Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Query Critique: Spot the Plot

This blog post is dedicated to the fraternity brothers of Pi Kappa Alpha of Columbia University, who, when they heard that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was going to be speaking across from their frathouse, contemplated making a banner that read, "Heidi and Spencer are the real issue."

Although they did not actually make the banner and went with the more cerebral "Ahmadinejad is NOT a baller," I salute them nevertheless.

It's been a while since I've done a query critique, and I'd like to remind everyone that if I pass on your project and you would like to offer up your query for some anonymous and (hopefully) polite critiquing, please send a follow-up e-mail. Unfortunately I can't critique all queries, but if I feel it would be helpful to blog readers to do so I will, uh, do so.

And please remember to be exceedingly polite to the author in the comments section, or I shall enlist Pi Kappa Alpha to make a banner that mocks you, and trust me, you WILL feel shamed and humiliated. Or you'll be made President of Iran.

Without further ado, I will first print the query in its entirety and then respond with my comments:

---

When Emo-Goth teen Rhiannon Joy Vorhies is forced to move from the hustle-and-bustle of the city to her grandmother’s house in the countryside following her father’s death, she thinks her own life may well have come to an end.

She is angry, depressed, and not looking to make friends with a bunch of hicks—or with her grandmother’s God, either. Through counseling, letters to her father, and many prayers offered up by Gram, R.J. learns there’s more to life than just living in the darkness that has been consuming her. Just when R.J. thinks her life is over, she discovers she's been given a brand-new one. The 57,000 words of my often poignant, always quirky young adult novel JOY IN THE DARKNESS follow R.J.'s journey out of the darkness and into the light.

I am a former newspaper reporter and personal columnist with a local daily newspaper. During my five years at The Shelbyville News, I won a Hoosier State Press Association award for Best Profile Feature. Since that time, my personal pro-life testimony was published in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of At the Center; and my short story, “Lake Effect”, finished in the top 18 in the 2007 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.

I chose to submit this novel for your consideration after I saw Emily Conrad’s query letter for THE BOY IN THE BASEMENT on your very informative and amusing blog, to which I now subscribe. Conrad’s premise is similar to my writing in that it focuses on a grieving teen girl as she learns how Christianity fits into real life. Upon your request, I am prepared to send a partial or the complete manuscript.

Thank you in advance for your time and for considering representation of my work. I look forward to hearing from you.

---

This query gets off to a good start, and I think there's a great hook at the beginning -- Emo-Goth kid moving to the country after sad event. Good start. I also think the author handles the personalization well -- comparing their work in a positive way to something I liked. However, I'm afraid what made me ultimately decide to pass on this query was the second paragraph -- I just didn't get a sense of the plot.

One very tricky thing about writing queries is that because it's so difficult to distill a story into a few lines, it's tempting to resort to generalities and vague catch-alls in order to try and capture the story. But unfortunately, rather than giving a sense of the whole story, this has the opposite effect of making the story sound generic. So for instance, R.J. "learns that there's more to life than living in the darkness" and when she thinks her life is over "she discovers she's been given a brand-new one."

How does she do this? I suspect that's the really interesting part of the story, but the author doesn't highlight it apart from the counseling, letters and prayers, which doesn't really constitute a plot, and thus I'm only left with a sketch. When you combine the vagueness with some slightly awkward phrasing (I got stuck on "her grandmother's God" -- her grandmother has her own God?), I'm afraid the query just didn't end up standing out for me even though I really like the premise. With some more specificity and some more key details? Who knows, I might have felt differently.

It's so important to let some key specific details illustrate what you're leaving out.

Also, one final note: the author highlights a pro-life article in a journal, and while yes, this is a publishing credit, I would really try to avoid politics in your query when it doesn't have a direct bearing on your work, particularly on hot-button issues. Why give someone who disagrees with you a reason to hit the reject button? And this goes for liberals, conservatives, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Thanks very much to the author for sharing!






39 comments:

Anonymous said...

I pretty much ignore cover blurbs. I'd much rather have a look at a few pages to see how the work reads.

I suspect you may be missing some good books because you screen submissions based on these one-pagers.

Why not look at the first two pages along with the blurb?

Nathan Bransford said...

Anon-

I actually feel that a query is more revealing than two pages of a manuscript. It's nearly impossible to get a sense of a project from two pages, especially the first two.

I often receive queries with several pages attached, and I've truthfully never had a situation where I've read the query, thought "enh," and then looked at the sample pages and was hooked.

Queries that hook me and pages that hook me go hand in hand, and I feel very comfortable making a decision on just the query.

Jess said...

Anon, I suspect it has something to do with the amount of wasted paper and the quality of the writing. Many agents I've read about know within the first few paragraphs if they want to request material, and that goes for pages or a query letter. If the writing in the query is tight, there's a good chance the writing in the novel is tight, and if it's bad, so forth. Novel writing and query writing may be different skills, but I think that queries give an accurate enough indication of the potential of the novel.

It's not good enough to write a good novel, which would be what a bad query letter with nice pages would probably give you. You have to have a great novel, and I don't know that you could write a mediocre query lettter if the novel really is that spectacular. *ducks whatever vegetables she is certain are flying at her*

That, and, I agree with your comments on this particular query, Nathan, and I would encourage the author to examine her novel for what makes it stand out and highlight that in the revised query and keep shipping. It sounds like it could be a great novel, if I knew more about it.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

For all my Wannabe opinion is worth (and that would be bupkiss) I thought it was a fine query.

Goodness knows I've tried to shop considerably more flawed queries.

One point which jumped out at me(and this is an observation, not a criticism)is that as I read I felt as though the narrative was a perspective by which I was looking AT the protagonist, not THROUGH the protag.

I felt like I was getting the tour or Rhiannon's life perspective from Grandma, not Rhiannon.

Just my two cents (Three cents Canadian).

And... this is totally unfair...
are you married to the last name Vorhies? Not sure if you want to conjure up imagery of a famous movie monster in a religious conversion coming of age story.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

To start, I think this sounds like a really cool premise. But it did feel a bit dry to me. I think the voice is missing. I'd do something like this (sorry--bad habit of rewriting from Crapometer):

"Rhiannon's typical all-black attire fits in at her dad's funeral, but then she has to go live in the country with her God-freak grandmother. She doesn't mesh at all, with her grieving family or the kids at school. But, when X,Y, and Z happens, she finds out there's more to life than punk rock and black eyeliner, and that her grandma might not be such a freak after all."

Two quick points: no self-respecting teen refers to herself as a "teen." Also, where is the mom and the rest of the family? I wondered about those potential complications.

Sounds like a really good book. I bet you find someone. Good luck with it!

jjdebenedictis said...

Just my two cents (Three cents Canadian)

But wait! The dollars are at par for the first time since the sixties! (Or perhaps Canadians just appreciate the obsidian-sharp edge of Dwight's wit 50% more than Americans? That could be true.)

I think Nathan's correct that the specifics are what make someone care about a character (or a book), so a querier needs to put a few in, even if it means leaving other important parts of the novel out. Make the reader care or be intrigued by something in the book, even if space constraints then force you to give an incomplete snapshot of the novel in your query letter.

Luc2 said...

I thought it was pretty tight, and I needed Nathan's comments to find out it wasn't. good thing I'm no agent.

This part made me frown: The 57,000 words of my often poignant, always quirky young adult novel I understood that the automatic reaction of agents was "I'll judge if it's poignant and quirky, and how often." Is that true?

Nathan Bransford said...

luc2-

I think the part you quoted is just a tad bit purplish, but I don't have a problem with people given an expansive perspective toward the end on some of the qualities of the work as long as they've laid the groundwork by showing the plot.

Jeanne said...

I LOVE reading these query letter dissections. It helps me pinpoint areas in my own query letter to improve - especially this one since I've got a fish-out-of-water YA book making the rounds. Thanks Nathan and thanks to the letter-writer for sharing this with us.

amanda h said...

I, too, like the hook a lot.

Perhaps the writer could rewrite this:

Just when R.J. thinks her life is over, she discovers she's been given a brand-new one.

like this:
Just when R.J. thinks she'll never find anyone who understands her the way her father did, she meets XXX. Learning to trust herself, R.J. begins a journey to to find YYY.

Thanks Nathan (and writer) for sharing this with us. I'm working on my query and this helps a lot.

Linnea said...

First of all a big pat on the back for the brave author!
Maybe it's just me but the intro had me expecting a bumpy ride from city girl to country girl, told with humour. I guess I got an instant visual of the poor girl. The first line of the second paragraph continued that expectation but then it shifted to serious and vague and I lost interest. If the story is told with warmth and humour this should be reflected in the query. The author says the novel is 'quirky' and I'd love to see that quirkiness in the query. I agree that political hot buttons should be avoided although they might prove useful later on as a marketing tool geared to the right group.

Dave F. said...

I have no doubt that there is a market for this story.
Cynical goth city girl learns lessons about life and religion when she is forced to move to the country and live with her grandmother.

We need to know a little more about her journey both physically and mentally. We need to know what event changes her or what series of events change her.

Every so often, I watch the "heartwarming" movies on the Hallmark channel and that other cable channel. They are good and solid stories that deal with some character turning from the wrong way of life to the right way. It is the character's journey we are interested in. These stories have to tug at the heartstrings and perhaps bring a tear or two.

That's the emotion that missing from the query. Many, many people do not know how to deal with death and loss. Teens especially, do not know how to deal with death. Focus a sentence or two on your character's emotional development. If that means you only have a one-line bio paragraph, so be it. Your story will sell your story (as simple as that sounds).

Anonymous said...

I thought a query letter was suppose to generate interest, but not give the whole story. That, I thought, was what the synopsis did. I was told at a recent conference to write something that might appear on the jacket flap - a teaser for the book to get readers interested. So why do so many critiques of qreries (not just yours) state that the story is not fully described? I am confused by the conflicting information.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I think what people are trying to say is that it's impossible to try and condense every single aspect of your novel into a short query letter, but that you have to provide enough of a teaser for the agent to want to read more.

A query letter isn't a matter of just giving an agent a taste and waiting for them to want to read more, you have to provide enough of a sense that your story is something new and fresh for them to be intrigued.

In this instance, I just didn't feel that there was enough about the story to give me the sense that this is something new with a killer plot -- I'm not saying the author should have described the entire story with all of the ins and outs and the end, but there's really not much story/plot described here at all. Just a premise.

Heidi the Hick said...

It looks like a very interesting story...I'd love to know what the character's turning point event was!

Although I have to say I am ready to cringe at the part about not wanting to make friends with a bunch of hicks! We are SO MUCH FUN! We are QUIRKY!!

I hope the author keeps working on this letter. Having been through the Nathan Bransford Critique myself, I can tell you, it is helpful.

otherkatie said...

Thank you, Nathan, for these tips. Very helpful. Too much detail vs too vague is something I struggle with in query letters.

Dave F. said...

OMIGOSH!
Jeopardy has a category titled: THE HILLS
Jeopardy, my favorite show on all TV ever!

Helen said...

Dear Mr. Bransford,
Your critique of this query letter is superb. But I have a question about settings. In the letter you looked at we can imagine "city" and "country" without additional explanation, but what if a story is set on a planet of fire-eating worms, and this planet materializes in somebody's basement only at a certain hour, and so on and so forth, and all of this is essential to the plot. How much detail do you prefer?

Josephine Damian said...

Uh... Nathan? Did you just see McEwan did not win the Booker? Irish writer Anne Ennright won for "The Gathering."

*waves flag of Ireland*

I'm with you on the query: if they can't right a decent letter, they probably can't write a decent book.

That said, this writer sure did a lot better in the Lorian Hemingway contest than I did. :-(

And I gotta agree again with Nate about keeping the politics out of the letter. I read somewhere that an agent or editor (forget which) turned down a project because of the auhor's politics (did Elizabeth Hasselbeck shop a book?).

Luc2, I'm with you, I thought the phrase "The 57,000 words of my often poignant, always quirky young adult novel" was over the top.

Michael said...

Very informative. I had thought it was more important to capture the "mood" or "feeling" of the manuscript than to provide this sort of plot detail. What I'm coming to learn though is that query writing is akin to tight-rope walking, balancing various concerns against each other. On first read, I liked the query you offered, but I also see why you didn't like it.

Very helpful for future revisions of my own query...which brings up a question: is it ever proper to resubmit to an agent? Such as in the situation where you find you've made a major error in query construction leading to an (almost) inevitable rejection? For example, you say you think there could be a good story in the details left out of this query, would you have been interezted in a rewrite and resubmission?

Sophie W. said...

Unfortunately, the words "Emo-Goth" turned me off right away. I've never met a teenager who referred to himself as an 'emo-goth' even if they fit the stereotype.

Anonymous said...

I've heard from many editors that stories about kids who move to new places and hate it but then learn to love it are insta-cliche. I heard it because that's what my first book was about.

Danette Haworth said...

Thank you, brave author, for letting us all benefit from your critique.

SSAStarbucks--Wow! Great blurb--edgy and full of attitude!

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

I, too, would be interested in the answer to Helen 4:11's question.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Thanks, Danette. :)

Hopefully it gives the brave author an idea to help sell this book.

A Paperback Writer said...

I see your point, Nathan, but it looks like the book itself has hope.
However, just TRY saying "Emo-Goth teen Rhiannon Joy Vorhies" 3 times fast. I dare you.

Nathan Bransford said...

Helen @ 4:11-

If you have a very strange setting it's important to establish that, but again, it's so essential to find a way of establishing it with key, revealing details.

Laura said...

Writer, thank you for allowing us to learn from your query critique.

I am no expert, but I felt the opening hooked me and then middle sagged. I'm learning that query letters are like a sales pitch. Hit them hard, fast, and leave them wanting more. Now if only I can learn to do just that.

Nathan, this is a wonderful blog. I've been lurking here since the days of Miss Snark. Thank you for taking the time to do these critiques. They are a great help. Just yesterday, I looked at your past query critiques for some guidance in writing mine. I know it's should be short, sweet, and tantalizing. Ugh! That's a tall order, but I think I can, I think I can.

Anonymous said...

I think there wasn't enough specifics about the plot. (The set-up was great -- Goth girl forced to live with God-fearing grandma.) But the only thing that hints at the plot was "by seeing a counselor, prayer, and letters to her father she learns there's more to life than living in the dark."

Can this be more specific and thereby give indication of plot? Someting like, But when she steps into the offices of her hard as nails counselor, Dr. X, Goth Girl meets her match and is challenged to try X which leads to Y and maybe if she can X and Y, Z will follow.

I hope that made some sense.

Yannis said...

I thought the query had a nice form and sounded very professional. What bothered me was the use of a number of cliched phrases, such as "the hustle and bustle of the city"; "living in the darkness that has been consuming her"; "thinks her life is over"; "journey
out of the darkness and into the light."

As a result of this, it was hard for me to picture the novel as potentially quirky. I would try rewriting it to avoid over-familiar language, and infuse a bit more info about the specifics of the plot.

Lorelei said...

Agreed. I need more of a sense of events. Action the character takes in pursuit of some goal. Young readers (heck, all readers these days) are influenced by television and the movies. We want to know who does what to whom and why. A sense of atmosphere and emotion, no matter how well conveyed, won't grab many of us.

In the screenwriting game (yes, I creep forth from that Land of Evil) we have a little thing called the log line. It's a sentence or two we have to use to sum up the entire script. The basic format is this:

TITLE is a GENRE about a PROTAGONIST who must GOAL or the ANTAGONIST will COUNTER-GOAL, leading to MAJOR DISASTER.

It's not a formula novelists should cleave unto, but it does remind one that all the parts of the story should be kept in mind when describing the novel.

Redzilla said...

Hearing Enright describe her Booker-winning novel is also query food-for-thought. She said that it's the "intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepy." I couldn't help but wonder, is that how she queried it? I'm always afraid to liken my novel to anything, for fear it sounds pompous or ridiculous.

Melanie Avila said...

Thank you Nathan and Writer for this critique. I thought this query started off well but agree with the others about two lines that bothered me: the word count line and political reference. The latter especially turned me off but I'm glad it was there because it showed me how that could affect an agent.

Topher1961 said...

Nathan:

I'm working from home today, so luckily the state of Minnesota isn't blocking your dangerous material.

Question. I've read that it's often a good strategy to query agents who are just getting started. How do we find such animals?

Nathan Bransford said...

topher-

Excellent question. Yes, I think it's a very good idea to query agents who are just starting out and are very hungry for material, but truthfully I'm not too sure where you'd find them, other than the usual suspects like agent query, Publishers Marketplace and the AAR. It's one reason I started the blog -- so people would know where to find me!

I really don't know what I did to Minnesota. I even like Prince.

Isak said...

I'm guilty of generalizing to sum up a story in queries. It's hard to take a step back when your mind is in the narrative. (Maybe I should have someone ghostwrite my queries... hmm...)

Thank you to the Writer and Nathan for another lesson on querying.

amanda h said...

Lorelei-

Thanks for this:

TITLE is a GENRE about a PROTAGONIST who must GOAL or the ANTAGONIST will COUNTER-GOAL, leading to MAJOR DISASTER.

It's a good checklist for query info! (I realized I forgot the counter-goal and major disaster--back to the query rewrite!)

Lorelei said...

Glad you find it useful, Amanda. I find a lot of beginning screenwriters respond "but what if I don't really have an antagonist?"

To which I respond with a thoughtful sigh.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,


what is your advice for memoirs? Is there a way for me to send you my query to critique?


Tabjackson@gmail.com

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