Saturday, September 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This YA Fantasy Query Too Confusing?

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 site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked until October 17.

This week’s questions: Is it too abstract or confusing? I'm afraid of overwhelming with details. Should I mention age, or is it implied that the protagonist is a teenager?


Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear [Agent]:

Asterisk Tonwell is not a hero.

She has been trapped in her mind for 132 days, doing a hell of a job training as an assassin. Except that she never wanted to be a killer. So when Asterisk wakes up, she does what she does best: turning on her captors, escaping her cell, and accidentally breaking into a military center disguised as a mountain.

But this is not reality. Covertt is a parallel universe inside a mirror, and in days, it's destroyed by the man who created it-- Legion. The layers of alternate realities teeter on the edge of collapse, threatening to erase the existence of everything trapped within them.

Unless Asterisk sacrifices herself as the Legion's tool.

Deceit. Vengeance. Hypocrites. Liars. Asterisk Tonwell is a villain. Yesterday she twisted reality with her mind. Today she betrayed her allies. Tomorrow she will make the world regret they ever knew her name.

This is the game of gods, the game of death, the game of victims.

And all villains must die.

INHERITRIX is a young adult fantasy novel complete at 120,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration!

My Thoughts in Purple:

Dear [Agent]:

[Asterisk Tonwell is not a hero.] I have mixed feelings about this. It sets up the protagonist as an anti-hero, but I’m being told what she’s not before I even get to see what she is. (readers chime in here)

She has been trapped in her mind for 132 days, [doing a hell of a job] this contradicts the “trapped” idea. If she’s doing a good job, then why is she trapped? She’s not resisting? training as an assassin. Except that she never wanted to be a killer. [So when Asterisk wakes up, she does what she does best: turning on her captors] This contradicts itself. She never wanted to be a killer, so she kills her captors? , escaping her cell, and [accidentally breaking into a military center] feels a little coincidental disguised as a mountain.

[But this is not reality. Covertt is a parallel universe inside a mirror, and in days, it's destroyed by the man who created it-- Legion. The layers of alternate realities teeter on the edge of collapse, threatening to erase the existence of everything trapped within them.

Unless Asterisk sacrifices herself as the Legion's tool.] This all feels like the main gist of this novel, but I’m having a hard time understanding it or how this affects Asterisk and the novel.

[Deceit. Vengeance. Hypocrites. Liars.] Four feels like too much. Perhaps cut one Asterisk Tonwell is a villain. Yesterday she twisted reality with her mind. Today she betrayed her allies. Tomorrow she will make the world regret they ever knew her name.] This paragraph is fun, but she feels more like the antagonist. Why would I want to read about someone like this?

[This is the game of gods, the game of death, the game of victims.

And all villains must die.] I don’t really know what this means. And it feels too “game of thrones-y”

INHERITRIX is a young adult [fantasy] small thing, but I always put parallel universes in science fiction, and overall, this has more of a sci fi feel than fantasy to me novel complete at [120,000 words.] This is on the long side for YA, so it’s might be a problem. It’s more about pacing than word count, and fantasy does tend to be a little longer, but you might need to trim it down closer to 100K words Thank you for your time and consideration!

The questions: 

1. Is it too abstract or confusing? I'm afraid of overwhelming with details.

Yes. This world seems very complex, so I’d suggest not trying to explain it beyond a few key details to set the scene. This is likely your biggest challenge here. You’ll have to find a way to get the gist of the world and situation across in general terms so agents can understand it. I’d look for a solid paragraph that summarizes the world and how it affects Asterisk. She’s been captured (I assume if she’s trapped and trying to escape) by a group with access to multiple universes and they have some nefarious purpose they need Asterisk for. She comes from one of those worlds I assume. You might use her world to compare and contrast the bigger story world so agents can understand it.

For the rest of the query, perhaps focus on the core conflict and what the story is about. From this, it seems like the novel is about a girl who gets free and goes on a killing spree for revenge. I don’t see any conflict or sense of stakes that aren’t so enormous (life and death of multiple realities) they’re too abstract to connect to as a reader. I know this sounds harsh, but look at it from a reader’s perspective--why should they care about as assassin who goes on a killing spree? Why would they want to read a whole book about that?

I suspect there’s more here than 120,000 words of a girl killing people, so look at what this book is really about at the core. What does Asterisk want? “To escape people trying to turn her into an assassin” only gets the story so far. Why should a reader care about her escaping? What makes her special? What is Asterisk trying to do on a larger scale? Why does any of this matter?

Try shifting your focus to the beginning of the novel and the inciting event. What happens then? What sets Asterisk on the plot path of this novel? What is the conflict that is going to prevent Asterisk from getting her goal? Legion seems to be the antagonist here, but what is he trying to do? You don’t have to reveal his plan if you want that a secret, but a hint of the problem Asterisk faces will help set up the obstacles she’ll have to overcome.

Agents look for compelling characters caught in a strong conflict, and a sense of escalating stakes to show that there’s a plot building toward a good ending. What about Asterisk makes her compelling? What is the conflict she faces? What are the stakes if she fails (personal stakes matter more than the lives of billions of faceless people)? How do things get worse over the course of the novel? These are the details you want to convey through your query, because that’s where the story lies.

(Here’s more on figuring out what to use in your query)

2. Should I mention age, or is it implied that the protagonist is a teenager?

I like to mention age, because YA spans 14 to 17. There’s often a difference in tone and expectation between a novel with a 14-year-old protagonist and a 17-year-old one. The younger side (14/15) tends to imply things more than show them. The older side (16/17) tends to be grittier, sexier, and more direct about what’s happening. (this is generally speaking of course, you can have a younger dark and gritty novel, same as an older novel that implies the darker aspects).

(Here’s more on writing a query)

Overall, I think this query is focusing on the wrong details and not letting what’s cool about this novel shine through yet. This only has to make an agent want to read the book, it doesn’t have to explain everything to them. Try going back to the basics—an interesting person solving an interesting problem in an interesting way.

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.

4 comments:

  1. This is a hard one to craft perfectly... written from the point of view of a "villain", complex with contradictions, in an intricate world. I'm fascinated, which must mean you're on the right track, so trust Janice and trust yourself and go for it.

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  2. I agree with everything Janice said about the stakes not shining through in this query. I think you have stakes, they are just getting bogged down in all of the catchy phrasing and wording you've got going on. I know it's always stressed that we should make sure to get across the voice in the query, but clarity *has* to be the number one priority. And honestly, you are clearly a talented enough writer that you can pull off both with a little work. Sorry in advance if this runs a little long! (Make that really long. The site is making me break this into two comments!)

    Some notes:

    -When you say trapped in her mind, what does this mean? Later you mention "when she wakes up." Is this a reference to an emotional/spiritual awakening where she realizes she can't do this anymore, or is she hooked up to some virtual reality assassin training and she literally and physically wakes up? Clarity would definitely help on this point.

    -"she does what she does best" - I'm not sure I agree the point Janice made about this line because she can be an amazing killer without wanting to be and after suffering mental abuse, she might not even have total control over it. My beef with this line: Is accidentally breaking into a military base disguised as a mountain really what she does best? lol That seems like a super specific talent if so!!! Or is it just something she does after escaping? Also, technically, she can only do one thing "best."

    -"disguised as a mountain." - I read this twice for some reason as Asterisk being disguised as a mountain (serious "wut?" moment there, lol) rather than the military base. That's probably me just being thick-headed on too little sleep. Regardless, it's a little bass-ackward. I assume you added this because it's the reason she "accidentally" broke into the base, but with it tagged onto the end of the sentence rather than up front, it comes off as an afterthought rather than the cause. Maybe try leading with it, ala, "When she seeks shelter in a nearby cave system, she accidentally stumbles upon…" sort of thing?

    -"But this isn't reality." - I think this is too vague. Are we supposed to assume that Asterisk is delusional? That nothing of what's happening is real? The assassin training? The escape? Or is it *just* the military center she's stumbled into that's not part of reality?

    -"and in days, it's destroyed by the man who created it" - I stumbled a bit on the tense of this. Maybe consider "Days after Asterisk finds herself trapped inside, it's destroyed by…" or something along those lines? I think it's important to reinforce that Asterisk is trapped inside Coverrt somehow because that is her personal stakes. She'll be part of what's erased if the alternate reality collapses (I assume?). I think this not being clear is why Janice added this note, "but I’m having a hard time understanding it or how this affects Asterisk and the novel."

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  3. Part Two:

    - "Unless Asterisk sacrifices herself as the Legion's tool." - Whoa. I think we missed something. What does Legion "Mr. I can make and destroy parallel universes" want with Asterisk? Later in the query you mention offhandedly that she can also alter reality. I assume that's the kicker? If she can alter reality, and that's why Legion wants her, that's a huge part of the story and not something to bury at the end like it doesn't really matter. I would draw this part of the plot out—her discovering this ability and maybe what Legion wants with it (we need to know why she wouldn't want to work for him/why it's such a sacrifice to do what he wants). Also, is there an alternative choice for her, or is it basically death by shattered reality or be Legion's puppet? (- After reading the query several times and picking it apart and putting it back together again, I'm pretty confident these are your stakes. An agent doesn't have time to pick apart meanings and decipher them in this way with the volume of queries they receive. That means you need to make things crystal clear in the first reading, or first skimming for some agents) Finally, maybe use this space to show a hint of her becoming the badass she clearly is.

    -For me, the rest of the query doesn't add anything except catchy writing (It's great writing, I just don't think it helps your query serve its function). Also, there's nothing about allies in the rest of the query, so betraying people we don't even know exist before that line doesn't pack the punch it should.

    Overall, I get a really epic Matrix vibe from this, and that's definitely something I'd like to see more of. That, plus the awesome writing makes it super intriguing, which is what a query is supposed to do. The problem is, the plot reads rather messily here and you're going to be fighting an uphill battle justifying that word count as it is. The first step to justifying it to a reading agent would be to show that you know precisely what the overarching plotline and the stakes for Asterisk are and can articulate them clearly.

    These are just my opinions and suggestions and they are of course subjective! Disagree or agree with whatever you want. You know the book better than anybody, and if a suggestion doesn't feel right to you, it probably isn't right! Know that I wouldn't have taken nearly this much time writing all of this if I didn't see an awesome story peeking out of this query. A very genuine best of luck to you!

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  4. "Asterisk Tonwell is a villain. Yesterday she twisted reality with her mind. Today she betrayed her allies. Tomorrow she will make the world regret they ever knew her name."

    I think that needs to be first. It establishes who she is rather than who she's not. The rest of the query should talk about why we should care about this obvious villain. It seems like her struggle with Legion, his wanting to use her as a puppet, is the main conflict. Expand on that. By the way, I like books with villains as main characters. They tend to be real people rather than caricatures.

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