Monthly Archives: May 2013

QueryDice #49: World-Building in a Query Letter

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,

The only thing worse than finding out you’re part of a secret magic species is finding out you’re a necromancer, and not a very good one. Aisling gets waves of nausea and cold chills around the dead, and can’t even stomach the reanimation of corpses. In what world would she need to be able to stomach this? Your use of the word “even” leads me to believe that this is something that is expected of her, but it’s a detail that comes too early and without satisfactory explanation. This query letter is a bit short (at 188 words), so I would suggest using this first paragraph to introduce us to both Aisling and her world. 

Then she meets a haunted young man named Kenneth. Death has touched him, and together they can help each other deal with this world. What world? I do not have a firm grasp of this world. Which creatures live in it? What is the one thing about this world that sets it apart most from the world we know? Additionally, what do you mean by “deal”? What’s so bad about the world? And how can they help each other? What I’m getting at with these questions is this: I don’t know enough.

When Aisling feels like she may just fit in with the others a female student turns up dead. <— What does the first part of this sentence have to do with the end of it? Suspecting eyes fall upon Aisling and soon the female body count increases. She must learn to master her abilities to uncover the truth to find the killer, before her she or her friends are next. Aisling wants to point the finger at her friend’s new boyfriend, but the clues point in one path while her heart points in another. Her heart? Like, love? Or did you mean she has a hunch that is unsupported by evidence? Being the only one equipped with the magic for the task, Aisling knows failure is no option, even at the risk of her personal safety, and against her parent’s wishes. <–Do her parents know that she is a necromancer? Do they know her world exists?

With academy halls filled with teenagers learning dangerous new powers, everyone’s a suspect. Oh, so she goes to a school for the magically gifted? Setting is important in YA, and we should know this early on because otherwise this reads like a query for fantasy with a YA-aged protagonist, which is not the same thing as YA.

[redacted] is a young adult fantasy with mystery elements completed at 72,00 words; a stand-alone with sequel potential.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kind Regards,

[redacted]

Look, I get it. It is SO tough to try to boil down a never-before-seen world into a query letter while still boiling down plot structure. Fantasy is the toughest genre for which to write query letters. That is exactly why this query has failed. There are too few details where we need them, and too many details in the wrong places at the wrong times. I think you’ve got an interesting and cute story here, but it just needs to be presented in the right way. I would suggest making a list of the elements of your world that your readers MUST know about in order to appreciate your story. Limit yourself to fewer than six. Then cut out anything outside of those and re-write your query letter accordingly. 

Lastly, the main character seems to have no personality. I’d like to see some of her quirks, and if you can, a piece of her voice here in the query letter. That will be the difference between a ho-hum query, and one that gets attention. 

Good luck! 

LR

QueryDice #48: Voice in YA

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.

To Lauren Ruth,

Hope Murdoch was born dead.

Great first line. I’m hooked.

She took breath a minute later and despite her that quick trip through the veil sixteen years ago, she’s an almost-normal teen. She has an impossible crush on the boy next door, she struggles to pay attention in class, and she’s adopted. All of this–even the adopted part–makes the normal list. The not-so-normal list is short. In fact, there’s only one thing on it. Hope can read minds.

I made the word change in the first sentence to affirm to the reader that “the veil” refers to her being dead and then alive when she was born. Also, if this is something unique to this story, I’d recommend capitalizing The Veil.

I don’t think being adopted is something I would put on a list of normal things. It does not belong in the most-normal category of high-school crushes and waning attention in class. I wonder if you might consider rewording this paragraph. Something to the effect of, “…thought being adopted was the most abnormal thing about her, until…”

Lance Hampton used to be normal until a car accident killed his parents and, temporarily, him. How about adding, “On that night” here —> Paramedics brought him back to a life he doesn’t want: orphaned, uprooted and living with his uncle, and cursed with the ability to see how people die. At his new school, he hides behind his attitude (what kind of attitude?) and overgrown, unkempt hair. He knows it’s better if he doesn’t make any attachments. Seeing how complete strangers die is hard enough, let alone friends. Wow. Yeah, that would be problematic. This has my interest.

Hope and Lance are barely aware of one another until she accidentally slips inside his mind and witnesses a vision of murder . . . her own. She can’t see it clearly and only knows it happens in the dark. She needs Lance’s help, but he won’t face death again (what do you mean by “face death again”?) for just anyone. Hope will have to become more than a stranger, even more than a friend. After that, it’s simply a matter of tracking down a murderer before he kills. A murderer who could be anywhere. Anyone.

Even psychics have trouble seeing in the dark. <—well, why wouldn’t they have trouble seeing in the dark? Night-vision isn’t their power. I see that you were trying to be witty here, but it falls flat for me.

[redacted] is an 85,000-word young adult novel, the first of a trilogy. <–you do not add what genre your book is.

There was no salutation to this query. A simple “Sincerely, soandsso” can’t fail. Regardless of that and the other kinks in this query I think need to be ironed out, I’m sure this author has received requests for more material. The conflict is clearly outlined, as are the stakes, and the paranormal elements are clear. Most importantly, the author appears to have done a great job of leaving out what is extraneous information, and what we need to know. The only thing I think could make this query better in a major way is characterization. I have no idea what Hope’s personality is like…is she clumsy? Sophisticated? Introverted? Who knows? The same goes for Lance, to a slightly lesser degree. The voice in the paragraph about Lance should change to reflect his personality. If you’ve like to know more about voice in your writing, please see my earlier post, If You Build it, They Will Come…

Best of luck to you, author!

LR

QueryDice #47: Nonfiction?

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

What is this, a new trend? This query had no greeting. While this is not immediate cause for deletion or rejection, it could wind up being that one infraction of many that caused the agent to look elsewhere. “Dear Ms. So-and-so” is always best. Quite like ladies picking up the tab on a first date, some trends don’t work out.

Ants and Candy. What? You might like this–think it’s witty or funny–and it might be, but since I have no idea what you’re talking about, this doesn’t make me sit up straighter.

We humans spend much time fighting, kicking and screaming over many things on Earth that seem so monumental; while elevating the marginal, we devalue the paramount—and place the capital letters of Life where lowercases should be: We’ve turned stuff into Stuff. <—what capital and lowercase letters? Metaphors only work if the figurative and literal both apply. 

In other words…

When the casket or urn is sealed, what will really matter? Depends on whom you ask…and at this point, I’m wondering what the point is. You’re into your first paragraph and I have no idea what you’ve written, for whom, or if I will like it. That’s a problem. It may be “business as usual” for most of us while we careen along in our 75 miles-per-hour lives; surf our 56 megabyte-per-second data connections; and text-while-driving with our lightning-fast opposable thumbs. Wait, wait. This  sentence–which has been split into two sentences because even you knew it rambled too much–began with a conditional phrase, “It may be…” but where’s the punchline? It may be business as usual to us, but to whom is is not business as usual? And what is business as usual? Life? Death? But, if we run this Race and miss the Scenery (why is this capitalized?) and the other Racers (and this?) along the way, have we really even run at all? Yes, actually. Never ask an agent a question that might make you look stupid when they answer it. [redacted] provokes us to consider and truly value the most important thing ever—people and how we treat them. How? How does it provoke us? How does it make us value anything? Quite frankly, if you’re not able to make me value this query letter, I doubt your ability to make me value anything. In clearer terms, I mean to say that if you can’t use your words to provoke me to want to read more, I don’t imagine that your book will make me think. That might be completely off-base, but you have given me nothing to judge you by except for these few words. That’s why they count for so much. If ever there was a forest that has been occluded by some very big trees…. Um, what?

About me. <— you do not need this.
I’m an freelance writer and national award-wining songwriter. <— good to know! After many years in the funeral and cemetery profession, one gets a slightly different perspective when considering the things that really matter in the End. I am a member of the Florida Writers Association and the Clay County Writers (great to know!) and reside in Orange Park, Florida. (Doesn’t matter at all) My passion is provoking people to dive deeper into this “life thing” we’ve been given. In my literary writing, I do just that; hopefully with a chuckle; and a “hmm” along the way. This is literary? Wow. This whole time I thought it was prescriptive nonfiction. That’s a big problem. If this is literary, then it must have a plot, unless you’re Virginia Woolf, in which case I don’t want to read anything you’ve written. If you’re not Virginia Woolf, then I will still need to know the plot of your book.
Thank you for considering my 32,000-word non-fiction: [redacted]

[redacted]

QueryDice #46: What the F*ck?

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

This query had no greeting. While this is not immediate cause for deletion or rejection, it could wind up being that one infraction of many that caused the agent to look elsewhere. “Dear Ms. So-and-so” is always best.

[redacted], tentatively titled, (we know it is tentatively titled. If it was finally titled it would be published) is my real life memoir/proposal (whoa, whoa, whoa… “real life” and “memoir” essentially mean the same thing here, so use only one to avoid redundancy and looking like an amateur, even if you are one. Also, is a memoir or is it a proposal? If you haven’t written it yet and it is only a proposal, then you have no business querying anyone with it. Stick with just “memoir”) that begins as all good fairy tales must .. [an ellipsis is always three periods (…) with no spacing] a fashion disaster: a broken shoe that flies under a car while crossing Santa Monica Boulevard. Do all fairy tales begin with fashion disasters? I don’t think they do…and specifically, I know they don’t all begin with a broken shoe. More to the point, what do you mean? I walk into what looks like just a shop. It’s as magical as the pages of a fresh Vogue I might have dreamed of, littered with designer dresses from Halston, Rudi Gernreich, Sonia Rykiel – and shoes, of course. The handsome prince shopkeeper smiles at my dilemma, before asking for my phone number.

Okay, so I’m assuming the shop is not really magical, and the shopkeeper (which is a really antiquated term) is not really a prince. Knowing that, what is interesting about a girl walking into a shop with a hot sales rep? And at what dilemma is the “prince” smiling? And what does any of it have to do with a broken shoe, a fairy tale, or Santa Monica Boulevard? This first paragraph was so confusing, that I would have stopped reading right here.

My memoir tells the story of fashion as it begins (this sounds like your memoir tells the story of fashion’s roots…which would be impossible), the prêt-a-porter (for the uninitiated, and unFrench, this means ready-to-wear, or off-the-rack, and I’m having trouble figuring out how it makes sense here. I could use some help), with the very young and unknown creators in New York, Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo … a pony-tailed Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe sketching a long-sleeved dress and crisply nodding his head, agreeing to send the sketch with the fabric and pattern in a taxi to the dressmaker on the outskirts of Paris who could best do that type of work. Buying the first collections of Giorgio Armani, men and women, eating lunch with the boy models because Mr. Armani had so little experience with tired, hungry buyers. Thea Porter, Zandra Rhodes, Jean Muir, Chantal Thomass, Gianfranco Ferre, Gianni Verscace, Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Missoni … we bought them all for our Beverly Hills shop that a few years later Judith Krantz used as partial inspiration for Scruples, and bought her wardrobe from our shop for her book tour. (Scruples, much to my delight, is actually being brought to the small screen as a series next season.) <–a great example of what I call Synopsis Splatter, or when the synopsis just adds too much information here, not enough there, a big blob here, etc. 

I literally just sighed before writing this sentence. There is a TON going on here. Intuition tells me this is an awesome story that you tell in bits and pieces verbally at parties, but you’ve failed to cohesively transfer it to a narrative on paper–screen, whatever. The paragraph above is like one of those hodge-podge projects where you glue clippings of magazine pages to a stool or a picture frame. We get the basic gist of the theme, if there is one, but the story is too abstract for us to draw anything out of it except maybe a feeling of glamour. Or maybe I’m giving the author too much credit. Maybe the feeling isn’t glamour, exactly, but an ambition for glamour. Also, the name-dropping , to me, seems to be in service of your own agenda rather than in service of the book’s description, which is in poor taste. 

Juxtaposing our (whose? I thought this was YOUR memoir? Who is this other person whose point-of-view is in the book?) work and marriage, so like my almost twinned life with Tina Chow and her husband Michael Chow at Mr. Chow’s across the street, until I couldn’t any longer. Falling apart harder as we open an Azzedine Alaia chez Gallay boutique on Rodeo Drive and close our Camden Drive shop, the divorce is harsh and yet we work together until the Sunset Plaza shop is opened.

The construction of the sentences in the above paragraph, particularly the first one, forces the reader to concentrate really, really hard and maybe even read through twice. If agents don’t stop reading after the hodge-podge or after the confusing first paragraph, this is where you’ll lose them.

The shop across the street (Mr. Chow’s? What?), the one with room for a rose garden, is available and I fly to Paris (why would you fly to Paris? I thought it was across the street), hoping for a lease, hoping for a life and make it work. It sounds like your life is already working…I get the feeling there is some serious money and connectedness here. Adam Shankman is my assistant and Mary Rae McDonald makes custom hats for me. Rock stars, movie stars and the Brat Pack hang in my shop next to Le Dome, agents peeping in after starry lunches. Manolo Blahnik, Dolce & Gabbana, Todd Oldham, Kenzo  … pink-washed walls and happiness. Again, with the name dropping. And the hodge-podge thing. Tina Chow has left Michael and is in Tokyo working with craftsmen to make her jewels when she becomes ill, hospitalized with the pneumonia that means AIDS.  My friend knows she will die soon.

In the middle of a rainstorm while scowling at a leaky ceiling (the construction of this sentence makes it sound like the man was scowling at the leaky ceiling), a man walks in and won’t stay away. We fall in love and have a child together. On his first birthday, I close my dream shop to become a Hollywood wife.

Wow. Okay, so this was actually spectacularly interesting, in the way abstract art is interesting…there is something there, and you know that the person next to you is probably seeing something different, but you are both interested anyway. I would have rejected this, though, because if the whole book is written in this fashion–and I can only assume it is–it would hurt my head too much to read it all the way through. A query letter, while it should have voice and give the reader an idea of atmosphere, should not be saturated in both the way this is. While your book is narrative, your query letter should be expository, and this was closer to a literary narrative than an explanation of what your memoir is about. 

Additionally, there is no salutation or signature. Agents will feel like you don’t think they’re important enough to garner your respect. No matter who you are–short of, maybe, Angelina Jolie (God, I hope Angelina Jolie is not the author) you still can’t drop a bunch of names in the lap of an agent and expect that to carry you.

Let’s take a poll, though: Who wants to see what this was all about, who the author was, and read a great query for this story? *raises both hands*

LR

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