Thursday, March 1, 2012

Anita Exley's Current Query Critiqued

Here we are again. It feels a bit strange doing this on a Thursday, but this week got all screwed up when I called out of work on Monday. Anyway, enough about me. Let's get back to Anita's query. My feedback will be in red.

The letter:

Dear [agent],

[Enter research done on the agent and reference as to why I chose them to query]

If you've read a lot of my query critiques you know I suggest putting personalization at the end. But there are agents who like it up front, and it's only a matter of opinion, so I may stop mentioning it.

In Georgian England, seventeen-year-old Allie Donovan carries an Egyptian blade in her boot, a chip on her shoulder and the shadow of the noose over her life.

In many ways, this is one of the best opening hooks I've ever read. You've got a touch of world building, a dash of character, and a whole heaping barrage of voice. I would only make a couple suggestions. One, Georgian England makes it sound historical, rather than alternate history. You could maybe say not-quite-Georgian England, or something like that. Anyone who could write that sentence can come up with something better than mine. Two, I LOVE the line about the shadow of the noose hanging over her life, but reading through the rest of the query, I can't figure out what it means. Perhaps I'm missing something, but it seems key to me to know why and how this shadow hangs over her. Were her parents hung as criminals? Does she somehow face the threat of the gallows? It's such a great line, don't steal it's thunder by not giving us enough info for it to make sense.

Common born Allie roams the slate hallways of exclusive St Matthew(')s when I first read this, I thought this was a neighborhood for some reason. Clearly, with halls and not streets, it's not, but you could add school, or academy after Matthew's. armed with her dagger and sharp wit, trying to find her place in an inhospitable environment. She sparks conflict, physical and verbal, with the aristocratic Jared McLaren. The handsome noble is undefeated with a blade, until Allie turns his sense of honour upon him, for a win. I don't think you need this last bit. It's redundant. If he was undefeated, clearly she beats him. However, I'm also a little concerned as to how you win a knife fight without seriously injuring the other person.

When a King(')s Royal Aeronautical Corp airship lands at school, discharging black clad soldiers(,) it raises a spectre from Allie’s past. How? What Spectre? Get specific. Breaking Jared into the underground laboratory of their mutual friend, Zeb, they discover he’s not just constructing mechanical cats and automated limbs. I do like this, but what are they running from and why? It's not hard to infer that the KRAC commandos are after Allie, Jared, or both, but I would really like to know why, assuming that is what's going on here. He is working on a devastating new weapon for the military. If they're running from the military, why would they run to someone working for them? Or is the KRAC not the military? I like all these elements a lot, but I'm left a little confused as to how they fit together.

With Zeb marked as a target by the underworld, KRAC fails to protect him. Maybe I have this all backward. Are the KRAC on their side? If they're protecting Zeb, are they protecting Allie and Jared too? Allie’s illicit skills and contacts make her the only one Jared can trust. This is vague. I get that her skill with a blade and her apparent connection to the underworld can help Jared survive if he's on the run from something, but none of this really makes any sense unless we know who or what they're running from, and more importantly, why. The deeper Allie goes, into what? her feelings for Jared intensify, as she discovers her history is intertwined with their mission. Which is what? We have no idea what their mission is.

In revealing her past, Allie jeopardises I take it this is spelled correctly in British English. her future. Vague. She must decide her course if they are to find the weapon before it plunges Europe into a monstrous war. I thought Zeb already had the weapon? Did he lose it?

REVELATION is a steampunk novel aimed at the young adult market. I'm not sure I would word it this way. I would say something like "REVELATION is a YA Steampunk Adventure with threads of Romance," or you know, something better. I would avoid talking about markets in a query. The novel manuscript is complete at 76,000 words, and is available upon request.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

All right. Let's summarize. I may be biased, because I pretty much love anything even remotely steampunk right off the bat, but this sounds like one of the coolest stories I've seen in a while. The elements of an incredible tale are clearly there, and you've displayed your talent as a writer explicitly, especially with that wonderful opening hook.

What's missing here is a clear and specific sense of plot. We know the basic conflict: there is a weapon, and they must find it, or protect it, or destroy it, to save the world. The problem is that we don't have a clue why Jared and Allie are involved, or exactly how their involvement works, other than they are both friends with Zeb. You don't need a lot more info, just a tidbit here and there to connect one awesome element to another.

Try to address the specific questions I've presented above, and I think your query will be in excellent shape.

That's it.

What do you guys think? Are you as confused as I am about Allie and Jared's role? Did you catch something I missed? What else would you like to see come into play?


Sarah Tokeley said...

I really like this. I had a couple of issues. Matthew caught the biggest one which is, where is the weapon? The other is the line about Allie being the only one Jared can trust. It reads like a pov shift to me. Also, her skills and contacts would make her a good person to work with, but not necessarily to trust.

These are minor, and easily fixed. I'd really loved to see this one get picked up :-)

Karen Baldwin said...

Great critique, Matt...and I agree with you about the first line...a Winner!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent suggestions as always! I thought historical as well.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I loved your story line--very unique--and the first line. But I found the rest of the query a bit long and as Matt said, needing tightening to make the plot clearer.

But if you can fix that, you've got a great story. Good luck with querying.

Rusty Carl said...

A very good critique of a good query. Well done.

Old Kitty said...

I like the first line - it grabbed my attention asap. Got lost (I always get lost!) in the next paragraphs - why is Allie wondering around with a dagger and attitude and who or what are the KRAC and why are they landing at school and what do the words "Breaking Jared" in the sentence "Breaking Jared into the underground..." mean exactly?


Good luck with your query - I think there is much verve and vitality here - I just don't see the connections between Allie, Jared, KRAC and Zeb - but again - it's me and I'm not very bright!

Take care

Bryan Russell said...

I agree completely; the writing here is superb, but I'd like to play tic tac toe with the different elements and line them up more neatly so that they make more sense. The opening hook is awesome, but it should probably be "a noose" rather than "the noose" as no specific noose has been introduced. And I agree with Matt that it would be nice to know in a specific sense what that's referring to.

But the writing and the pieces are definitely here.

JeffO said...

I agree with the general run of comments. Strong writing and voice, interesting world, but something is missing in the query, some connecting thread. I see events, but I don't see how it all hold together. And there was a definite jarring when the airship showed up as I realized I was not in a work of historical fiction.

.jessica. said...

Agree with everything Matt said - the opening is awesome, but the rest needs some tightening and clarification, particularly regarding what, exactly, the conflict is, as well as what the characters have at stake. That said, the story sounds like something I would definitely read! A little polishing and I think you'll have a fantastic query.

Nate Wilson said...

Intriguing query, Anita. Matt's advice is great as always, but I wanted to emphasize a couple points. It's jarring that we don't find out the genre is steampunk until the third paragraph. Ideally, you'd want the agent to be aware of this from the start, but I understand if you're reluctant to mess with the rhythm of that great opening line. At the least, I'd provide steampunk evidence in the very next sentence.

Your query's packed with interesting ideas, but it's hard to understand the connections here. Try removing all but the truly essential ideas and details, and then connect the dots of what's left by providing extra details (such as what from Allie's past is haunting her).

You've got the bones of a great query here. Best of luck with the revisions.

Oh, and Matt: In regard to personalization, I might recommend only putting it up front if you've had memorable interaction with the agent (perhaps at a conference, or because of her blog). Otherwise, I'd push it to the end.

Matthew MacNish said...

Nate makes a great point. One easy fix is to include Genre and word count in your subject line, but I would still like to see something about Georgian England that shows it's not purely historical.

Talli Roland said...

I loved loved LOVED the opening sentence.

I agree with your comments, Matt, particularly about Georgian London. I thought it was historical. I don't know much about steampunk, but I think if the issues are brought up are addresses, it's a brilliant query!

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Totally agree w/Matt--the sense of plot needs to be drawn a bit stronger. Also, the "black-clad" soldiers kinda threw me. Do we need to know they're black-clad? It just doesn't flow. But all in all, a great query. I'd pick it up for that opening sentence alone, if I were an agent!

Eric W. Trant said...

I'll second what most of the others are saying. The ~writing~ is fabulous. It's punchy and witty and memorable.

But you hooked the reader without setting the hook, if you get me. Do you fish? Once you feel that nibble, you know Mr. Fishy took your bait. Now you yank and set the hook.

Do that with your hooks, over which our man Matt so completely geeked out: Egyptian blade, chip, and noose.

Those are you hooks, and they work. Keep yanking on them until you have the reader flopping at your feet.

Then you can gut, skin, and eat them! With a little tartar sauce, of course.

- Eric

J. M. Diaz said...

It is indeed a great opening, but I see that the author struggles with many of the same things that I have. Specificity. I understand its the desire to want to use vagueness as a way to create some sort of intrigue, but it can come across as confusing to those who don't know the story yet. My 5 cents (adjusted for inflation) are to include more specifics as to the actions and the conflict itself.
Otherwise, I think this query is off to a great start.

Lori M. Lee said...

Wow, great suggestions. Your confusion and thoughts were spot on, imo. Sounds like a fantastic adventure, but definitely needs cohesion.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I got nothin'. Matt's critique hit everything.

Brinda said...

I think that first line ROCKS.

Steve MC said...

Really like the setting and events of it all.

The part that had me scratching my head was "Allie’s illicit skills and contacts make her the only one Jared can trust."

Why's Jared need to trust her? What's his stake in it all?

Other than that, good luck with your punk!

Huntress said...

vague, yes, and confusing. IMHO, some information dropped out of nowhere w/o a lead in or connection to the rest of the query.

I see this as a continuity problem. One sentence should lead to the next.

I agree, this is very, VERY interesting and would love to see the edited version. I want to know more about the Egyptian blade :)

A Beer for the Shower said...

A great query and a great critique. I have to agree with Matt that some elements seem a little confusing. The vagueness of Allie's past and how it relates to the story kind of detracts for me. I don't need to know sordid details--I mean, hell, that's the joy of reading the novel--but hearing that a spectre of her past catches up with her and she's in too deep could really mean anything. She has illicit skills and contacts, so, is she an assassin? Did she used to be involved with murderers? Was her father someone bad? For the purpose of the query I think we need to know just a little bit more.

However, this is very interesting and does sound like a read worth checking out. Make a few small clarifications, and this would be hard for any agent to turn down.

Anonymous said...

I feel like the Steampunk needs to be mentioned earlier, but that's just me. I wonder if the "spectre from Allie's past" could be intimated in the first paragraph better, not just to link the two, but to make the "noose over her life" more explicit.

Christina Lee said...

Major like here. I am in love with the flow of that first line and so I hope there's a way to keep it there (After addressing Matt's questions)!

Anonymous said...

*wow* You guys, and Matt in particular, are awesome!

Personally I thought my query was a bit of a dog's breakfast. Just as well I left out the steampunk bellydancing bit LOL

I had no idea how to fix it. Now I do.

Kinda excited about polishing this rough diamond up now :)

Matthew MacNish said...

@ Christina -

I think you could just add the word alternate in front of Georgian England, and then if you had Steampunk in your subject line, that first sentence would really sing. Especially if Anita clarifies the noose bit later.

Flemish said...

nice work reviewing.
Story sounds like a lot of potential.
Good job M.

Unknown said...

Excellent critique Matt. That first line pulled me in also. Your comments about clarifying the conflict between Allie and Jared, and why they are looking for a weapon Jared was already working on, will make this a much stronger query.

Jessica Salyer said...

I also really like the first line. Although I have to say I got a little confused with the rest of it. The premise sounds really interesting and I think by answering the questions that Matthew asked, it would become a lot clearer. Thanks for sharing your query letter. :)

Lydia Kang said...

Great critique Matt. The first line is out-of-this world amazing...I'm sure the rest can catch up without too much work.

M Pax said...

Wow, great job, Anita. Hope you sell it so I can read it.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt is spot on as usual!
If you can just clear up some of those vague details, i think you'll really have a great query.
Also, i'd totally read this

Jemi Fraser said...

I love that first line too! I think to clarify, you could easily slide steampunk in... In Steampunk Georgian England or In Steampunk England. That would simply and easily give the alternate history vibe. Sounds like a great story :)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I really liked the first line!

However, the second line repeats almost exactly the same ideas, so we get no new information. Furthermore, I don't get a good sense of either Allie or Jared before you plunge them into danger. I'd use that paragraph to set up their personal conflict/romantic attraction while revealing the steampunk setting and more about that noose in Allie's past. (Don't try to keep it secret in the query if it's an element that will attract an agent. Even if it's not revealed in the novel until later, you might want agents to know about it up front. I learned that lesson when querying!)

The next paragraph tackles the external and main conflict in the story, but I don't get a good feel for what's going on, and I quickly lost track of which side everybody was on. I would suggest re-writing this so we understand what the conflict is about, and what the stakes are for on each side.

Good luck! I love steampunk!

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Bryan, Nate, and Matthew all make some terrific points. I really like the sense of Allie you work into the hook, but I would like to see more clarity in how the conflict works.
This sounds like a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing!

PK HREZO said...

I agree that opening line is outstanding! Bravo!

farawayeyes said...

A day late and a dollar short but I wanted to weigh in anyway. So glad the suggestions centered around clearing up the confusion. I'm intrigued by Steampunk and the basics sounded so good, but I was really confused (not something unusual for me).

The suggested changes would seem to make all the difference. Definitely one I would like to read.

Good luck Anita. Thanks for being so brave and sharing with the rest of us.

Michael G-G said...

Got my days muddled and so am so very late and totally redundant. Everything I would have said has been addressed by Matt and all the other wonderful commenters.

All I will say is, keep that opening line (with a delicate addition of steampunk flavor.) It sings.

The rest was a mite confusing, especially when it started to look like Jared's story. But I trust your skills as a writer to fix it (for the win.)

Thanks for sharing this, Anita. I think we'll see this one on the shelves, me hearties!

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

This had a great voice and felt "hookish" to me, even with the missing details. Although it does get a little confusing without those details. Matt, you did a great job asking questions. I think the genre also needs to be clearer up front. My first thought was that it was a historical, not YA steampunk, and you want the agent in the right frame of mind as they read the query. I'm not sure you need to mention that the ms is available upon request, though. I think by saying it's complete at 76K, the implication is that it is ready to be read. But really great assessment overall, Matt.

Barbara Watson said...

Steampunk YA is out of my league for making any comments, but that first line made me want to grab pages of this!

Nancy Thompson said...

All excellent advice, as always, Matt.

Definitely move the housekeeping to the end, add a little more focus to the setting and the noose reference in the hook, and add more clarity about Jared and Zeb and how they all relate. No need to add that your ms is available upon request though. Of course it is, or you wouldn't be querying. You may offer a complete synopsis though.

All in all, it sounds like a great story. I'm sure you'll have requests on that alone. Good luck, Anita!!

And thanks again, Matthew!

Lola Sharp said...

I have nothing new to add...Matt you are so good at critiquing these, it's redundant for the rest of us. :)

I agree with every single word Matt typed.