Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Workshop Wednesday

By repeated request we've started Workshop Wednesday. It will definitely play out through 2011, and beyond that we'll just have to see. We've received well over 200 queries at this point, but we are choosing at random, so don't be afraid to participate as per the guidelines in our original post.

For anyone wanting to comment, we ask that you comment in a polite and respectful manner, and we ask that you be as constructive as possible. If you can be useful to the brave souls who submitted their query and comment on the query, that's great. Please keep any anonymous tirades on publishing or other snarky comments to yourself. This is and should remain an open and safe forum for people to put themselves and their queries out there so that everyone can learn. I'm leaving comments open and open to anonymous posters, as I always have; don't make me feel the need to change that policy.

And for those who have never "met" Query Shark, get over there and do that. She's the originator of the query critique, the queen, if you will.

What’s a girl supposed to do when she sends the wrong man to another universe for the sins of his twin brother? When Karen was asked by an ageless being, Malin, to use her new found talents to rid the world of some unsavory characters, he soon found that the wealthy orphan was used to doing things her own way.

The trouble with query critiques is that it's a critique. In other words, many times the critique you're getting is far more critical than I would be if simply reading the query. Of course, sometimes I will be as critical when reading as I would in a critique, so it never hurts to be thorough.

One of the things that bugs me about this query right off the bat (though I didn't reproduce it here) is that it's double-spaced and indented. I know that's not a big deal, but we read email differently than we read snail mail. We like to have as much of an email as possible fit into a screen, and formatting for email is different than formatting for snail mail. Therefore, single space with double spaces between paragraphs is best. It simply reads better.

I prefer some sort of salutation at the beginning of the letter. It eases me into things and helps me know you're addressing me. That being said, it's not a big deal if you don't include it.

Okay, into the actual query . . .

Blech. Opening the query with a question. Some say this is the death knell. I don't think that's truly the case, but it does bug me. What if I don't care what a girl is to do? And frankly, I'm not sure I do. I also don't like the phrase "what's a girl to do." This is funny coming from the queen of cliches, but cliches in the query make me feel that the author is not as inventive or imaginative as she should be.

Beyond all of that, though, the real concern with this opening paragraph is that it doesn't make any sense. It's completely disconnected. You open with a question about what a girl is to do, but don't touch on that, and then you introduce us to some fellow named Malin and I don't see how that connects to the question or how doing things her own way connects to anything else. My best advice is to dump this entire paragraph and start over, or, maybe you don't need it at all.

Karen, and identical twins, Paul and Phillip have made their separate ways to the City, where life has deteriorated under the rule of Grand, a psychotic gang leader and the Mayor, ambitious and amoral. Phillip gets a job working with orphaned boys rescued from the streets; Paul tries to hook up with Grand because he senses they are disturbingly alike.

I'm not understanding the connection between these characters and the connection between this paragraph and the first one. Are Karen and these twins connected? Does it matter at all that they're identical? You keep saying that, but I don't know why it matters? They make their way to the City from where, for what, what is this City? And if they aren't connected (these people), why would you lump them together in the same sentence? And in the end, I don't think this paragraph matters. It all feels like backstory to me and none of it feels important. So far I've read two paragraphs and I still have no clue what your story is about.

Malin oversees that a balance between positive and negative energy is maintained in multiple universes. He recruits and directs human partners to help achieve his objective. He contacts Karen, revealing that she has inherited an unusual ability to transform energy, and asks for her help in sending Paul and Grand to the Plains, to live out the remainder of their lives in an arid purgatory of a universe that receives the outcasts from all the universes under Malin’s control. In the act of transferring Grand and Paul, she accidentally sends Phillip to the Plains too.

Again, this paragraph feels disconnected from the rest. It feels to me like you are trying too hard to tell me about everyone instead of focusing on the hook or high point of the story, the key conflict.

You start the entire query with Karen sending the wrong twin back, and then you take three paragraphs to get to that. Skip the backstory and get to the heart of the book.

So does Karen know Paul and who is Grand? Sorry, I had to look back to see that. Why the two of them?

It seems to me that we finally get to the point here. It seems that the entire book is about the fact that Karen sends the wrong twin away by accident. If that's the case, I'm not sure we need to know who Grand or Malin are. Could you just focus on the fact that Karen has special powers and lives in a certain type of world, she's charged with sending a man away for whatever reason, but when she learns she's sent the wrong fella then what happens . . .

Karen is distraught at condemning a good man to an existence of isolation and alienation and urges Malin to improve his lot. In desperation she enters The Plain against Malin’s warning that she won’t be able to return.

So the biggest problem is that she's distraught? My immediate concern is that you don't have a big enough conflict in the book. If the only thing to be worried about is Karen's feelings, that doesn't seem like enough.

She manages to return Phillip to their world and eventually Malin figures out a way for her to return also, but only after Karen starts to have feelings for Paul. Thus a triangle is created between Karen and the twins as she struggles to decide between the two men and the two universes.

This sounds to me like the end of the story and not something we need to worry about in the query. This is fine for the synopsis.

However, if you opt to keep it in, it doesn't sound that interesting. Like you've tossed this in at the end. Why does Malin care if she comes back? I'm totally confused.

In the human world, the books deal with topical issues such as drugs, joblessness, sexual slavery and political graft, in a hypothetical city; those relegated to live out their existence in the Plains have their own challenges, particularly when the boundaries between worlds are blurred.

This is one of my pet peeves in query letters. I do not care what issues your book deals with. No one reads fiction because they want to read about social issues. People love it when they learn something or can identify with something in a book, but no one picks up a book and buys it because it deals with social issues, and no back cover describes the social issues in a book.

In other words, this paragraph adds nothing to your query. Just delete it.

I’ve been a writer all my life, but never tried to publish. This story has been rattling around in my head for fifteen years; Karen became very real to me and I decided I wanted to share her adventures. I am a former senior vice president with a Wall Street firm; a long time small business owner; women’s health activist and fund raiser for breast cancer research; and a blogger on economic issues and writing.

Delete the first two sentences. All too often I hear from people who have been "writers all their lives." It just makes me wonder what took you so long. I also don't care that the book has been rattling around in your head. It concerns me, actually, that maybe you're too entrenched in it. I think the last sentence about your experience, maybe less the semicolons, is fine.

The first book, The Energy Collector is 95,000 words; the second is 65,000 words; and I have an outline and about 30,000 words completed of a third book. I have written each of them to stand on their own merits.

I'm only worried about the book you're pitching, which, by the way, has a great title. How come I couldn't see how that title played into the book?

I am not a serial submitter, but I have queried several other agents who haven’t responded. Maybe I’m not patient enough.

I don't like this at all. It's fine to see that you're querying other agents, but I don't like the fact that you're basically criticizing yourself.

Thank you for your consideration,

One thing you did do here that I didn't include was add your phone number and town under your name. I liked that. It's great to include that contact option.

Overall this query is way too long, and not because it's long in length, but because you ramble about various pieces of the book, but haven't really told me anything about the story. I worry that your book does the same thing. Most important, though, I don't see that this book is special enough or different enough from anything else.



SJ Drum said...

I agree that it's too long. I felt like "why do I need to know about ALL these people?"

Tell me about the protagonist and antagonist. Show me the conflict and why I should care. Three-ish paragraphs, one page, done.

I do think the story has merit. I would certainly read something like this as a lover of Urban Fantasy.

Anonymous said...

I have queried several other agents who haven’t responded.

Ouch. This reminds me of how my brother used to go up to girls and say "Do you want to go out with me? Nobody else does."

ryan field said...

I'd so love to read pages with these. The query is off for all the reasons you suggested...but it's interesting, too.

Laila Knight said...

I liked the first paragraph, but got a little lost in the second. Also, this is a fantasy right? Did I miss it that the genre wasn't listed anywhere. You mentioned the single spacing in queries. I'm a bit confused as to how to approach things when someone asks you to paste a few pages on an email. In the transition it all reverts to single space. Is single space okay, or should it be double like submitting pages in paper? Anyone?

Meg Spencer said...

I agree with SJ and Ryan - I didn't like the query, but from what I could gather, I think I'd like the story. Do you ever request pages from something like this - where the query might be a bit of a mess, but the story and the voice show promise? It seems like all the problems here are query specific, not writing specific, if that makes sense.

Candace Rose said...

I can vaguely see why this story would be interesting, but I can't tell for sure because I have no clue how all these pieces and numerous characters fit together. I couldn't keep track of all the names(who is Malin and why do I care?). Maybe you should take a few out of the query.
I think that all the points discussed in the critique are spot on.
And if you change nothing else, please, please, PLEASE take out the first sentence.

JP Kurzitza said...

Be honest, Jessica. It is also because of the length. It's twice as long as it should be. That's the trick - the art of writing a query letter and what we as writers need to be able to do: write succinctly and clearly in 250 words or less and be able to hook the reader.

Despite the length of the query, there was too much telling and not enough showing. You've got a good story here, just trim the fat and make me want to know more.

C.M. said...

It really does go to show that a poor query can really make a book sound awful, and a good query can make even an awful book sound interesting. There was really nothing to catch my attention and make me want to read this. It was all vague pronouncements, a good twin, an evil twin, a self-sacrificing woman, a bad boy romance, general all powerful entities that lack convenient abilities to create plot points. There weren't any characters, no evocations of the worlds. And the writing was unclear.

Queries are hard, that's something I know well, but if the query feels slapdash and not carefully proofread for clarity, what does that suggest about the manuscript?

Robena Grant said...

I think there might be a good story here. I'd say scrap this query and start afresh. Boil it all down to your one sentence story idea--the protagonist wants what, and why, and what is preventing him her from getting it--and then build upon that. Keep it to 250-300 words total.

Kelly S said...

While the query was all over the place, I'm intrigued enough to read the first few chapters.

I feel the author is too close to the characters to see that he/she has given not only too much information, but hasn't clued us in as to what the hook of the story is really about.

I think with some tweaking it could be a good query.

And, don't know about anyone else, but I got a 'sci-fi / dystopian' vibe on this query.


Jo Eberhardt said...

I would think that in a good query, you wouldn't have to guess, or rely on a "vibe" to pick the genre, whether it's specifically mentioned or not. Based on the query, all I know is that there's a lot of different characters, all of whom seem to fit into one character archetype or another. I really think you need to step back from how much you love your characters (who may well deserve it), and fall in love with your plot as well.

Anonymous said...

What a great critique. Fantastic to see honesty sprinkled with diplomacy, instead of the other way round.

M-T said...

We all know, in theory, what makes a great query and yet we all struggle with our own - why? Like Kelly S stated - we are too close...we know too much. Some of the best query hooks I've ever gotten for my own ms were from outside readers and/or after I had left the work alone for awhile. It's amazing what other people see and what you can see after taking some time away - like memories - only the most intriguing/thrilling/sensory points remain - the background noise is filtered out.

cytoreti said...

All too often I hear from people who have been "writers all their lives." ... I also don't care that the book has been rattling around in your head.

I almost consider both of these lines a red flag. The first implies that the writer doesn't know many other writers, and the second implies that the story will be irreparably packed with juvenilia.