Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Query Critique Tuesday: Character, crispness, clarity


If you would like to nominate your query for a future Query Critique, please enter it in this thread in the Forums!

Also, if you'd like to test your editing chops, keep your eye on this area! I'll post the pages and queries a few days before a critique on the blog so you can see how your redline compares to mine.

Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I'll present the query without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to kbarina113, whose query is below:
Dear [Agent’s name]: 
Two estranged brothers finally meet, only to discover that one must kill the other for the kingdom to survive.  
After years with only swords and tomes as companions, seventeen-year-old Prince Vaeldhei finds his first true friend with the arrival of his surly half-brother, Mordred—a boy even more familiar with rejection and loneliness than Vael. However, an ancient prophecy haunts Mordred’s footsteps―he is destined to kill their father in a battle that will destroy Camelot. And Mordred’s sorceress mother, Morgan LeFay, will do anything to ensure that he fulfills his destiny. 
Unlike the rest of the superstitious kingdom, Vael may not believe in fate’s power, but that means little to Mordred. Despite finding a kindred soul in his brother, Mordred sees no escape from his grim future or his vengeful mother. Though Vael vows to rewrite destiny, he’s not prepared for Morgan’s immense power or Mordred’s hesitancy to defy his mother. Desperate to overcome the sorceress’ manipulations, Vael resorts to enlisting Morgan’s alluring and mysterious former apprentice for aid—a risky move, especially since her loyalties are as conflicted as Mordred’s. If Vael cannot free Mordred from his mother’s twisted grasp, he will have to watch his father and Camelot fall or kill his only friend—his brother. 
THE PENDRAGON’S SON is a standalone young adult Fantasy novel with series potential, complete at 92,000 words. An excerpt from this manuscript received the Superior Award from the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) Creative Writing Contest and the ACSI Regional Creative Writing Festival. I was also chosen by Kelly Hopkins as an unofficial mentee in PitchWars 2016 with this novel. I am a Latina currently living in Pennsylvania with my husband, my reptiles, and my books.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
There's a lot to like in this query. The structure is mainly in place, and I liked the idea of two lonely boys coming together to try to escape their destiny. The stakes are very clear and serious.

That said, I had three key concerns with the query:

Characters

While I think the setup is good (we know they were previously lonely and find solace in each other), neither Vael nor Mordred quite stand out for me as central characters. I'm not sure quite enough personality came through to distinguish them. Especially given this novel is operating in a relatively familiar realm (Camelot), it's that much more important that the elements that will separate this novel from other Camelot novels will stand out.

The most important way to make a novel operating in a familiar world or archetype feel unique is for the characters to come across as especially compelling. And a surefire way to show personality is to show how characters choose to act given their circumstances. While I understood the challenge the characters are facing, I wasn't sure that I had the sense of two unique personalities reacting to those circumstances:

Is Vael fiery and loyal? Is he hesitant? Is he serious? Funny? Earnest?

We hear that Mordred is surly, but if he is, why is he then so resigned to his fate? Does he feel defeated?

A few key details around how the characters are dealing with the challenges they're facing will go a long way to bring them to life.

Crispness

Opinions are going to vary on whether to include an opening tag line. Personally I don't love them, others encourage them. But if you're going to have an opening tag line, it should be really crisp and clear so the central plot point you're highlighting can really shine.

In this one, I wasn't totally clear what it meant, especially after reading the rest of the query. Originally I read it like it was a cage match and only one could come out alive, but after reading the rest of the query I think it means that Vael must kill Mordred? And if so, why not focus the tagline on Vael's struggle, since that seems to be the central plot line?

If the tagline were crisper, I'd be much more invested in reading on.

Clarity

As always, one of the most challenging elements is to get the right level of specificity. In this query, I worry there are a few too many places in the plot summary where things are vague where being a bit clearer about what actually happens could go a long way toward adding flavor to the novel.


Queries are tough, and this one is a good start. I've now written way more words about the query than are in the query itself!! It just shows how tricky they can be.

With a few more of the C's (characters, crispness, clarity) I think this one will be good to go.

Here's my redline. As you can see, I have a lot of questions in the second paragraph, which I can't answer because I haven't read the book. But if these vague lines were replaced with specificity, the story would really shine through without bogging down the query.
Dear [Agent’s name]: 
Two estranged brothers finally meet, only to discover that one must kill the other for the kingdom to survive.  A young prince befriends his estranged half-brother, only to discover he must kill him for the kingdom to survive.
After years with only swords and tomes as companions, seventeen-year-old Prince Vaeldhei finds his first true friend with the arrival of his surly half-brother, Mordred—a boy even more familiar with rejection and loneliness than Vael. However, an ancient prophecy haunts Mordred’s footsteps―he is destined to kill their father in a battle that will destroy Camelot. And Mordred’s sorceress mother, Morgan LeFay, will do anything to ensure that he fulfills his destiny. 
Unlike the rest of the superstitious kingdom [not quite sure what it means for a kingdom to be superstitious - what is the literal effect on Vael?] Vael may not believe in fate’s power [Confused by this - if he doesn't believe in it, why does he later vow to stop the murder?], but that means little to Mordred [Why does it mean little to Mordred? More specificity would reveal character]. Despite finding a kindred soul [What do they see in each other? Try to be more specific about what they like about each other] in his brother, Mordred sees no escape from his grim future or his vengeful mother. Though Vael vows to rewrite destiny [What does this mean? Be specific], he’s not prepared for Morgan’s immense power [What's her power?] or Mordred’s hesitancy to defy his mother [Why does he fear her?]. Desperate to overcome the sorceress’ manipulations [What are these?], Vael resorts to enlisting Morgan’s alluring and mysterious former apprentice for aid [What does he literally want the aid to do?] —a risky move, especially since her loyalties are as conflicted as Mordred’s. If Vael cannot free Mordred from his mother’s twisted grasp, he will have to watch his father and Camelot fall or kill his only friend—his brother. 
THE PENDRAGON’S SON is a standalone young adult Fantasy novel with series potential, complete at 92,000 words. An excerpt from this manuscript received the Superior Award from the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) Creative Writing Contest and the ACSI Regional Creative Writing Festival. I was also chosen by Kelly Hopkins as an unofficial mentee in PitchWars 2016 with this novel. I am a Latina currently living in Pennsylvania with my husband, my reptiles, and my books.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Thanks again to kbarina113!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Illustration from page 16 of The Boy's King Arthur - Edited by Sidney Lanier






9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great feedback from Nathan! I agree with all the points you made. But still, from the pieces I can gather, this sounds like something I'd be interested in reading. I have another question to add, though... I'm wondering why the author included her ethnicity? As it has nothing to do with the subject matter and isn't an #ownvoice, it kind of stuck out to me. It makes me think the author sees her race as some sort of an advantage, for no apparent reason, and I think that's a bad message to send. Even if that wasn't what the author was implying, I wouldn't mention ethnicity unless it's relevant and let her work speak for itself. Just my thoughts. ;)

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I didn't quite read it the same way you did. Within reason and as long as it's not overkill, I think it's fine in the bio section for an author to tell the agent whatever they think is important the agent knows about them.

Though as you'll see in a post on Thursday, all the non-story elements of a query are pretty secondary anyway.

Cristen said...

Reading the query and your critique is extremely helpful. Thanks! And, good luck to kbarina113. :)

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Interesting. This is a cage match in a way. It seems unlikely that Mordred would kill their father but leave Vaeldhei alive.

A superstitious kingdom is a kingdom of superstitious people, where Vael's skepticism about prophecy is unusual. But Vael clearly realizes that Mordred believes he (Mordred) must fulfill the prophecy.

I would not expect all Nathan's questions to be answered in a one-page query, but there seems enough room to answer some of them and add contact details within a typically formatted page.

Thanks to Kbarina113 and Nathan!

Jerry said...

I love this new thread; great service.
Since this is to help us open doors and be accepted into the hard to enter world, this leaves me curious about one thing. I know it may be a tough feature to add and things are appreciated differently by each agent, would you be willing to consider a reality TV show type segment; add whether you personally would 'accept or reject' feature? I'm not sure about others but i would love to know where i stand on my attempts. The critiques and suggestions are great but, before finding this and assuming you don't win the random number lottery, the queries are going to be sent as is; either you reject/accept here or the harsh real world will teach the same hard lessons. Thanks for considering.

Maya Prasad said...

Thanks for sharing, kbarina113.

It sounds like there's some really good conflict in your story! I agree with Nathan about crispness, clarity, & character. But with all of the questions he asks in the redline (which I agree with), you may be thinking you don't have space in the query to answer them all. In that case, what you might do is simplify. Maybe you don't really don't need to include Morgan LeFay at all, instead focusing on the two brothers.

I also feel like some of the most compelling conflict is with Mordred--whether he can break his fate. If they are equal protagonists, I might actually focus on him. Hope that helps!

Maya Prasad said...

Also, I disagree with Anon about mentioning your ethnicity. There's importance not just in books with diverse characters, but supporting POC authors. So to a lot of us who care about inclusivity in publishing, this is a great thing to include.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Jerry! I'll give it some thought on how I can pull it off.

wendy said...

Although I agree with Nathan's comments, I enjoyed reading this query and thought it really well-written. To me the query was quite enticing, and I think the story is one I'd enjoy. I don't think anyone's written a sympathetic version of the Arthurian Legends regarding the way Mordred is portrayed, and I'd like to read such a version. In the British TV show, Merlin, a very charismatic actor played the Mordred character, and for a good part of the show he was shown to be a decent, very capable and humorous boy-man placed in difficult circumstances and with unsavory influences which gradually warped his attitude and distorted his judgement.

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