Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Query Critique Thursday 6/9/11

Now, bear in mind that it's now been more than six months since I've read a query in a professional capacity. For all I know agents might have completely reinvented the form and instituted requirements that authors write queries in the form of limericks.

But assuming things haven't gone and changed all that much I thought I'd take a stab at an old fashioned query critique.

First I'll post the query in full, then I'll provide my thoughts and a redline. If you offer your own suggestions, please remember to do so very politely and constructively.

And if you'd like to enter a query or page for a future critique, please check out the Forums!

Here goes!

Dear Nathan,

I am writing in the hope that you will be interested in representing my novel, ESCAPE # 59. It is a paranormal romance for young adults. It is complete at 94,000 words and could either stand alone or be developed into a series.

Arney Keydana is about live through another normal day at her boarding high school—combat training with werewolves, hanging out with mind readers and darkness makers, looking at a fake landscape in a fake window (because the world outside is too dangerous to be seen, or so the werewolves say). But Arney doesn’t make it past breakfast when something extraordinary happens—her boyfriend breaks up with her. His reasons? She shredded his heart and threw it into the garbage. He refuses to say how or when; he only rolls out a foolproof scheme to repay Arney for all his hurt by making her his slave.

Thus, it’s not even lunchtime, and Arney is already facing the toughest choice in her life: staying at school and becoming a slave, or running away and dying. But hey, the croaking part is not certain—the werewolves would have said what was outside if it were that dangerous. And so begins Arney’s escape to the outside, which, as it turns out, has a mind—and an appetite of its own. And what’s it hungry for is anything with a heartbeat.

I hope this will be of interest to you. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Helen Rina
There are some people out there who feel like it's best to get the important information out of the way first, like genre and word count. Me? I feel like there's only one chance to lead with an interesting opening that grabs the agent. I feel like it's best to either lead with personalization (to tip off the agent of your professional mettle) or getting into the story into an interesting way.

There's such a tough balance in query writing between flow and sufficient information. It's hard to establish flow when you're trying cram a lot of information into a small space. In this case, I worry a bit about the stops and starts with the em dashes, and I'm afraid I also found myself a bit confused by the mechanics of the plot.

There are definitely some good details, I just wasn't quite sure how the plot was coming together.

Dear Nathan,


I am writing in the hope that you will be interested in representing my novel, ESCAPE # 59. It is a paranormal romance for young adults. It is complete at 94,000 words and could either stand alone or be developed into a series.

Arney Keydana is about to live through another normal day at her boarding high school—combat training with werewolves, hanging out with mind readers and darkness makers, looking at a fake landscape in a fake window (because the world outside is too dangerous to be seen, or so the werewolves say) I like this opening, but wonder if it could be just a bit smoother. But Arney doesn’t make it past breakfast when something extraordinary happens—her boyfriend breaks up with her. His reasons? She shredded his heart and threw it into the garbage. He refuses to say how or when; he only rolls out a foolproof scheme to repay Arney for all his hurt by making her his slave. I'm kind of confused by these plot elements. Was the heart-shredding literal? How wouldn't she know the "how or when" of shredding his heart? How exactly does he make her his slave? I feel like a few more details could make this clearer

Thus, iIt’s not even lunchtime, and Arney is already facing the toughest choice in her life: staying at school and becoming a slave, or running away and dying. But hey, the croaking part is not certain—the werewolves would have said what was outside if it were that dangerous I'm confused by this sentence. And so begins Arney’s escape to the outside, which, as it turns out, has a mind—and an appetite of its own. And what’s it hungry for is anything with a heartbeat These last two sentences feel choppy to me, and I was confused about how the "outside" has a mind. It's an interesting idea but what does it mean?.

ESCAPE # 59. It is a paranormal romance for young adults. It is complete at 94,000 words and could either stand alone or be developed into a series. I hope this will be of interest to you. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Helen Rina

I can tell there are interesting ideas in this query, I just wonder if a bit more smoothing out could make the plot come together so we immediately grasp what's happening.

Thanks very much to Helen for volunteering her query!






34 comments:

Mr. D said...

I'm glad query critics are back. Will the page critique ever come back to the blog?

Laura W. said...

Thanks for this! Is it something you do regularly?

QueryShark blog (by Janet Reid) and BookEnds blog also do query critiques (weekly, I think), if anyone is interested in looking at them as well. :)

Kristi said...

Do you think most agents would rather writers just skip the salutations and get right into the pitch?
I always thought it seemed more professional to say "I am seeking representation for my mystery novel .... " and then leaving the word count, etc for the last graf. Thoughts?

Mira said...

Well, despite the fact that I am strongly opposed to the query system on both a moral and a practical level, I do think this is an excellent critique! Spot on, from my perspective.

It's nice to see you take pen to editing again, Nathan. It's very helpful!

Nathan Bransford said...

Kristi-

I think opinions on that vary from agent to agent, but even if you are leading with the essential information up front I'd find a way to avoid saying "I'm seeking representation for X genre, which is X words." I think it pays to be non-generic.

Matthew MacNish said...

I like the concept, but the execution could use a little tightening.

Try to open with a hook or pitch, and if you can incorporate something that gives a strong sense of character, that's great. If not, you should at least follow the hook with the character. Just a name does not a character make (even if yours does have a really cool name here).

You've got a decent sense of conflict, stakes, and the choice she will have to make, and with a little polishing this could be good.

Also keep in mind that you don't have to say you're seeking representation, that's the only reason you would query to begin with. Also no need to say complete. You don't query unfinished novels.

I think you've got an interesting premise here, good luck!

Josin L. McQuein said...

As I read this, I kept waiting for the romance in something described as a paranormal romance.

It's also a mystery, never resolved, what Arney's gifts are. If she's attending a school for paras or supers, then shouldn't she have a power or two of her own? Telling us what's shes able to do might go a good way toward explaining what she actually does.

Right now, this query is basically:

Arney's BF is an ass, so she decides to run away from school. Oh, and she could die because the werewolves say there's something dangerous in woods.

There's no sense of what Arney's ultimate goal is, or what it is that she's after. "I'm running from the jerk" is fine for an inciting incident, but it's not a plot.

What does Arney do? What gets in her way? What does she want and what's going to happen if she doesn't get it?

Holly Vance said...

Perfect time for me to read this post. I've just finished polishing my query for the 1000th time and your post just reinforced what I've done!

Thanks so much!

D.G. Hudson said...

Thanks Helen, for sharing your query.

The premise is interesting but as Nathan pointed out, we need to know a little more. My main question was 'Why breaking her BF's heart means she has to become a slave?? Rather harsh. I want to know more about this world with a mind?? (does it see all, know all?)

Query critiques help all of us polish up our letters. I learned something from that redlining that I can use to rework my own query.

I think you still have it, Nathan. (that's agenting skills I'm referring to. . .)

lora96 said...

It confused me that the boyfriend makes her his slave. How? Why? are there NO authority figures at Scary School?

Clear up this one point and it sounds like a great story!

Livia said...

Nathan, didn't you get the memo? Queries letters have gone the way of the Borders Bookstore. It's all video pitches these days: quick professional greeting and personalization, interpretive dance plot synopsis, and photomontage biographical information.

Rebecca Kiel said...

Query critique posts are so helpful. Thanks to Helen for offering hers for critique!

Lauren B. said...

I think Josin and D.G. Hudson's comments are spot-on. I can definitely see there's potential in the story, but the query as it stands lacks clarity, both in the world-building and cause-consequence dynamic of the plot.

Stephanie G said...

I just have to repeat what a lot of others have already said, I am so glad query critiques are back!

Cathy Yardley said...

I love query critiques. Then again, I'm weird -- I like the challenge of queries. :)

And Livia, LOL at "interpretive dance plot synopsis." I would be SO screwed.

GuyStewart said...

The biggest problem I have when I write a query for a SF/F novel is that people can interpret anything I say as "literal" -- like make her his slave, shred the heart, croaking. In a F, all of those CAN be literal. So I stay away from adjectives and stick with nouns and simple verbs. I always try to make the situation as simply compelling as possible -- which is what I'd see as the main job here.

SBJones said...

I enjoyed seeing the query as well as a red line edit. I found it very interesting to see this process in action. Thank you.

Kristin Laughtin said...

GuyStewart has a good point: in SF/F, it's sometimes difficult to tell what is literal. Will Arney have to be an actual slave, recognized as her ex-boyfriend's property, or is he just going to blackmail her into doing whatever he says? If it's the former, how does that work? Furthermore, what is she doing at this school? Is she a werewolf, or does she have some other power? It's easy to go too far and babble too much about the world in a query, but a little more insight into these points would have made the plot make a little more sense.

I abuse the em-dash like nobody's business, but in this case I think the writing would have been a bit stronger with some full stops, colons, and semicolons instead.

abc said...

Yippee! Thanks for doing this again, Nathan!

I am intrigued by the idea, for sure, but I agree with Nathan on all counts. I agree with Josin, too. I don't feel I can add anything more other than the idea sounds cool enough to keep working at the query.

Robert Michael said...

Good comments here. Can't say I disagree with any of them. Take the premise out, polish it, define it better and try again. There is potential here, but as some other query critiquing sites would say: form rejection. Not to say you should give up: I've received dozens. Just re-do and re-try. Good luck.

The English Teacher said...

Ah, I wanted to see the query done as a limerick. :(

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

I like your edits. I am currently revising a critique letter for my adult novel, Second Chances and I found your edits and comments on this particular critique letter very helpful. Thanks

Fiona said...

Nathan - you want her to give you so many more details, but why? Isn't the query SUPPOSED to make you want more? If she gives you all those details, then you'll say she gave you too much and you don't need to read further. Can you please explain how a query can 'leave 'em wanting more' in a good way?

Nathan Bransford said...

Fiona-

There's a difference between wanting to know more about the story vs. being confused by what's presented. A few more details will help clarify the confusion.

In other words, you want the agent to want to know more in a "Wow, I'm excited about this" way, not a "I don't understand this" way.

Balancing too much/too little info is one of the very hardest thing to get right in a query, but it's so important.

Jenise Frohlinger said...

Agree with comments above. My two cents is that when I read that something extraordinary happened. I was expecting something good. Too me, it was more like something horrible happened. Would recommend changing that.

Neil Larkins said...

I agree with the others: Thanx for bringing this back! Hope it stays for a while.
Comment I meant to make on your best names post and then forgot: I've started taking down the "word verification" word to use as a name. The one I'm looking at now is...maybe I better not write it. But they're neat.

Adam Heine said...

I liked the bit where the "extraordinary thing" is that her boyfriend breaks up with her. But with all the fantasy aspects and talk of werewolves, I thought (or maybe just hoped) the heart-shredding was literal too.

You gotta be real careful about idioms like that in sci-fi/fantasy. Until we know the rules of your world, we tend to assume everything is literal.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

Thank you very much for critiquing my query. All your comments are spot on. I will work harder on it. :)

Thanks!
Helen

Bron said...

Nathan - what's your take on personalisation of queries? I can personalise some of them, but everyone says to query widely and I don't have anything personal to say to some agents beyond that I'm querying them because they represent my genre and comments around the net say they're good agents. Do you think this will be a mark against me, or will they just get on with reading my query?

Helen - congrats on being brave and posting your query. I think Nathan said it all better than I could, so I won't add anything beyond wishing you luck with your revisions.

v.n.rieker said...

Nathan, my question is related, but not directly concerning, this query letter.

Is it prudent for a debut novel to be a stand-alone? I'm working on a book series, and, while each book has it's own set of obstacles from beginning to end, the story would very obviously not be complete without the other books. Is that a major turn-off for agents (especially from a never-been-published)?
When I set out to write this beast, "stand-alone" wasn't something that occurred to me, but now that I'm in deep, haha, I can understand why an agent might be reluctant to commit to a 6-book series with a no-name.

Or maybe not. Enlighten me? =D

v.n.rieker said...

Sorry, Helen, I didn't mean to be rude and completely dismiss your query letter with my own question!

I love the story idea-- it sounds original. I especially love that the extraordinary event is not the things in her world that seem extraordinary to us, but her boyfriend breaking up with her. It's a funny quirk that I hope shows itself through your whole story.

I agree with the tightening and clarifying that others suggest, though.

Good luck!

Nathan Bransford said...

bron-

Even just saying that they represent your genre and some small specific thing is fine. It doesn't have to be much, just something that tips them off that you actually researched them before sending the query.

v.n.

Here are my thoughts on that

v.n.rieker said...

Wow, thank you, Nathan!

I think I'll put the series in the drawer for now. After writing and re-writing that thing, one self-contained novel sounds almost like a relief, haha.
Huh. I was just struck with how strange it'll be to suddenly spend my thoughts on different characters in a different world... this gear switch might take a few days. =P

Thanks, again!

Bron said...

Thanks Nathan, that's very helpful!

Related Posts with Thumbnails