Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, August 13, 2007

Query Critique: The Importance of Recognizing Your Selling Points

This is a momentous day. It is the culmination of months of anticipation, a time for which people all across this great land of America have been marking their calendars, setting their timers, and readying their homeboy phones.

Yes. The Hills is back tonight. I'm more excited than a publishing employee with a free bagel. Which is to say: astoudningly excited.

But enough about my obsession with scripted/unscripted/ah-who-the-heck-cares-isn't-Spencer-insane? reality television. Today another kind soul has offered up a query for critiquing. As always, please be astoundingly (yes, I have so far used that word twice and am not afraid to use it again) polite in your comments, or else I will say "Sweet, my answer is get out of my car" and delete your comment.

As always, I prefer to print the whole letter so you get a sense of the flow and then my comments are below. Here goes:

---

I decided to send you a query soon after discovering your blog. Thanks to you, I know not to start queries with rhetorical questions, to avoid evil albinos, and to always Google search an agent. I appreciate your fairness and work ethic, but I keep coming back for the funny. Plus you’ve got great hair, and call me shallow, but that counts for me.

As a kid growing up on a farm, I related best to stories set in the country. In my 95,000 word Young Adult Novel, TROUBLE WILL FIND US, a group of teenagers are growing up rural at a time when friends must wait to call each other on their rotary phones until the long distance rates go down in the evening.

For Jenny Hofstetter and Katie Kipfer, proving that they aren’t just two nice little Mennonite girls is the most important goal of the 1988/89 school year. They want to be more than the farmer’s daughter, or the accidental child of a repented black sheep mother. They’re going in with a plan, “unaffected with an edge of tough for unpredictability,” and to do that they’ll have to get some distance from their sheltered, church-going roots.

Quiet, sensitive Katie and her best friend, tiny volatile Jenny, are going to stand out from the crowd and surprise everybody who ever thought they knew them. Soon after Jenny starts going out with the most notorious bad boy around, Katie is swept off her feet by a new kid in town with a troubled past. It’s the perfect way to make jaws drop, teachers steam and parents tear their hair out. Everybody’s talking about them, exactly as planned.

But plans can fall apart. Katie’s boyfriend has some serious problems that she refuses to recognize, while Jenny, still heartbroken over the death of a friend two years earlier, begins a rapid emotional unravelling. All they want is to be cool, but when hanging around with the bad boys means crime and hard drugs, they realize that they are not prepared for it. Jenny and Katie wanted to change the way people thought of them, but couldn’t have guessed that by the end of the school year, everything will change.

When I was a teenager twenty years ago, I knew a few kids like these. Fortunately, I came out the other side relatively unscathed.

---

This query falls into the "fine" category that I discussed in the last query critique (summary for the link averse: fine is good, but not, I'm afraid, good enough). The query is just a tad long but is competently written, there seems to be a plot, and it's personalized and it's a blog reader (bonus points). It's all fine.

But here's the thing. Just like most of you all, I read a lot of books, I watch a lot of movies, I watch a lot of TV, I read the Internet... you get the idea. We live in an incredibly story-saturated age, to the point that we are all intimately and intensely familiar with archetypes and conventions. And most queries I receive fall squarely into a certain familiar archetype.

This isn't the kiss of death -- the coming of age archetype, for instance, has been the backbone of stories as disparate as Star Wars, The Graduate, and HARRY POTTER. Archetypes stick around for a reason -- we love them. But you must must must recognize when your work falls into an archetype. It is astoundingly important (told you I'd use it again). And then you must know what makes your take on that archetype unique.

So let's take a look at this query. Two girls decide to rebel while they're in high school and they flirt with danger before coming to some sort of new understanding of themselves. It's a very familiar plot.

But wait -- look deeper there is something different about these characters. They are Mennonites in rural America (or Canada, as the case my be, eh?), which has the makings of a very unique spin on a standard genre. How many coming of age novels feature rural Mennonites? I'm sure there are some, but with a conventional setup, that is what is going to make this story stand out -- the setting and an unfamiliar (to most people) religion.

It is sooo essential to know what is going to make your story stand out in the marketplace and to then make those selling points the centerpiece of your query. The author here made a stab at mentioning these elements, but I don't feel that they went far enough. The rotary telephone detail was a nice attempt, but that evokes a time period that most people experienced more than a specific time and a specific place. Details are crucial in queries because they have to connote so much in such a little space.

And then it was more or less mentioned in passing that the characters were Mennonite. I was reading reading reading, then thought, "Huh, that's interesting, they're Mennonite?," but then it never really reappeared. After a follow-up with the author I learned that she wanted to downplay the Mennonite angle because they are not the old-order Mennonites but rather new-order. Another great detail that could have been mentioned in the query! So you have a conflict here not only in that these are rural religious girls in a modern world but they are also departures from an older more traditional faith. Not quite modern but not quite traditional is a fascinating gray area that could really be mined for some good conflict.

And then the details of the plot and relationships that make up the rest of the query really could have happened anywhere. They aren't infused with the uniqueness of the setting, which they could have been if they were attached to details that convey that uniqueness. If your selling point is your setting, nearly every event you describe should build on that selling point.

After writing a whole book and thinking about it for so long it can be hard to see the selling point forest from the plot point trees. But you have to arm yourself with an ironclad sense of what makes your book different and then hammer it home in the query.






29 comments:

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

I'm squarely with Nathan on this one. It's fine. If the author were in one of my critique groups, I'd probably look forward to reading these pages.

The cringe-factor is non-existent.

But there's not a lot of "Wowsers!" there.

Both Jonathan Franzen and Charles Frazier have said in interviews that a good novel takes place at a specific time and in a specific place. The author has identified both of these.

But... (There's always somebody's big 'But') I smells a little bit like a middle reader/YA book. Or at least this sounds like one of the books my daughter would read. The digits 1988 are the kiss of death for tween interest. Might as well set it in a Regency.

I can see that glassy look of disinterest which falls over my daughter's eyes whenever My Beautiful Wife or I talk about our high school days.

Sorry. Other than that, Missus Lincoln, it sounded like a perfectly wonderful play.

Heidi the Hick said...

These critiques are very helpful! Astoundingly helpful!

This is a query for a YA book. I'm not sure about the kiss of death for young readers though. I know of at least three teenagers who are seriously into 70s and 80s metal. But there is a strong possibility that I know some odd kids.

Nathan, one question:
If the setting is what makes the story unique, is it better for the query to focus on that, rather than plot details?

Other than that...I'd think "fine" is at least a good starting point on the way to "wowzers!"

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

You know, the more I think about it, the more I think the story --as it's described -- would pitch better as a screenplay than a novel.

This probably makes me a hypocrite. I'd want to see the movie, but I wouldn't necessarily want to buy the book. Wasswidat? I dunno.

Logline: Mennonite teen angst: Witness meets Ghost World.

Nathan Bransford said...

Heidi-

Plot is still very important, but I think it's a matter of filtering your plot through the lens of the setting. For instance, we could learn in a query that Billy breaks up Sue, or we could learn that Billy brok up with Sue by painting a message on a water tower. The plot is happening in a specific place. Know what I mean?

Serenissima said...

"The digits 1988 are the kiss of death for tween interest. Might as well set it in a Regency."

I think blanket declarations such as this are heavy handed. If there's a good reason to set a book in the 60's, 70's or 80's, then it can work. For example, "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town" and "The Wednesday Wars" are wonderful 'tween books set during the Vietnam war. The war is an integral part of those stories. If an author can depict a unique setting that no longer exists or historical events, then I believe kids will be interested. (And humor trumps all: Just consider That 70's Show. And in the 70's, "Happy Days" set in the 50's, was a huge hit.)

The problem with the story in the query is that there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to set it in 1988, so the timeframe ends up being a strike against it.

Kimber An said...

What's 'The Hills' and who is Spencer?

I agree with your feedback on this one and I hope the author doesn't give up. My guess is she was just a little excited to launch this puppy into Queryland.

A little more patience, a few critiques, and reading a bazillion query letters on agents' blogs across cyber-space could really help.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

That's probably the best explanation of what shoves you over that fine line (pun intended, please stop groaning now). Yet... does that mean that a book without a neat detail such as new-order Mennonites is DOA?

Heidi the Hick said...

So, plot and setting have to work together in a case like this.

I learn so much from blogs.

Nathan Bransford said...

Susan-

Most books have selling points, whether it's the writing or the plot or the setting or the characters... something is going to set it apart. That varies from book to book, but they all have something.

It doesn't take a neat detail per se, but it has to have something unique or else it will be DOA. And I'd say 60-80% of the queries I receive are DOA for lack of uniqueness.

Heidi the Hick said...

Okay, hang on a second-

Dwight said:

"Logline: Mennonite teen angst: Witness meets Ghost World."

which I think is totally clever, but for one tiny detail that wouldn't make a difference to anybody who doesn't understand...The people in Witness were old order Amish. I know, picky, but things like that count for me.

bucketgirl said...

Is it just me, or is there a huge amount of loose, readable, engaging personality in the first paragraph which kind of dissolves into a cramped, dense, and dry letter?

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Okay, permit me to amend.

"1988 is the kiss of death for my tween's interest. Your mileage may vary."

And yes, I know there's a difference between Amish and Mennonites, but I was at a loss for a good pop culture touchpoint to Mennonites.

We need more comparative religions represented in media. Maybe that's a marketable idea; rewriting classics for niche religions.

Twelve Angry Mennonites

Jehovah's Witness for the Prosecution

The Magnificent Seventh Day Adventists.

Anonymous said...

I come back for the funny, too.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Oh, and by the way, in my meager defense...

Happy Days was a hit.
That Seventies Show was a hit.
China Beach was a hit.
M*A*S*H was a hit.
Band of Brothers was a hit.
The Waltons was a hit.

... That Eighties Show? 6 episodes.
... Freaks and Geeks? 9 episodes.

I lived my formative years through the Eighties, and trust me. That's a decade best forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Plesae delve into the Mennonite stuff more... I didn't know there was an old-order/new-order Mennonite split, or that there were Mennonites who were attending regular public high schools, and I would LOVE to know more about this and how it plays out for teenagers.

OK, maybe that's not the story you're trying to tell, but it's definitely the one that jumps out at me from your query as the one I'd like to read. Granted, I'm 32, not exactly your target YA audience, but I'd still read the book.

Good luck.

Janet said...

Mennonite coming-of-age novel? Am I the only one who thought of Miriam Toew's A Complicated Kindness? It did win the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, so it's not exactly an obscure work.

Heidi the Hick said...

I read A Complicated Kindness last year. I found the main character's voice to be absolutely perfect, and was just heartbroken at the way the story ended. It was excellently done, in my opinion.

However. That version of the denomination didn't resemble mine much. (There has been more than one split!!)

Another question for Nathan:

Are agents who don't represent Christian books hesitant to take on a book with religion in it? Am I totally barking up the wrong tree here????

My book is not about the religious aspect of the story- nobody has a big dramatic God moment- but it is something that forms the character's lives. It fuels their rebellion. I don't want to send it out there as a Christian or inspirational book that's not what it is. I'm pretty sure that market would NOT be happy with it!

You can see why I hesitated to emphasize the Mennonite angle.


(and yeah, for my fellow commentators, it was my query. I'm out.)

JDuncan said...

Heidi, I can see pretty clearly that this isn't an inspirational/christian story, so I wouldn't worry about that coming across in your query. You do have, as Nathan pointed out a fairly straight forward story of two teens trying to seperate themselves from the 'old' world and developing a seperate identity by rebelling and doing all of those things that fly in the face of what's considered normal and good. The Mennonite background though truly is what is going to make agents stop and say, 'hmmm, that's a bit different.' At least in my humble opinion it would.

Remember, your query is not there to lay out the whole story. It's there to entice the agent to want to request more pages. You say way to much here. Others have pointed out the year. Is there a reason other than your own familiarity for using the 80's as your backdrop? Was the struggle against growing up Mennonite and establishing a sense of self in a more modern world that much more poignant or compelling then? I don't know much about YA fiction other than my daughter loves to read stories of girls her age, struggling with issues she is familiar with. Her primary interest is books set in contemporary America. If you have really solid reasons for using the older time reference, then by all means use it. If not however, you may really think about updating the setting. Have the struggles of young women growing up Mennonite changed that much in the past twenty years? Something to think about anyway.

Also, there is little explicit depiction in your query of what the conflict in the story is. What exactly are the stakes involved with the trouble they get into? Is someone pressured into losing virginity (assuming this is a big no-no for a young Mennonite woman who isn't married). Is there potential drug addiction? school expulsion? physical injury? I'd like to see something in here about what the big conflict is for the girls. This could be a very well done story, but you need to really tighten this up and crank the tension up for what might happen to the girls through their rebellious actions. Don't just say 'they aren't prepared.' That's far too vague to generate interest.

Good luck with your story. There are hints that it could be good, but you can't afford to be subtle in a query.

JDuncan

original bran fan said...

Gosh, I really liked this query, and I think the reason that Nathan picked it to showcase is because it is so close to being "there" that he wanted to discuss it.

Just a guess, but I think that there would be even more conflict between the mennonite conservative and the modern world today than in the 1980's. Cell phones, WWW, etc makes the split between old and new even more dramatic. My favorite college writing teacher said, "If you have a choice between dramatic and non dramatic, always choose dramatic." Wise words.

It is pretty obvious that this isn't a religous book, even though it has religion in it. No worries there.

As for the sucking up in the first paragraph. Well done, but gee, it seemed to go on and on. Sucking up to agents is never wasted, but a little bit can go a long way.

Congrats on a well-written query. It is so close to being "there" that for another agent, it might already be "there." Query widely!

Josephine Damian said...

Bucketgirl, I'm with you. Loved that opening so much I was tempted to copy and save it, and use it later for all my queries! If only all the agents I queried were funny and had great hair like Nathan :-)

If only this person could apply the same skills to the entire query as they did to the opening, maybe Nathan would have been more positive.

And Nathan, shame on you! Now I'm gonna go around saying, "Sweet, my answer is....." all day! lol I'll have to look for that show tonight.

AG said...

Thanks for the feedback and the critique, this helps a lot with my own pitch letter.

Marti said...

I love the funny (and the hair) too - LOL

This query did start better than it finished. I couldn't really put my finger on what bothered me about it before reading the comments here. I thank you, Nathan, and everyone who leaves comments - all together it helps me understand more about the craft of writing bot the novel and the query.

Gerri said...

Dwight:

Too late. The SDAs already have way too many books like that.

Isak said...

So, how is it that after sometimes years of working on a book you dig out those key selling points when you've been buried in the bulk of the material?

Regan said...

Nathan,

In cases such as these, are you turned off if the author tells (rather than shows) you how his/her novel is unusual for its genre? Does the summary have to make it clear, or could you say, for example, "My novel is unusual for a [genre] novel because [there are lots of unique aspects to it]"?

Thanks!

Nathan Bransford said...

Regan-

Yes, it's definitely better to show how it's unique rather than stating it explicitly.

getitwritten_guy said...

Nathan:
I really like this post. Your comments about not being able to see the selling point forest for the plot point trees is great. But it brings up a question.

If I've done some research, and I think that my novel has one or more features that give it some different or (to my mind) advantageous place in the market, can I let an agent know this without sounding incredibly stupid?

I've researched the subject matter of my WIP- - now only a few chapters from completion- - and it's been over twenty years since anything similar has been published that I've been able to confirm. I'd like to let a prospective agent know that I've done my homework, but I'm not sure if information like that belongs in the query letter. I think the plot and main character are compelling enough to elicit requests for partials. I'd like to reserve the "I've done my homework" part for a follow-up to accompany a partial.

Any advice?

Nathan Bransford said...

getitwritten_guy:

I think it's preferable to show the agent that it's different rather than telling them why it's different, but you could briefly, in one sentence toward the end emphasize why you think your novel will stand out. But the best route is to let the agent figure that out on their own.

I'm actually going to post more about this next week in connection with Kristin Nelson's recent postings. So we can talk more about it then.

getitwritten said...

Thanks!!

I'll be watching for your post.

_guy

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