Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Maria Anna Witt's Current Query Critiqued

Here is Maria's query for CREEPY BOY again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The query:

Dear Ms/r (Agent Name)

I hope to interest you in my first novel, You don't need any of this. It's implied and understood, or in the case of this being your first, unnecessary. CREEPY BOY which explores the power of belief, in a psychological spin of FREAKY FRIDAY with a dark comic book twist. This isn't bad, but you could probably save this for the end.

I would recommend you start your query here. With the CHARACTER. The protagonist is the most important character in any story, and the concept of CHARACTER is the most important aspect of almost every great query letter I've ever seen (there are exceptions, but it's rare). Give us a person to relate to, who we can sympathize with, right away. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how cool whatever happens is, because we won't care. Kelsey’s visions of a perfect Senior year go up in flames the night her boyfriend Dave crashes his car. This isn't bad, but this is all plot, or maybe even backstory. Try to introduce more about what kind of person Kelsey is first. Even his daring rescue of one of the passengers can’t erase the fact that he’d been drinking and driving. Was the care on fire, like literally up in flames? If so, say that. Otherwise it's kind of hard to picture rescuing someone from a car accident. With Dave banished to an aunt’s farm for the summer, Kelsey’s stuck wishing she had warned him of her eerie premonition. Now this I like. I hope you explain more later.

Kelsey knows Dave is facing lifelong guilt and strict terms of probation when they return to school in the fall. But she wishes he hadn’t appointed himself personal protector to Calvin, left disfigured and an amputee, by the accident. She can’t forget her dreams that predicted Calvin’s fate, or the feeling of danger she gets when she sees his secret artwork.

Calvin’s art is beautiful and disturbing: a comic book series depicting himself as an Angel of Death with the ability to swap souls, and Dave as his arch-nemesis. Accusing a brain-damaged accident victim of a supernatural revenge plot won’t get win? Kelsey any points for popularity or sanity, or restore her interrupted relationship with Dave. As Kelsey’s developing obsession with Calvin turns from fear to fascination, she becomes more convinced she has a psychic connection with him.

Since the day of the accident, Calvin’s been practicing the superpowers from his stories, with the goal of swapping his broken life for Dave’s life of wealth and privilege. But he can feel Kelsey closing in on him, and she’s getting too close to the truth. Making her part of his revenge is a surefire way to stop her, and when Calvin successfully takes over Kelsey’s body, his story becomes horrifyingly real. Wait, what? Now it sounds like this is being told from Calvin's point of view. Is that on purpose? I do see below that the manuscript alternates POVs, but don't do that in the query. Or at least, not like this. Whichever character is more important, stick to that POV. You can certainly describe what Calvin goes through, but it needs to be from Kelsey's POV, otherwise it gets confusing.

Now, that being said, plot-wise this is pretty cool. This query is too long at this point (the "meat" is 350 words, and you should try to keep that part under 250 if you can) but if you can figure out a way to convey this info more quickly, you'd be in good shape.

Now there’s more than Kelsey’s reputation at stake. Dave’s worst enemy is using her body to get his ultimate revenge, and Kelsey is trapped inside Calvin’s damaged body, struggling to communicate. Instead of trying to get back together with Dave, Kelsey has to convince him that the girl he thinks he’s falling for is a deadly threat. To stop Calvin, she’s going to need to overcome his supernatural abilities and uncover the truth about what really happened the night of the accident. This is kind of frustrating, because while it's confusing to read and consider, it also sounds like an incredibly cool story. Hopefully you can think of a way to clarify this a bit.

CREEPY BOY is an 85,000 word Contemporary Young Adult novel with supernatural elements. It’s told in the alternating POV of Kelsey and Calvin, with plenty of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing. I’m seeking representation with the goal of pursuing a writing career, as I have other works in progress. You don't need this. It's generally understood that you wouldn't be querying if you hadn't been writing long enough to be confident enough in your work to be sending it out, and even if this is technically the first manuscript you finished, you don't need to bring that up. Otherwise, this housekeeping section is good.

Okay, so in summary, this query does need a bit of work, but it's clear you have an awesome story to tell, so that's helpful.

Not every query letter has to be the same, of course, but in general the ones that work focus on a few basic elements that help them stand out.

CHARACTER. As I said above, nothing in STORY is more important than CHARACTER, and therefore obviously nothing is more important in a query. We know nothing about Kelsey. What kind of person is she? How old is she? Is she a cheerleader? A stoner? A punk? A goth? Obviously you don't want to shoehorn her into some stereotype, but there's a reason that archetypes work, and it can help the reader get a better sense of who is she before her story starts and therefore care about whether she succeeds when it comes to ...

CONFLICT. You could also just say plot, but CONFLICT is the second most important thing in STORY, and so, yeah you get it. You actually have a pretty excellent sense of the conflict set up here. Dave wounds Calvin, Calvin wants revenge, Calvin has powers, so Calvin switches bodies with Dave's girlfriend Kelsey. I mean, there's more to it than that, but that's basically it. You just need to figure out a way to convey that in less than 250 words. You've got the threads here, you just need to expose them a bit more succinctly.

CHOICE. This isn't really required, and it's far less important than the two elements before it, but good query letters often end of what's called a sadistic choice (that's a TVTropes link, you've been warned), the kind of thing that it's nearly impossible for a character to decide about, and therefore makes the reader (hopefully the agent's assistant) have no choice but to want to read the pages.

Those are the three main elements, but there are a couple of other common things like an inciting incident which turns an innocent world into an exciting new one (I get the feeling that is your car accident, unless that's backstory), and you've got that pretty clear here, but basically what you want to try to do is come up with something relatively similar to this:

Opening paragraph introduces very sympathetic protagonist, and we readers care about her right away and want her to win. Then once we know who she is, you can finish the paragraph by telling us what starts to happen to her, or in other words what the inciting incident is.

Second paragraph covers the main conflict. Introduce the antagonist here, and explain what they want and why/how it goes against what the protagonist wants. Be specific. Nothing damages a decent query more than vagueness.

Final paragraph (this is of the "meat" part of the query, your "housekeeping/bio/personalization" section can be another paragraph or two, but keep the "meat" to 250 words or less if you can) covers the sadistic choice, or at least makes clear what the protagonist must accomplish in order to succeed or win or at least survive the conflict.

All in all, you've got all the elements here. You just need to introduce Kelsey as a character more, and sooner, and then you need to pare down your description of the conflict so that it packs much more punch. The premise of this story is obviously really cool, it's just muddied by the confusing way it's described.

That's it!

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and feedback below.


Shaun Hutchinson said...

I second everything Matthew said here and want to comment more in general about the tone of the query as it relates to the story. I was really uncomfortable reading this based on the way Calvin and his disability, disfigurement, and mental impairment were described. I think this sounds like it could be a really interesting story. The cross-gender body swap in particular, but also the comic book angle. However, I'd be really, really careful with the way you describe Calvin's physical and mental impairments. Especially seeing as he's essentially the villain in the story (from what I can tell). You want to make sure that you don't come across as ableist and you want to be careful of the ways in which you characterize Calvin's mental and physical injuries so that you're not treating him like a monster. As the query reads now, it paints a really unflattering picture of Calvin as a broke, "brain-damaged," deformed person, which isn't great. If you're going to deal with a new physical and mental impairment caused by the accident, I'd highly suggest making sure to do so compassionately and respectfully to avoid problems.

But, still, I think this story sounds intriguing. Just pay special attention to the way you describe Calvin's injuries.

Nate Wilson said...

I agree with most of Matt's (and Shaun's) critiques, but there's one thing I differ on. You can have a successful query split between two POV characters.

It doesn't work well the way you've laid it out here, so Matt's right on that count. And it may turn out that sticking with Kelsey alone may make for the stronger query, as she's the protagonist. But it can be done. You'd have to completely re-work the query, starting with one paragraph on Kelsey (containing no mention of Calvin), then a second paragraph on Calvin. Each would detail their character and begin to get into the conflict. Then you'd finish by tying their stories together and introducing the end game (i.e. the choices Kelsey and Calvin--or perhaps just Kelsey--would need to make).

I'm not saying this is the direction you should go. In fact, I'd guess it's the harder one to do successfully. But who knows, it may turn out better for you. Just know you have options.

Maria Mainero said...

Thank you Shaun for your very good point. I could certainly tone down the language in the query, but as a good part of the character arc takes Kelsey and Calvin from ableist attitudes of pity/self-loathing to a more positive place of acceptance and resilience, I don't want to sugar-coat their initial perceptions. I would welcome any other input on this.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think everyone has made excellent suggestions here.

I've read the manuscript, so I know there's a big twist Maria hasn't mentioned in the query.

I always think a query should reveal the twist because if the agent thinks it's cool, it might get you that request. Otherwise, the agent has no idea.

Still, the body swapping, dark comic book premise might be intriguing enough without revealing the twist.

Matt, what do you think?

Matthew MacNish said...

@Nate, you're absolutely right. It can be done. It's not easy, and there's little room in query letters for varying from norms, but if done well, breaking "rules" can absolutely work.

@Maria, that's an important point. What I would recommend you do is focus on using language that makes it clear that the ableism is something that comes from the character's voices, rather than the author's. There is of course nothing wrong with writing flaws characters that grow through the story. In fact, I think that's probably an important part of this story.

@Dianne, I'm a bit split on big twists (assuming it's near the end of the story) in queries. If it's really clever, and truly affects the entire premise of the story, I think you have to fit it in. But it can also hog the word count. Normally, in my own queries I don't mention anything that relates to the third act or the denouement, etc. But of course every project is different. On the other hand, yeah you don't want to hide anything from the agent. Especially a big twist that might make or break the plot of a story. I definitely think the dark comic book premise is awesome (and oh! Maria, absolutely read THE FIVE STAGES OF ANDREW BRAWLEY by my friend Shaun above. Fabulous book with a comic book element), and the opposite gender body swap is alone intriguing enough to get some requests, I think.