Friday, September 7, 2012

Laura Stephenson's Current Query Critiqued

Happy Friday, friends! Today we have Laura's query again, this time with my thoughts, in blue (I have a colorblind friend, and our good old staple, red, doesn't work as well for him). So there.

The query:

Dear Agent,

The whole thing had to be a cruel joke.

This isn't working for me. Without the context of something that's come before it, this line has no real meaning. It certainly takes some on later, but I don't think that works at the opening for a query. Keep in mind though, this kind of feedback is all very subjective, so don't listen to me unless it resonates with your vision (or if pretty much everyone else agrees).

Growing up the prince of a small island, everyone always told Andren how lucky he was, and while? Though? they looked on with jealousy. This isn't bad. It's got some sense of world, and the backstory hints to Andren's character a bit, but I do think you could deliver this in a way that hooks the reader better. What kind of person is he before his story begins? We know what others think of him, but what does he think of himself? But his life was far from picturesque. Picturesque? I would imagine life on an island we be near to picturesque. Or did you mean figuratively? Be careful with your diction, because you don't want an agent to misunderstand your meaning, denotation, connotation, or otherwise. His parents were are (watch your tense) both dead, which meant means he barely got gets to see his older brother anymore due to his kingly duties. He was I'm not going to keep harping on tense, because it's going to get dull very quickly, but here's the thing: queries are normally written in present tense (for fiction, at least). You don't have to follow that rule, because while it's very rare, I'm sure someone, somewhere has made a past tense query work, but you do have to follow the rule of good writing, which means your tense must be uniform throughout, or at least follow logical progression if it switches. required to attend parties where irritating nobles dressed lavishly, so he rarely got to hunt. What is the inciting incident here? Did his parents die recently? And he was turned into a monster through sorcery, so he never got to spend time with Eiva. Whoa. What? This might be your hook. I mean, I suppose, as it ends your true opening paragraph, it is your hook, but you kind of take a bit to get to it, and it sort of drops out of the sky like a meatball. Don't get me wrong, I like it, I just think you need to either get to it sooner, or at least hint at it earlier.

Then Eiva, a canny sorceress who wears robes instead of frippery, because robes are so much more efficient than long, flowing ... er, wait. lifts the curse on Andren. Is this still backstory? What is the main conflict in this manuscript? You've got a lot of cool elements here, but I need to start getting a sense of the main conflict by this point. Still he feels (see what I mean about tense? This is present. Which I get the feeling means, that this is the beginning of the actual story, and the rest is/was backstory) choked by the evil acts he commited committed during his transformation, so he runs away from the memories by travelling traveling out into to the mainland. What he finds there are different people all living in poverty and fear, victims of a ruthless emporer. Andren is outraged, and he makes it his goal to unite the quarrelous nations in war and take out the most powerful being (is this the emperor? Because being sounds kind of supernatural) in the known world. Perhaps once he's done saving them, he can let go of his self hate.

FROM HALVMANE'S SHORE is a fantasy novel with series potential complete at 80,000 words. I also have a finished novella prequel and two other novels in outlining stages. I believe it will appeal to readers who enjoy complex characters that test what it is to be human, such as in Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind. Hmm. Be careful with stuff like this. On the one hand, it's good that you know your genre, and potentially your market, but unless you're querying Mr. Goodkind's own agent, this may sound like a bit of a reach. If you are interested in my query, I have a polished manuscript ready to send. Cut this. You don't query anyone unless you have a complete, polished manuscript, and the ability to send it.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Laura Stephenson

Okay. So let's summarize. I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, Laura, I don't intend it to be. I've nit picked it a bit, because I think you have a cool story underneath this ... sort of a Beauty and the Beast without the Beauty. The problem here is that you really have to dig, and infer a lot of things to get a sense of the story.

The main issue for me is, when does the story actually begin? When his parents die? When he's changed hack into a human? When he leaves his island kingdom for the mainland? There's nothing wrong with including backstory in a query, in fact, the best ones have it, and weave it in seamlessly, but you need to make it clear where the backstory ends, and the tale actually begins.

Other than that, you have some standard query issues that I think we all suffer from, because queries are damn hard. First, we have no real sense of Andren's character. We know a lot of stuff that happens to him, but we don't really know what kind of person he is. It seems at the end here, that maybe he starts to fight for what is right, and that makes him a little sympathetic, but the problem is you need him to be very sympathetic, right from the beginning. I mean you open with a prince, who everyone tells is lucky, but they're all jealous of him. Then, it turns out he spent some time as a monster. I mean that's not the most sympathetic character ever. I'm sure he's compelling in the book, but you need to work on getting that across in the query.

Second, I have no real sense of what your main conflict is. I mean, I can only assume it's this war that's mentioned right at the end, but if it is, you need to bring it up sooner, and make it much clearer. If the war comes later, and the main conflict is the struggle of becoming human again, you'll need to focus more on that.

Finally, I want a better sense of your world. There are some very cool elements: a prince, an emperor, an island, and especially a canny sorceress, but I don't really have a clear sense of the world. You know, the culture, the level of technology, whether there are fantastic creatures and so on. I'm sure you've woven all that in to the manuscript wonderfully, and you certainly can't fit it all in a query, but just a few more hints would help.

That's it.

I really hope this helps. I think you've got the start of something cool here, it just needs a little work.

What do you all think? Is there anything I missed? Anything you disagree with? Please share your thoughts in the comments, and have a great weekend!


JeffO said...

All my .02 cents. I'm no query expert.

I think the first paragraph needs to get into the action faster. There's detail in the wrong things, in my opinion: 'kingly duties,' 'irritating nobles dressed lavishly'. To me, the big thing is he was turned into a monster.

There's a disconnect with the character Eiva: as introduced in the first paragraph, she comes across as friends or romantic interest; in the second, she's a powerful sorceress who can lift the curse. It's a bit jarring to me. Another disconnect, probably even bigger, is you drop in the idea that Andren committed terrible acts while a monster. What acts? Who did he hurt? And who transformed him in the first place, and why? The story sounds like it becomes a version of Trading Places/The Prince And The Pauper, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I'd be more interested in him trying to track down the person who turned him into a monster.

Just my opinion.

JE said...

Tough love, Matt. And you've given her the best kind. I totally agree with you on all points and I think there is something really good about this story.


mshatch said...

Completely agree on all points, Matt. It seems to me that the story is about how the mc turned into a monster and then learns how to be human again.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Tough love with a twist of humor!
Agree the hook needs to come sooner. Maybe that's a better place to begin.

Tonja said...

I didn't know queries were supposed to be written in present tense. My assumption is they should be written in the same tense as the novel.

I was also not clear on what was backstory and what plays out in the novel.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the hook needs to be earlier, because I'm just not hooked by this. I like the opening line, but not for the opening, mostly because of the context issue.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

It needs some work, but if she can focus on the conflict, it will be much better.

Bryan Russell said...

The Quintessentially Unquestionable Query Wizard has struck again.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

The opening to the main paragraph gives us a feel and a bit of the world created within the story. I'd take the voice of the first sentence and mingle the two. It could be just one sentence or even two shorter ones. This might create a better lead in. (Just my opinion, though...)

Best of luck with this, Laura. And don't get discouraged. Query letters are the angst of most writers; we've all been there. You'll get it.

Elise Fallson said...

Agree with Matthew and the above comments. I can't think of anything new to add that would be helpful. But this does sound like a very cool story, wishing you the best of luck!

Weaver said...

Good job, Matt. Interesting story premise. I totally agree with the diction issue. I attended a class in July with a writing instructor who was a lot like Dr. Laura who jumps to conclusions very quickly. I think agents are the same way. It's hard enough to get their attention in the first place, much less try to fix a misunderstanding.

Patchi said...

I really like the premise and I think it is a book I'd want to read. I agree with everyone that Laura should focus on the inciting event and get to the point sooner.

I do like the contrasts between before and after of the first paragraph, but I think it would work better if it was streamlined. Not trying to rewrite the query for you -- it needs to be in your voice -- but I think you can play with the contradictions. Such as: everyone was jealous of his princely life until he was turned into a monster, but at least he didn't have to attend the lavish parties anymore. You can put in backstory by contrasting it with the life changing events that make up the plot.

Good luck!

Hart Johnson said...

I agree that it's hard to get a sense of the book from the query, and the book itself would dictate the solution. How much of the story is spent on Andren's cursed time? If a fair bit of the book is there, then you've started in the right place but need more coherence and meat, then only leave the teaser of 'but when the curse is finally broken, will he be able to get over the things he's done'... if the cursed time is mostly BACK story, then you need to summarize that a lot more quickly. I like the example of Goodkind's work--I assume you are talking about Nikki? That was my favorite of the series. But it is a 10-book series and that is a middle work, so I don't know if you can assume everyone will get what you mean.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I definitely feel like you're wasting a bit of your precious query space with backstory. I'm with Matt in that i think you need to get to that fact that he was turned into a monster like right away. Because when i get to that part now, it pulls me out of the query. I'm all "wait, what? Why didn't we know that right away?" And then it's hard for me to get back into the query.

Isis Rushdan said...

I have to agree. With the opening line, "thing" is way to vague. Maybe if you started with the problem and then said "It had to be a cruel joke".

There's a lot going on in the query and most of it doesn't seem relevant. Focus on the juicy problems. Matt gives great advice.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

First off, you are so thoughtful, Matt.

Now onto what I have to say:

The opening line is cliche. "Cruel Joke" shows no originality and might even get an automatic rejection/I won't read further. So yeah, spot on with that. Next off, you want to kill the "was" sentence. "Was" is an indication that the writer is in passive tense and that a stronger verb could substitute by reworking the sentence.


Jealous of Prince Andren's status as a royal, no one ever took the time to notice his suffering.

Then there's the root of the query: "he never got to spend time with Eiva." This needs to be moved up sooner. It could go right after the sentence I typed above with the line. "No one, that is, except for Eiva."

You know, I almost think this story reminds me a little of the Emperor's New Groove.

And I might disagree a little with what you've said about mentioning Terry Goodkind. If epic fantasy is all the rage right now (which it is) then Goodkind, Brooks, and Martin instantly conjure up what kind of writing to expect because those authors have brands.

Maybe the author of this query could say something more subtle. That is, "FROM HALVMANE'S SHORE may appeal to fantasy readers who enjoyed "Faith of the Fallen" by Terry Goodkind."

Now the only issue I have with epic fantasy queries of this kind is length. 80,000 words is great for YA. But that's three chapters in a Martin or Goodkind book. Seriously. There's an unwritten rule in epic fantasy and that is "Big is what we want." I actually see the word count on this one being a detriment because it isn't long enough. It should be 120,000 words if you are trying to capture a niche in the fantasy market. That's just my opinion, but it is echoed on a number of blogs. Fantasy kind of stands alone for some reason and has it's own rules.

Steve MC said...

Matt covered everything really well, and all I can add is a misspelling of emperor.

Unknown said...

Thanks everyone for all the feedback, especially Matt. To answer some of the questions, the story begins right after he's been turned back to a human. The curse he falls victim to, which turns him into a monster, was started a while ago by a sorcerer who's now dead, and has been self-propelling for some time. And Eiva is both a romantic interest and a powerful sorceress.

I had two big conflicts in this story, one being his fight with the emperor (who's a dragon, which is why I said "being" instead of "person"), and his inner struggle, trying to get over his self-loathing and allow himself to be happy.

I was hoping to query Goodkind's agent (once I have everying perfect).

Andren's very concerned with doing what's right, the whole book through. It's why he has such a problem with what he remembers doing as a monster, because even though he couldn't help himself he remembers the blood on his hands.

And don't worry about offending me, I have thick skin in regards to my writing.

Again, thanks everyone for your help!

Stina said...

And the king of queries does it again. Follow Matt's advice, Laura, and this will be a great query. There's nothing more I can add because he nailed it (and I suck at writing queries).

Unknown said...

I don't know if I'm supposed to post the query post-advice, but if so, here it is:

In the recent past, Andren fell victim to a curse that turned him into a monster. Fortunately he'd already won the heart of Eiva, a canny sorceress, and she lifts the spell. Still he feels choked by the evil acts he committed during his transformation, so he runs away from his memories by traveling to the mainland. What he finds there are different people all living in poverty and fear, victims of a ruthless dragon emperor.

Andren is outraged, and he makes it his goal to unite the quarrelsome nations in war and take out the most powerful being in the known world. At a time where guns are being invented and dragons are losing their magic, perhaps the dragon age is at an end and the age of man can begin. Perhaps once he changes the course of history, Andren can let go of his self hate.

farawayeyes said...

Great suggestions Matthew. I have to admit, based on the original query I was a bit confused. Sounds like an interesting story and the suggestions (all of them) helped to clear up some matters.

Good luck with this Laura. Thanks for sharing.

Jay Noel said...

Great stuff!

I thought the original query was a bit vague and didn't grab hold of me.

It's tough to make a reader want to care about a main character from a query, but you're right - the only way to make it happen is to make the conflict specific. Jeff up there is right - hit 'em hard, hit 'em fast right out of the gate.