Friday, May 17, 2013

Jessica Hill's Current Query Critiqued

Welcome back, and happy Friday! Let's get right to work, shall we? Today we have Jessica's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The query:

Dear Agent,

After seventeen-year-old Dessa Sanford dies, her spirit becomes stuck on earth and she must free herself before her soul is dragged to hell.

Okay. So this is a really cool premise, and as an opening hook, it's actually not half bad, but I think you do need a bit more in order for this query to really shine. For one thing, who is Dessa? I mean, other than being seventeen, and you know, dead, what kind of person is she? The first thing you want to convey in a query letter is Character. What I call the first C (Character, Conflict, Choice). Try to introduce us to her in a way that we can sympathize with who she is before you fill us in on what happens to her.

Dessa never expected to be dead at seventeen, Does anyone? much less surrounded by the dismissive living.  I like this. Very unique. She can’t interact with them, can’t tell them they’re wrong about her death—it wasn’t an accident and she most certainly didn’t kill herself. Searching for someone who cares, she keeps visiting the boy she can’t forget. This whole paragraph is actually pretty good, but I think you can reword this last sentence for a bit more clarity. The way it's worded, it sounds like she keeps visiting the boy because she's searching for someone who cares, not in spite of that fact. Does that make sense?

Garrett Cooper is the only one who believes there’s more to Dessa’s death. He saw something the day she died and didn’t act on it. Saw what? Always be as specific as possible in a query letter. I understand that maybe you're trying to avoid opening a big can of worms, but it's better to do that than to be vague. Now he’s haunted by the guilt—and Dessa. Nice.

With the help of a guide, Again. Specificity is your friend. Dessa must let go of her old life if she’s to free herself from the grip earth has on her spirit. But she’s too busy following Garrett, who vows to uncover the truth about her death. The longer Dessa stays among the living, the more likely it is the Reapers of the Night will find her and force her soul to hell where she’ll be tortured by the devil for all eternity.

Okay. This paragraph is actually pretty good too. You don't have a clearly stated sadistic choice (WARNING: link leads to, follow at your own risk), but it is implied, and sometimes that's enough. 

Complete at 61,000 words, CRASHING DOWN is a young adult paranormal that I believe readers of HEREAFTER Hereafter, by Tara Hudson and NOTES FROM GHOST TOWN Notes from Ghost Town, by Kate Ellison (working titles of unpublished manuscripts go in ALL CAPS in queries. Titles of published works go in italics) will enjoy for similar elements and romance. I would be happy to forward the complete manuscript at your request. Don't state the obvious. You wouldn't be querying if you didn't have a complete manuscript ready to send.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Jessica Hill

Okay, in summary, I actually think this query is in pretty good shape. I don't read a lot of ghost stories, so I can't say how unique the premise is, but I can tell you that it is well presented here. 

Of the three Cs, your conflict is presented best. Second, you've got a Choice that can be figured out with a careful read, but I think you'd be better off if you reworded to make it more explicit.

Finally, the one thing you're really lacking is Character. If you can rewrite your opening hook so that it introduces us to Dessa as a character, and makes us sympathize with who she was before she died, then we will care much more about everything that comes after.

That's it.

What do you all think? Disagree with anything I said? Can anyone share an example of how to rewrite Jessica's opening hook paragraph?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The first line is almost like the tagline or logline. I think it could open with the second paragraph instead. Otherwise, think Jessica did a really good job with it.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Impressive. As always.

mshatch said...

That was going to be my suggestion. Add more about character to that first paragraph along with the rest of Matt's suggestions and I think this can be a killer query :)

Elise Fallson said...

I think Jessica did a great job condensing her plot. The only thing that struck me as a bit vague was the guide. I would have liked to read one more sentence on this character. Overall very good query, and critique as usual Matthew.

farawayeyes said...

Another 'good' query made 'better'.

Jessica Ann Hill said...

reading over the query again and your comments, i see what you mean about it lacking in character.

thanks for the helpful feedback, matt and all! i already have a few ideas of how i can apply your comments to make my query better. :)

Jay Noel said...

This was a pretty strong query to begin with. The paragraph about Garrett Cooper can just focus on his guilt. My first reaction to reading the second sentence was, "saw something???"

Best to just leave that part out and give us a little insight on Garrett's guilt.

Katy Upperman said...

I like this query very much and the story concept definitely intrigued me. That said, I think you're right about adding more specifics to the pitch, Matt. I think a few well-placed details will make this story stand out among others and will make the query really sing.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Fantastic criticism sir.

Unknown said...

I think Matthew hit all the right points and his advice will really help improve the query. I find that by playing up the quirky aspects of character or world-building, you can make your query stand out from the crowd.
Good luck, Jessica!

Patchi said...

I think it would be nice to have a bit more sense of the death, even if all you're saying is that it looked like an accident/suicide.

If it were me, I'd take the guide out of the query. It's easier not to say too much if you don't mention it at all.

KayC said...

I would ditch the opening paragraph - it reads like a mini summary, which doesn't encourage me to read on when you've already told me pretty much what's going to happen. Matthew's suggestion of character in this opening would be more effective.

I also struggled a little with this line - "can’t tell them they’re wrong about her death—it wasn’t an accident and she most certainly didn’t kill herself." I'm not sure on the protocol of 'telling' in a query, but I can gather this information from the next line where Garrett believes there's more to her death. I think you could build this in without being so blunt.

Is the reference to the guide needed? I would reword this paragraph to make the choice and conflict clearer. Free herself from Earth (and Garrett) or be forced to hell by the Reapers because she can't stop following Garrett around as he investigates her death. This would also be a better spot to increase the tension in the choice between leaving Earth and proving her death wasn't an accident.

I also don't think you need the line "where she'll be tortured by the devil for all eternity" We'll all assume this is a given in hell.

Good luck with an intriguing concept.

Stephsco said...

I support the suggestion to add more about her character at the start. What kind of stumped me in the intro lines is that her soul might get dragged to hell. That's pretty intense, so why? It is explained later on, but I think more context is needed initially if that is going to be said. For example, connecting it with her character and what she might have done to possibly deserve being dragged to hell (not that we are going into theology here, but for this premise, I am operating under the assumption that being dragged to hell is the exception rather than the rule). I agree to watch for cliches, like explaining she will be tortured for all of eternity in hell, which a reader would assume.

Good luck!