Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, January 26, 2009

Query Critiques

Thanks so much to everyone who offered up their query for critique. As always, if you want to discuss the queries in the comments section, please be polite as if your life depended on it. Because it does.

I'll reprint the queries in their entirety and then write my comments below each one.

#1.
I wrote the second draft of my query to you this weekend—your timing couldn't be better. See below (and note that the formatting got cut out):

January 26, 2009

(Sent via e-mail)

Dear Mr. Bransford:

Anders Davis and Shannon Niles, two University of Washington student reporters for The Daily, decide to explore the Greek System following what appears to be a rape at a fraternity house. Over the course of their investigation, the two become so enraptured with the object of their study that they become increasingly implicated in the events and crimes they are supposed to be covering.

I learned about you through your blog and am writing to offer A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night, an 80,000-word novel, largely because of it. One post in particular stands out, in which you wrote, “Around the publishing industry there has long been a hankering for a certain type of book that is both literary and yet commercial, familiar and yet exotic, well-written but not too dense, accessible but with some depth. They are books that are kind of tough to categorize, because they don't exactly fit into any one genre. I'd often hear people calling them either literary commercial fiction or commercial literary fiction.” I like to think that A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night fits the hybrid category you describe: it’s fueled by a powerful plot but is also concerned with language and expression, especially because its protagonists are self-aware writers.

The title refers a couplet from the Donne poem “Loves Alchymie:” “So, lovers dreame a rich and long delight / But get a winter-seeming summers night.” The couplet implies that what one so ardently seeks might, once it is acquired, seem quite different than how it is anticipated, and in that respect reflects the novel’s arc.

By way of background, I began the Ph.D. in English Literature program at the University of Arizona this fall, and I graduated from Clark University in 2006, where I earned a B.A., Magna Cum Laude, in English, with a specialization in creative writing. In addition, I write an independent literary blog, “The Story’s Story,” at http://jseliger.wordpress.com, as well as “Grant Writing Confidential” with my father, Isaac, at http://blog.seliger.com. Although I have never been a fraternity member, A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night draws on more than a dozen interviews conducted with current and former members as well as numerous books and articles about Greek life.

Thank you in advance for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Jake Seliger


First off, I don't know what formatting got cut out in the transfer, but you're lucky it did. This is precisely how a query letter should be formatted! Forget indents, forget centering..... just a single-spaced letter with two spaces between paragraphs. So good work on that.

I'm afraid, however, that this query demonstrates one very, very common foible: very little of the query is actually about the work itself. Particularly for a novel, this is a grave error. There's a paragraph about me, a paragraph about the title, and a paragraph about background. The amount devoted to the actual novel: 64 words. That's not enough.

I don't really need to know where the title comes from, don't really need to know so much background unless it's directly pertinent, don't really need to know the inspiration that led to the novel, and while I very much appreciate that one of my blog posts resonated, I don't need to see it quoted back: I remember it. Just a reference is ok.

What IS described here.... it sounds like an interesting premise, but I'm afraid I feel it's described somewhat awkwardly. How do two people, male and female, investigating a rape become implicated in the crime? I guess that's the plot, but I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.


#2:
Attn: Mr. Bransford,

Gil Jacobs must die in order to save his soul. After living dozens of lives over hundreds of years, the events of Gil's past are catching up with him, and he is powerless to prevent it.

Gil is supposed to die in a car crash, it's his fate, but a ghost who knew Gil in a past life is trying to keep him alive as payback for a lost love. If Gil lives past today, he will not be able to cross over when death eventually claims him, and his soul will be ripe for the taking. If Gil dies, he will escape to his next life and the ghost's chance at vengeance will be lost.

Fortunately, Gil is not alone in his struggle. The soul of a friend watches over him, and she alone has the capacity to keep the antagonist at bay long enough for Gil to die. Even if it means sacrificing her own soul.

FATE'S GUARDIAN is complete at 120,000 words. It is a supernatural thriller directed toward a commercial fiction audience, and first in a series titled DESTINY'S WILL.

I have been writing professionally for the past eight years, although admittedly not in my preferred style or market. I welcome the opportunity to embark on a career as a novelist. Writing is in my blood and I want my stories to be read.

I am a longtime reader of your blog, and I chose to query you because I trust that you have the talent and contacts needed to sell FATE'S GUARDIAN to a respected publisher. I also think that we could work well together, after all, people do business with people.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Regards,
Rick Daley


This query is fine. It's structured well, it's not too long and not too short, and I think the opening sentence is evocative.

But I'm afraid that while I think there's an interesting idea here, I found the setup confusingly described. Take just this one sentence: "Gil is supposed to die in a car crash, it's his fate, but..." This sentence could be very easily rewritten as "It is Gil's fate to die in a car crash, but...", which would be more readily comprehensible because it doesn't have a repetitive interjection.

I also came away from the second paragraph thinking, wait, why does this ghost want payback over some other ghost, how did vengeance get in here, and what does this have to do with Gil? The first ghost's relationship to Gil seems kind of crucial, no? Or is this two stories, and the only relationship that matters is between the ghost and the other ghost? And then there's a third benevolent ghost, but does Gil know this person is trying to help him by killing him? And most importantly: how does Gil feel about all of this?

Ultimately, I just didn't get enough of a sense of the "quest" of this novel. Is Gil just a pawn or does he have control over his fate? If Gil's the protagonist, what is he trying to accomplish?

I also am not a fan of things like "people do business with people" and "writing is in my blood." They're cliches, and even if they don't relate directly to the work itself, remember: Avoid cliches like the plague.


#3.
The Realm of Elin might look like 18th century anywhere, but it isn’t. Not even close. It’s the world where Joanna Messina wakes up, after she drowns herself. At least, that’s where Ruarc Trevelian, the man who saved her life and calls himself the king of wherever she’s landed, tells her she is. She thinks she’s delusional and hearing Ruarc describe visions that he’s had of her since she was five years old only confirms that assumption to her. Joanna tries as best she can to cope with being the honored guest of a king that rules over a land of wizards and feuding barons, some of whom would like nothing better than to see Ruarc abdicate and are on the verge of rebellion, and then, of the blue, Ruarc forces her to marry him. Since she’s less than thrilled at the idea, he agrees to keep it a marriage in name only, until she decides otherwise. But that turns out to take much longer than Ruarc ever imagines. Joanna doesn’t want to be a wife or, even more inconceivably, a queen. She wants to go home, especially after she begins having prophetic visions, herself, one of which is of her own death.
As Joanna’s new crown teeters very ineptly upon her head, Ruarc’s long dead cousin, Asric, returns to Elin, hell-bent on revenge for his own execution. To settle the score, he strikes at the two things Ruarc loves most and has sworn to protect. The kingdom he rules and his wife.

Thanks,
FAS


I'd like to take this opportunity to plug the following resources on this very blog:

The basic query letter formula

Anatomy of a Good Query Letter I
Anatomy of a Good Query Letter II
And please don't forget about the FAQs.

Thanks again to the brave authors who volunteered their queries!






64 comments:

Anonymous said...

Although there are a myriad of problems with the third query, the premise sounds like it could be interesting with a lot of clean up and help. My first suggestion would be to start with "18th century anywhere". What does that mean? Because 18th century Japan looked A WHOLE lot different than 18th century England (not to mention China, India, etc).

Anonymous said...

Query 3 suggestions:

The Realm of Elin might look like 18th century anywhere, but it isn’t.
18th century where?

Not even close. It’s the world where Joanna Messina wakes up, after she drowns herself.
So she's attempted suicide? Why?

At least, that’s where Ruarc Trevelian, the man who saved her life and calls himself the king of wherever she’s landed, tells her she is.
Sentence is too long and complex. Reword.

She thinks she’s delusional and hearing Ruarc describe visions that he’s had of her since she was five years old only confirms that assumption to her.
Sentence is too long and complex. It would be better if it started, "After hearing Ruarc..."

Joanna tries as best she can to cope with being the honored guest of a king that rules over a land of wizards and feuding barons,
Isn't being an honored guest a good thing? Why would she have to "cope"?

some of whom would like nothing better than to see Ruarc abdicate
Really? Why?

and are on the verge of rebellion, and then, of the blue, Ruarc forces her to marry him.
Major run-on. "Out of the blue" is cliche. Remind us who "her" is. And why does he do this? How?

Since she’s less than thrilled at the idea, he agrees to keep it a marriage in name only, until she decides otherwise.
Huh? Is he a good guy now?

But that turns out to take much longer than Ruarc ever imagines. Joanna doesn’t want to be a wife or, even more inconceivably, a queen. She wants to go home,
I thought she wanted to die after trying to drown herself. She's changed her mind?

especially after she begins having prophetic visions, herself, one of which is of her own death.
What is "herself" doing in the middle of the sentence? Reword.

As Joanna’s new crown teeters very ineptly upon her head,
"Ineptly" is the wrong choice of word here.

Ruarc’s long dead cousin, Asric, returns to Elin, hell-bent on revenge for his own execution.
Is Asric a ghost? Otherwise, how can he get revenge for his own execution?

To settle the score, he strikes at the two things Ruarc loves most and has sworn to protect.
2 cliches in one sentence.

The kingdom he rules and his wife.
After all of this is done, I still don't have a sense of unique voice from this query. All it does is make the reader wonder whether the novel itself will be this complicated to read and full of cliches. With some work, this can be fixed, but it will take some serious (to add to the cliches) elbow grease!

wickerman said...

Thanks to the brave souls who offered up their queries for our education.

I must say, the second query kinda intrigued me! Too bad I'm not an agent!

ryan field said...

#2 sounds interesting.

Scott said...

Brave souls indeed. Well done to each for putting yourselves out there and hopefully getting some valuable feedback.

Reading them has also enlightened me to my own query style. I tend to not be as loose, always fearing I've caught an agent on their worst day; in fact, assuming as much. I'm in and out with the info as pithily as possible, hoping the idea itself teases rather than my method of expressing it. One sentence to start, three for the synopsis, a few small bio touches at the end. Thangyooverymuch.

Best of luck to all.

Anita said...

I think Rick's query has potential---just needs a little cleaning up.

Anonymous said...

thank you ALL for sharing your work. ...and thank you Nathan for your insight.

Cadence said...

Thanks to those who submitted their queries. Very brave.

One thing common to all three of these queries is they all start off with the pitch. No: "Hi, how are you?" No: "I read your blog every day." Not even: "Here's my pitch:" It struck me as abrupt.

Nathan, do you find it so? Does it matter?

Nathan Bransford said...

cadence-

I prefer when people personalize in the first paragraph because it's a good alert that the query is probably going to be better, but provided that it doesn't begin like just about every other query: "I'm writing to you in the hopes that you will represent my xx word novel, TITLE. I'm a reader of your blog, etc. etc."

So personalization, yes, but provided it is something original.

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks to all the brave people who submitted their queries. I find it very helpful to read query reviews. I seem to have busy days and check in here late every time submissions are limited to the first three. Aaaaargh... Oh well, I'm looking forward to learning from those submitted.

Scott said...

Heh, Nathan, how's a writer to know what's original? I'm guessing you read thousands of letters a year and have seen it all, so I can certainly see where you'd want something new. But isn't that a little too inside for most writers? Sheesh, I'm trying to make sure I don't put a foot wrong most of the time. :)

There are only so many ways to get the required info across, and so many agent requirements, I find anyway (with the obvious exception of yours), convey a begrudging sentiment to having to read a query to start. "Be BRIEF!" they say, "just tell me this and this and that and get on with it, man!" Most of the time I'm afraid I'm going to change it up a little and come off looking like a rank amateur.

An agency I recently queried have something interesting going: they have you upload the letter, a synop and sample pages but then you fill out a very short questionnaire that tells them a little about you. They even ask what your favorite sentence is in the work! Pretty cool, I thought.

Okay, sorry to go on, and I'm sure you mean original in a subtle way, but in my business (marketing) creatives are always given a very short leash because we understand that there's a fine line between clever and crazy, and you never know what kind of personality is making the decisions. Better to err conservatively in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Where's the third critique?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

The links comprised the critique.

Scott-

I realize it's hard to see what could be construed as unoriginal without seeing my inbox every day. The only real thing I'd suggest that people avoid is the opening: "I'm writing to inquire about my xxx word novel of literary fiction, TITLE. Thanks for your blog etc. etc."

You're really only saving me from boredom though, so I'm asking out of selfishness.

Kristie said...

Nathan, I have a quick question. When an agency says to send "the first 50 pages (approximately) of your manuscript", should it be double-spaced or single-spaced? It is a trivial question, but a question that has me perplexed nonetheless.
Thank you,
KWDamon

Crimogenic said...

First one, I would like to know a bit more about the story.

I like the second one a lot and would totally pick up the book. The query needs work, but it's fixable.

Third one, the story idea isn't presented clearly and could stand some major revising. Author, we've all been there, and some of us are still there. Keep at it.

Best of luck to all three authors!

Nathan Bransford said...

Kristie-

There's a link in the "essentials" about how to format your manuscript.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nathan -

When you come across a query, which is more important? Writing or storyline? That is, in the case where queries don't have both, do you find yourself choosing to explore ones with stronger writing, but mediocre (sounding) plots or vice-versa?

Ultimately, I guess I'm asking if good/fresh ideas or good writing is harder to find?

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is something I've always heard. You're a writer until you get published, then you become an author. Is that true?

Nathan Bransford said...

bane-

They need both.

Nathan Bransford said...

ok guys, gotta stop the questions there. The reason I am having the questions thread tomorrow is that I've been too busy to answer questions. Please stick around though, and I'll get to the first five responses to my post tomorrow. Thanks.

Bane of Anubis said...

Thanks, chief.

David Quigg said...

Big thanks for sharing your queries. Both #2 and #3 got me thinking.

Much of the magic of novels like the ones described in those two queries is the strangeness of the worlds that readers get to visit. Since our normal rules don't govern these worlds, we -- as readers -- spend a fair amount of time being confused. If the writer seems to be in command, the confusion is pleasant, intriguing. If the writing seems haphazard, the confusion grates.

These queries show just how hard it is to achieve pleasant confusion in the space of so few sentences.

I'm new to this blog. So I need to poke around and see if Nathan has addressed this issue elsewhere. If not, maybe he can weigh in on this question: In queries, is it best to revise and revise and revise until you (hopefully) achieve that pleasant confusion or should you just keep it simple and accept that "spoilers" are needed to ensure that the agent understands your story?

abc said...

Thanks for the query critiques. These help immensely! It was a relief to know I could pick the problems. And thank you, writers, for willing to be critiqued. Gold stars for courage! And for imagination, too.

Rick Daley said...

Nathan,

Thank you for taking the time to critique my query (#2), your insight is helpful. I can answer a few of your questions directly. I am re-writing the query to try to incorporate your feedback, but in the interest of time, here goes:

“Why does this ghost want payback over some other ghost, how did vengeance get in here, and what does this have to do with Gil?”

Gil and the ghost knew each other long ago, in a past life. The payback/vengeance is over a lost love.

“The first ghost's relationship to Gil seems kind of crucial, no? Or is this two stories, and the only relationship that matters is between the ghost and the other ghost?”

the relationship is crucial, but it plays out with an element of mystery. There are two stories at play, the past life that Gil and the ghost shared, and the present life. The connections are revealed in the climax / denouement.

"And then there's a third benevolent ghost, but does Gil know this person is trying to help him by killing him? And most importantly: how does Gil feel about all of this?"

Gil is unaware of his fate and of the fight going on around him. He chose his fate before he was born into this life. Now that he is alive, fate guides his thoughts and actions, but it is locked away in his subconscious.

The benevolent soul is the ghost of a friend whose death Gil witnessed as a child (she was killed by her father). When she died, the ghost trapped her soul before she could cross over. She is alone and confused, and she clings to the one positive memory of her life: Gil. She is fate’s guardian.

"Ultimately, I just didn't get enough of a sense of the "quest" of this novel. Is Gil just a pawn or does he have control over his fate? If Gil's the protagonist, what is he trying to accomplish?"

Gil is a catalyst for the action; it is all centered around him, and the novel follow him from birth to death. The ghost does not remember its past life, which was hundreds of years ago. When the ghost first encounters Gil when he is seven, fragmented memories begin to surface, enough to reveal past tragedy and pain, but without the clarity to understand what caused it. The once thing it is certain of is that Gil was involved.

As I try to fit these explanations into the query, it gets bloated. My hope is to raise enough interest for a request for a synopsis and partial.

Nathan Bransford said...

Fred-

I'm afraid I still don't think I understand the heart of the story. Can you try and describe it in one sentence?

Merry Monteleone said...

I thought the pitch on the first one sounded really intriguing and I wanted to know more about it... but then you lost me with all of the info about Nathan, the author, the title... I think, though, if you stucture your query around your pitch and get more specific, it could be a real winner.

The second one, I liked the idea, but I got a little confused on what happens if he doesn't die... is there another life then or does that mean he won't get another life? It's hard to figure out the consequence when it's a world where there are ghosts because you're not sure exactly what redemption means here.

I think if it's ironed out and very specific, it could be interesting.

The third one needs a very careful edit. There were run on sentences and misused words and you really want to pinpoint exactly what you're trying to get across in a pitch.

I like the idea of someone attempting suicide and waking in a different world, and I think the story of a modern day woman becoming a queen can be really compelling - so I think you have some good stuff to work with here.

Good luck to all the queriers - it's a brave thing to post them for everyone! I hope you find the feedback helpful, I always love these critique posts because I learn so much.

reader said...

Fred -- to try and boil it down into one sentence, click onto the first link "basic query letter formula" listed below Query #3.

Plug your pertinent elements in there and play around until they make sense. It's very hard to boil down a book into a few sentences, but this will give you a really great start.

Rick Daley said...

Nathan,

Who's Fred...Did you mean Rick?

If so, here's my go at a single sentence explanation (and don't worry about the Fred thing, I've been called much worse):

Three souls that knew each other in past lives meet again after hundreds of years, rekindling forgotten memories and triggering a fight for one man's soul.

Nathan Bransford said...

Rick-

Sorry about that, I was e-mailing a Fred at the time and got mixed up. In fact, I probably called him Rick.

I think that sentence is a better stab at summarizing the work, and I'd try and build around it. I understand that you have a complex plot and that it's very difficult to get everything in there so it makes perfect sense. The trick there isn't to try and cram in every plot element, but rather to pare back the plot to its most essential elements. That's why I asked you to write it in just one sentence -- it forces you to pare back to only the essentials.

So yeah -- I'd build around this centuries-long battle that is centering on whether one man lives or dies, not so much on the ins and outs of how and why that is happening. Once you have that comprehensible starting place it's easier to then describe what's at stake for the main characters.

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

the 1st query letter-- I would avoid addressing the letter PERSONALLY to Nathan, because after all, you don't want to sound like a brown noser, and I've read that it's a turn-off for many agents.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

This'll be long cuz I really like queries and writing them and critting them--just a warning.


My concern with the first is that there are a lot of people who are/were in the Greek system at colleges, myself being one of them. That kills readership because this feels a bit like an opportunity for Greek bashing to me. You mention research into the Greek system, but somehow the plot description didn't quite reflect it. National fraternities and sororities often run like well-oiled corporate machines. In the event of crisis (death or rape or other crime) a host of knowledgeable, paid folks sweep in from National to handle damage control. Having witnessed a couple of similar situations while at in college, the idea that two college reporters could get very close to the situation doesn't really ring true to me. (You could make it a stand-alone, local house, but in that case, something like a rape allegation could close it down pretty quickly.)

That said, I think the folks from National could provide wonderful obstacles and warrant a mention in the query if they exist.

The second one: Are we talking regular old reincarnation or is Gil something else? I think a few juicy details would serve this well, like "In a past life, Gil Jacobs left Anna at the altar, pregnant and disgraced. She carried that grudge through two more lives, and now she's ready to exact her revenge." That's rough, but you get my meaning. We know the stakes (lost soul) but knowing why she's so mad could make this very compelling--it ups the odds to know how and why the enemy is so determined. I think the biggest mistake folks make in queries (IMHO) is being too vague when details often spark interest.

The third:

Whose story is this--Joanna's or Ruarc's? For query purposes, either lump them together or focus on one.

You have a lot of folks who die but don't actually die. That confused me.

I think this might benefit from my personal formula:

Hook line.
Reaction/obstacle one
Reaction/bigger obstacle
Hero(ine) is determined because of X and Y stakes.
Finish on a MAJOR obstacle.

When Joanna tries to drown herself after (some horrible event), King Ruarc of Elin saves her, not only ruining a perfectly good suicide, but stealing her away from the only home she's ever known. She'd like to believe the whole thing is a delusion, but when (something happens that makes her really believe) the nightmare becomes all too real. To stop Elin's feuding wizards and barons from forcing Ruarc to abdicate, she agrees to marry him. After all, he's pretty handsome and she owes him for saving her life. (Here, add in a compelling reason for why she's the rightful queen and defender of Elin--maybe she starts them on the road to peace or something--you know your plot.) She could even be happy in Elin.

But when Ruarc's cousin appears after his own botched execution, hell-bent on revenge, she realizes she's the only one who can save her husband, and their people.


Again, really rough, but I tried to pick out plot elements that show it moving forward, compelling Joanna to fight ever-increasing odds.

Gee, guys, you sure are brave for putting your work out there. In their way, each story sounds pretty cool. Hope this helps!!


And Nathan, you're a prince among agents for doing this. :)

David Quigg said...

For anyone who's curious, my belated visit to Nathan's FAQs revealed that he has essentially answered the question I posed in my earlier comment. Check out Nathan's 11/13/07 post called "Spoiler Alert: Don't Worry About Spilling the Ending."

http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2007/11/spoiler-alert-dont-worry-about-spilling.html

Nathan's key words on the topic:

* "By the time I shop around a manuscript I've probably read it at least three or four times, sometimes more. I'm not going to be surprised every time, and I have to be able to see a work 'fresh' even if I've read it before. It's a strange process where I basically dislocate my brain and think, 'Even though I read this before, would this surprise me if I had read it the first time?'"

* "So when an agent asks you for a synopsis: spill the ending. If they don't want to hear the ending they won't read it. Don't sweat that part. Instead, in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, MAKE IT WORK."

Apologies for posting my question without checking the FAQ. I'm enjoying this blog and I got ahead of myself.

Adaora A. said...

I love when it's that time of year for query critiques again. This is very generously given advice that I will take to heart.

Alexa said...

This has been so interesting. Well done to the three who submitted, very brave! I thought all your stories sounded interesting, especially the first because I'm intrigued by the Greek system (we don't have it in the UK).

Thanks Nathan as ever I learned a lot.

Samuel said...

Wow - well done, everyone. Very brave of anyone to put their work up for public criticism. I'm just glad we don't have a query culture over here in dear old blighty.

Samuel said...

Alexa - snap!

Interestingly, I liked the first too. The college/Greek thing reminded me of Tartt's The Secret History.

Rick Daley said...

Sex Scenes At Starbucks:

Query #2: It's reincarnation, but there's a caveat to it: before a soul begins a life, it gets to choose its fate.

Think of it this way...Before you are born, you plot out your life - who your parents will be, if/who you will marry, when and how you will die.

Once you are born, those choices are locked away in your subconscious. They guide you through your life, but you are unaware of them, and you cannot change them. They are your destiny, but it is a destiny you
chose of your own free will.

For your first life, you would probably choose something easy. You would be rich, good looking, live long and prosper...

But after a dozen lives you may be willing to shake it up a bit. You may choose to face greater challenges, such as a physical impairment, or a tragic death, or an endless series of rejection letters.

After all, when you make these choices, you know for certain
that your spirit will be released and you'll get to do it all over
again. This is the premise behind the planned series, DESTINY'S WILL.

Of course this is WAY too much to put into the query letter, but it's a great plot device. It gives me a nearly endless supply of characters through past and present lives.

Jake Seliger said...

What IS described here.... it sounds like an interesting premise, but I'm afraid I feel it's described somewhat awkwardly. How do two people, male and female, investigating a rape become implicated in the crime? I guess that's the plot, but I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.


This actually brings up a question I've been pondering: in describing a plot in a query letter, should give the structure as it happens in the novel's chronology, or as the novel is structured?

AWSSN takes place over the course of an academic year. The first chapter takes place around its midpoint, in December, and the second chapter leaps backward in time to September and then moves forward from there and eventually past the scenes described in the first chapter.

So do I begin by saying "In September, Anders and Shannon blah blah blah," and risk an agent seeing Chapter 1 and being confused, or do I begin by saying "In chapter 1, this happens, then the narrative moves back to August and forward from there..." and risk being caught up in the story's minutia rather than its overall drive?

In any event, thanks for your comments so far.

7-iron said...

Hi Jake, for the record, I think it's an interesting idea for a story. I think, though, that "explaining away" in the query is exactly what agents don't want to see.

Not sure what my advice is worth to you, but as a suggestion leave out the logistics of the structure and stick to the story:

"they get wrapped up in their investigation because..."

after all, story is cause and effect at its roots.

Newbee said...

Nathan,

This is what I'm getting from your post today. I hope that I'm right.

1. You want a query that creates a personalness to the begining. Something that sets the writer up as someone whom you would want to work with. (Both professionally, and personally)

2. Nothing too long, but effectivly speaks to you about the book as well as stats of it. What makes this book different?

3. Who I am. Why you want me as a client and if I have a background as a writer.

General rules...Write without using words that are unneeded and be clear about what you want to say.

Am I getting it? I hope so! Because I have spent the whole last month trying to figure out all of this. Now, all I need is to finish writing my book. (Like that's an easy task!) Hahaha....

Jen

Anonymous said...

Query #1:

"...Over the course of their investigation, the two become so enraptured with the object of their study that they become increasingly implicated in the events and crimes they are supposed to be covering..."

This needs to be fleshed out. As is it's so general and cliche sounding it's hard to tell what you mean. HOW does being "enraptured with the object of their study" MAKE them seem as if they are guilty? Be specific.

Something like, "So caught up in the investigation, they unwittingly misplace their student IDs at the scene of the crime. Now pegged as suspects by the local police...

And then, what happens? Are they chased down by cops? Do they have to find the killer before they are arrested for the crime? What are the clues? Who is the villain? A Police Chief? A fellow student who comitted the crime, but is setting up evidence to make it look like they did?

BarbS. said...

Ah, another masterclass--and I missed it while it was "live" (erg)...

Good stuff, Nathan. Thanks!

And huge thanks to the seriously brave folks who put themselves on the line (applause)!

Lucy said...

To FAS on #3:

I found your plot and characters intriguing (Joanna sounds as if she could be delightful), and really enjoyed some of the phrasing, especially in the way you convey Joanna's discomfort with being a queen (paragraph #2). Also, I don't think it a bad thing to leave Ruarc in an ambiguous role if that's part of your suspense. I can see this book eventually finding a good home with an agent specializing in genre romance.

That said: It wouldn't hurt to tighten up your first paragraph a little. While some of the middle details may be critical plot points, they aren't particularly necessary to a query. I think that the following section could be removed without harming your query in any way:

"She thinks she’s delusional and hearing Ruarc describe visions that he’s had of her since she was five years old only confirms that assumption to her. Joanna tries as best she can to cope with being the honored guest of a king that rules over a land of wizards and feuding barons, some of whom would like nothing better than to see Ruarc abdicate and are on the verge of rebellion,"

By going from your opening lines directly to the forced marriage, you'll be keeping on target with the central conflict of the book.

I'm also going to nitpick, just a little :-), and suggest that Joanna's visions of her own death may belong in the synopsis, rather than the query. Otherwise, reading what you've written, I find myself getting sidetracked with the secondary conflict.

Yes, there are some surface polishing issues here, but I don't find them as serious as other writers may. You might want to work with a good critique group, or find some experienced beta readers who can help you detect the moments when your phrasing or grammar slips into awkwardness; but most of us, if not all, would benefit from doing the same. And of course, next time I'm sure you'll put your full query up for comment, and not just your pitch paragraphs.

This may seem like a lengthy response, but I wouldn't be commenting if your pitch hadn't caught my interest. Thanks for putting your material up for comment! Good luck! :-)

Anonymous said...

In a query, how do you describe that your book has humour in it?

I've read a couple of times before that it's bad to say your story is "humourous" since humourous is a subjective word and akin to describing it as "good," but how else are you supposed to do it?

EG Harry Potter isn't a comedic fantasy, but it has a lot of humour in it. How would you describe that in a query? Would you just leave it out and hope the agent is interested enough to read it and see for themselves?

Anonymous said...

So far, 56-year-old Em is dealing with her hot flashes, cranky moods, and crabby husband,
but after hiring a 34-year-old Mexican seasonal worker who cultivates not only her wildflowers, but her heart, Em teeters on the brink. Is she in love, lust, or just plain crazy? Does she need hormone therapy, a plastic surgeon, or a shrink? Eventually, Em realizes she’s not just menopausal, she’s miserable in her loveless 32-year marriage, and in order to seek happiness before old age sets in, she must embrace one more emotion—courage.

EM-PASSIONED—women’s fiction, 72,000 words—is a humorous and poignant glimpse into one woman’s midlife crisis. Think The Bridges of Madison County meets I Feel Bad About My Neck. Possible sequels are in the works.

I am a freelance copywriter for film/video, and an active member of my local RWA chapter.
I also attend several writing conferences a year, and keep up-to-date with the publishing industry.

Thank you for considering
EM-PASSIONED. May I send you more?

Sincerely,
Karen Hamer

MzMannerz said...

This is a great exercise. Thanks for hosting it and thanks to those who participated!

lilywhite said...

I actually quite liked #3! Is it really derivative of what's already out there in this genre (admittedly not one I read)? It sounded interesting to me. I wouldn't pay 20 bucks for the hardcover based on this copy alone, but I'd buy it for my Kindle for sure.

Anonymous said...

Like everyone here, I hate writing queries. The only time they're fun is when one writes them into a story line with some poor character who fancies him-or-herself a writer. My concern in reading the queries posted here, though, is rather a Hamlet sort of dilemma. To do, or not to do? One might spend a week or more (in writers' time, and so anywhere from a few moments which seem like a century to a decade that slides past unnoticed) writing a query to an agent. On the other hand, one may very well use that time spinning stories, dropping characters into roiling waters and then sitting back, watching, taking dictation, as they attempt to work themselves out of the deep merde. And thus comes the question: ought not unagented writers spend more time publishing short fiction, for instance, both on the web and in print, in at least semi-pro payscale publications, than squirreling about, twisting knickers and upturning innards in the pursuit of agents? In other words, will not the agent come to the writer, as the proverbial mountain to the aesthetic, if the writer just keeps publishing? I suppose I see the fallacy in the question as I write it, but still...at what point does the mountain come to the man...or woman?

Cheers,

Theo, the theophagous monkey

Jovanna said...

Oh! So those are what query letters are! I was wondering. Why do I feel like such a simpleton for not knowing that? Hmm... might have something to do with living in the annexed end of the mouse's nest where mice happen.

Thank you, very much, Nathan, for putting those up.

Tigerlili Cavill said...

Thanks for this. I always imagined there was some mystique to writing query letters.

Before I read this post the idea of actually writing a query letter myself made me feel very small, doing the work is one thing, trying to promote the work is another. But by Grabthar's Hammer I shall attempt it!

Rick Daley said...

Anon-

In a query, how do you describe that your book has humour in it?

I'm not the expert, but I can cash in $0.02 on the topic.

There is a humor section in the bookstore, and if you think that's the shelf your book belongs on, tell the agent so.

If your novel is in another genre (thriller, mystery, fantasy) but a few funny things happen, that's probably best left for the synopsis or manuscript.

If your writing style alone elicits unbridled laughter, regardless of the story being told, this will probably be evident in your query.

If you think the humor in your thriller/mystery/fantasy will be a primary reason people will buy it, read it, and talk about it, consider switching it to humor as a genre.

I hope this helps!

And thank you to everyone who provided feedback regarding the queries, this was very helpful for me (query #2). Now back to the revision...

WORD VERIFICATION: sadab. Flabby abdominal muscles.

Dara said...

Reading the queries and the critiques are helping me craft my own. Thanks to the brave writers who submitted their queries and thanks to Nathan for taking the time to read and critique them.

lauren said...

Re: the question about showing the humor in your book

Make the query funny! Your query should always demonstrate the voice and style of the manuscript. If there's a significant amount of humor in your novel, you'd be selling the novel short by not including hints of that in the query. Even if you're not writing strictly a "humor" novel, you can show through voice that your fantasy, thriller, or literary novel has a lot of humorous elements.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "unagented writers spend more time publishing short fiction, for instance, both on the web and in print, in at least semi-pro payscale publications, than squirreling about,"

You know how agents are always setting records for the number of query letters they have in their inbox? Well, "semi-pro payscale publications" are too. I just got a rejection back after 5 months, a few months after I started wondering if they were even still publishing.

All I can say is, have a spreadsheet/querytracker.net online or something to keep track of it all, query letters, subs to semi-pro payscale publications, etc.

lauren said...

Hey, Theo, the theophagous monkey,

If you're only spending a week on your query letter, I bow to you. I've done about a hundred different forms of my query letter over the entire 2 years that I've been working on my novel. And I STILL don't have a good one (or a good novel, but that's another story entirely). If you've invested a lot of time and effort in your novel, then surely taking a week (?!) to hammer out that query won't throw off your other writing plans too terribly much. It's worth the effort.

Writing short stories for publication with an indirect goal of avoiding writing a query for a novel isn't really the ideal way to go about getting an agent. Certainly if you're already publishing short fiction in the top markets, you may be on your way to getting contacted by an agent. But I wouldn't recommend sitting on a submittable novel while waiting for a pro market acceptance.

Plus, some genres have very few short fiction publication options. My novels are YA, but it's rare to find a market for YA short fiction. My short fiction is literary; were I to publish in The Iowa Review and get a call from an agent about my story, it would probably be an agent who wasn't interested in repping my YA novels.

wrigleyfield said...

Advice to Jake Seliger (especially after reading your chronology question):

Don't describe the book. Instead, tell the story.

Tell the story whatever you think is the most effective way to capture it in a small space.

Your query read as "academic" to me (I say that as a fellow grad student) in that the sentences seemed like utilitarian attempts to work in information about your book. But what you want is someone reacting to your story, right? That means, to me, tell it like it's a story.

My caveat is I'm neither an agent not a published writer, so this is only my reaction as a reader.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Hey Theo-Monkey,
Don't lump me in with the haters. I love writing queries. I actually start each book with the query and synopsis before I ever put prose on the page, adjusting them as I work along. I also run queries through my critique group and other trusted sources to shop them before I write the book.

And whoever spoke of the midrate magazines--I edit one and yes, our subs are way up--quantity and quality! Short story writing is a great way to cut your teeth on writing and publishing.

Bane of Anubis said...

SSAS, you are disturbed, I believe :)

Mira said...

This is very helpful! Thanks so much to Nathan for all of the information. Thanks to the brave souls who posted, as well. I learned alot, and I appreciate it.

Valarie Anthony said...

Dear Nathan Bransford:

I am writing to you today to offer Secrets and Lies: Disclosing The Truth About Foster Care in New York City, an 81,000-word memoir.

Imagine for a moment that you are a young adolescent girl. You're away at a church retreat with about thirty other adolescents in your youth group when your pastor's wife engages you in a conversation in which she alludes to the possibility that you are being sexually abused by your uncle, who is also your state-certified foster father. You're amazed at how quick and intelligent this woman is, and you're dying to know how she was able to figure out in a brief conversation what the social workers have continually failed to detect in the twelve years that you have been a ward of the state. You're also bursting to reveal the truth, because your uncle has spent the last seven years abusing your body and soul. Would you continue protecting the Secrets and Lies, or would you finally disclose the truth and begin the process of healing?

These are some of the questions that the main character must resolve in my memoir, Secrets and Lies. At the moment of her disclosure to social workers during her late adolescence, the main character questions whether she made the right decision. An opportunity to attend an out-of-state college consumes her attention and seems to support her decision. However, within a few months, a series of events make Valarie wonder if she made the right choice at all.

Secrets and Lies is the true story of a young girl born to a schizophrenic mother and an absentee father. At the age of three, she is placed lovingly by her mother into a temporary, informal foster home immediately following a family crisis. She endures five years of physical abuse, torture and neglect in her first foster home. The little girl is then thrust into the chaos of the New York City foster care system, which would become a way of life for the youngster for the next thirteen years. The young girl would eventually reside in over ten foster homes during her most unusual and painful childhood, and two foster group homes during a difficult adolescence and young adulthood.

After graduating from college and establishing a career in social work, the main character begins digging for the truth about her family and unearths secrets woven deeply in the family's closet. Using the experiences of an abusive childhood and indifferent foster care system, the second half of Secrets and Lies focuses on the "Aging Out" process and shows the determination to overcome the many obstacles that children in foster care face. Rather than becoming another statistic, Secrets and Lies will show readers how foster care alumnae can become successful in their personal and professional lives.

Does the market have a need for this book? Yes! My social work career has shown me that there are hundreds of people in need of acceptance, love and healing, all of which must come from within. Many foster youth grow up believing that they are not good enough. Secrets and Lies will help prove that they are.

In addition to my status as a foster care alumna and member of the Foster Care Alumni of America, I am also a social worker, teacher, writer and parent. I have worked in the field of social work, providing services to adults, children and families. I am a graduate of Cambridge College and currently work as a Master's-level professional for a local non-profit agency. I am actively involved in community and vocational services, and am editor of Lo'Down, a quarterly newsletter for unemployed, homeless adults.

I am more than prepared to promote and market the merits of Secrets and Lies: Disclosing The Truth About The New York City Foster Care System, in conjunction with Curtis Brown, Ltd. If Secrets and Lies has piqued your interest, please let me know and I will gladly forward the complete proposal package to you. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.


Sincerely,

Valarie Anthony

Anonymous said...

Rick Daley and lauren-

Thanks heaps for the replies! It definitely helped me a lot :) I think I know what to do now basically: make the query funny.

...make the query... funny...

Gah!! I thought just writing the things was hard enough!!

Anyway, thanks again for all your help- I really appreciate it :) and good luck to everyone else going through the agenting process... it's tough!

Jake Seliger said...

A brief update for those of you who are curious: I changed the query and sent it, but Mr. Bransford declined to ask for more.

Anonymous said...

Query #1

"...Over the course of their investigation, the two become so enraptured with the object of their study that they become increasingly implicated in the events and crimes they are supposed to be covering..."

I would advise not repeating the verb "become" twice in one sentence.

Simon said...

these query examples and your comments are extremely helpful in helping to write a query letter. Thank you Nathan for taking the time to do this. It seems to me however, that writing a query is much harder than writing the book itself nowadays. I wonder what Mr. Hemingway would have thought if he were to encounter such particularity in representation. then again, he probabely would have accepted it all the same with all the technological and philosophical advancement that has taken place.

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