Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Todd Noker's Current Query Revised - Critiqued

Sorry, Todd! Yesterday was nuts at work, so I didn't get to this. But here it is today! Here is Todd's revised query for TERMS OF THE INNOCENTS, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear (Agent),

Preston Taylor is wise-ass seventeen-year-old who thinks he is smarter than the homeless-teens why is this hyphenated? he encounters in Salt Lake City, because his problems aren’t permanent—but he eventually learns that he is just like them. He’s looking for his adult brother who moved out years ago to flee from their mother’s heroin addiction. When she disappears after another binge, Preston is on his own. The street-kids also this? he meets abuse drugs, eat whatever they can find, and sell their bodies to survive. He doesn’t give a damn about their problems at first, because he is above their plight—he knows that his brother will take him in. I would probably cut this. It probably works fine in the manuscript, as Preston's character arc has more time to develop there, but in the query this just makes him sound like an asshole. When he befriends Zack Ellison, a young street-wise prostitute, Hmm. Is Zack truly a professional sex worker? Or does he turn the occasional trick out of desperation? I suppose it depends on the story, but if he's underage, I'd be careful about how you label him. Preston starts to feel like a big brother himself. Cut this too. You're just bogging down the conflict at this point. Preston makes it to his brother’s last known address only to find that he has moved, leaving him permanently homeless. When Zack begs him to accompany him as a lookout on a date with a notorious John, Preston reluctantly agrees. Zack emerges from the trick broken and bleeding, and despite Preston’s attempt to save him, he disappears into the night and is never seen again.

The biggest problem I have with this, honestly, at least at first glance, is that this is one giant chunk of text. This one paragraph is 188 words long. Can you break it up anywhere? Maybe after "... his brother will take him in?"

Otherwise, this is certainly an improvement, but you might want to re-arrange things here and there, and try to tighten it up a bit. Maybe something like:

"Seventeen-year-old wise-ass Preston Taylor assumes he's smarter than the homeless teens that choke the alleys and gutters of downtown Salt Lake, because his personal housing crisis isn't permanent, but when he can't find his adult brother after their mother disappears on another black tar heroin binge, he quickly discovers exactly how much they have in common."

It's kind of a long sentence, I know, and you can probably do better, and make it in your own voice, but the point I'm trying to make here is that you can convey much more specificity in far fewer words, if you think about how to present and order the information. Also, avoid state-of-being verbs if you can. Avoid them in all your writing wherever possible. They're just boring.

People look away from desperate teens in this beautiful city with its the pristine Mormon temple at the center its heart, and it pisses Preston off. He must even the score with this John even if it jeopardizes his survival risks/endangers his life?. He arranges a date and, while fighting to not be violently assaulted defending himself from a violent assault like Zack's, accidentally kills him the man. Preston’s tragedy is the evidence that he feels everyone in this city must see, even if it means sacrificing his life.

Why is it sacrificing his life? Didn't he just defend his own life? If you mean turning himself in, he might not be charged, and even if he was, that would only cost him his freedom, not his life.

TERMS OF THE INNOCENTS is a 61,000 word YA manuscript. An earlier version of this story won second place in the Utah Arts Council Creative Writing Competition.

I have two other titles published on iUniverse, and one title published by their Star imprint. I write commercial and radio copy, and am a well-known radio personality in Salt Lake City under the name Todd Nuke ‘Em. I have done presentations for the Utah Library Association and the Salt Lake City Library for my previous books.

The first five pages are below, and the entire manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Todd Noker

In summary, this is definitely an improvement. You've got a better sense of Preston as a character, and the conflict he finds himself caught up in is much clearer here. Mainly, what I see this query needing at this point is mostly just a copy editor's eye. You've got some extraneous information that isn't really necessary, and the sentences are sometimes a little bloated or unclear. But all in all I think this is pretty good, and it's much more obvious now that you have a compelling premise on your hands.

That's it!

Please thank Todd for sharing this with us, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Todd Noker's Current Query Revised

Today we have Todd's query for TERMS OF THE INNOCENTS again, which you first saw here, and I critiqued, here, this time with Todd's revisions.

The letter:

Dear (Agent),

Preston Taylor is wise-ass seventeen-year-old who thinks he is smarter than the homeless-teens he encounters in Salt Lake City, because his problems aren’t permanent—but he eventually learns that he is just like them. He’s looking for his adult brother who moved out years ago to flee from their mother’s heroin addiction. When she disappears after another binge, Preston is on his own. The street-kids he meets abuse drugs, eat whatever they can find, and sell their bodies to survive. He doesn’t give a damn about their problems at first, because he is above their plight—he knows that his brother will take him in. When he befriends Zack Ellison, a young street-wise prostitute, Preston starts to feel like a big brother himself. Preston makes it to his brother’s last known address only to find that he has moved, leaving him permanently homeless. When Zack begs him to accompany him as a lookout on a date with a notorious John, Preston reluctantly agrees. Zack emerges from the trick broken and bleeding, and despite Preston’s attempt to save him, he disappears into the night and is never seen again.

People look away from desperate teens in this beautiful city with its pristine Mormon temple at the center, and it pisses Preston off. He must even the score with this John even if it jeopardizes his survival. He arranges a date and, while fighting to not be violently assaulted like Zack, kills him. Preston’s tragedy is the evidence that he feels everyone in this city must see, even if it means sacrificing his life.

TERMS OF THE INNOCENTS is a 61,000 word YA manuscript. An earlier version of this story won second place in the Utah Arts Council Creative Writing Competition.

I have two other titles published on iUniverse, and one title published by their Star imprint. I write commercial and radio copy, and am a well-known radio personality in Salt Lake City under the name Todd Nuke ‘Em. I have done presentations for the Utah Library Association and the Salt Lake City Library for my previous books.

The first five pages are below, and the entire manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Todd Noker

That's it!

Please thank Todd for sharing again, and save your feedback for tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Abhinav Bhat's Current Query Revised - Critiqued

Okay, today we have Abhinav's revised letter again, and questions, and I'm actually going to answer the questions first:

Questions, with my replies in blue:

I have been told on quite a few forums that the POV shift from Indy to Eldritch to Indy is jarring and unrequired and that I should be writing in one POV only. And that it should be Indy only. Does the shift work given that this is a dual POV novel?

I think the query should be written from only one POV. You can always mention the alternating POVs in your housekeeping section. There are, of course, probably queries out there that break this "rule" and break it well and make it work, but it's difficult, and non-standard, and queries are hard enough to get right already. As for whether the query should focus on Indy or Eldritch, well... that would depend on the manuscript, but it seems to work pretty well focusing, or at least starting with, Indy.

Many people are getting confused at the entire family being murdered and grandson left over, thinking that Indy's dead. I've added a clarification in brackets. Does it work?

Yeah it's definitely a little confusing as it's written. I will try to cover this in the critique below.

Is my novel YA or Adult? The tone of my novel is distinctly adult I feel. But others say that if the protagonist is teenage, then it's YA, even though I've two protagonists, but then if I have two protagonists, it can't be YA others say. I've been advised to up the age from teenage to twenty to make it adult. I'm confused. Please advise.

This is hard to say for certain without having read the manuscript, but don't let anyone tell you that just because your manuscript has one protagonist and/or narrator that is a teenager that automatically makes it a YA book. That's entirely inaccurate. Read All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy, or The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss if you want to see two excellent examples of books with teenaged protagonists which are definitely not YA novels. The Rothfuss book is something you should almost certainly read, if you haven't, since it is also fantasy.

Again, I can't say for certain without having read your manuscript, but this sounds like Adult Epic Fantasy to me.

Anyway, let's move on to the revised letter, with my feedback in blue.

The query:

Dear Agent

Indy Ramsay has studied her entire teenage life for the day she would be recruited to the Reverend Council—the elite civil corps that runs the Ever Empire. Instead, it is her grandfather, Eldritch, who is inexplicably chosen and then promptly sent away on a mission, leaving behind a shattered and dejected Indy.

I won't rehash what I said the last time I critiqued this, but as far as I can tell, only one word in this opening paragraph has changed. You added "civil" to "elite corps." I don't think that was the biggest problem with this opening before. The problem, as I see it, is that you jump right into what starts happening to and around Indy, without taking the time to properly introduce her first. How old is she? What kind of person is she? Why should we care whether she succeeds?

The very next day, the city is under attack. The exiled heroes of a hundred subjugated races have returned, and they will see the Empire burn. And the Ramsay household is among their first targets.

This is much better than before. Could still use a bit more info about these heroes, but this is a big improvement.

Eldritch returns home to find his entire family murdered, all except his grandson, who has been taken prisoner. (Indy is presumed dead.) He presumes Indy has been killed along with the others. He will get his grandson back, he is told, if he betrays the Empire—a simple act . . . Millions of lives weighed against his grandson. Eldritch wants to not care . . . The Empire has heroes and patriots and omniscient deities enough. Let them save whoever they can.

This is ... too many ... ellipses for a query--avoid em-dashes too, if you can. They don't format well in email. Otherwise, this is good, but the prose kind of drags on. See if you can tighten it up. Short, clear, specific sentences, if you can.

Unbeknownst to Eldritch, Indy is also alive. This is somewhat redundant. You already said he presumes she's dead. Maybe something like "Yet Indy was not among the victims." Targeted for death as Eldritch's blood, she instead manages to defeat her assailants and learn of the enemy's plan for Eldritch to betray the Empire.

The Empire. Above humanity. Above her brother. Above all else. This is what Eldritch has taught her.

She will live by it.

The rest of this is pretty good.

As the heroes incite riots in the city and the underclass rises up in rebellion against the Council, Indy will prove herself worthy of the Empire and the validation she was denied. She will find and stop Eldritch, she will save the Empire at any cost.

Even if the cost be Eldritch himself. I don't think you need this. It's pretty clearly implied.

THE BURNT STATE is an adult fantasy novel about a girl and her grandfather as seen narrated from their alternating points of view. It is complete at 113,000 words.

So, in summary, this is a marked improvement. The conflict in the middle is still a bit muddied, but it's much clearer than it was. The biggest thing you should still work on is introducing Indy earlier and better, so that readers know more about her character, and can sympathize with her more easily.

That's it!

Please share your thoughts below.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Abhinav Bhat's Current Query Revised

We first saw Abhinav's query, here, and then critiqued it, here. Now Abhinav is back with a revision, so let's get right to it.

The letter:

Dear Agent

Indy Ramsay has studied her entire teenage life for the day she would be recruited to the Reverend Council—the elite civil corps that runs the Ever Empire. Instead, it is her grandfather, Eldritch, who is inexplicably chosen and then promptly sent away on a mission, leaving behind a shattered and dejected Indy.

The very next day, the city is under attack. The exiled heroes of a hundred subjugated races have returned, and they will see the Empire burn. And the Ramsay household is among their first targets.

Eldritch returns home to find his entire family murdered, all except his grandson. (Indy is presumed dead.) He will get his grandson back, he is told, if he betrays the Empire—a simple act . . . Millions of lives weighed against his grandson. Eldritch wants to not care . . . The Empire has heroes and patriots and omniscient deities enough. Let them save whoever they can.

Unbeknownst to Eldritch, Indy is also alive. Targeted for death as Eldritch's blood, she manages to defeat her assailants and learn of the enemy's plan for Eldritch to betray the Empire.

The Empire. Above humanity. Above her brother. Above all else. This is what Eldritch has taught her.

She will live by it.

As the heroes incite riots in the city and the underclass rises up in rebellion against the Council, Indy will prove herself worthy of the Empire and the validation she was denied. She will find and stop Eldritch, she will save the Empire at any cost.

Even if the cost be Eldritch himself.

THE BURNT STATE is an adult fantasy novel about a girl and her grandfather as seen from their points of view. It is complete at 113,000 words.

That's it!

Except Abhinav also asks a few questions:

I have been told on quite a few forums that the POV shift from Indy to Eldritch to Indy is jarring and unrequired and that I should be writing in one POV only. And that it should be Indy only. Does the shift work given that this is a dual POV novel?

Many people are getting confused at the entire family being murdered and grandson left over, thinking that Indy's dead. I've added a clarification in brackets. Does it work?

Is my novel YA or Adult? The tone of my novel is distinctly adult I feel. But others say that if the protagonist is teenage, then it's YA, even though I've two protagonists, but then if I have two protagonists, it can't be YA others say. I've been advised to up the age from teenage to twenty to make it adult. I'm confused. Please advise.

Which I will get to tomorrow! Otherwise, please thank Abhinav for sharing this with us, and save your feedback until then!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Maria Anna Witt's Current Query Critiqued

Here is Maria's query for CREEPY BOY again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The query:

Dear Ms/r (Agent Name)

I hope to interest you in my first novel, You don't need any of this. It's implied and understood, or in the case of this being your first, unnecessary. CREEPY BOY which explores the power of belief, in a psychological spin of FREAKY FRIDAY with a dark comic book twist. This isn't bad, but you could probably save this for the end.

I would recommend you start your query here. With the CHARACTER. The protagonist is the most important character in any story, and the concept of CHARACTER is the most important aspect of almost every great query letter I've ever seen (there are exceptions, but it's rare). Give us a person to relate to, who we can sympathize with, right away. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how cool whatever happens is, because we won't care. Kelsey’s visions of a perfect Senior year go up in flames the night her boyfriend Dave crashes his car. This isn't bad, but this is all plot, or maybe even backstory. Try to introduce more about what kind of person Kelsey is first. Even his daring rescue of one of the passengers can’t erase the fact that he’d been drinking and driving. Was the care on fire, like literally up in flames? If so, say that. Otherwise it's kind of hard to picture rescuing someone from a car accident. With Dave banished to an aunt’s farm for the summer, Kelsey’s stuck wishing she had warned him of her eerie premonition. Now this I like. I hope you explain more later.

Kelsey knows Dave is facing lifelong guilt and strict terms of probation when they return to school in the fall. But she wishes he hadn’t appointed himself personal protector to Calvin, left disfigured and an amputee, by the accident. She can’t forget her dreams that predicted Calvin’s fate, or the feeling of danger she gets when she sees his secret artwork.

Calvin’s art is beautiful and disturbing: a comic book series depicting himself as an Angel of Death with the ability to swap souls, and Dave as his arch-nemesis. Accusing a brain-damaged accident victim of a supernatural revenge plot won’t get win? Kelsey any points for popularity or sanity, or restore her interrupted relationship with Dave. As Kelsey’s developing obsession with Calvin turns from fear to fascination, she becomes more convinced she has a psychic connection with him.

Since the day of the accident, Calvin’s been practicing the superpowers from his stories, with the goal of swapping his broken life for Dave’s life of wealth and privilege. But he can feel Kelsey closing in on him, and she’s getting too close to the truth. Making her part of his revenge is a surefire way to stop her, and when Calvin successfully takes over Kelsey’s body, his story becomes horrifyingly real. Wait, what? Now it sounds like this is being told from Calvin's point of view. Is that on purpose? I do see below that the manuscript alternates POVs, but don't do that in the query. Or at least, not like this. Whichever character is more important, stick to that POV. You can certainly describe what Calvin goes through, but it needs to be from Kelsey's POV, otherwise it gets confusing.

Now, that being said, plot-wise this is pretty cool. This query is too long at this point (the "meat" is 350 words, and you should try to keep that part under 250 if you can) but if you can figure out a way to convey this info more quickly, you'd be in good shape.

Now there’s more than Kelsey’s reputation at stake. Dave’s worst enemy is using her body to get his ultimate revenge, and Kelsey is trapped inside Calvin’s damaged body, struggling to communicate. Instead of trying to get back together with Dave, Kelsey has to convince him that the girl he thinks he’s falling for is a deadly threat. To stop Calvin, she’s going to need to overcome his supernatural abilities and uncover the truth about what really happened the night of the accident. This is kind of frustrating, because while it's confusing to read and consider, it also sounds like an incredibly cool story. Hopefully you can think of a way to clarify this a bit.

CREEPY BOY is an 85,000 word Contemporary Young Adult novel with supernatural elements. It’s told in the alternating POV of Kelsey and Calvin, with plenty of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing. I’m seeking representation with the goal of pursuing a writing career, as I have other works in progress. You don't need this. It's generally understood that you wouldn't be querying if you hadn't been writing long enough to be confident enough in your work to be sending it out, and even if this is technically the first manuscript you finished, you don't need to bring that up. Otherwise, this housekeeping section is good.

Okay, so in summary, this query does need a bit of work, but it's clear you have an awesome story to tell, so that's helpful.

Not every query letter has to be the same, of course, but in general the ones that work focus on a few basic elements that help them stand out.

CHARACTER. As I said above, nothing in STORY is more important than CHARACTER, and therefore obviously nothing is more important in a query. We know nothing about Kelsey. What kind of person is she? How old is she? Is she a cheerleader? A stoner? A punk? A goth? Obviously you don't want to shoehorn her into some stereotype, but there's a reason that archetypes work, and it can help the reader get a better sense of who is she before her story starts and therefore care about whether she succeeds when it comes to ...

CONFLICT. You could also just say plot, but CONFLICT is the second most important thing in STORY, and so, yeah you get it. You actually have a pretty excellent sense of the conflict set up here. Dave wounds Calvin, Calvin wants revenge, Calvin has powers, so Calvin switches bodies with Dave's girlfriend Kelsey. I mean, there's more to it than that, but that's basically it. You just need to figure out a way to convey that in less than 250 words. You've got the threads here, you just need to expose them a bit more succinctly.

CHOICE. This isn't really required, and it's far less important than the two elements before it, but good query letters often end of what's called a sadistic choice (that's a TVTropes link, you've been warned), the kind of thing that it's nearly impossible for a character to decide about, and therefore makes the reader (hopefully the agent's assistant) have no choice but to want to read the pages.

Those are the three main elements, but there are a couple of other common things like an inciting incident which turns an innocent world into an exciting new one (I get the feeling that is your car accident, unless that's backstory), and you've got that pretty clear here, but basically what you want to try to do is come up with something relatively similar to this:

Opening paragraph introduces very sympathetic protagonist, and we readers care about her right away and want her to win. Then once we know who she is, you can finish the paragraph by telling us what starts to happen to her, or in other words what the inciting incident is.

Second paragraph covers the main conflict. Introduce the antagonist here, and explain what they want and why/how it goes against what the protagonist wants. Be specific. Nothing damages a decent query more than vagueness.

Final paragraph (this is of the "meat" part of the query, your "housekeeping/bio/personalization" section can be another paragraph or two, but keep the "meat" to 250 words or less if you can) covers the sadistic choice, or at least makes clear what the protagonist must accomplish in order to succeed or win or at least survive the conflict.

All in all, you've got all the elements here. You just need to introduce Kelsey as a character more, and sooner, and then you need to pare down your description of the conflict so that it packs much more punch. The premise of this story is obviously really cool, it's just muddied by the confusing way it's described.

That's it!

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and feedback below.