Friday, September 23, 2011

Caledonia Lass's Current Query Critiqued

It's Friday. I'm exhausted. It's raining. Let's get to work.

Remember, Caledonia's query will be in plain text, my feedback will be in red.

Here we go:

Dear Ms. X,

I am pleased to submit for your consideration my fantasy adventure novel, Adversarius, Shadow Of The Rose: Book One, complete at 61,921 words. Book two, Veritas is nearing completion and book three, Bellum is in rough draft form.

Okay. So what we have here is what I call housekeeping. I suggest saving this for the end of the query letter, and getting right into what truly matters first: your story. That being said, there are agents who prefer this stuff up front, so let's roll with it.

My next point is that the title of an unpublished work needs to be in all caps in a query letter, like this: ADVERSARIUS, SHADOW OF THE ROSE: BOOK ONE. You also would not normally need to focus on series potential, because when it comes to landing an agent, the first book must stand on its own, but considering the heavy genre nature of this novel, and the giveaway in the title, I don't think it's a big problem in this particular query. If you do mention the other two, make sure to put commas after the titles, like when you mention someone's proper name.

Finally, you don't give exact word counts like this. I would say this book is about 60,000 words, but that's actually really short for fantasy, so you might want to say about 62,000. You don't need to give the exact count, because that's going to change by the time you get to publication anyway.

Oh, and one last thing, you can leave the "adventure" part out of the genre. Fantasy is essentially always adventuresome by nature.

The two kingdoms of Paridzule and Relavia have been battling since before recorded history. Relavia's motivation for war? Power. Paridzule has fought valiantly to maintain their borders and have built a formidable navy, but so far all of their efforts have just kept Relavia contained.

Hmm. So normally you want to start out with a character, but I think with this kind of book, in which the setting (hopefully) almost becomes a character of its own, starting with a bit of world building might be fine. The only problem here is, we need more world building.

You've got some cool names for these countries, which is a good start, but other than that there's nothing hooky about this. We need more clues as to what kind of world this is. Is it pure fantasy? Are there monsters? Is there magic? Is this navy just regular old clipper ships? The way you have it worded now is kind of dry.

In a desperate bid to put an end to the conflicts once and for all, Kayta Ni'adzul's father decides to arrange a marriage between his eldest daughter, Senweis, and the sole heir of Relavia, Alabassin. But Alabassin quickly discovers he doesn't want Senweis; he wants Kayta instead. Alabassin's father refuses to allow a union between the two kingdoms and launches an attack that would let him take over Paridzule with very little resistance. A ship Kayta and her brother are traveling on is attacked by pyrates. She's thrown overboard and left for dead but an unlikely rescuer comes to her aid.

All right. So you've got more great character names here. Seriously, you're great at naming things, but this is a bit if a jumble. I'm confused as to how this all works. If these countries are at war, how is the prince discovering anything about which princess he wants? Are they exchanging letters? Have they met? If his dad won't allow the whole thing, I can't understand how they meet.

Next, when it comes to this attack, you need to get specific. What does he do? How will it allow him to take over the country so easily? Is it an assassination attempt on Katya's father?

I like this part about the pyrates, especially the way you spell pyrates, but it's very sudden and does not follow logically what you were describing right before it. As a reader I go from the vague description of the attack, to suddenly we're on a ship, and there are pyrates. It makes me go: huh?

With no memory of who she is, Kayta suddenly faces strange places and meets new people. Some of them are legendary, others are downright deadly. Now it is a race to see who will arrive in Paridzule first, Kayta or Relavia's armies. But if Kayta can't recall who she is, how can she fight for a home she doesn't remember?

This is all incredibly vague too, but as a final summary it kind of works. I would maybe just cut the line about legendary versus deadly.

Although I have yet to be published, I love books that center around a large world and introduce some of the same characters over again or even just mention a beloved character's name as a history reference. Adversarius is the beginning of such stories. I've also been blogging for over a year and have an internet presence on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and AbsoluteWrite.

I would cut this whole paragraph. If you don't have any publishing credits, that's fine, you can just skip it. None of this other stuff matters, except for maybe your blog. You could just say something like: "I blog about writing, musings, and other nonsense at"

With heavy emphasis on world-building and strong, memorable characters, Adversarius, Shadow Of The Rose: Book One will appeal to readers who enjoy such works as Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Lord of the Rings.

First of all, before I critique this part, I just want to say I effing love this comparison. Those are three of my favorite worlds/franchises, so I'm definitely hooked. However, I think you can present this better. For one thing, you've named one world, and two series of novels. I think you should word it like this: "... will appeal to readers who enjoy worlds like Krynn, Middle-Earth, and the Forgotten Realms." You could also name the planet that Paridzule and  Relavia exist on, thus making the comparison parallel. Your other option would be to name one of the most famous Forgotten Realms books, like Baldur's Gate, Drizzt, Elminster, or The Knights of Myth Drannor.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this proposal, I look forward to hearing from you.

Okay. So I think your main problem is that we have a lack of understanding about how things happen in your story. I've got a relatively decent sense of the plot, but it kind of jumps around, and I'm not clear on how one thing leads into another. Your biggest strength is your awesome names, which gives your world a strong sense of culture, but I would like to see just a touch more world building. Is there magic, how does the navy work, and are there dragons, trolls, elves or anything like that.

You've obviously got a cool story here, and I think you've actually got room for a bit more information in this query.

So that's it.

What do you guys think? Can you suggest anything else? What other important information would you like to see?

Please leave your feedback in the comments, and thanks for reading!


Karen Baldwin said...

Once gain, your comments rain...I mean reign, I mean - great critique. Can't add a thing.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'd suggested to her redoing the first paragraph that describes the story and dumping the comparison altogether.

Steve MC said...

You really covered all the bases.

One thing I wondered about was why have the other country's prince want to marry Katya, but then have his father cancel the wedding to anyone at all and wage war?

I'm betting that romance comes back later, as they work together, perhaps, or mend things at the end.

Nice Romeo and Juliet sense to the warring houses, and some Twelfth Night, too.

Steve MC said...

P.S. Love this phrase: "There's nothing hooky about this."

Note to self: Add more hooky.

mshatch said...

I think everything Matt said is right on. My only comment would be that I might start with he main character and maybe try to tell things form her perspective in her voice.

Unknown said...

Matthew and I pretty much share a brain on this one. Great points and suggestions. I nodded at pretty much every word Matthew wrote.

Caledonia, you've got a great start, but it is a bit vague and jumbled. I look forward to reading a revised version because it sounds like this could be a really intriguing story.

Old Kitty said...

Yep! Put the fantasy in the fantasy! Love the critique and I'm so with the pyrates word!! Yay! Good luck Caledonia!!! Take care

Sarah Tokeley said...

This is one of those times where I would want to read the story in spite of the query. As usual, others have already covered the points I would have made but, even though I don't really have a clear sense of what is happening, I still want to read it :-)

Talli Roland said...

Great points, Matt. I think the first para could be condensed or every melted into the second. My only thing to add would be that, as good as the names are, when there's that many together it does get a bit confusing.

But I'm with Sarah - it sounds like a fantastic book!

Unknown said...

Awesome job, Matt, as always. And it sounds like a great story.

Now I remember why I don't read fantasy. I get confused with all the unusual names. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit just about killed me. :P

storyqueen said...

Very spot on Matthew. There are lots of unique names (cool) but not much detail otherwise. But it seems like there is a very exciting, compelling story in there...the author just need to reveal it more.


Kristen Wixted said...

Don't some agents say things like "Don't tell me your story is the next Lord of the Rings."
Maybe use the other two examples alone. ??
That's my 2 cents.
It does sound like an incredible world, and that is SO hard to do. A little fine-tuning and this will be super.

J.L. Campbell said...

You make good points, which should be helpful to Caledonia in rewriting her query.

Isis Rushdan said...

Hi, Matthew. Thanks for swinging by my blog. I'm now a follower.

I think you gave great advice that will help make the query stronger. I agreed that there were so many different names, but it felt like too much. Bottom line: two countries go to war. Do we need to know their names? How is the engagement that never happens really relevant in the big scheme of things? It felt like something simply thrown into the query because there is no mention of the prince later or if marriage might be a way to resolve things.

Good luck on your query, Caledonia.

Anonymous said...

As a fan of FORGOTTEN REALMS and all things Middle-Earth, I wasn't quite hooked by the description of the world, inasmuch as I wasn't drawn into it.

I also wonder if, at a 62K word count, it's too short?

Also, for Matthew: I think the real question is whether you dropped Baldur's Gate, Drizzt, Elminster, and The Knights of Myth Drannor without looking them up.

Unknown said...

I also agree with Matt's comments. I'd like to see you start with more about Katya and let me forma connection to her. The information about the kingdoms, while interesting, isn't enough to draw me in. I want to know more about the land (which is a good thing) but come away confused by where you have left things.

Would love to see what you do with this. Sounds like an intriguing read.

Matthew MacNish said...

@Joshua - Yep. I'm a huge D&D nerd. It's been years since I read any of that stuff (or played the video games) but I still have a special place in my heart for all of it.

Lucky Press, LLC said...

Very insightful analysis, Matthew. I agree with all of your comments and continue to learn from them.

I would delete/revise the Lord of the Ring reference, because I am always a bit put off if someone compares their work to a classic. If the writer's description/synopsis is spot-on, the comparison as far as genre will be obvious. The comparison as far as quality or marketability would remain to be determined.

I think what would be helpful is to tighten up the description so I can "see" a glimpse into the story. Like when you see a movie trailer and know right away, Oh, that's what that movie will be like. Everything supports the vision. A clearer vision is needed.

I've found that writing a synopsis is the biggest challenge for me personally and other writers, but it is definitely one of the most important things you need to get right.

Michael G-G said...

First off, thank you Caledonia Lass for sharing your query, and story, with us. This does sound like a darn good read.

Seriously, Matt is now channeling everything I have (we all have?!) to say. Plus, he is the king of high fantasy and I, quite frankly, am not. (Though I do love LOTR). I really like what he does with your comparison titles at the end.

My 2 cents: Lead off with the character. I get she's a princess, but is she also the kingdom's best knife wielder? Use one or two trenchant details to SHOW rather than tell us about your character and plot. (Also agree that 60ish thousand words sounds a little short for this kind of fantasy/world-building.)

Good luck with this--I know you can do it!!!

Ashley Elston said...

Everyone's comments are great. The only thing I would add - too many complicated names for a query, it distracted me from the story. Okay, one more thing - I agree, word count seems a little low.

Samantha VĂ©rant said...

I agree with your comments, Matt. But I also feel a few things are missing from the query: voice and excitement! Also, there are too many characters in this! Caledonia needs to focus on Katya! Just my 2 centimes!

Lydia Kang said...

Great critique. It's such a great thing how you give back to other writers this way, Matthew. And thank you Caledonia for posting your query. Your story sounds like a great fantasy!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Having read a draft of this novel, i have a bit of insight that can hopefully help.
I think you're focusing too much on "what happens" as opposed to Character, Conflict and Consequence.
Honestly, i would start over, i think it will be easier that way than trying to morph this existing draft into something better.

Here's an example query so you can get an idea of what you should focus more on:

Kayta Ni'adzul is the princess of Paridzule, a nation at constant war with their neighbor Relavia, who's megalomaniac ruler seeks power and conquests at all costs.
In a desperate bid to try and find peace, Kayta's father arranges for her sister to marry the prince of Relavia. Which would be all fine and good except that Katya has her eye on Prince Alabassin, and the king of Relavia puts the glory of war over the happiness of his own son.

When Relavia attacks Paridzule, Katya's ship is sunk. Katya loses her memory and is presumed dead. As war looms over the land, Katya must find Alabassin and fight for peace. But if Kayta can't recall who she is, how can she fight for a home she doesn't remember?

OK, obviously this is kind of terrible and would need a lot of work, but i was just using it to show you how to focus on Katya and Alabassin and no one else. Focus on the conflicts surrounding them, senweiss, Alby thinking Katya's dead, Katya losing her memory and the looming war all in relation to your characters.

Does that make sense? I hope it does. Feel free to email me if you want to chat more about it.

Good luck!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I think you got most of it, but I have to agree that those names are awesome!
Even though the names are awesome, there are too many of them (in my opinion). The countries, the sister, the father, the sole heir, the protagonist, they're all named. It got really confusing.
Also, this is totally a personal opinion, but when I read a name I can't pronounce that has an apostrophe in it, I instantly think of it as cliche.
The premise for this sounds amazing, and I also LOVE reading a big-world series. :)

Marsha Sigman said...

Great critique! I don't think I can add anything new either. Just need to clarify story points.

Arlee Bird said...

I'm glad you bring all this kind of stuff to our attention. I'm bad at this sort of thing and you do an excellent job of bringing out strengths and weaknesses.
No advice from me on Caledonia's query, this post breaks it down well.

Tossing It Out

Christina Lee said...

Again, Matt, well done. The only thing I have to add is that I continue to be amazed by such cool names (and I love the comparison too)!!! Good luck!

Shannon said...

You hit all major points, Matt. You've gotten so good at this. <3

A few things that struck me. When Kayta Ni'adzul's was first mentioned, I was confused. Who is this person and why am I being told what her father is doing?

Strange places and new people is a bit generic - if she lost her memory, everything would be strange and new. And I'm not sure what's legendary: the people or the places. :)

It sounds like a great read! Best of luck with the query process.

Mel Chesley said...

Ok, now for my two cents.... THANK YOU! To everyone. :D

I'm going to take this and run with it. This is exactly what I was looking for and I'm very happy I sent it off to you Matthew.

And Sarah, you do have a good insight and grasp of this. I listened to you before, so I'm listening again.

As for the big names, I will just say this, I do have a website I intend to point people to which has a whole section on how to pronounce those big names. I don't want people rushing to it right away or while reading, but it is there. I like naming things, but I love being able to pronounce them. :D

Thanks again everyone. I appreciate this feedback and support!

Angela Brown said...

Matt and others covered pretty much any and everything that you could try to improve the current draft or doing another one.

Just consider the three Big Bangs because an agent will have a stack of queries to look at after they either form reject or consider your project:

Hook with the first portion of your summary. Line their imagination with the seeds of interest with a neat (brief) and strong description of plot and Sinker with the conclusion that nicely ties things together.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I would cut some of the personal stuff, too. Unless the agent wants to know about online presence or your ability to market online. I know many small publishers request a marketing plan with queries now.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I’ve read through this query several times trying to figure out what is bugging me about it and I think I’m ready to point it out.

Essentially, the story doesn’t start until the fourth paragraph. All of the stuff above that regarding the two kingdoms, the efforts to contain Relavia, Kayta Ni’adzul’s father, the attack, the pyrates…I have two words for you.

Who cares.

It’s like opening with a dream sequence which is a huge no-no because you get the reader all involved and then reveal BUT SHE REMEMBERS NONE OF IT. Well if your protag doesn’t need to know any of this then why should I?

I suggest that you move Kayta to the forefront of this query and discard the information on all the wonderful world-building you have done. I for one am very impressed, but I don’t think it belongs in a query.


Kayta Ni’adzul has no memory of the life she led prior to being fished from the sea by an unlikely rescuer. However, the world does not so easily forget a princess at the center of a conflict between two powerful nations going back thousands of years.

In her prior life, Kayta was nothing but a pawn. But things have changed. For the first time in her life, she has the ability to move other pieces on the chess board. But how can she hope to win if she cannot remember how to play or with whom she is playing against. The stakes are higher than they have ever been as the armies of a foreign nation descend upon her home and only Kayta can prevent massive bloodshed. Only Kayta has no idea where home is.

Anyway...just my two cents. I hope that helps some.

ali cross said...

You had great feedback here, Matt. If I were the author, I'd go back to the drawing board and try, try again.

I think the query should only be four (at most) paragraphs and should follow the KISS format (keep it simple, stupid!)

First graf: intro/hook. One or two lines.

Second graf: intro to MC/crisis/call to action

Third graf: how will MC respond to said crisis?

Fourth graf: state your case on what kind of book this is, how it would appeal to readers and bam, get out of there!

Okay, you could add a fifth graf where you say something awesome about yourself that would add to your awesome ability to write this particular story.


J.C. Martin said...

I think you've covered all the major bases. Great critique as usual!

Anonymous said...

Well critiqued, Matt! I agree with most of your points. Except, as some have pointed out already, the comparisons could probably go, especially since they're comparisons to relative classics.

I feel as though agents are more likely to be impressed by intelligent, savvy comparisons to current high-midlist authors; it shows that a writer's researched the market.

And since I almost always, nowadays, look for someONE to connect to, as opposed to an idea, I tend to like hearing about the main character and his/her dilemma right up front.

Cool idea, Lass! Best of luck with the querying!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Keep in mind that this critique is based on personal preference, but I have to say that I would probably not have read past the paragraph that describes the setting and would definitely have given up somewhere in the middle of the paragraph where several characters' names were thrown together all at once.

Creative names in a fantasy novel can be wonderful -- but if we haven't met the characters or experienced the places yet, it quickly becomes confusing to read.

I like Michael's suggestion above -- discard most of the world-building detail and forge a connection between the reader of the query and your main character Katya. Make the reader WANT to know more about her. Include only the details of the setting that pertain to her central problem.

In essence, focus on Katya and describe her situation in vivid enough terms that the agent has no choice but to request a partial or full to find out what happens to her!

Um, kind of like Michael did. I just popped up and read his suggestion again. An awesome re-write of Katya's dilemma!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Matt's tips. I would start the first paragraph about the main character and weave the history in as it relates to his/her story. Because that's what will grab us into the story. Michael's rewrite is a good start.

Weaver said...

Nice analysis, Matt.

I see a lot of critiques online that refer to other books. I guess I'm just insecure, but it would strike me as presumptuous to compare my work to that of a classic. Yet what else do you do if you don't have any writing credits?

writing and living by Richard P Hughes said...

Some good analysis. I agree with others: the query letter doesn't do much for me. It's a lot of backstory. I like query letters that get into the emotion of the story. This query doesn't do that.
The really interesting part of the query--her losing her memory and how will she know to fight for a home she doesn't remember--should be the focal point of the query.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Hey there,

I'm way late - I had some sudden family stuff crop up that sucked up my whole Friday - but I pretty much agree with everything Matt said. His critique was bang on this time.

I also agree with those who said that the names get confusing. I'd suggest paring down to the important ones: the MC and the love interest. You can refer to the other girl as "so-and-so's sister", and other characters as "so-and-so's father", etc. You can also probably just refer to the places as "so-and-so's kingdom/land" or something along those lines. Really try not to make it sound more complicated than it is in the query.

Best of luck with it!

Nas said...

Great critique. And the comments are really helpful as well. Thanks.

I'm also a new follower here.

Sher A. Hart said...

Take "book one" out of the first book title. Get rid of any reference to the other books other than noting series potential. Your instincts were right about character first. Cut 2nd paragraph entirely. Add a few words, ie. "two warring kingdoms" in third. I would leave in "Some are deadly."
Everything else you said is spot-on.