Friday, May 23, 2014

Tanya Miranda's Current Query Critiqued

Today we have Tanya's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Eighteen-year-old Jasmyn McKeery is next in line to inherit Grandma Agatha's magic. Tradition dictates her magic is passed on to the next female kin, but Agatha feels Jasmyn's jealousy and bitterness towards her eight-year-old sister Katarina may be a problem. She struggles with a decision that will affect both their lives and possibly worsen their relationship. Neither Katarina nor Jasmyn knows of their grandmother's gift or of the inheritance. Agatha takes her secret to her grave.

Okay, this ... started out pretty well. I mean that first sentence ain't half bad, but then ... it gets pretty confusing, pretty fast. 

This query is missing any housekeeping, so I don't really know if this is intended as a YA novel, and regardless of whether it is or not, what genre it fits in. Furthermore, with the opening line the way it is, it seems Jasmyn would be our protagonist, but then the rest of the paragraph tumbles into this odd space where it seems like it's Agatha's story, not Jasmyn's.

Their grandmother's death reopens old wounds and the rift between Jasmyn and Katarina grows. Through fits of sadness and resentment, spells are accidentally recited and rituals are unintentionally performed. With the powers unbeknownst to them, the sisters release an indestructible nemesis from a supernatural prison and now the world is in danger.

And then Agatha dies? That's not necessarily a problem, in the sense of story structure and building conflict, but the way this query is built that makes most of the first paragraph essentially pointless. It's not so much that the details you share in that paragraph aren't worthwhile, it's just that the way they're worded, they sound like parts of Agatha's story, not Jasmyn and Katarina's.

Assuming you can reword that paragraph so that whose story it is becomes clear, the details of this second paragraph need to be worked on too. The conflict is good and clear, but how the sisters go about combating it is vague and needs to be clarified with specificity. What or who is this nemesis? How did they release it? Exactly what kind of supernatural prison was it in, and can they send it back?

I understand you don't want to give everything away in a query, but outside of perhaps the ending, there's not much point in holding back important details from an agent you're hoping will represent you as an author.

Agatha's secret is soon revealed How? and Katarina is thought By who? to have been the chosen one. Feeling betrayed by her grandmother and ousted by the rest of her family, Jasmyn flees her home and leaves the world-saving efforts to Katarina and her magic.

This is kind of a nice twist, but it also actually confuses things even more. What we thought at first was Agatha's story, and then Jasmyn's, now becomes Katarina's? Who is eight years old? Is this a MG novel?

But Agatha At this point, considering she's dead, I would suggest you stop referring to her by her name. choice isn't exactly what everyone believes. Huh? How exactly is her choice revealed? Did she leave a will? Or is it just that whoever has the magic is the chosen one? Somehow, both Katarina and Jasmyn have inherited some of her magic, Ah, okay. and now they need to work together to capture the evil they've unleashed. It's difficult to tell what is the main conflict in the plot of this story. Is it the sibling rivalry, or the indestructible nemesis? If it's the nemesis, that needs to be given much more weight in the query. Can the two sister mend their broken relationship in time to defeat these monsters of darkness, or will their sibling rivalry be the death of them? And if it's both (which it now seems to be), that's fine, but don't let the nemesis take such a back seat in the query. Describing him/it/her or whatever specifically, and possibly even naming it, would make it much harder to forget about when you're covering all the sibling rivalry bits.

Okay, so in summary, this query needs some work. But not all is lost. You've clearly got the fundamentals of a good story here, and if you can just tease them out a bit better, and be more specific about the minutiae, you'd be on your way to a great query.

It's also highly unclear whether this is mainly Jasmyn's story, or whether perhaps it's Katarina's (or both), and you definitely need to clarify that, because it would make a hug difference in whether we're considering a YA novel, or a MG one.

That's it!

What do you all think? Anything I missed?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'd say find a way to combine the first two paragraphs. That would leave room to expand the others. You always say to focus on the main character, and the first paragraph needs to do that as well.

Unknown said...

You didn't miss much. I have no idea whose story it is, what's going on, outside of your typical unknown gifts releasing evil story. And the age range between the two sisters makes me question the genre...they seem to be relating as equals, with the eight-year-old behaving much older. But yeah, I would have made similar remarks.

Sarah said...

I agree with Matt's feedback. I really like the idea of these two sisters having to work together to save the world. My concerns were that I had no idea what the genre was, and that I wasn't sure whose story this was.

The first paragraph is in the grandmother's POV. If that's actually the case in the novel, this probably isn't YA OR MG--it seems more like adult fiction of some type.

I couldn't tell whose POV the rest of the query was in because a lot of this query is written in passive voice. As you rewrite the query, you'll want to remedy that, because it weakens an otherwise compelling tale. Phrases like "spells are recited" and "rituals are performed" and "secrets are revealed" all contain this passive construction, wherein we can't tell who is reciting, performing, or revealing things. Matt is spot on in his suggestions that you clarify and specify throughout.

In addition to that, though, you must make it clear whose POV this story is from. Is it only from Jasmyn's pov? If so, write the entire query from her perspective. Is it dual pov between her and her sister? Write it that way, maybe. If the story is also from Agatha's pov, as the first paragraph suggests, then genre is an issue, as I've never read a YA or MG from an adult's perspective (doesn't mean they don't exist!) Once you clarify that, an agent would be able to discern whether s/he is interested in reading more. Right now I'm concerned that it would be too confusing to pursue.

Again, this sounds like a riveting story with high emotional and physical stakes. Rewriting this query will give it the best possible chance to catch an agent's attention! Best of luck!

mshatch said...

I agree with all the comments above. I think there's a good story hiding in this query but as it stands the query is too vague and if the query is vague then an agent will likely wonder if the story is, too.

We need to know whose story we're following and if it's both sisters then I would say so.

Finally, while I can see the conflict and the choice here, I want more about character, Jasmyn and Katarina's specifically.

Good luck with this!

Tanya Miranda said...

Thank you Matt, and everyone else for your detailed critique. It's good that your comments all have similarities.

- The unclear POV/Protagonist : Agatha dies pretty much in the beginning, setting off the chain of events. The story really belongs to both Jasmyn and Katarina. I think I know what I have to do to make this clear.

- YA, MG, or Adult : Although the two sisters are both the protagonist, 3/4 of the way through Jasmyn takes the lead (as the big sister should) and young Katarina steps back. Things don't exactly work out between the sisters and the family, but Jasmyn figures out how to defeat the dragons. Also, knowing her grandmother didn't exactly choose her, that rejection is a major catalyst for Jasmyn's actions. Since the story is more about Jasmyn, I would classify it as YA. I think when I rewrite the query, Jasmyn's overarching role will be clearer.

- The overall struggle is both the sibling rivalry and the need to work together to defeat their nemesis - 3 brother dragons. Also, since I kept the dragons secret, I omitted their back story. There is history between the dragons and the witches, a peaceful coexistence from 3 centuries ago, until one of the dragons revolted and cause their capture. When they are accidentally released, one dragon is set for revenge, another wants to try and work things out with the witches, and the third tries to get the brother to work together. It's a secondary story line, but it plays to the overall sibling rivalry theme. It also creates sympathy within young Katarina - she doesn't want to destroy the "good" dragon - which is another conflicting issue between her and her older sister. Not sure if I should go into this in the query. Any thoughts?

- The revelation of who holds the magic : The magic isn't distributed evenly. Katarina holds some talents while Jasmyn holds others. Katarina is first to display her gift, so it seems she's "the chosen one" and the family gravitates towards her, feeding Jasmyn's jealous nature and pushing her to run away. Later, after the dragons have begun to destroy most of the west coast, Agatha's sister-witches present themselves to the family and determine Jasmyn has gifts as well and that the two sisters must work together to perform their magic to defeat the dragons. I should introduce the sister witches in the query and lessen Agatha's presence.

Tons of thanks to everyone who critiqued! You've been a great help!

Traci Kenworth said...

I have to say I was confused as to whose story it was as well. As always, Matt, great calls!!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Tanya, I'm glad you answered some of the questions about the story! In addition to everything Matt has to say, I'm going to add the following things:

1. When I read this yesterday, I was struck by the number of passive verbs in the query. When you re-write this, strive for active sentences.

2. I think holding back something as important as dragons is a big mistake. I understand wanting to keep your big twist secret (I went through it with my own first query, in fact), but you want the agent to know this secret up front. Never hold back the cool thing that makes your story unique. You need it to make your query stand out among the 100 other queries being read that day.

3. In your explanation, you don't sound 100% certain that Jasmyn is the main character and the story is YA. You need to be certain before you query, and if it's not clear in your manuscript, you should probably revise more before querying. Agents always ask themselves, "Can I sell this? And to whom?" If the author is not sure about the target audience, the agent will pass.

Hope this helps!

Unknown said...

I agree with Matt. Throwing three names at us in the first two sentences is a recipe for confusion. I had to reread it a few times to understand exactly who they all were.

Also, once I figured out who was who, I wasn't very interested in Jasmyn. She's portrayed as a jealous, selfish person, and I'm not very invested in what happens to her. I'm sure that's not a full portrait of her, so I would suggest including some virtue of hers in the query.

Good luck! :)

Tanya Miranda said...

Thanks for the feedback Dianne/Tracy!

I am working in the dragons and their internal conflict, and definitely getting away from the passive tenses. I guess I was trying too hard at making it "mysterious".

As I rewrite the query, I've kind of transformed it into a short synopsis without giving away the ending. I wonder, is this too long for a query letter/email? I guess its better to have too much and trim down, than have not enough.

Tanya Miranda said...

Wow Laura, I didn't realize how evil I made Jasmyn sound. She is a product of a one-sided family upbringing who paid more attention to "the baby" and left her to fend for herself. She's not evil at all, just resentful of the way her family prefers her little sister, and acts out accordingly. Definitely have to work on that. Thanks!

Julie DeGuia said...

This would be a big change to the story, but is there a reason Katrina has to be eight? If they were closer in age it would be firmly set in YA.