Wednesday, March 09, 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.

Dear Ms. Anonymous,

Your intimate involvement with the agent/author relationship combined with your hands-on, editorially-focused approach would be invaluable to my journey as a writer. Your years of experience in the industry plus your love for characters placed in wacky situations that remain grounded to a relatable reality, would be a perfect match for my novel,
Gaia’s Secret.

I think it's great to include a personal connection in your query whenever possible. The problem with this opening is that it's not at all personal, it's an impersonal attempt to be personal, or at least it feels that way to me. In other words, it feels like you're doing nothing more but attempting to butter me up, not showing how you might know me personally. If I were you I'd skip the attempt at flattery and simply get to the point. "I'm querying you today about my novel Gaia's Secret" is perfect.

In a parallel world, connected by an ancient system of portals, eighteen-year old Daria Jones is the heir to the Regius dynasty, the keeper of untold powers, and the final link uniting Earth-as-we-know-it with its magical sister, Gaia. The only problem? No one bothered to tell her. And to make matters worse, a reawakened race of evil sorcerers make a house call; someone wants Daria dead.

In some ways this paragraph suffers from the same problem as your opening paragraph. It uses a lot of words, but in the end it doesn't really say anything. It leaves me with more questions than answers. Be careful that you aren't working too hard to set up the story by including too much information. For example, does it matter for the pitch that this world is parallel (I assume you mean parallel to ours, although I'm not sure) or that it's connected by portals? I also assume that Gaia is this world, although that's not clear either.

In fact, I don't even see how "keeper of untold powers" fits in. It sounds like this could be interesting, but in the end it's not, because I don't know anything about it.

I think this would be stronger if you went more along these lines: No one bothered to tell eighteen-year-old Daria Jones, heir to the Regius Dynasty, that she's also the final link uniting Earth with Gaia (and now I need to know why that even matters). When she suddenly discovers . . .

When her overprotective father disappears, she turns to Cicero and Sonya Anderson, the only family she trusts to find him. With the illusion of her once-mundane life now completely shattered, she’s forced to follow them through the nearest portal—Yosemite National Park—into the heart of this beautiful and deceptively dangerous new world. Further compounding her problems, their son Alex, her childhood crush, plans to join them. But after a bad break and three years of silence, Alex is the last person she wants to see. And he’s changed. He’s completely gorgeous.

The problem with this paragraph is that it doesn't answer any of the questions I have from the previous paragraph. What does her father's overprotectiveness have to do with the pitch? Why doesn't she trust anyone, and who are these people she turns to and why does she turn to them? Does it even matter who they are? It doesn't seem like they play any big role in the pitch, which should probably focus more on Daria and less on everyone else.

What makes her think she needs help? This seems like it's probably the most important question of the entire pitch.

The biggest problem is that you have told me nothing about this story. You've told me what leads us to the story, why we have a story (because Gaia is in danger and her father has disappeared, although we don't have a connection between the two), but we don't know what this story is about.

My suggestion is you need to make the focus on Daria and Alex, since I assume there is a romance there, and you need to stress how these two travel from the magical world of Gaia to Earth in order to . . . what? Are they planning to find her father? Save Earth? Save Gaia? What is their purpose and what do they face during their journey? Most important, your pitch should be about what happens once they are on Earth, since I'm assuming this is the most important piece of the story.

Not your average coming-of-age story, Gaia’s Secret brings a new twist to life-as-we-know-it. This 106,316 YA fantasy tells us of a world just beyond ours that was never meant to be separate. Through the determination of a strong female heroine, the worlds may find peace and be unite once again.

The problem with saying something like "not your average" is that so far the book sounds pretty average. You haven't given me anything to show how this book stands out from others. And personally, I'm not sure if I see this as "coming-of-age." I mean, I guess all or most YA is coming-of-age in some way, so I think you could skip that.

Your tag line, "tells the story of a world beyond ours that was never meant to be . . ." is interesting. I find this probably the most interesting part of the pitch, but I didn't get any of that from the pitch. I didn't get that these worlds weren't meant to be separate or why it's important that they unite.

This novel has strong series potential but tells a complete tale and stands alone.

I think you could skip this sentence. All books, except in a very, very rare instance, should be a complete tale and stand alone. This doesn't add anything to the query and, in fact, might make the agent instead wonder why you would have to point out that the story is a complete story.

I completed post-graduate work in Clinical Laboratory Science and have an all-consuming passion for literature and the extraordinary.

This short bio is fine, although if you have bio info on your writing that would be more powerful. In other words, are you in a critique group or part of a writing organization? I would be more interested in that. The other thing, which isn't that important, but when it comes to a bio I'm more interested in what you are doing now. In other words, you "completed" post-graduate work, but what's going on with you now?

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes,



AmyJo said...

Thank you Jessica, this workshop is an excellent source of help for query writing.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hi Author: I echo Jessica's concerns about this letter being rather vague about the story. Paradoxically, it doesn't take any more words to be specific as it does to be vague. You just have to choose your words with care. They also need to be chosen for precision.

For example, the word "wacky" in your first paragraph carries connotations that don't seem applicable to your work. Would you really describe YOUR story as a "wacky" coming-of-age tale? Is that the comparison you're really going for?

With the illusion of her once-mundane life now completely shattered

"Illusion" is not accurate here. Daria's life HAS been mundane till now. There is no "illusion" about that, although she might have a shattered illusion that her life would *continue* to be mundane.

Every word must carry weight in a short query, whether to add voice or further the reader's understanding. Just a couple of inappropriate word choices can alter the meaning enough for the reader to lose confidence in the writer's abilities to tell the story.

But that's why you submitted your query for a critique, to see where you need to strengthen the letter, so kudos to you!

Jessica: I think the author included the part about being a standalone because many other agents want to be assured the first book in a series does not end on a cliff-hanger. Many query-critting sites -- mine included -- counsel writers to indicate that the book is part of a series, if it is, and to offer the assurance that the first book can, indeed, stand on its own.

We also counsel brevity. As noted, this author tends to use a lot of words to say what could be said much more succinctly. GAIA'S SECRET, a YA fantasy complete at 106,000 words, is a standalone novel with series potential.

Anonymous said...

I think if you work to flesh out this query letter, and cut away the parts that aren't crucial to the story, you'll be able to add more elements that will help us understand where you're coming from.
In addition to what Jessica has already mentioned, I had a few problems with the way certain things were worded.

When you say 'childhood crush', to me that doesn't suggest they had a relationship - but simply that she was crushing on him. Try replacing it with 'sweetheart'.

Also, I found your descriptions of Earth and Gaia to be contradictory. If they were never meant to be separate, why are they joined by a portal? And why are they introduced as 'sister worlds'? Do you mean separated by political means? Or were they supposed to be one physical world all along, with no portal?

Another problem I noticed was you start by saying she lives in a parallel world, but then say 'Earth-as-we-know-it'. I certainly didn't know Earth had an ancient system of portals - and if you mean to say that Daria didn't know at the start of the story, then it's not Earth-as-Daria-knows-it, either.

One last thing - with 'the illusion of her once-mundane life is shattered' - lose 'the illusion', because if she KNOWS that her life was mundane, then it wasn't an illusion - it was her reality.
But wait, I lied - that wasn't the last thing ... if she turned to this other family for help, then she was hardly 'forced' to follow them through the portal. To me, that's like saying "I asked for a lift to work, and was forced to ride in the car with them." Does that make sense?

And THIS is the last thing, I promise! Your use of 'to make matters worse' has no effect on me, because it seemed she was cruising along just fine without the knowledge of what she was/the portals/what she was heir to. I'd drop it, or find another way to reword it.

We need to know: What is the Regius Dynasty, and how will it change her life? What are her untold powers? Tell us! :) Why do we need Earth and Gaia to unite? How does she know her father has gone through a portal? Did the evil sorcerers tell her? And who wants her dead? How will that put a dent in her finding her father, if that is the point of the story?
I think what you've got here is an interesting concept - a world with ancient portals, a girl who's coming into power (both magically and regally), and a potential romance - but you need to tell us what's at stake, and why.
I'm sure loads of people will give you some great advice here, and I wish you luck. I'd really love to see what you can do with this query! Have you posted it somewhere where we can see your progress??? :)

Anonymous said...

This felt wordy to me. I couldn't seem to get a handle on what the story was about. I think if the query was tighter (really thinking through each word), the story would come through. Perhaps take a look at the verbs in there. Using verbs with oomph would help grab our attention.

If you are going to use flattery, it is important to list specifics. The worst would be for an agent to suspect other agents are receiving the same flattering opening.

Hats off to you for the courage it takes to make your query available for critique. We all learn from these. I hope you are able to take something away from it as well.

Elizabeth Poole said...

Thank you very much for this feature, Jessica. It's been invaluable.

And thank you, Author, for the courage to put yourself out there.

I have a question regarding the author's bio. Brief is best, but if you have no publishing credits or higher learning related to your novel, what sort of personal information is acceptable?

I looked at the query letters of clients that Jessica has so kindly posted, and they seem to run the gamut. I was wondering if there was a quick list though, of things to include and to leave out.

Jessica mentioned being part of a critique group, but what else? How long you've been writing?

There's a line between TMI ("this book has been revised 8 million times") and not enough information. I'm just not always sure what would be good to include and what's best to leave out.

Anonymous said...

Hi! (from the author)

I just want to say THANK YOU to Jessica and the commenters. I also feel pretty fortunate to have mine posted on here to get this invaluable feedback!

I'm going to go back and focus more on the Daria/Alex relationship and be more specific with the stakes. This part of writing has been the hardest for me--choosing which parts to emphasize (obviously!). And now I know which direction to go...thanks to you guys!

And Anon...I'll probably post the updated and (hopefully) clearer version on my blog. But I'm wondering how to do that and remain anonymous? Or should I not worry too much about that? Thanks for being so interested in seeing the changes!


Lehcarjt said...

This had a lot of interesting details, but as others have already mentioned, it needs to come together better as a cohesive whole. Sounds though, like you've got a strong story.

One thing I wanted to mention was that for most of the query, I thought the heroine lived on Gaia (because there is no Regius Dynasty on modern earth). Then later it seemed like she did live on earth. This was confusing to me.

Robena Grant said...

Thanks for submitting your query, anon. author, also thanks for the critique Jessica. These lessons are always helpful, and I look forward to them.
My only comments are to tighten the focus, make it about the two main characters (because it is first and foremost a romance) and then weave in your world building and your conflict. If you haven't done so already, try writing out your one sentence story idea (that original thought that made you want to write this particular story) and then expand upon that sentence.

Anonymous said...

Robena--that's a great idea! I do have my story question written down in a very, very safe place. :) If I stick to that, it seems all that 'story build-up' washes itself out. I'll keep that in mind during my re-write of plot essentials.

You guys are amazing. Thanks!

--The author

Anonymous said...

First, thank you for doing this and helping to demysitfy one of the hardest parts of being a writer.

My question is: Would you really mention your critique groups in a query letter? I mean, I belong to two active groups, but I've never put that in a query (not that my queries have been all that successful).

All-Stars said...

Dear Author-
Thank your for offering your query as a learning tool for the rest of us. That takes a lot of courage.

My main concern was your word count. 100k+ is pretty hefty for YA, 40k-80k generally is the norm. I'd be afraid that an agent would see the word count and think that you hadn't done any editing.

Are there scenes that can be deleted or condensed to tighten your story?

Melissa said...

Author, I personally love your premise! I loved the movie "Star Gate" and its subsequent t.v. derivatives. I see a really good story. But, as many have pointed out, the query doesn't address many relevant questions. Here are some that I found myself wondering:

Did your protagonist's father go missing because he knew her secret? Is that why he was overly protective?

Why are the sorcerers super-scared of your protagonist? What could happen to Gaia because of her connection to this portal?

What about crush boy? How is he important to your story? Is it up to him to save your protagonist?

I know that you don't want to tip your hand too much in your query, but this needs more actionable information and less back story and needless verbiage. Good luck!

Stephsco said...

Props to the author for putting himself or herself out there.

Something that has helped me in general with defining my own story is to write out a brief synoposis in the plainest language possible, like you are talking out loud to someone rather than writing. I find sometimes I am trying so hard to cleverly word things that it becomes overwritten. Personally, my favorite type of writing is the type that seems to disappear and allows the story to do all the talking. I think this can apply to a query as well. Sometimes less wordy is better; remove any cliche statements or things that might sound good but don't actually give much of a synopsis.

But regardless, nice work!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Wow, that is a pretty in-depth critique!Thanks so much for giving us your time and a glimpse into an agent's thinking process during a query read.

Anonymous said...

Author, maybe you could post it in Nathan Bransford's forums for critique? That way you could remain anonymous. We're all friendly over there, and you can update your post with newer versions of your query until both you and your critiquers are happy with it. :) I'll keep my eye out for it there in case you decide to go ahead and post it :)


Anonymous said...

Well, Anon, funny you should say that. I actually did post this in NB's forums--right after I submitted it here for query help (with all the submissions, I didn't think mine would be used!). I was appropriately beaten senseless, picked myself up from a gutter, and ended up with something much more coherent and specific ;) You're MORE than welcome to look for it there. And, if you do, let me know what you think please! I'm obviously open to criticism.

Oh, and All-stars. I'm pretty sure the word count goes up for fantasy. (to about 120K for some agents) I haven't seemed to have an issue with my word count. So far ;)

Thanks again Jessica and all of you commenters.This has been so incredibly helpful. I feel really fortunate to have had this opportunity!

Anonymous said...

Oh and Melissa--thanks! ..even though I left out all the essentials ;)

Nicole said...

I agree with Jessica and many of the other commenters. My one big issue was what Lehcarjt said - I didn't know if Daria was on Earth or on Gaia. I assumed Gaia, but as I continued reading, discovered I might be wrong. And that made no sense. Sort of got hung up on that for the rest of the review.

Anonymous said...

This thread might be dead, but I just wanted to add that 18 years old for the heroine might be a bit too old for YA. Maybe take her down a year or two?

Just a thought. I write YA and it's rare to see them any older than seventeen. There's a genre called New Adult, started by St. Martins publishers, that covers the older teens--from eighteen through early twenties.

Unknown said...

The purpose of the query is to entice the agent, but I don't really see a hook here. There's nothing that makes me think: "Wow I have to read this book I'm dying to find out what happens".

I was with All-Stars, I thought this book was 25,000-30,000 words too long. But maybe the WC rules are different for YA fantasy.

When you revise this, try to think of the query letter more like the back cover of a paperback novel. A stranger just walked into Borders and picked up your book. You have less than a page to convince him to buy it.

Elemarth said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the word count. Authors aren't supposed to give the exact word count! You can find out anywhere that we're supposed to round to the nearest thousand. This kind of indicates a lack of research for me. And 106,000 words is pretty long for a debut YA, even for fantasy. If I were querying this, I think I'd stretch the truth a bit and claim it's 100,000 words. Or I'd edit until I got it down there.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Actually I didn't mention the word count because I didn't care. I was more concerned with the story. The word count isn't so high that it's an issue and as for what authors "aren't supposed to do" you should know by now that I see the query "rules" as guidelines. There are no rules as to what an author is supposed to do or not supposed to do. Rounding a word count is not necessary.


BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Elizabeth Poole--

The best thing you can mention is if you're a part of a major writing organization like SFWA, RWA, MWA, etc. Don't go crazy. One thing is enough/plenty if it's all you have.


Sierra Gardner said...

I agree that the query was wordy without telling much about the story. One of my favorite techniques when editing a query is to have a trusted friend or fellow writer read the query. Don't have them edit it at first but see if they can tell you exactly what the story is about based on the query. If they can't then your query still needs work.