Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer Frey's Current Query Critiqued

Okay, work has finally calmed down long enough for me to catch my breath. Here we have Summer's query, this time with my feedback, in red.

Let's get right to work:

Dear Agent,

Ellery Benedek knows three things: Like Ellery Queen? I like it.

1) How to piss off her mother.
2) How to trainwreck a career.
3) How to get out of prison.

I like this. For one, it breaks the rules, and works. That's hard to do, and it makes your query stand out. Now, there are a couple points I think you can improve on. This being an adult novel, Ellery's age is not necessarily critical, but it might help to know whether she is 25, or 40. Also, isn't it her own career that she train-wrecked? It might be worth pointing out it wasn't someone else's. Finally, doesn't everyone know how to get out of prison? As in, you do your time, you don't cause any trouble, and as long as you didn't get sentenced to life, eventually you get released or paroled, right? Or did you mean escape from prison? If you're only pointing it out because she did time (and that is some great characterization), maybe you should reword it to focus on the fact that she served at all, rather than focusing on her eventual release.

The first she comes by honestly, just another dysfunctional mother-daughter pair in a line of Siren women butting heads since the dawn of man. The second is a direct by-product of that dysfunctional relationship: when her mother made a deal with a devil, she got Ellery in return. This is vague. If it's a convoluted (but awesome) backstory, then maybe you don't have room to explain. However, the way it is written here, doesn't make sense. In the first sentence, you mention the mother-daughter pair, then in this sentence, it kind of sounds like Ellery's mom doesn't have her as a daughter until she makes this deal with the devil. And when that deal results with Ellery compelled to rip the heart from a patient’s chest, Ellery finds herself sentenced to rot in the belly of Castigo, a prison hidden from humankind where Hallow deviants are sent to die. I would love to know why Ellery feels compelled to do this, but this inciting incident is basically so bad-ass I don't really care.

After some not-so-divine intervention from Daddy Dearest, this is vague. Does he break her out of prison? Intervene politically to get her released? Try to be as specific as you can, as long as you can keep it clear and concise. ex-doctor and now ex-con Ellery is completely unemployable, but desperate for a break in the hellish monotony of freedom. Enter Roman Vassilikos, a shady P.I. in need of Ellery’s questionable morals and ability to bend any will to her own. Hallow women gone missing are turning up dead, maimed and dumped for the humans to find. Desperate to keep this hunt for the Hallow(s?) off her resume of failure, Ellery plows headlong in a darkening web of conspiracy, dominion, and the potential genocide of all Hallow women. As her investigation begins to reveal familiar faces in all the wrong places, Ellery realizes that she may not be the only Siren singing up shit creek. With the path to revelation growing narrower by the hour, Ellery will have to decide what price she’s willing to pay for the truth: life, or a life worth living. These last 4 or 5 sentences are some of the best query CONFLICT and CHOICE I've ever read. Don't change a thing in this part.

ALL THAT REMAINS is a 92,000 word urban fantasy set in the rural backwoods of coastal Georgia. I love that this Urban Fantasy takes place in the backwoods. Because Urban is part of the genre name, and it doesn't always literally have to be in a major city. Anyway, I just think it makes for a cool play on words.

Okay, so to summarize: I think this query is already very good. The way you end it in particular stands out and shines. Also, you've got excellent voice throughout, without being afraid to poke a little fun at yourself, or the style of this kind of story.

Like I said, don't touch the last four of five sentences. The thing with Dad breaking her out could be clearer, but I don't think it's a deal breaker, and if it would be too hard to explain in a query (meaning: need too many words), I think you'd be okay leaving it as is. The thing with mom and the deal with the devil, I really do think you need to clarify. I hope you can find a way to briefly make it clearer specifically what you mean.

Nicole? Sarah? Who's read this? Can anyone suggest something here?

Finally, I like the way you opened this. It reminds me a bit of one of the best rule breaking queries I've ever seen (Josin L. McQuien's at Query Shark - link). That being said, I think you should clarify point 2) and sharpen up point 3) a little. It's already pretty cool as is, but just another word here or there could make it pack even more punch.

Ellery's age - I don't think it would hurt to mention it, but this being adult Urban Fantasy, I think it's fine if you leave it out.

That's it.

What do you all think? Disagree with anything? See anything I missed? Please share your feedback in the comments, and have a great weekend!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Cleaning up that one bit with her mother is all I can see. This query has a lot of voice!

Creepy Query Girl said...

Great insight Matt, as usual!

Patchi said...

I love the voice and I agree that the non-standard opening should work if the 3 points are strong and clear. My only suggestion is to make sure the fantasy elements come through as more than just a play on words. Is her father a devil or The Devil?

Good luck!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

This may be one of the only times I've ever disagreed with Matt. The lines he likes did not engage me. I'm not sure what Hallow women are, and I found the elements of the conflict and stakes vague. I wanted something more specific to ground me in this story. Otherwise it feels as if it could be a blurb for almost any PI story -- and this is obviously not your average mystery!

Bryan Russell said...

I kind of wanted to know what the Hallow are. It seems kind of key to what's going on, but even on rereading it I'm not sure what they are, except not exactly human. Is this simply another term for Sirens? I think this connnection needs to be clearer. If they're not, I think they need a brief (very brief) explanation.

Love the voice.

Summer Frey said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone! And Matt, again--thank you so much for taking time off your hiatus for me. :)

And yes, I totally named her after Ellery Queen. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

I should point out - I guess I assumed Hallows was a category of paranormals of which Sirens was one type. But now that others have mentioned it, it would probably help to clarify that as well.

JeffO said...

I loved the beginning, as you say, it breaks the rules, but it works. There are a couple of things that really confuse me in this query. I'm not sure if I'm just being dense or not, and I don't know if it would be enough to keep an agent from requesting, but here are the two biggest ones that caught my eye:
-Siren women--at first I thought it was a surname, then I thought maybe it was like the Sirens of mythology; in the end, I can't really tell. The fantasy elements that emerge as the query unfolds leave this vague for me. If I'm an agent, does it matter? Maybe, maybe not.
-Hallow--referenced four times, and clearly important: Hallow deviants, Hallow women (twice), and the hunt for the Hallow, but no idea what it is. A place? A family? A state of being? Something else? It just puts a level of uncertainty into the query for me that you may want to take a look at.

Other than that, I think it sounds like a really interesting story, and I love the voice in this query. Nicely done.

Julie DeGuia said...

I agree with the comments about the Hallow references... I can't tell what they are or why they are important to the story? Very confusing.

Matt, have you read this MS already? Maybe these parts sounded OK to you b/c you know the story?

Johanna Garth said...

I really liked the beginning but then I sort of glazed over towards the end, which is the part you liked best Matt. I went back and re-read it and still couldn't connect so maybe it's just an individual thing.

Kimberly Gabriel said...

Great voice here! Love the opening. As always, good critique Matt.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good points Matt. Because the mother is mentioned so near the front, I assumed it was YA at first. It didn't take long to clear it up, but it was my initial impression.

Good luck Summer - sounds like a great story!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query and great tips Matt. I'm not sure we need all of paragraph 2 because we get to the meat of the story in paragraph 3 which is so awesome. Good luck Summer.

cleemckenzie said...

I agree: voice is strong and your comments helpful. I like the different take on the Urban Fantasy. Interesting.

Lola Sharp said...

I've read the manuscript (which is very good, by the way), so this query makes more sense to me, but I agree, this query needs some clarification and to better explain what's really at risk.

Summer, between Matt and everyone who commented here, I think you have some excellent advice to work with. Hallow was actually a little confusing at first when I was reading the manuscript, but I quickly caught on through context that it was a term for all supernaturals. I'd clarify that in your query and early on in your ms.

Also, while I love the mother-daughter tension in the ms, in this query it does make it sound YA. Also, it's not really an important part of the plot, so I'm not sure you need to mention it in the query.

I agree, #3 sounds like she breaks out of prison, and I know she doesn't. I would reword that to be something like: 3) How to do hard time ...or something along those lines.

I really do like how you come out of the gate with your 3 things bit in this query. It breaks the rules, but in the best way...which suits your MC, Ellery, perfectly. :)

A little more fine tuning and this will be an incredible query. :)


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

It's a great example of a rule-breaking query but the protagonist is a rule breaker so I think this could be an awesome sell.

Thanks for your email, Matt! Funny words are funny.

farawayeyes said...

She had me from, Ellery Benedek.

Nick Wilford said...

It definitely sounds like there's loads going on in the story, which is good. I imagine organising the information was hard. A case of too much awesome! I would bring forward the incident which leads to her imprisonment, and clear up who exactly are the hallows. BTW, just a small thing, but I think you would plough (or plow) headlong INTO a web, rather than in it.

Golden Eagle said...

I really like this query--the voice is brilliant and I agree, the last sentences are pretty tight.

ali cross said...

This is a super awesome sounding story. Thought your comments were bang on Matt!

Lydia Kang said...

Well said, Matthew. I also liked that opening. It totally got my attention.

jerichas said...

First, this sounds like a super interesting story, and I'm compelled by it enough to offer bit more (hopefully constructive!) criticism than I would otherwise - because I think it could be SO KICK-ASS, and you're almost there. You've got all the ingredients, clearly. So I'm going to be ultra-picky, because I'd love to see this query REALLY fly.

The opening got my attention, and then immediately lost me, because I just didn't get how the second paragraph followed the hook of the first. "The first" was okay, although right away I wanted to know why Sirens butt heads - it's presented as "just another..." like we're supposed to know about it already. "The second" I find totally confusing, as has been pointed out - Ellery is a doctor, but that's not clear until "ex-doctor" in your third paragraph. Since that's the career she trainwrecks, I'd say you need to say it sooner. Also, I think where it goes awry for me is that awkward construction made with "direct by-product of that dysfunctional relationship." That's a confusing setup. And then you don't address the third point at all! If you're going to have first & second, I'd like a third, or none at all.

I do love the line "After some not-so-divine intervention from Daddy Dearest" as a sly setup/reference to her devilish (?presumably?) father, but the connection between that and the previous mention of "deal with the devil" is tenuous. My suggestion might look something like this:

"It's easy to butt heads with your mother when she's a Siren who made a deal with the Devil for a daughter. Ellery's a Hallow, (insert description here), and turns out it can be pretty hard to hold down a job as a doctor when her demonic (or whatever) parentage manifests in a sudden compulsion to rip a patient's hear out of his chest. It sucks to find herself sentenced to rot in the belly of Castifo (etc) but hey, there's perks to having a devil for a dad: after some not-so-divine intervention from Daddy Dearest, Ellery is free! But she's also completely unemployable, and quickly desperate for a break in... (leave the rest as is)."

I don't mean, of course, to rewrite your query for you, or to say that you ought to say that instead. More just thinking out loud about what would make your catchy opening hook flow coherently into your compelling closing (about which I feel much as Matt does.)

Hope that's not too forward of me. Sounds fascinating, and the best of luck to you!

mshatch said...

completely agree with you, Matt.

Elise Fallson said...

This sounds like such an awesome book! Great advice and critique from Matthew and everyone else. I learn so much every time I visit. Good luck with this Summer!

Summer Frey said...

Once again, thanks for all the constructive feedback! I'm open to all suggestions, so I appreciate so many different takes on what works and what doesn't.

I look forward to sitting down with this sucker again, everyone's notes in my mind.

And for all the kind comments on the premise: thanks! :)