Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Marcy Hatch's Current Query Critiqued

I'm not feeling well this morning (I hope it's just a cold, but my nose is running like a faucet) so I'm going to get right into this. Hopefully the cotton in my head doesn't mess with my query skillz.

If you haven't seen me do this before, Marcy's query is in plain text, below. My feedback is in red.

Dear [insert agent's name properly spelled]:

It is the winter of 1805 and the only thing sixteen-year-old Arlen Devlin is thinking of is the ball that will introduce her to high society and that elegant madness known as The Season. This is a great opening. Full of voice, and style. I would set this into its own paragraph, and would maybe like to see one more word that tells us about Arlen's character. But when tragedy strikes tell us how. The mention of meeting her grandmother leads me to believe she may have lost her parents, but you should almost always be specific in a query. Arlen's life takes a decidedly witchy this is so bad-ass, great writing! turn, beginning with the discovery of a grandmother she never knew you need another verb here, to be parallel with "beginning," maybe "continuing?" to a book of spells that has been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. That's what you mean, right? It wasn't handed down just once, was it? This, however, isn’t just any book of spells. This is a family’s heritage, a compilation of every scrap of magick gathered over the course of history. It’s the family’s grimoire. Someone said yesterday they didn't know what a grimoire was. It probably is a somewhat rare word these days, but being an old D&D nerd, I know exactly what a grimoire is, and I say don't you dare change it. It's a perfect word, and it really sets a great tone for your story. And someone wants hers.

Soon Arlen learns that the tragedy that took her parents’ lives all right, now I see, but this is still vague. How did they die? Tell us at the beginning. You can be brief. may not have been an accident and hers isn’t the only heirloom book of spells. Each of the great witch families has one and whoever holds the book holds the power in this England, where magick has as much influence as money, where witches are courted, what does this mean, witches are courted? Courted by who? and spells are traded for favors. It will take every talent Arlen has – including her mastery of the imp, Vathek - you see how the first dash is longer than the second? That's because email (and blog posts) do funny things to formatting. Be careful about using em-dashes in query letters. Unless you want to go for the dreadfully ugly double hyphen -- or you're a master of formatting, your em-dashes are going to get screwed up in emails. to navigate this maze of conspiracy and intrigue, and maybe, if she’s very lucky and very careful and very clever, she’ll survive.

Okay. So at this point I'm sure this query will have done it's job. It's full of amazing voice, amazing style, and it clearly clues you in on that fact that here is a great writer, with a great story. If you fixed the few small things I've pointed out, you'd probably be good to go, assuming your pages are as good as this query.

But you came here asking for my advice, so I will say that in spite of the things this query has in spades, what it is lacking is specific information. If you want to get this query to be the best it can be, you need to give us a better sense of the conflict, and the choice Arlen will have to make to overcome it. You don't need to name or go too deeply into any characters like a potential antagonist, but right now all we know is that there are other witch families, who vaguely may or may not be after Arlen's grimoire. I think you have room for a few more words here, so I think so should get specific about what she has to overcome.

However, if you choose to keep it succinct, this query will probably work as is. It's already very good.

Grimoire CAPITAL: GRIMOIRE is complete at 93,000 words and set during the Regency I'm no expert in this, because I don't read romance, but to me using this term will make the reader think of Regency Romance novels. We know from the year above when it takes place, so I would consider skipping this word, although the point about it being a sort of alternate history is pretty important, so you should keep that in. period in England – albeit a slightly different England. I have a BA in History and I've written several other books. Are they published? Traditionally? If not, don't mention them unless you've sold more than 10,000 copies. I have pasted included the first five pages per your guidelines. If you would like to see more, I would love to send it to you. You don't have to say that, agents know you would love for them to read your manuscript.

Thank you for your time,

Marcy S. Hatch

Okay. So to summarize: this query is already very good. A historical fantasy young adult novel like this sounds very fresh and unique to me, and I'm sure you're going to find a lot of success when you begin submitting. There are a couple tiny things to fix, but they're no big deal.

If you really want this query to shine I would suggest adding another sentence or two about some specific bit of conflict, but I also don't think it would be required in order to get someone to read your first five pages.

And a short note: I love the hint of her power over the imp Vathek. I don't know if she summons him or just controls him, but either way it reminds me of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and I LOVED those books.

So that's it. What do you all think? Am I trippin? Is this query as good as it looks? What kind of one or two word terms could be used to describe Arlen in that first sentence to really make it pop with hook?

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Will Burke said...

This does look like a good book. I'm curious how the relationhip with the Grandmother developes though. Why didn't Arlene know her?

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great suggestions Matt. I loved the first paragraph, like "the decidedly witchy turn" but agree with your suggestions for improvement.

Stina said...

I'm sold. I want to read this book. :)

And as always, great points, Matt. I didn't know about the dash 'em issue in emails. Hmm. I'd better check if my query uses them.

Steve MC said...

Great job, Matt - your cold didn't affect your skillz at all.

There’s some great phrases in this query, like “that elegant madness” and “scrap of magick,” that show she can write.

And I never heard of a grimoire, but I looked it up, and I love both the way it looks (grim noir) and sounds (grim war), and how it’s rooted in text (grammaire). And I especially like how each one is unique, which really adds to the dramatic possibilities.

In the second paragraph, does “whoever holds the book” mean “her book”? That it's the one that will control what happens? Or is it "whoever holds one of these books"?

Good catch on "beginning with the discovery." Could also simply have it "including the discovery of... and a book of spells..."

I thought "witches were courted" was fine, 'cause I pictured them at court, but you're right - it could also be as in romance, so "sought at court" or "courted by the nobility" or something like that might be better.

For small stuff, I’d suggest a comma here: “tragedy strikes, Arlen's life,” and cut “albeit a slightly different England” since it's been shown. And I like the Regency bit, which goes well with her degree, 'cause it shows she knows what she's talking about.

PK HREZO said...

This is a great premise! I'd read it. But yeah, I see what Matt's saying about making the conflict clearer. What are the real stakes involved... what exactly is going to happen if someone else gets that book?? death? If so, maybe make that part more powerful in the query cuz that's pretty huge.

Best of luck!

Bish Denham said...

I really like the alternate history aspect of this story.

The only part that I was a little confused about is this sentence.

"This is a (her?)family’s heritage, a compilation of every scrap of magick gathered over the course of history. It’s the (her?)family’s grimoire."

I think using "her" makes it more personal, more immediate. Other than that, great query!

Bish Denham said...

Oh, and Matt, I hope you get to feeling better soon!

Bryan Russell said...

I think you're dead on with this one.

...a witcy turn, beginning blah blah blah and ending blah blah blah...

or, more likely:
...a witchy turn, from blah blah blah to blah blah blah...

Also, I'd cut the "this" from the "in this England". We know this isn't pure history from the context, and the query elaborates later with the "slightly different England".

Overall, a sharp query.

J.C. Martin said...

Very intriguing story. Yes, it's a strong query, but I agree with Matthew that I'd like more specific details, although the challenge would then be keeping the whole thing within one page.

kah said...

Weeeird. I'm all stuffy with a runny nose this morning too. Hope we feel better soon!

Because of my cotton candy head I have no suggestions to improve this query. All I CAN say is that I so wanna read the book.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Sorry you're not feeling well, Matt, but I think you've made great suggestions. I didn't notice that the conflict was vague, but now you mention it, Marcy should make it clear that people definitely want the power of her grimoire and what they will do to get it.

Unknown said...

I thought this was a very good query, and I loved your comments, Matt. Very wise advice on how she can strengthen this already fab letter. Sorry to hear you're under the weather. Feel better soon!!

Ashley Elston said...

Great query. But I agree, "I've written several other books." needs to go.

L.C. said...

Hey Marcy! Just a quick word about "grimoire": I was a huuuuge fan of Charmed back in the day so I also am familiar with the word. I don't think you should change it, since it is the sort of "official" witch word for the book of spells. If it's true to your story, keep it--I'm the sure the agent could figure it out by context if they weren't familiar with it.

Great feedback, as usual, Matt! Do you tire of being dead-on all the time? :-)

Jess said...

Wow, this sounds like a great book. Matt made some good suggestions that'll tighten and expand where it's warranted, but otherwise, I think this sounds like a fun read :) You could consider saying "in an alternate England" instead of "albeit a slightly different England." Fewer words, that's all.

Hope your cold gets better, Matt.

Old Kitty said...

I was hooked by the story already in the query so yay for the advice too (it's all in the details!)!!

Good luck Marcy Hatch!! Yay!!!!

And hope you get better Matthew!! Take care

Lydia Kang said...

I love historical fantasy so this would be right up my alley. I'd request the full, if I were an agent. Matthew's query skillz are intact despite the faucet-nose. I agree with his comments about more specifics.

Good luck!

.jessica. said...

I want to read this book! :)

My only nagging question after reading the query related to this:

"...hers isn’t the only heirloom book of spells. Each of the great witch families has one and whoever holds the book holds the power in this England..."

If there's more than one book, and each family has one, then why are they after hers? I'm sure you have an answer for this, but it should be spelled out, because it's confusing as is.

Michael G-G said...

Everything Matt said!

I loved the title--little did I know that it is a very common term (thanks, Amazon!) And there's even a similar sounding series by Brad Strickland for middle grade readers. So you may be changing the title once a publisher picks you up--but I guess that is a fairly common occurrence.

I did love the tone in the query and you are obviously a super writer. As Matt pointed out, picking the choice detail would move this query from the "great" column to the "stellar."

Best of luck, and thanks for sharing!!

Michael G-G said...

Oh, and get well soon, Matt! It's sniffle season here too.

Angela Ackerman said...

Sounds like a great book, and excellent query full of voice. Love it!

The only place I felt was a bit muddled was here:

Soon Arlen learns that the tragedy that took her parents’ lives may not have been an accident and hers isn’t the *only* heirloom book of spells. <--more than one

yet this implies only one heirloom book--> whoever holds the book holds the power in this England

So, is the Devlin's book like 'the grand grimoire' of all the grimoires and it alone has the power to rule the world, or does each family's grimoire book have the potential to rule? Or is it a situation where each book has power, but owning more than one book increases that power?

That's the only place where I felt it needed a bit of additional clarification. :)

Good luck with this!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Lola Sharp said...

Well done Arlen and Matt. :) I'd want to read more.

I'm of the belief that with queries (and most things, really) less is more.

The CRUCIAL part of the query, IMHO, is:

-- What exactly is the main conflict AND what are the stakes.

After that, nail the voice. Give agents the 'flavor' of your book, your MC, your writing style. As succinctly as possible.

It looks like there's plenty of good advice here already, so I'll just wish you well on your query journey. :)

I hope you feel better, Matt.


mshatch said...

wow, thanks Matt and everyone for all your comments and suggestions. I do hope I get to keep Grimoire for the title since it's all about the book. As for being more specific about who wants her book I do have a name I could throw out ;) and yes, each witch family (there are five) has a grimoire but obviously if you could manage to snag another family's grimoire you'd have all the spells and magick in their book in addition to your own. And while you might not be able to rule the world, you could certainly rule the witch world.

back to query drawing board...

again, thank you!!!

Carolyn V said...

Love these suggestions. But I must admit, it makes me nervous for my query. ;)

Nicole Zoltack said...

Being specific will help give this query an added edge. I think the premise sounds fascinating.

Tamara Narayan said...

It’s a strong query but a couple of small things caught my critic’s attention. The mention of the imp comes out of left field and left me thinking it’s something like Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter, which may or may not be a good thing. I’d either add a snippet of info to let us know his significance in the story (since he is the only other named character) or delete him from the query.

I’m surprised nobody flagged the three uses of ‘very’ toward the end. Maybe it’s not a big deal since the rhythm works but it something to consider changing.

I love the word grimoire. Are there any other words or phrases like this and “The Season” to bring the time period and setting into focus?

Shannon said...

Hi Matt. Great feedback and thanks to Marcy for sharing her query.

The only thing that caught my eye was the "very very very" at the end. It didn't really work for me, but otherwise the query looks great. Love the premise - sounds like a fun read.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I like how you played Dungeons & Dragons and knew what a grimoire was. I miss having players to play RPG's with...Vacuous Grimoire not withstanding.

Christina Lee said...

*hands you a kleenex* Matt I agree with your summation that this is a very good query and more details will make it POP even more!!

Marcy, have you watched The Secret Circle this fall? The six families have the book, yada yada. But it's modern day and obviously has different details then yours.

I'd buy this book in a heartbeat!!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on "grimoire." No change there.

First sentence, Arlen-describing words: something that shows she is truly anticipating "The Season." I didn't get a sense of "this is consuming her every waking thought."

I wish I had more suggestions, but Matthew hit all the notes I had written down yesterday.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Definitely keep Grimoire!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

You always do such a thorough critique. I can't add anything else. And yep, I also agree, keep the word Grimoire.

Sarah Tokeley said...

Another vote for keeping 'Grimoire'. An agent who takes this type of query will surely know the meaning.
I want to read this :-)

Get well soon Matt.

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Marcy, I will buy this book. And I hope the title remains, because it is perfect.

I haven't finished my wip yet, so I don't feel really qualified here, but I will give it a shot.

Is Arlen pragmatic? Fey? Winsome? Charming? I agree with Matt--(suddenly conscious of dashed) about giving a one-word character clue.

You have some breathtaking phrases. Wordsmith!

Matt, what can I say. You have skillz. If this is you impaired, can the world handle you sans impairment?

Dude. Hot water, lemon, honey, dash of cayenne. Discretionary tot of good whisky.

*waves tissue in sympathy* *shakes water bottle to suggest hydration ritual*

Phoenix said...

Great suggestions, Matt. I'm not a working writer so I can't offer many opinions here, but I think it's pretty damn awesome of you to offer feedback and advice to other writers. :)

I hope you feel better too!

Elliot Grace said...

...well done on the critique, Matt, and very kind of you to offer assistance.

I agree with your advice of being a bit more specific about the conflict, which of course, is what keeps the pages turning ;)


Nadja Notariani said...

I enjoyed seeing how you would advise the writer to improve this letter. I indie-published, saving me this nerve-wrenching activity (at least I've read how nerve-wrenching it is to those awaiting responses...), but tips on tightening writing of any sort are always helpful and welcome in my world. Nice to meet you too! Thanks for stopping by via the Campaign. I'll be following ~ Nadja

LTM said...

woow. I'm coming late to the game, but as always, you hit all the high points and I think gave her good advice.

all in all, however, I agree. This is a great, strong query as it is. Best of luck to Mary~ :o) <3

Kristen Wixted said...

I'm late too but if you're already working on it and you not sure how dramatic to make it--go for it! It sounds like a deliciously dramatic story.

Unknown said...

Great query! I know who to come to when I need to write one. You have great critiques.

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Remember I am new to the query process. Okay.

I would like to see the first part of the query pack the punch/have the voice of the second part of the query, where you have voice and some great word choices/lines.

Maybe add one more sentence that indicates something about the "promising career"--solved dangerous case? Has mad skills in_____________ that resulted in lives saved? Something that is a character clue?

Maybe drop us a clue about the grieving wife--is she a relieved grieving wife? A bitter one? Bright? Sexy? What sets her apart that makes her interesting in the story?

Major props for sharing the process. Thanks; I find this process fascinating and helpful.