The author took yesterday's comments and fleshed out her starter foundation, filling in the details. I think she did a great job fleshing this out, and I have a much better sense of the story now. Today, we're going to pick at it, clarify points, and bring out the core conflict and sense of escalating stakes. Not everything will be needed, so we'll identify the important parts and trim out the unimportant ones. I'm going to focus on content today, not style. That comes last after we have all the right pieces in place.
So first, let's look to see what the key plot points are. What we're looking for is a sense of who the protag is, what his personal internal problem is, what his external problem is, how those are in conflict (if they are), the stakes, and the goal.
Sam Davis knows all about loss – his father leaving when he was four-years old, his mother dying eleven years later. Even more problematic is that his mom was his best friend; slightly pathetic for a boy of fifteen years of age. When she dies he loses his already small desire to live up to her presumption that someday he would become something great. Although he has moments when he would like to kick the crap out of something, Sam was most comfortable curling up into his beige universe like a warm blanket and following the lead of others. That was until he was hanging out with his new roommates, Maddie and Z, and they find a strange map hidden in the lining of his mother’s old suitcase. The names in faded blue are unknown, but Sam realizes he has seen some of the strange markings before. They also appear on a tarnished frame that holds the sole photo he has of his father. Removing the picture for the first time, Sam sees Davis, WV written in his mother’s familiar script.
Sam sheds the comfort of being a disciple, his desire to learn more about his missing father outweighing the niche he was accustomed to. He decides to sneak away from the foster home to the neighboring town of Davis hoping to find out what relation the small town has to his parents. Sam is thrilled when Maddie and Z offer to go with him, their earlier promise to watch out for one another holding steadfast. Once in Davis, they find the Vortex and are suddenly hurtled into the convulsing world of Caylestis – the world that had appeared on the map. But they learn the land is dying, the suns barely able to shine through the thick clouds that have brewed since an evil man named Deimos captured Faras, a flying horse and the soul of this enchanted place. Sam is shocked to find that not only does he bear a striking resemblance to the Emperor, but that his true destiny is to save this fading world - but can he survive Deimos’ wrath?
I bolded the things that look to me like the key elements of this tale. To understand why these jumped out at me and others didn't, let's look at each line one at a time. This may seem nitpicky, but I hope to show the thought process that goes into deciding what to put in your query and why, so that you can apply it to your own work.
Sam Davis knows all about loss – his father leaving when he was four-years old, his mother dying eleven years later.
I suspect that this missing father is also the dying Emperor, and this is why Sam is the only one who can save Caylestis. I think this works as an opening sentence because it introduces Sam and shows his internal problem. He'd dealing with loss and grief, and has a missing father. Since it appears so prominently at the start of the query, it suggests that this theme is going to play a large role in the tale. Since I imagine Sam will be reunited with his father by the end of the story, this is a good detail to open with. It also seems to drive a lot of Sam's actions in the query and the book.
Even more problematic is that his mom was his best friend; slightly pathetic for a boy of fifteen years of age.
Although this tells you Sam's relationship to his mother, it doesn't really do much to move the story or show the core conflict. Her being Sam's best friend doesn't affect anything Sam does in the query. This is a good candidate to cut.
When she dies he loses his already small desire to live up to her presumption that someday he would become something great.
Suspecting the father is an Emperor in another world, this suggests that the mother did indeed know the truth about Sam's father and what Sam might one day become. This is a goal for Sam, even though he doesn't know it yet. Larger things are in store for him. I think more can be done with this line though. It would be interesting if Sam's mother had planned to tell him about his destiny but died before she could. Perhaps her "you're destined for more" statements were leading and preparing him for the truth. If Sam is left with a feeling that he should live up to her ideals now, but isn't sure how to do that, it could give him the right motivator to act to take the story forward. Perhaps rephrase this line to hint at Sam's greater purpose and the sense of something left undone. Use this to start building the suspense of the query.
Although he has moments when he would like to kick the crap out of something, Sam was most comfortable curling up into his beige universe like a warm blanket and following the lead of others.
I really like the voice in the curling up in his beige universe comment, and these two details show that Sam is not the leader his father is. This shows the character growth for Sam over the course of the novel. He's going to become the leader his mother knew he could one day be. Although I like these elements, the rest of the line isn't adding much to the query. I suspect Sam wanting to kick the crap out of things is a way to show he has a fighting spirit and the ability to become the hero later, but there are probably other ways this can be conveyed that work with the other elements better. Keep the idea, but also keep an eye out for places this can be combined with something else.
That was until he was hanging out with his new roommates, Maddie and Z, and they find a strange map hidden in the lining of his mother’s old suitcase.
Since nothing is ever said about where Sam is, "new roommates" is a confusing detail. It's also unclear where the suitcase came from or why they were looking behind the lining. Finding the map is critical to the story, and the introduction of the two friends is also key, so there's a good opportunity here to do a lot with a single sentence or two. In the next paragraph, we learn that Sam is in a foster home, so putting that in here to ground readers in the setting is a good idea. It's also great spot to show Sam being a follower and not a leader, because he can be following something Maddie and Z are doing. Perhaps this involves the suitcase in some way. Maybe Sam meets the new friends, who take charge, Sam follows along, and things go the way plot needs them to and they find the map.
The names in faded blue are unknown, but Sam realizes he has seen some of the strange markings before.
While nothing is bolded here, this is a solid transition sentence that moves you easily to the next critical detail.
They also appear on a tarnished frame that holds the sole photo he has of his father.
As the father is an important detail, finding the only photo Sam has is a big deal. Not only does this put the father squarely in the front seat again, it gives Sam a fresh look at him so he can recognize him later. It also shows Sam still has a photo of his father, even though the man left him when he was small. This says Sam has a connection to him still, something that will likely be important later.
Removing the picture for the first time, Sam sees Davis, WV written in his mother’s familiar script.
Again, a good transition line that moves the story forward. His mother's handwriting is what catches his eye, and this links all the elements. His father, his mother's claim that he had a destiny, his understanding of loss.
Sam sheds the comfort of being a disciple, his desire to learn more about his missing father outweighing the niche he was accustomed to.
Wanting to know more about his father is what propels Sam to act, so he has to really want this. If it's possible to hint at this at the start, it could help tie everything together even better. Maybe Sam is in the foster home because no one can find his missing father, and he wishes he could find him and not be a pseudo-orphan. The rest of the line isn't doing as much. Sam hasn't made the choice yet to act, so he hasn't shed anything. Perhaps dwell more on his need to suddenly take charge and find his father instead. Maybe weave back in the idea of him always following, and how that isn't enough anymore. This is a good spot to really show Sam's emotional need and why he's willing to act to satisfy that need at this point, when he never has been in the past.
He decides to sneak away from the foster home to the neighboring town of Davis hoping to find out what relation the small town has to his parents.
Deciding to sneak off is a good transition, but what Sam hopes to find feels a little weak still. I don't think Sam would change his habits just to find out how Davis relates to his parents, but he'd probably act to find his father. Since this is the only clue he has, it's the only place he can start his search. Plus, it keeps the father front and center, and leads the story where it needs to go.
Sam is thrilled when Maddie and Z offer to go with him, their earlier promise to watch out for one another holding steadfast.
This line isn't doing much, and there's no real reason why Maddie and Z would go. A promise might work, but since there's been nothing said about that before this, it comes across a little flat. Perhaps flip it around so Sam is being the leader finally, and Maddie and Z follow him for reasons that hint he has the leadership qualities he'll later need. Maybe they want adventure, maybe they also wish they could find their fathers, maybe they feel sorry him, whatever motivates them to go. Make it more than just "hey, let's go too." Raise the stakes here if possible. Are they risking anything to go on this trip? That could also show how Maddie and Z are willing to risk punishment to follow Sam, showing how he can inspire people and be a leader.
Once in Davis, they find the Vortex and are suddenly hurtled into the convulsing world of Caylestis – the world that had appeared on the map.
This is a big moment for the story, yet little is described about it. How exactly do they find the Vortex? This is also phrased as if they were looking for the Vortex all along, but they weren't. They were looking for clues to Sam's family, and found this instead. Perhaps show the boys doing something, but this happens. Is it something Sam does? Is it location related? Why does the Vortex open in the map now and not in the room when they first found it?
But they learn the land is dying, the suns barely able to shine through the thick clouds that have brewed since an evil man named Deimos captured Faras, a flying horse and the soul of this enchanted place.
This line has important details, but I doubt Sam gets hurled into Caylestis and learn all of this the moment he lands. Something probably happens when they go through the Vortex, and the result of that something leads to this. How does Sam discover the problem? How does he discover that he's the one who has to fix it? What is it that Sam wants now? There's a great drive with Sam wanting to find his father, and I suspect once he sees the Emperor he'll find him (or be told he looks like him and start suspecting things). Then find out the Emperor's dying, and losing another parent so soon after his mother is likely going to be pretty devastating for Sam. That's a darn good reason to take a huge risk to save this man. It also ties in all the elements, and shows why Sam would accept this task from both and internal and external need perspective. Of course, showing his internal and external needs in conflict is always good, so if there's anything that puts Sam's quest into conflict, definitely get that in.
Sam is shocked to find that not only does he bear a striking resemblance to the Emperor, but that his true destiny is to save this fading world - but can he survive Deimos’ wrath?
If the Emperor really is Sam's father, it probably doesn't have to be kept secret. If he knows it, that's a strong reason to be trying to save him. It also might be good to elaborate more on what his destiny actually is. What specifically does he have to do to save the world? Rescue Faras? How might he do that? What stands in his way? Perhaps position Deimos as a stronger obstacle to show what he's doing that will prevent Sam from winning, and how he might ruin everything. I don't think the question is "will he survive or not?" since he's the hero, so of course he'll survive, but at what cost? What is Sam risking here that will make someone want to read to find out how it turns out?
I wish I had an easy template this time, but the tweaking is all about the details. What you want to look for are the key elements that move you plot, and the motivating factors that make your protag act. You want a sense of escalating problems, a "things go wrong, then get worse, then get even worse."
Usually, focusing on how it starts and what has to happen for it to end round the query out nicely. Something sets your protag on the path of the novel. That's the inciting event. How they got into the whole mess. Then present what has to happen for them to win. That's your climax, the resolution. You don't have to say what happens, but suggest what has to be done, why it matters and what's in the way.
And a good thing to remember is that books tend to have a happy ending, so a yes or no, will they or won't they win question isn't as compelling as it sounds. Suggesting the sacrifices or risks that will be made to get there is usually far more interesting.
Tomorrow, we'll do one more round of clarifying (I hope our author is up for it), then Friday we'll polish for style.