Friday, June 29, 2012

Colene Murphy's Current Query Critiqued

Before we get started: ITALIA! AZZURRI!!! Balotelli! Yes, my Italians beat Germany yesterday, in a heart-stoppingly exciting match. It ended up 2-1, but Germany's only goal was on a bogus PK, and both Italia's goals were scored by our young, up and coming star, Mario Balotelli (who is of African descent). He had pretty much been a non-factor up until yesterday's game, so it was extremely satisfying to watch him prove his worth.

Now let's get to work. I'm going on vacation next week. I'll be working on Monday, so I may post then, but after that the blog will probably be offline for at least a week. My sister is getting married in the Berkshires, and I'll be flying my family up to Boston, and meeting the likes of Sarah Fine, Anna Stanizewski, Kristen Wixted, Heather Kelly, and Chelsey Blair.

So that's it for news, really. Let's get to Colene's query. My thoughts will be in red.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

Sixteen-year-old Damaris may have the power to steal human souls, but she isn't happy about it. I'm a bit confused. On the one hand, I kind of like this, assuming it's tongue in cheek, but on the other hand, I'm not sure it's obvious enough. I mean what sixteen-year-old would be happy about the ability to steal human souls? A direct descendant of Death, Damaris doesn't share her parents' beliefs that her kind, Ankou, are inherently evil. This is better. A bit of character, a bit of world-building, and a touch of conflict. Or that the only way they can gain access to Heaven is by killing humans and stealing their souls. Killing and stealing souls? I can see why she wouldn't be happy about that. Worse, she's been shipped off to boarding school because of her rebellion, leaving her younger sister, Genie, alone under her parents' murderous influence. Interesting. I went to boarding school, so I'm all about stories that include it, and I think you've set up some decent stakes here, and I'm interested to see where it goes.

But over summer break, Damaris has a chance to show Genie another way of life, put an end to all the senseless deaths, and, hopefully, start a chain reaction to change the rest of her kind. I like the concept of her rebelling, but I would like to see some specifics. How is she going to show Genie another way of life? How can she put an end to the deaths and what kind of chain reaction will it start? I get it that you don't want to give everything away in a query, but when you think about it, this last sentence doesn't tell us that much. Her parents have other ideas, however. If Damaris doesn’t make a kill, they’ll disown her. Of course, that’s if somebody doesn’t get to Damaris and her family first. I don't think you need to name her again. She's a member of her family, and you've named her three times in this paragraph.

Someone is stalking Damaris, stalking, or trying to kill? car and mail bombs popping up at every turn. If she isn't able to find out his or her identity soon, more than Genie's future will be lost, and escaping back to boarding school will no longer be an option. I like this. Conflict, stakes, and mystery. Well done. With everything falling in in? Or apart? Or down? Maybe collapsing? around her, Damaris must decide: go against everything she believes about the value of life and use her powers to save her sister, or admit defeat and let her deadly heritage carry on. Seems the life of a daughter of Death has just gotten way too complicated. Excellent choice. Well done summing up.

CALLING DEATH is a 64,000 word YA paranormal with series potential. (more agenty-personalized stuff if I can place any.)

So. In summary, as I said yesterday, I think this query is already quite good. The ending in particular carries some zing. What needs the most work, I think, is the opening hook. It's tough, I know, but we need to get a better sense of Damaris' character, and it would be nice to get a slightly better sense of the world. Do they live on earth? In hell? Somewhere else? I like how the kids seem to get to live a mostly normal life while they're young, and I think that's a cool premise, but I'd like to see some more specifics about how it all works.

Your middle paragraph is better. It raises the stakes, and introduces what looks like some great conflict, but again, it's a little vague. I basically said it all in my in text notes, but the point is, don't just tell us: this important thing happens, and then this important thing follows, show us what they are (without going into so much detail you need another hundred words).

Your final paragraph is pretty good, I think, I except for the points I mentioned. 

So that's it.

What do you all think? Wish you were going on vacation? I bet.


Kristen Wixted said...

Wow, this is a great one. It's so uncomplicated, and it's not hard to see what your story will be about. I don't know if you could throw in a little more of your voice here and there? Make it stand out a bit more?
Overall I think the beginning is fantastic and if you listen to Matt's suggestions for the middle you're good to go.

Looking fwd to Tuesday, Matt!

Weaver said...

Good break down, Matt. I really don't have anything to add. Though when I read her use of "fall in" it made me think of imploding.

Sarah said...

I like this query, and I think Matt's suggestions will make it better. I confess that I was a bit confused, however--is this taking place on Earth? Is Damaris posing as human or is she actually a human (with a few special features) or what? Is this boarding school for special supernaturals or is it a human boarding school full of ordinary kids? What was missing from this for me was a sense of place. I have no idea of the WHERE of this, and it did throw me off. I think it's an easy fix, though! Best of luck with this!

And: Matt. I am very excited about Tuesday as well. Writer friends. Beer. What could be better?

S.A. Larsenッ said...

(Firstly Matt, I did receive your email about you heading to Boston. So awesome!! I don't think I can make it to meet up with everyone, but if something changes I will definitely be in touch. I'd LOVE to be there!)

'K...on to this query.

Great edit as always from Matt. Colene, I agree with Matt about your opening sentence, the whole tongue-in-cheek idea. That's the technique I originally used at the beginning of mine, but soon learned that it wasn't enough, as Matt eluded to here with yours.

Ooh, a direct descendant of Death. I'm hooked! Yeah, Matt's pointed out areas you could tweak, but overall it's a nice query. Can't wait to read the story!

.jessica. said...

Agreed - I think this query does a great job of setting out the basics (hitting all 3 C's) but it's a little vague. One or two details sprinkled in could make a huge difference, both in making the world come alive and in showing a bit more voice. The story, though, sounds awesome!

In other news, have a blast at your sister's wedding!! Hopefully we'll have some good weather...

farawayeyes said...

You cleared up my areas of confusion. Another good query made better.

Enjoy your vacation. Fun opportunity to meet writer friends. Jealous, I don't think so. I live on vacation! Ha

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yep, i'm with Matt again. I really think he touched on everything i wanted to say. The only little thing that kind of pulled me out is that you mention the boarding school, but then immediately she's out of the boarding school again, so i don't actually know if you even need to bring the boarding school bit up. But it all depends on how much time she actually spends at the school in the novel.
Good job!

Kristin Rae said...

Wow Matt's really great with the suggestions! I agree that the first sentence didn't completely grab me--the second sentence seemed to actually "hook" me more. I think if you expanded on that second sentence a bit, that could be your opener. And I agree with a commenter above that it could use a little more of the MC's voice. That was certainly the hardest thing for me to throw into mine, but I found that even just two little implants of voice livened it up a bit.
Regardless, I'm intrigued and must read one day!

jerichas said...

This is a great query, and it sounds like a fascinating story. I'm with Sarah, though, about the setting - IS this Earth, or a world LIKE Earth in which Damaris' kind are normalized? Are the Ankou hidden and secret, or do the humans whose souls get stolen know what's going on? Because that definitely ups the stakes for Damaris. Is the boarding school specially for rebellious Ankou, or are there ordinary kids there? Does she have friendships with humans that affect her desire not to kill them? This may seem like a lot of questions, but the world-building is important and right now I'm confused about the context of Damaris' people, which muddies how cool the concept is for me.

I'm with Matt on the rest, except for one nit-picky thing: "A direct descendant of Death, Damaris doesn't share her parents' beliefs that her kind, Ankou, are inherently evil." The way this sentence is constructed, it's unclear if ALL the Ankou are descendents of Death, or just Damaris & her family. (Also, it makes me want to know: WHY doesn't she share that belief? That seems pretty radical, and like it might be essential bit of character development you could use to help show us a little more of who she is.)

This seems like a wonderful and exciting concept, and I wish you much luck with it! Thanks for sharing!

Melody said...

Great query, Colene! High stakes and an intriguing premise. You've definitely done your query-writing research, and I bet your book goes far!

One comment I wanted to make {I'm a frequent lurker, but not a frequent commenter, sorry Matt} about the second-to-last sentence, where you introduce the choice. It's good--real good. But I feel like "go against everything she believes about the value of life and use her powers to save her sister" is really wordy. The part of my brain that was choosing between "this" and "that" was having a hard time deciphering where "this" ended and "that" began.

What if you compressed it into something like the following, but with your voice: "...must decide: use the powers she loathes to save her sister, or admit defeat and let her deadly heritage carry on." Just to simplify it a little bit.

Anyway--this is really a great query! I wouldn't be commenting if it wasn't, haha. :) Looking forward to seeing your book on bookshelves!

Kimberly Gabriel said...

Ooh! I also like the ending! Good luck with querying Colene! Keep us posted on how it goes!

Johanna Garth said...

I think Matt had some great pointers and I loved the phrase "daughter of death".

Nancy Thompson said...

Excellent! The query doctor saves another patient! My biggest hang up was not knowing exactly where it is she lives, the setting. A little tweaking of this already good query should do the trick. Good luck! And we'll miss you, Matthew. Have fun!

Angela Brown said...

The premise expressed in the query is very intriguing. Once again, Matt has combed the query well and found some really meaningful matters to address so that your query - which was already pretty good - gains in strength. Look out agents. Here comes Colene :-)

And yes, Matt, I DO wish I were going on vacation. As it is, I shall have to tip my hat to you and wish you the very best fun as you go out and about having a wonderful time :-)

Stella Telleria said...

Hi, Colene!
Great query! It’s interesting that I didn’t find the where issue as confusing as the rest of the readers. My brain’s wired weird, though. I just assumed it took place on Earth. How else would she get the idea that killing people was a bad thing unless she was constantly around people? It’s still good to clarify that for everyone.
What confused me, though it didn’t seem to confuse anyone else, is the mention that the only way they can gain access to Heaven is by killing humans and stealing their souls. This had me screech to a stop when reading this query because I wanted to make sense of it. If they are the descendants of death than there job would be making sure when a human’s time is up they are escorted to the underworld, or heaven, or hell, or where ever. If they do their job they go to Heaven. Ok, I get that. My problem is the way it’s worded in the query it makes it sound as if these are some sort of nefarious killers that go around murdering random people and stealing their souls to add to their personal collection of souls. “My precious!!” If this is what was meant, it’s fine too, but then how is it that they have to do this to get into Heaven? Heaven is a reward, right? And why would her parents think they are evil? If this was what her family has always been, why would they consider themselves evil? Wouldn’t they just be normal? If they consider themselves evil how can they still get into heaven? I’m confused.
So, this feels off to me. Which is it? Is it that Death has a job to do and Damaris can’t see the purpose of it because of the sorrow it brings humans? Or is it that her family is really evil and is killing random humans whenever they feel like it and keeping their souls? I’m thinking it’s the first option because I don’t see how the second scenario still leads them to heaven. If it does then it may need a few words of mention to clarify it, otherwise it doesn’t ring true to me.
I also wonder if there is a moment where Damaris realizes that what her family does is wrong. This is could be the catalyst for you novel and would be great in the first paragraph (your hook).
Warning: The next paragraph is an example. I would never presume to rewrite your work or assume things of your story. I’m just trying to illustrate an idea for a hook. Ignore me if you like.
Sixteen-year-old Damaris had always believed the power to steal human souls was a birthright for descendants of Death like her. But the day her family took her best friend from her everything changed.
This may not happen in your story, but it feels like, in this query at least, that I don’t understand where the story starts. What was the catalyst? Everything in Damaris’ life was going along fine until what happened? And then tell us how this catalyst changed everything for her.
I also wonder at the car and mail bombs. It sounds a bit random and disconnected from the rest of the query. I know she doesn’t know who is sending them to her, but can she assume it’s because she is making waves and changing minds and someone in her Ankou community wants her dead over it? Otherwise I get this idea of a brooding teenager who has created some brilliant invention, not shown it to anyone, and starts to have car bombs and mail bombs go off around her. They don’t seem related to one another until we know that she has started sharing her opinion and others start to agree or begin challenging the teachings of what they have always known. Does that make sense?
Wow, this is a long comment. :S I only meant to help, and I hope something in here did. I hate writing query letters because I find it hard to look at the letter from the outside. Your story sounds awesome though, and I wish you good luck in query land!! You can do it!!! :D

Tasha Seegmiller said...

The daughter of death? Super intrigued. I think with these tweaks, we should be hearing about her requests soon :)

Patti said...

Sounds like a great story. I agree with Matt about setting the stage a bit more about where they are (earth, hell). I like the idea of a big sister protecting her little sister. Good luck Colene.

Misha Gerrick said...

Except for the stakes that you mentioned, the only thing that stands out to me as needing a *tiny* amount of work: the flow of the query. I.E. repeating words, choice of words and stuff like that.

Of course, since I'm still learning the art of querying, this is just me the reader commenting. :-)

Colene Murphy said...

Wow! Thanks everyone! This is more helpful than unexpected. I can totally see what Matt and everyone is pointing out and I totally agree. Yes. Writing it down! Thanks so freakin much guys! Really really appreciate Matt and everyone's advice! You all are total life-savers! Whoo!

Elaine said...

Like others, I was confused on the setting and the amount of human interaction that was taking place (besides the killing.) The heaven part gave me pause too. Is heaven really where these creatures would even want to be? And how are they getting in? Are there no gatekeepers in heaven? :)

Thanks for sharing! What a cool premise!

Golden Eagle said...

I hope you enjoy your vacation!

Great critique. I agree with what you said--and the story itself sounds quite interesting.

Elise Fallson said...

Another interesting query that makes me wish I could read the book! I'd also like a few more specifics but other than that the premise sounds really interesting. Good luck!!

And enjoy your vacation Matthew!

Unknown said...

Make sure you hug Sarah for me when you meet up with her next week. Not that I'm a huggy person, but I can't resist setting you up, Matt. :D

Usually queries start off strong and fizzle by the end. Writing the end of a query is so much harder, imo, so Colene is in a much better position than most. I thought it was already a good query. Matt's suggestions will help it shine.

Good luck, Colene. It's sounds like a great story.

CA Heaven said...

The second goal by Balotelli in the semifinal was fantastic >:)

Cold As Heaven

Colene Murphy said...

Eek! Thanks guys! Glad it sounds interesting!

DL Hammons said...

I don't really have anything to add. Matt hit upon all of my issues, so if you follow his advice you should be on the right track!

Matt - Have a blast in Boston!

dolorah said...

Nice to meet you Colene; the novel really sounds intriguing. I'm sure you have a well developed setting, an that and great characters makes a book interesting.

Well Matt, have fun in Boston. Great you get to meet up with some fellow bloggers.


alexia said...

Hey Colene and Matt! Sorry, late to the party. Great insight as usual, Matt. I agree that it seems mostly the opening line that could be tweaked a little. Maybe something like:

Most teens would die to have superpowers. But sixteen-year-old Damaris has the power to steal human souls, which she's less than thrilled about. Despite what her parents believe, killing and soul-stealing just isn't her cup of tea.

And then continue with 'A direct descendent...'

The cup of tea is prob not an approp teen lingo metaphor, but you get the idea.

I agree the query's already very very good, and a really unique concept, so you're in good shape already! Best of luck!