Friday, June 13, 2014

Tracey Neithercott's Current Query Critiqued

I'm going to try to slide this in before the phone starts ringing here at the office. Today we have Tracey's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

Here's the letter.

Dear Agent TK,

[TK personalized introduction]

Seventeen-year-old Syna Karras knows there’s no such thing as murder. Let me stop you right there. This line is a nice hook, and it definitely makes me want to read on, but I don't think you should get to it so fast. For one thing, this query is short, so you've got room, but for another, don't jump right into plot and world based elements until you've got us caring about your character. There is nothing more important in STORY, or a query for that matter, than CHARACTER. Think about it - what's the most successful movie in the theater right now? The Fault in Our Stars, right? You know why people love that book? The CHARACTERS. Not much happens in the plot, right? But we would have followed Augustus and Hazel Grace anywhere, wouldn't we? That's because we care about them. We are sympathetic to their plight. Make sure you do the same with your query (as much as room allows). It doesn't take much. Just a few choice words about what kind of person Syna is before her story begins. It’s 2055, and thanks to the software embedded in everybody’s minds, criminals are arrested before they commit a crime. Which is why Syna should believe her father died of natural causes.

But she doesn’t.

Other than my nitpick about your CHARACTER, this is a pretty decent opening. I'm curious to know more about how this software works, but that's probably too complicated to explain in a query, and curiosity is a good thing when it comes to wanting to read on. 

As for your hook, it's pretty solid. We know there's some Minority Report style pre-crime enforcement going on, which has been done, but not in YA, to my knowledge, so that's kind of a good twist, and more importantly, you've set it up so that world building element directly effects the conflict, which sounds like a nice little mystery.

Not when the autopsy reveals his healthy heart abruptly stopped beating. Not when her father raised her on stories of serial killers of the past, slipping gruesome details into dinnertime conversation. And not when he left behind top-secret government files with blacked-out phrases and a warning of danger.

Richard made a point yesterday that these are sentence fragments. He is technically correct, of course, but I don't have a problem with it. Sometimes, for style and voice, ignoring grammar rules can be effective. Here, the syntax conveys a sense of urgency, and frustration, and fear. As least that's how it reads to me.

On a more story level scale, this certainly heightens the tension, raises the stakes, and provides for excellent conflict potential.

When a family friend dies in the same mysterious way as her father, Syna’s convinced murder is as real as the slice of a knife across soft flesh. This sounds a little off. Of all the things that would sit solidly in the realm of "this is definitely real," why would Syna think of a knife slicing across soft flesh? Without some context to clue us in to why her mind would go there, it sounds a little out of place. She’ll do whatever’s necessary to take down the man Does she know it's a man? Minor detail, but still. who stole the most important person from her life—even team up with her arrogant ex-best friend Linden Pearce to gain access to files his father, the Secretary of Defense, might have hidden. They have to work fast, because more people are dying, people who have a connection to her dad. What connection? This is vague, and the last thing you want in a query is vague language mucking up the impact. Just tell us what her father did when he was alive, and it will make much more sense. And with the killer aware of her investigation, Syna could be next. so Syna must decide whether to give up and save herself, or risk her life to uncover her father's murderer.

See how that packs a little more punch at the end? Obviously not the most sadistic choice ever, since we know she's not going to give up, but phrasing the end of a query with a choice always gives the reader more incentive to be interested in the pages than ending on something that wraps it up more neatly.

Complete at 79,000 words, ABERRATION is science fiction without the dystopia, I don't think this is necessary, but I get the feeling you chose this phrasing for a specific reason. Besides, pre-crime sounds pretty dystopian to me. set in a Minority Report–like world. It will appeal to fans of sci-fi mysteries such as Across the Universe Across the Universe by Beth Revis, All Our Yesterdays All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, and The Adoration of Jenna Fox The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. Titles of published works go in italics in query letters. I also think two comparison titles is enough, and if I was going to drop one, it would probably be the third title, since I haven't heard of it. I’m a journalist with ten years of writing under my belt. My work has appeared in magazines such as Prevention, AARP, Capitol File, Philadelphia Style, and Diabetes Forecast. Again, published works, italics.

Okay, so in summary: I think this query is in decent shape. The plot, conflict, and story elements are all there, and are all strong. Be more specific about who her dad was, and why he knew what he knew (and probably therefore why he got murdered), and then tighten up your final line so that your reader has no choice but to want to see the pages, and then your story elements will be just about perfect.

Which leaves us with your opening, and its lack of character. Don't worry too much, I read a lot of queries, and the most common thing they seem to lack is introducing a character in such a way that we immediately care about and sympathize with them. CHARACTER is the most important of the three Cs (CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and CHOICE), and if you don't have a character we want to root for, everything that comes after carries less weight, no matter how cool it is. 

Introduce us to an interesting, unique person we can care about and sympathize with right away. It doesn't matter if she's kind and humble, or brash and clever, as long as she's interesting, she will shine, which I'm sure she does in the manuscript, so make sure she does in the query too.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

That's it!

What do you all think? Anything I missed? Anything you disagree with?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

A little more character would be good, although I like how it was short and to the point.
Are making comparisons good? I don't think I'd want to call attention to the fact the setup sounds like Minority Report.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Pretty much everything Matt said.

I do think you'd get some bites with this as is, but i definitely agree that more character would really help. Just a sentece or two in the beginning so i get a better feeling about who she is. You can even interweave i with some more worldbuilding if you like

"Syna knows two things, she hates to lose at hoverball and ..."

you know, like that but actually good.

Tracey Neithercott said...

Thanks, Matt, for the critique. You made some really great points. And thanks to everyone who's commenting with thoughts on my query!

Kristen Lippert-Martin said...

Tracey, I think it's pretty great and definitely hooked my interest. My only contribution is, don't be afraid to actually use the term "murder mystery" in your query, especially if you're trying to de-emphasize the dystopian thing.

Also, one question your query raised for me that you could probably address in one sentence: How does this society view violent crime of the past? Are they horrified by it or does it hold some fascination for them? You mention Syna's father dropping murder details into dinner conversation. How would this info be received by most members of this society? IOW, is this a society steeped in fear despite the pleasant, peaceful veneer or have they become so oblivious to danger that they can no longer recognize it? I think it gets to the heart of your story, ie., what happens when society's violent impulses are muzzled? Does blood lust grow stronger or weaker when it has no (apparent) outlet?

But, hey, man, I like the premise. I'd read it!

Rachel said...

Hey Tracey! I really like this query and second the others' above me commentary. I agree that we need to get to the heart of your book sooner than its appearing in the letter. :-) I do want to say that while Matthew's suggestion of italicizing the titles are correct usually - as an intern I've found it distracting. Capitalize the titles (yes, all of them!) for each book you are listing, even your WIP's own. :) Good luck with this one, Trace!


mshatch said...

I completely agree with all Matt's points, especially about character. Because if I don't care about the character, the rest of the story won't mean diddly to me. I also think Sarah made a great suggestion about how to incorporate more character into this query. Lastly, this sounds like the kind of story I'd want to read :)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Matt hit most of the points that struck me yesterday.

Yes, the first was lack of a good feeling for Syna's character. Secondly, that simile also struck me as wrong, especially if the killer isn't using a knife in these murders.

I also wanted to seem more detail about the stakes and the conflict, and finally -- if software is embedded in everyone's brain, monitoring them, that seems pretty dystopian to me.

Shah Wharton said...

Be bold, you're writing dystopian mystery and cross over genre isn't as big a deal as it once was, unless you're selling to a specific publisher with specific parameters.

Best of luck! :)

Shah Wharton said...

Be bold, you're writing dystopian mystery and cross over genre isn't as big a deal as it once was, unless you're selling to a specific publisher with specific parameters.

Best of luck! :)

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Murder is one of those ideas that keeps ringing the register. Matt, you ever watch the Poughkeepsie Tapes?