Saturday, October 18

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Fantasy Query: Would You Want to See More?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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Submissions currently in the queue: One + one resubmit 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 25.

This week’s questions:

Does this query make an agent want to ask for the manuscript? Is it noticeably weaker at the end? Are the stakes high enough? As it's a slice of life fantasy, I want to emphasize there are no Dark Lords to defeat or McGuffins to retrieve...the journey is primarily a character one. 


NOTE: Revised query at the end 

Market/Genre: Fantasy query

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear [agent name]

Evlalia welcomes new technology in her life even less than she does people. She only endures her servants because no High person in Albion ties their own corset or winds their own watch. But when these servants pick the workhouse over another minute in her employment, buying a magical replacement programmed to obey her every word seems the final step to a quiet and human-free life.

These 'units' are summoned from the Internet and come with unique and eclectic 'monoware': some can outrun passing cars or read a book with a single touch, others grow their toenails or eyelashes hundreds of times faster than normal. When Evlalia buys Tace, a mute and handless teleporting unit days from being switched off, she insists it was to be contrary rather than from pity. He might take longer with his duties than other servants, but at least he'll never answer back.

But when Tace begins to speak again Evlalia finds herself wanting to listen. Becoming friends wasn't planned but it happens anyway, like the cutting words she always assumed she could stop if she tried hard enough.

New humans and units are filling Evlalia's life, and trying to offend them all quickly enough to drive them back out would keep her busy enough. But there are other reasons for some to stay. Tace's first user still considers him useless, so assumes no one will protest if she switches him off. An old acquaintance wants revenge for when Evlalia's choice of words ended in tragedy. One unit can read memories Evlalia would rather forget, and another knows exactly which artery in her neck to pinch shut. And not all units are under human control after all.

TITLE is a 120,000 word slice of life/steampunk novel, set in an alternate Edwardian England.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Dear [agent name]

[Evlalia welcomes new technology in her life even less than she does people.] Had to read this twice to figure out what you meant. [She only endures her servants because no High person in Albion ties their own corset or winds their own watch.] It starts out with technology, yet this shifts to people so it's a little confusing what's important here [But when these servants pick the workhouse over another minute in her employment, buying a magical replacement programmed to obey her every word seems the final step to a quiet and human-free life.] If she dislikes people and tech, and magical servants are an option, then why didn't she just buy one and fire the servants?

These 'units' are summoned from the [Internet] this is so "our world" it threw me and come with unique and eclectic 'monoware': some can outrun passing cars or read a book with a single touch, others grow their toenails or eyelashes hundreds of times faster than normal. When Evlalia buys Tace, a mute and [handless] mute I can understand but why buy a handless servant? teleporting unit [days from being switched off, she insists it was to be contrary rather than from pity] She hasn't struck me as the type to show pity, so this feels out of the blue and I don't understand why she does it. He might take longer with his duties than other servants, but at least he'll never answer back.

[But when Tace begins to speak again Evlalia finds herself wanting to listen.] Why? Becoming friends wasn't planned but it happens anyway, [like the cutting words she always assumed she could stop if she tried hard enough.] Not sure what this is saying

[New humans and units are filling Evlalia's life,] how did people get involved? and [trying to offend them all quickly enough to drive them back out would keep her busy enough.] Not sure what the problem is here, but is her goal really to offend people? [But there are other reasons for some to stay.] from her perspective or theirs? [Tace's first user still considers him useless, so assumes no one will protest if she switches him off.] Feels out of the blue and I'm not sure how it connects to anything [An old acquaintance wants revenge for when Evlalia's choice of words ended in tragedy.] Not sure what this means and is also out of the blue [One unit can read memories Evlalia would rather forget, and another knows exactly which artery in her neck to pinch shut.] Also feels random. There's no context for these details so they're confusing instead of intriguing  [And not all units are under human control after all.] This is the first sign of what the novel's conflict might be. Is it?

TITLE is a [120,000 word] Tastes vary of course, but this feels a bit on the long side by 20K words [slice of life] don't need as this isn't a category /steampunk novel, set in an alternate Edwardian England.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The questions:

1. Does this query make an agent want to ask for the manuscript?


I'm not an agent so I can't say if an agent would ask for more, but this didn't grab me as a reader yet, because I can't tell what the novel's about (readers chime in here). It looks like a pretty interesting world with a mix of magic and tech (though I didn't get "steampunk" from this, as that has its own set of specific rules), but there's no real mention of what the problem is Evlalia is trying to solve. There are a slew of things mentioned at the end, but there's no context for any of them and none look like the core conflict.

I also don't understand Evlalia's motives. If she dislikes people and tech, and there are magical servants she can buy, then why have human or tech servants at all? Just buy what she needs and never deal with people again. Plus, someone who dislikes everything and enjoys being rude doesn't make her a very likable protagonist, so why (as a reader or agent) would I care about her problems or her journey?

Since you call this a "slice of life" story, I suspect this might be more premise novel right now. It focuses on Evlalia's life and relationship with Tace, but there's no central problem driving the plot that needs to be resolved. If there is, then it's just not coming through in the query yet. I suspect this might follow Evlalia learning to be a better person through her relationship with Tace, but again, why should a reader care about her and her journey? This is even more vital in a character piece where the external plot isn't the focus.

(Here's more on premise novels and how to fix them)

I'd suggest bringing the conflict to the front and showing how it drives the novel (if it's there and not showing up), or finding that core conflict in the novel itself if it's missing. Even in a character journey, there is something the protagonist needs to do that will bring about the change or let them experience that journey. Fantasy also tends to be plot-focused, so readers are going to expect something to be driving the tale. You can certainly break the norm there, but if you're too far off what a reader of that genre likes and expects, you're not giving them the book they like to read and that can cause a reader/writer disconnect.

Ask yourself:
  • What is the one external problem Evlalia needs to solve in this novel? (it seems like it might be related to Tace's past owner or some secrets there)
  • What is the internal lesson or growth she'll undergo that creates her journey and character arc? (the flaw she has to overcome to be happy)
  • How does the external problem allow her to undergo that internal journey? (how these two conflicts are connected)
  • What is the consequence if she doesn't do either of these things? (the stakes)
  • What's in the way of her doing these things? (the conflict)
(Here's more on crafting interior conflicts and character arcs)

2. Is it noticeably weaker at the end?

Yes and no, because it's just lists details in the book with no context for them. But those areas are the only places that show potential conflict and what the book might actually be about. If one of them is the core conflict, you might think about ways you can make that a bigger part of the query.

(Here's more on writing a selling query or crafting a strong pitch)

3. Are the stakes high enough?

I see no stakes so far, so I can't say. There are suggestions that something is going on and Evlalia might be in danger, but nothing specific. To make readers care and want to see how this story turns out, they'll want to know what consequence Evlalia will face if she doesn't do X (core conflict).

(Here's more on adding stakes)

4. As it's a slice of life fantasy, I want to emphasize there are no Dark Lords to defeat or McGuffins to retrieve...the journey is primarily a character one.

Then just show that in the query. If it doesn't focus on a Dark Lord or a quest, agents will see it's not that kind of novel. But they need to see the plot, whatever that is.

No matter what the story is about, it's still a protagonist faced with a conflict and she must act to resolve that conflict or face a consequence.

(Here's more on using the query as a plotting tool to find those pieces)

Overall, I suspect you're either not sure what the core conflict of the novel is or it's just not appearing in the query yet. From the earlier draft of the query sent in, it's possible the conflict might be about the role of units in society and the human/unit dynamic (a forbidden friendship type deal). Whatever the conflict, I'd suggest clarifying it and approaching the query with the traditional "protagonist has a problem, antagonist is in the way of her fixing said problem, this is why she needs to fix it and this is what will happen if she doesn't fix it" format. This will force you to find and reveal the core elements of the plot. It looks like there are some interesting things here, they're just not showing through yet.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

Revised Query and Feedback:


Evlalia Higglesworth needs a new servant. [As a High citizen, she can't be expected to feed or dress herself. Besides, she wouldn't know how.] I like this, as it tells me a lot about the world and her role in it.
Human servants come with needs: sleep, salaries and now, thanks to those [bothersome unions, even days off. ] I like the attitude here and what it says about her and the world A magical servant, on the other hand, is burdened with none of these. These 'units' are programmed to obey their user's every word – and they're even programmed to want to. Each comes with unique and eclectic software: some can read minds or heal wounds with the slightest touch, others have toenails or nose hair that grow a hundred times faster than normal.

Tace, a teleporting unit, seems the perfect choice. He can zoom all over the house and even move Evlalia from her bed to her chair [when she feels too rich to get up by herself.] I like the attitude here, but "too rich" feels off to me

[The fact that her new servant doesn't have hands was no reason to hesitate. A servant who won't serve is, of course, unacceptable. But a servant who can't is inconceivable. If Tace can't always serve her, what does he become? And if Evlalia accepts this, what has she become?] I'm confused by this paragraph. I don't think you need it

Meanwhile the country of Albion is changing, whether Evlalia can conceive of it or not. The oppressed Low class is beginning to rise up against the protectors of an outdated system. Units, who protect their High users with magic while rejoicing in servitude, are an obvious first target.

[And] But? not all of Evlalia's new enemies are human. Because not all units agree with the system either. In fact, some aren't even bound to obey their users. [And with magic at their disposal, they have more freedom and more ways to destroy than any human, High or Low, can imagine.] I like how this suggests a much larger problem than just low vs high class.

Feels like you need a paragraph here that describes the conflict Evlalia faces personally.

Evlalia needs to [decide her enemies carefully.] I don't know what this means And she might need more than a servant beside her this time. She might even need a friend.

THE MATTER THAT YOU READ is a [120,000 word urban fantasy] This doesn't feel like an urban fantasy to me, but regular fantasy novel, set in the alternate Edwardian England of Albion.

My Thoughts:


I think this is very close. I like the setup, the world, the basic inherent conflict of the noblewoman who can't survive without her servant but doesn't like people, the brewing revolt of the underclass, the hints of a larger problem with the magical servants that threatens humanity, her growth as a person to becomes friends with a non-human servant and how that mirrors the crisis. I can see a lot of potential here for what this novel might be like.

What I'm not quite seeing yet, is Evlalia's personal conflict. I assume she'll be targeted and drawn into this uprising, but what is her actual goal that will drive the book? There's lots of premise, but no plot shown yet. I'd suggest adding a paragraph that covers how she fits into this premise and what her problem is, where her personal conflict comes from, and what's at stake for her if she fails.

You might consider just calling this a fantasy or alternate world fantasy, as it has none of the traditional tropes of urban fantasy. It's also on the long side for urban fantasy.

Nice rewrite. It feels just about there.

5 comments:

  1. Dear Author, Janice makes a lot of valid points that you need to address BUT I have never wanted to read a steampunk novel until now. I think you've got something here. Good luck.

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  2. To the author who submitted this query, I want to thank you for stepping up and sharing. Janice's comments address much of what I had an issue with. Oddly, after reading this query, I couldn't help wondering if this could possibly be descritbed as steampunk literary fiction given the character-driven journey the MC seems to go through.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. (The above was just a test as my longer reply kept not going through)

    Dear Bridget,
    Thanks for your kind comment! I was very touched and excited to hear my query made you consider reading a genre you woudn't normally consider. Janice's advice was really helpful and I realise now that my query revealed uncertainties about my story itself, which I'm addressing in the rewrite.

    Dear Angela,
    Thanks in turn for commenting! I'm rewriting parts of my story and making the MC more sympathetic, and finding that the story works much better overall as a result. I think I'lll spend a while rewriting before attempting another query.

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  5. That's awesome that you've found a way to strengthen the story. :) The second query is much better for the reasons Janice said- it gives a clearer picture of your world and character.

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