstone Place Academy. Then he’ll be able to rise above his family’s staggering poverty and make something of himself. Today, a recruiter plans to visit to watch him during practice and to informally interviewing him after. Don't use this wishy-washy kind of future tense language. If this story all happens in one day, just tell us what happens. But the school bully, Sammy, makes good on his threat that he’ll ruin the interview, resulting in Daniel and Sammy fighting during practice and Daniel striking Sammy so badly by accident that Sammy has to go to the hospital. You don't really need the bully's name, and you definitely don't need to repeat it four times in one sentence. That's just clunky as hell.

Let's see if we can distill this. All this stuff about the contradictions of Daniel's life is unneeded. Cut it. Here are the key points of the conflict:
  • Daniel has a hard life trapped in severe poverty (among other things--and this is all introduced in the opening paragraph, don't repeat or contradict any of it)
  • He sees a way out by way of a scholarship
  • A recruiter visits who will decide his fate by viewing him in a wrestling match
  • His chances are ruined by a bully who somehow goads him into breaking the rules of the match
That's really it. That's all you need to convey here. What Daniel does to redeem himself and so on comes after, but in the previous paragraph, those bullet points are all we need to know. Cut everything else.

All of a sudden, Daniel’s fists become a way to express himself. He uses them to destroy school property. He uses them to take his aggression out on his brother. His brother goes to the same school? And when Daniel sees him in the hall he hits him? And he uses them to punch a glass door so hard that it renders his entire wrestling career over. This is vague. Just tell us that he punches a glass door that shatters and cuts his hand. By the end of the day, Daniel is kicked off the team, expelled from school and frightened of the person whom he has now become.

With the deepest sorrow, Daniel knows he has lost everything that he has fought so hard to attain. He knows he has lost everything for which he holds dear. When the pain over such losses is so acute that you have to say that, but you don’t, holding out instead for a future altogether different from the one you now know. Something maybe resembling the past, his past, the memory before this day, and how it burned bright and green and was full of boundless hope.

Huh? You lost me here. There's some nice imagery and so on, but two of these sentences are fragments, and none of this is needed. As a matter of fact, you can honestly cut all of these last two paragraphs. When re-writing this query, focus on introducing the CHARACTER of Daniel, then hit the bullet points listed above, and leave us with a sadistic choice Daniel must make: lose his scholarship and save his brother, or give up his brother and somehow save his chances to go to a better school (or whatever the actual scenario is on the book).

THINK OF THE CHILDREN is a critical dissection of a child’s indomitable spirit and fire against all odds and No. Don't do this. First of all, don't tell an agent what your story is, show them, and let them decide for themselves. Second, I sure hope this is not a critical dissection of anything, but preferably a damn good story. a tale about how school bullying can irrevocably alter one’s entire being. The book captures, without flinching, those moments in the day of a life forever altered by the actions we do and do not take; and the story of a person turned away from his natural path, turned to a new way of being. It will appeal to fans of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and, more recently, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation because those books are also about children who grow up in hardship, who seek a better life, and who ultimately achieve that goal through hard work and hard-won triumph. When it comes to these comparisons, see if you can come up with some thematic similarities, rather than ones that are just factual.

Okay, in summary: Man, queries are hard! You've got an excellent grasp of language, and there are some lovely lines in here, but queries are not about poetic prose. Focus on CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and CHOICE, and if you can nail those three simple things, an agent will probably move on to your pages, which is the place for more poetic prose.

Instill your opening hook with more character, trim your second paragraph so that it hits the bullet points, and after that you won't need any of the rest.

That's it!

Sometimes queries are so hard it makes you tired just thinking about them. But that's why we have to work together, to help each other out, and see if we can hammer them into something resembling quality.

What do you all think? Please share your feedback in the comments.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think you covered everything and in great detail. I'd noticed the length as well.

Sarah Ahiers said...

You nailed exactly what i was going to say.

When i read it yesterday, i thought that the last 3 paragraphs could be cut. I don't know that we need to know what happens after Sammy the bully puts his scholarship on the line.

In general, you shouldn't give away the ending in a query. That's for a synopsis. In a query you want to bring us just to the line and leave us hanging, so we'll want to check out the sample pages.

Focus on the bullet points Matt included, because they're spot on. And make sure you're hitting your big Cs and you'll have a query that gets requests

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I've been jumping up and down since yesterday wanting to tell Augustine to SAVE all this: It is a really good start on a synopsis!

Some agents require a synopsis along with a query -- or when they request a partial or full manuscript -- and writers bang their heads repeatedly on their desks trying to write one. This is a really good start on a synopsis of about the right length.

But as Matt points out, it's not a query. The query is going to fall somewhere between the last version that told us too little and this version that tells us too much. It needs to pack the biggest punch it can in as few words as possible.

You can do it, Augustine! And as I said -- save this for when you need a synopsis and you can avoid some head-desk-banging.

Jay Noel said...

You're right on target, Matt. The reader needs to know Daniel's character right away. That will draw the agent into the story.

Augustine Chan said...

Thank you all for your insightful comments. I think I'm on the right track with your guidance. I'm using the 3Cs. I was hoping I could be invited back for a third query later this week. You guys really inspired me and made a stinker into a not-so stinker that needs more work. My problem is, I now don't know what to cut because my revision still remains on the longish sign. I set up Daniel, what he likes, shows his responsibilities, and then segues into Daniel hitting the school bully and that "Now Daniel’s fate hangs on whether or not the bully will pull through." as an ending before I set up the choice: if he's ruined his prep school interview he can look after his brother. But if he gets in, he can have a life altogether different from the one he knows. I don't know. Let me know if I'm welcome back, and thanks.

Matthew MacNish said...

@Augustine - you are definitely welcome back, but I have someone in line for this week. Try a few re-writes, and then shoot me another email after a week or so.

Augustine Chan said...

That would be great! Again, thank you. And call me Aug.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Dude, you could be an agent. You should become one and then sell out later. Seriously.