Monthly Archives: May 2012

QueryDice #33

Dear Lovely and Talented Agent, While I appreciate the compliment, you still have not used my name, and that would have been a bigger compliment.

I am looking for representation for my novel [redacted]. I know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be reading your query. You’ve wasted valuable real estate telling me this.

Professionally, Abigail Kelly is a rockstar. But personally, she’s at the bottom of the charts. This should be one sentence with the independent ideas separated by a comma. Aside from that nitpick, though, this is a good start.

More than anything, Abby wants balance, but her life is seriously out of whack. After her brother is tragically killed, Abby dives into her singing career, allowing the bright lights of Hollywood to block out her grief. When the band takes the summer off, Abby banishes herself to the secluded beaches of Florida—finally slowing down enough to deal with her demons. When she meets ex-Marine Todd, she begins to feel the balance she’s been desperate for.

Just as Abby is beginning to unclench, Max, her sadistic manager—who makes Simon Cowell look like an angel—demands that she gets her tail back to LA. Under the pressure of the hot spotlight again, Abby’s grip on her new-found balance begins to shake. Torn between her love for Todd, and her loyalty to the guys in the band, she must find a way to confront her past, and take control her present, or risk losing everything.

[redacted] is a work of women’s fiction and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time.

Notwithstanding my comments above, the structure of this query is technically fine. You’ve told me who your main character is, what she wants, what’s in her way and the challenges she faces in wrestling the in-the-way. I completely understand what you’ve written, who its audience is and whether or not I would want to read this. 

The trouble is, I don’t think it is compelling enough. My critical mind asks, “Okay, so she has to make a choice between a boyfriend and her band and she must confront some demons. And?” Things like this happen to everybody. We’ve all had to make a choice and we all have demons. What makes Abby’s experience so different from our own that we would want to spend 97,000 words with her? Also, I worry that there are potential plot holes, here. Abby is a rockstar, which means she must have lots of money, fans and power. Why can’t she find a way to fix her problem?

This story needs external conflict–something big that affects (or has the potential to affect) not only Abby, but other people too. For me, women’s fiction can’t just be about an issue that often affects women. It also needs to be a little controversial and unique so that I’m forced to stop in my tracks and wonder what I might have done in the protagonist’s shoes. Women’s fiction very often aims to warm the hearts of women, and I didn’t find this as heartwarming as I would have liked.

Sincerely,etc (I wonder if you put this “etc” in to be cute, or if somehow the monster named Technology added it for you. If the former, best to stick with the tried-and-true.)

[redacted]

LR

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QueryDice #1.1 Take Two!

The following is a query critique of the very first QueryDice! Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours!

Dear Ms. Ruth, Great opening. Simple and professional. This is my favorite greeting in a query.

Angela-Courtney Maddeus has not been a happy or healthy child. She has been called crazy for claiming that she and her ex-best friend snuck out to a Midsummer’s Eve Party and nearly got killed. First, no one holds parties on Midsummer’s Eve. Second, she insists that magic was involved, since there was a moving statue that attempted the actual killing.

You know, there is still too much in this opening. It’s overload. Is Angela a child? Then don’t call her that, because I’ll think she is. Something about the words, “She has been called crazy…” makes my brain work too hard. I’m wondering if she is, in fact, crazy, who called her that, why it matters, if it was only just one time and that traumatized her, or if the whole world thinks that of her. Then there is the ex-best friend. I’m wondering why this person is an ex and if it matters. What’s Midsummer’s Eve? Further, claiming that she snuck out and almost got killed if it wasn’t true would make a person a liar, not crazy. This is a classic case of what I like to call Useless Author Syndrome. That sounds really mean, but put down that torch and call off the lynch mob for a sec. What I mean is, you, as the author, are now useless because you have read your book so many times after creating it from nothing. You’re so close to the material that you have absolutely no perspective. You have to work very hard to figure out what readers need to know. This is dangerous. The cure? Forget about it for a while. Like, weeks. Read a lot in the weeks. Then, come back with a fresh, clear mind. 

But, if you just can’t wait, give us the bare bones only: “Everyone thinks Angela is crazy. She swears a moving statue used magic to attack her at a party last Midsummer’s Eve and she’s been raving about it ever since.”

It’s been a year since that horrible night; Angela’s father has been mysteriously killed, and her mother moves her to Terran, a small California town, to start a new life. Angela hasn’t forgotten what happened and is determined to find out why no one else remembers. She finally gets some answers when meeting another girl, Mina Wren, has run away from this year’s party. Unfortunately, Mina comes along with a talking wolf who claims to be Angela’s grandmother, and the wolf has the answers.

This paragraph continues to divulge too much information at once–information we don’t fundamentally need. Do we absolutely need to know that Angela’s dad died? You don’t bring this up again in the query, which makes it irrelevant, and forces me to assume you added it for gratuitous drama. It’s just like the theatre: don’t introduce a gun on the stage unless you intend to shoot it. Because otherwise, it becomes an unnecessary distraction. Also, we don’t really need to know that Angela and her mother have moved. It is not integral to the plot at this basic level, so telling us about it only distracts us from the information we really need about your story. The second sentence in this paragraph does not make sense, probably due to a typo. Then, I have to ask: I thought no one had Midsummer’s Eve parties. Why is there a “this year’s party”? Lastly for this paragraph, why is it unfortunate that Mina comes along with a talking wolf, especially one who has answers?

Wolves convert human memories to supernatural energy; the party hosts have exploited this ability to steal their guests’ memories to build a perfect life with magic.

I have so many questions about the wolves’ abilities. Most importantly, how does supernatural energy create the perfect life? Also, this is a very stiff sentence and I can see all the work you’ve done on it. I’m not supposed to know you worked hard on that sentence. How about this one: “Wolves convert human memories to supernatural energy and the party hosts are well aware of it. They take full advantage of their abilities, stealing their guests’ memories and…(add very, very brief description of how and why this is done).

Angela does the opposite, converting magic back into memories, but she doesn’t have her gift under control.

What?! Angela has a gift and we’re just hearing about it now? Here’s the thing: when you introduce a detail about your story that is so key, like this one, at the end of a query, you lose our trust. Even though we’re not consciously thinking it, we feel like we can’t depend on you because you’ve withheld something this important. Now, I feel a little out-of-control, like anything could happen. I thought this story was going to take place in the modern world as I know it, then talking wolves were introduced, then the main character has a power I didn’t know about. Readers are kind of like toddlers in this way: we need structure and rules to feel secure. If you just let anything fly without a moment’s notice and whenever you feel like it, we’re not going to do what you need us to…we’re too distracted and fraught with possibility because the rules are made up as we go along.

And I might like to know what funny or interesting types of things happen because Angela doesn’t have her gift under control.

She also has little time to learn; the party hosts have caught wind of Angela’s power and don’t approve of it, or her stubborn defiance. Their next Midsummer celebration may just be Angela’s last.

[redacted], a young-adult urban fantasy, is complete at 75,000 words.

In 2005 and  2006 I won second place in the Miami Dade County Youth Fair writing competition for the short stories “Teacher’s Gone” and “The Boundless Pirate” respectively. In 2007 I got first place in the same division (Fantasy) with “Persona Sin Corpus” as well as a Silver Key in the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards. Alienskin Magazine in their August/September 2001 issue published “The Red Pen Crossed Out,” while Hungur Magazine published “About Love for a Man’s Art” in their November 2010 issue.  I have a webcomic at [redacted] and a blog of my writing adventures at [redacted].

This is a great bio paragraph.

Thank you for your consideration. The first two pages are enclosed below.

Please note that I appreciate it when authors tack on a couple of pages so I can see the writing (and this is probably why the author chose to do this) but this is not common. Make sure an agent wants this before going ahead and doing it.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

I would reject this because the author didn’t appear to have control of her own world or her own story. This may or may not be the case, but I can’t speculate about that. I have to judge things based on a query letter, not what I think might perhaps be in the manuscript.

LR

QueryDice #9.1: Take Two!

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours!

Dear Lauren Ruth:

When Prudence O’Brian uncovers a human skeleton in her landlady’s backyard, she doesn’t expect the police or the press to be too concerned. Her mother was brutally murdered and the newspapers didn’t print a blurb. The police were too busy hunting down bootleggers and raiding speakeasies to apprehend her mother’s killer. Pru doesn’t want justice to slip through the cracks again. She decides to uncover the identity of the skeleton herself, but she’s uncertain on how to begin.

I’m already seeing a potential problem. In a mystery, the amateur sleuth needs to have a very solid reason for taking the investigation into her own hands. It is hard to like a person who is a busybody or who is meddlesome. I don’t think Pru’s motivation to get involved in the case of this skeleton is strong enough. She needs a solid connection to this crime…like being forced to investigate it because she or someone close is blamed for it. Now, that’s not to say that you haven’t fleshed this out more in the book, making it believable and acceptable that Pru would investigate this on her own, just that it’s not solid enough here in this query.

That being said, this opening is a huge improvement over the last draft. You’d opened with a question, which is a huge pet-peeve of mine, and you’d provided us with a bunch of information we really don’t need.

Gus Ashton is intrigued by Pru’s quest. He offers her his knowledge as a trial attorney to go places and interview people she wouldn’t dare do alone.

Why? Who is he and why would he offer his assistance to Pru when he could be billing hours? Also, as a side note, this sentence is poorly written. 

Gus is old enough to be her father, but he’s the first man she’s encountered who isn’t intimidated by her intelligence or her dangerous right hook. The farther (further is correct. Farther refers to spatial distance) they delve into their investigation, Pru realizes she and Gus have different definitions of justice, and his is silencing anyone who knows the truth.

This is very vague, which irks me. The difference between a back-of-the-book blurb and a query is that a cliffhanger is ineffective in a query, but intriguing on the back of a book. When I see a cliffhanger like this, it doesn’t make me request just to see what happens, it makes me want to move on to a query that’s made itself clear.

I’m not so sure we need to know anything about Gus. It takes you two paragraphs to get to the most compelling part about him: that his idea of justice is silencing anyone who knows the truth. I would cut the two paragraphs and just keep that one compelling sentence from your first draft: “But discovering the skeleton’s identity also means unmasking a killer whose own idea of justice is silencing anyone who knows the truth.”

I received a Bachelor of Arts in history from Drake University. After graduating from college, I worked as a tour guide at a living history museum. Most of the information we conveyed to the public had to be learned by research. I applied these skills to my novel to accurately portray life during The Great Depression.

This is an excellent improvement to your bio.

Another issue: this is the first we hear that this is a historical novel. Since you unfolded your query and it was unnecessary to mention that this was historical, I worry that you just set the story in the past without weaving that into the story.

My 100,000 word historical mystery, [redacted], is complete and available for review.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

LR

QueryDice #32

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours.

Dear Ms. Ruth,

Assistant to the Royal Advisor, Adalmund Port returned home to Norwyn from her first job with an arrow in her shoulder and a murdered princess in her arms.

This sentence takes too much work from the reader. My brain hurts. I know this is a different world, but you so casually toss information to us as though we should already be familiar with it. I’m not so sure you need any more information here than just the fact that Adalmund has an arrow in her shoulder and a dead princess in her arms. That was a compelling and intriguing line that you’ve saddled with unnecessary details.

A war veteran at seventeen, Adalmund was sent to advise her country’s princess during a routine, perfectly safe peace treaty signing. Needless to say, it didn’t go as planned.

Why is a seventeen year old girl advising the country’s leadership?

Sent back to Amleth, the country that murdered her princess, Adalmund is tasked with finding the man who ordered the attack and killing him. It’s an old law between the nations—the life of a noble for another noble life—but it doesn’t take into account the revolution brewing in Amelth. Adalmund didn’t take it into account either.

You might be able to begin your query with the above paragraph. We don’t need to know that Adalmund returned home wounded with the princess in her arms. It’s compelling and intriguing, but it is best reserved for the synopsis, in which you’ll have more words to play with. For now, it might be best to begin with something like, “As assistant to the royal advisor of [enter brief two-word description] Norwyn, seventeen year old Adalmund Port is charged with exacting revenge on the country’s princess….”

That being said, we don’t need to know the old law between the nations. It is interesting, but keep it out, and if you have room later, put it in. And, especially for words we don’t even know, inconsistent spellings give readers the feeling even you don’t know your world. And that’s just chaotic.

Peace is rising in Amelth. Peace, a masked man with the same magical powers as Adalmund (what? Adalmund has magic powers? We need to know how this comes into play and what is means to the story and the main character. Preferably, we need to know this from Jump Street.) and a desire for sweeping, if misguided, social change, is leading the revolution against the Amleth Royal Court. He also knows which Amelth prince was in charge of the military unit that murdered the Norwyn princess.

This last sentence lets the cat of the bag with a thud. In fact, I don’t think you need the sentence at all.

Peace wants Adalmund’s help.

Adalmund wants Peace’s information.

She also wants nothing to do with him, but Norwyn’s Royal Court strikes a deal with Peace: Adalmund’s unlimited help in exchange for a magically binding agreement that he’ll never declare war on Norwyn.

Adalmund will do anything to save her country. She’s been to war, she’s been an assassin, and she’s sacrificed her arm to save the princess.

But asking her to work with Peace might be too much.

Without further exposition, I don’t find it believable that Adalmund, after all she’s been through, would care about working with Peace. What’s so horrible about him?

I don’t see a strong enough conflict here. The princess is already dead, so you’ve snuffed out any tension around that. We also didn’t know or care about her so we don’t care that she’s dead. There’s an external conflict surrounding Norwyn’s vulnerability, but we don’t know the country’s people, so this is not compelling enough. Aside from Adalmund’s (whiny, to me) refusal to work with Peace, I’m not sure what the problem is and for that reason I would reject this.

[redacted] is a young adult fantasy novel of 75,000 words with series potential.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

QueryDice #31

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours.

Dear Ms. Ruth:

Some lessons can be hard to understand, even when your life depends on it.

This is a a lukewarm sentence. It’s not horrible, but it has no punch either. It’s just okay. I advise never to accept “just okay” from yourself. The first sentence of a query letter is hugely important because it sets the tone for the rest of it. Think about it like this: if you’ve already failed, you’ll have to spend the rest of your query redeeming yourself. But if you start off like a rockstar, the query will ride on that success and the agent will overlook small mistakes here or there. Here’s what makes this first sentence weak:

1. It is unclear. Why would your life depend on understanding a lesson? I can think up situations in which this would be the case, but you don’t want me to be reading your query with narrowed eyes, or thinking up scenarios which are NOT in your book.

2. I already know the first part of the sentence–that some lessons can be hard to understand–so my initial reaction to your query is a bored, “Yeah, so?” I’m also thinking I’m about to read the summary of a story about someone learning a hard lesson, which in itself is not really that interesting.

Melina Rowe never wants to see her friend Lee again after his startling kiss and confession of love caused her jealous fiancé to leave her. So when a guiding angel named Walter comes to show her that her life would actually be worse without Lee, she laughs in his face and calls him crazy. But as Walter grabs her arm to stop her from leaving, a surge of energy passes between them revealing Melina to be a rare type of human who can absorb angel powers, a problem that quickly forces her to change her mind.

I feel like this paragraph is also “just okay.” It’s not awful, but it’s not very compelling to me. There is so much packed into it. Do we need to know that Melina was angry with Lee? That she had (and now has not) a fiance, and that said fiance was jealous? It seems like it took you this entire paragraph to get around to telling us what you really mean to say: that Melina discovers she can absorb angel powers and has actually done so. Sometimes writers need to just write before getting to the point, which is why we do revisions. You need to cut the fat here and fluff up the actual meat, specifically about the paranormal elements.

The powers are too strong for humans and will eventually kill Melina unless she can gain control of them.  And the only way she can do that is to open her stubborn mind and understand the lesson Walter is there to teach her.

What? This just doesn’t make any sense, which was my issue with the first sentence. How on Earth can Melina’s learning that Lee is someone she needs help her to gain control of powers neither she nor Lee knows anything about?

Still skeptical but now scared for her life, Melina has no choice but to go to an alternate world where she never meets Lee.

What world is this? Where is it and what are its laws? What is different about it, besides the absence of Lee? Also, I’m wondering if there is a plot hole here: why couldn’t the guiding angel just show her a vision of life without Lee…or sit her down and tell her what it would have been like, instead of dramatically whisking her away to a new land? And by the way, what would it have been like? What is at stake if Melina never speaks to Lee again? What will make me care about these characters and their situation?

Once she arrives things only get worse. An elder guiding angel, who thinks humans like Melina are abominations, sends a trio of soul-snatching demons to destroy her.

The biggest trouble with this query is there is no world-building. I don’t get a sense of what this alternate world is like. Since I’m just now learning there are demons in the world, I’m wondering what else is there? Why can’t Melina just high-tail it back to her own world.

Melina must now fight for her life against relentless demon attacks while she struggles to understand her feelings for Lee and awaken to the shocking truth about her former fiancé.

This query is a bit disjointed. I can’t see how Melina’s troubles with Lee and her nameless fiance have anything to do with her new powers or the demons.

If she can’t understand why Lee’s meant to be in her life and her ex-fiancé isn’t, then she’ll never gain control of the powers.

I don’t understand why this is the case, and I worry that the manuscript will have the same problem.

But if the powers don’t kill her, the demons will. They will? I thought they were soul-snatching, not life-snatching.

Complete at 89,000 words, [redacted] is a supernatural romance with an inspirational theme.

I didn’t get the feeling this was romance, exactly. The relationship between Melina and Lee (I’m assuming this is the hero, but then why is Walter’s name in the title?) is not developed enough. It doesn’t come to the forefront, but instead hangs in the background. This felt more like urban fantasy to me. And what inspirational theme?

It’s a stand-alone novel but has series potential and should appeal to an older teen and adult female audience.  

Unless this is YA, you should leave any mention of teens out of the picture. I want to know if this will have a place on a YA shelf or on the romance shelf. Or on a different shelf.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I would reject this query because I don’t feel for the characters, I don’t get a strong sense of the world and I don’t know what exactly it is.

Sincerely,

[REDACTED]

 

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