Saturday, October 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Would This Query Make You Ask For Pages?

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: One


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this query letter have a good hook?

2. Do you think it is a good pitch to the agent? Do you think they would want to read the novel? Would you want to read the novel?

3. I want to provide a plot that is somewhat common, but has twists and turns that give it a new and fresh feel. I want to portray this in the query without giving the whole plot away. Can you get a sense of the twists and turns the novel will include without me flat out stating them?

4. Does it flow well? Is it clunky? Repetitive? Flat? Dull? Boring?

5. Should I include elements of Yasir's personality/what makes him special?

6. Should I include my own voice or keep things generic?

7. This is my first novel. I am just starting out. Is it okay if I omit the bio section? Will agents be turned off if I do?

8. Overall, does this query work?

Market/Genre: Urban, street-lit, African American fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear Agent,

Basketball keeps Yasir Thomas in control of his life and out of “the joint”. His discipline on the court can’t prepare him for what he’s about to learn. The man, whom his grandmother led him to believe was his father, is not his father. This is not the first lie she’s told. Yasir senses she is hiding something much worse.

If he intends to find out what that something is, he might just end up in a dangerous situation. But living in ignorance isn’t in the game plan.

Getting answers would take time, however—time he could be spending honing his skill. Less time practicing means college scouts won’t get to see him at his best. There goes that scholarship—his only ticket out of Bed-Stuy.

Yasir won’t be the only one affected by whatever choice he makes. He has his girlfriend and unborn child to think about too. It’s hard enough being a teen and preparing for fatherhood, but raising a family when he barely knows anything about his own is a whole new ballgame.

ONE OF YOU WILL BETRAY ME, my first novel, is urban fiction, complete at 96,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Dear Agent,

Basketball keeps Yasir Thomas in control of his life and out of “the joint”. Feels like it need a “but” here His discipline on the court can’t prepare him for what he’s about to learn. The man, whom his grandmother led him to believe was his father, is not his father. This [is not] perhaps isn’t to avoid the two “is not” in a row the first lie she’s told. Perhaps “and” here? Yasir senses she is hiding something much worse. Overall, this opening shows the basic conflict with a suggestion of setting.

[If he intends to find out what that something is,] reads awkwardly [he might just end up in a dangerous situation. But living in ignorance isn’t in the game plan.] Feels a little vague, though I like the use of the basketball terms to show his voice.

Getting answers would take time, however—time he could be spending honing his [skill.] in what? I assume basketball, but it’s not clear Less time practicing means college scouts won’t get to see him at his best. There goes that scholarship—his only ticket out of Bed-Stuy. This adds another conflict to the book, but I’m not sure what the story is about. Perhaps find a way to connect this more to the father problem? How does this affect finding his father or what his grandmother is hiding?

Yasir won’t be the only one affected by whatever choice he makes. He has his girlfriend and unborn child to think about too. [It’s hard enough being a teen and preparing for fatherhood, but raising a family when he barely knows anything about his own is a whole new ballgame.] This feels to me like the heart of the story. But it’s also the third problem listed. I can see all of these working together in the actual novel, but in the query, I’m not sure what this book is about. It’s a list of problems, but no core conflict.

ONE OF YOU WILL BETRAY ME, [my first novel,] general wisdom recommends not saying this, as it could negatively influence the agent is [urban fiction] is this adult or YA?, complete at 96,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The questions:

1. Does this query letter have a good hook?


It has several, and that’s actually a problem. There’s so much going on that I can’t tell what the book is really about. Is this about Yasir’s search for his father, finding out Grandma’s secrets, getting into college, or dealing with becoming a father? I can see how all of these could be connected in the novel (becoming a father and searching for his father has a nice thematic mirror to it, and college could be what he needs to be a good father and provide for his child), but right now, they’re all trying to demand attention so it’s unclear what the main problem is, and what the bulk of the book will cover.

I’d suggest focusing on the core conflict, and maybe one subplot that affects that (the fatherhood one perhaps, as it relates nicely). Agents don’t need to know every detail about a novel, just enough to make them want to read on. Aim for setting up the problem and main conflict, showing the stakes and how they escalate, and suggesting (or stating) what needs to be done to fix it.

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

2. Do you think it is a good pitch to the agent? Do you think they would want to read the novel? Would you want to read the novel?

I’m no agent, so I can’t speak for them, but I’m concerned the novel comes across as not being focused enough and the plot goes off in too many directions without a strong conflict to drive it. That could certainly turn off agents and flag this as a book that’s not quite ready. For myself, there’s no “ooo factor” that makes me want to read it, though it does sounds like the kind of book I’d pick up overall. So I think the concept is working, it’s just not showing what’s special about it yet to pique interest (readers chime in here).

(Here’s more on developing your hook)

3. I want to provide a plot that is somewhat common, but has twists and turns that give it a new and fresh feel. I want to portray this in the query without giving the whole plot away. Can you get a sense of the twists and turns the novel will include without me flat out stating them?

Not yet, because it’s just a series of problems with no connections or hints as to how these things work together (or where the twists might be). You might try looking at ways to suggest more without actually saying it. For example, I can see that Grandma has secrets, but there’s no “things aren’t what they seem” style writing to hint there’s more there the novel will cover. But you don’t have to show the twists and turn here unless the core conflict is driven by that (like a mystery or thriller). Most novels have twists and turns—that’s just good plotting. Focus on what’s special about your novel.

You could also stick with the basics and just show Yasir facing some really impossible decisions and conflicts. He’s going to be a father. He wants to find his own father. He faces the prospect of growing up and taking on adult responsibilities while struggling with the knowledge that his own father abandoned those same responsibilities.

I suspect Yasir’s inner struggle over what this means to him might be the key to finding the thematic element that ties all this together and shows those larger conflicts affecting each other.

(Here’s more on theme as a unifying force in a novel)

4. Does it flow well? Is it clunky? Repetitive? Flat? Dull? Boring?

There were a few sticky spots I marked above, so it could benefit from one more polish run. Flow is important in queries, so you might try reading it out loud to see where you stumble or want to add a transition word. You want it to flow logically from one thought to the next to show how the story unfolds. A sense of conflict, the stakes, the goals, how those stakes escalate, etc. Let the query build the same way the novel builds. You want to show the general sense of the story, not just a list of things that happen.

(Here’s more on how movie trailers can help you write better queries)

5. Should I include elements of Yasir's personality/what makes him special?

Probably, since this’s why readers will likely pick up the book They’ll want to follow Yasir through this problem and see how he solves it. A sense of who he is can help hook them. But be wary of shoving too much into the query to add this. Use your POV and let Yasir’s personality shine through. If forcing it in there hurts the query overall, don’t do it.

6. Should I include my own voice or keep things generic?

Typically, the query will match the narrative tone of the book (even though most queries are written in third person present tense). If this is written in a tight third person in Yasir’s voice, show that voice here. If this is third omniscient in your voice, show that. Think of the query as a super mini-version of your novel.

7. This is my first novel. I am just starting out. Is it okay if I omit the bio section? Will agents be turned off if I do?

Most folks advise against mentioning it’s a first novel, as that does carry some negative baggage. It’s a harsh truth, but a high percentage of first novels aren’t ready yet, and agents know this better than anyone. If you have no bio to speak of, leave it off. The novel is what matters.

8. Overall, does this query work?

Not quite yet (readers chime in). I think it’s close, but the core conflict and sense of stakes are still missing. I can see Yasir has problems, but not what the conflicts are (why solving these problems will be hard for him and force him to make hard choices and sacrifices), or how they will affect his life. I also don’t see what’s at stake if he fails any particular task. If he never finds out who his father is, so what? If he doesn’t get the scholarship, so what? (Never getting out of Bed-Stuy has some vague “bad” to it, but Yasir looks like a good guy, so there’s no strong fear this is a problem more than a wish). He has a pregnant girlfriend, so what? What will make readers care that he solves these problems?

This feels like more of a character journey than a plot-focused novel, so those conflicts and stakes will likely be quieter, but they still need to be there. How is this experience going to change his life? What does he lose? What does he gain?

(Here’s more on plotting with quieter stakes)

I’m also a little unsure what market this is aimed at. It doesn’t say young adult, but it has a very strong YA story, and it has a teen protagonist, so it feels YA.

I’d suggest stepping back and looking at this through Yasir’s eyes. Who is he? What’s his life like? What does he struggle with? How would he describe his own problems? I’d suspect the missing father/impending fatherhood issues would be strong triggers for whatever journey he’s going to undergo in this novel. It feels like the answers he’s looking for will be found there because it’s such a nice mirror.

You could also try looking at your ending. What problem does the climax resolve? That ought to be your core conflict. Whatever bad thing happens if he doesn’t resolve that problem will be your stakes. Those two elements will guide you in knowing what needs to go in the query and what you can leave for the novel itself. If he finds his dad, then “finding his dad” will be part of the query’s hook (you don’t have to show the outcome, just the start of the quest to get there). Whatever is in the way of that (perhaps the pregnant girlfriend?) will work as your conflict.

Character-driven novels are often harder to write queries for, because they don’t have those clear-cut plot elements to work with. Softer conflicts can feel “meh” even when they’re not. Voice and a sense of the tough choices (conflicts) frequently work as hooks in these cases.

You might try looking at some similar novels and see how they wrote their cover copy. They’ll be more vague than what you’d want for a query, but you’ll see the general tone and feel of how they’re structured and written. That could give you some insights.

Overall, I think finding what’s truly at the heart of this story and what Yasir’s journey and conflict really is will get this query back on track. I think you probably have it in the novel, you’re just having trouble articulating (and maybe identifying) it because you’re too close to the plot. Look instead at Yasir’s character arc and how the external plot affects that growth. I bet you find the right pieces to use after that.

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.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Janice and the brave volunteer, for providing this great opportunity to delve into the often messy business of query letters.

    I usually use the synopsis as a vehicle in framing a query letter. It tends to help me more easily switch my writing perspective. Plus, I have a bit more room to 'learn' how to tell my tale in brief.

    I caught myself rapid-scanning this potential query letter, essentially for the reasons you indicated: unfocused presentation. My mind clicked off the list of issues given, but very soon that's all it was: a list.

    Left to my own imagination and devices, I attempted to string the list together, which left me wondering how the book was going to read.

    Just because the query letter is short, doesn't mean it has to be stripped-down language. Actions verbs, strong framing, and intriguing presentation -- things that tickle the imagination and show the author's ability to work with words to produce interest -- are vital, I think.

    My impression here was that the new, soon-to-be-assumed, adult role and its tie to the MC's father, was the core of the story. Yet, we don't hear of it until nearly the end of the letter, which created questions about the author's grasp of their book.

    I've edited hundreds of query letters and have seen this same tendency -- to stick the core of the story at the very end, like a race that comes to a gasping close, when the race is truly just beginning.

    I think query letters are akin to the first pages of a novel. We strive to make them as engaging as possible, but often don't really hit our 'stride' and relax until several pages in.

    The query letter doesn't exist to 'explain' the story to the agent, but rather to invite them into your story.

    Start with that core concept you come racing up, panting, at the end of the letter, and then set up the barriers or dilemmas that can/could screw things up for the MC and his dream.

    The opening, as it stands now, makes me believe this is a story about a kid who has gotten into trouble before (keeping him out of the joint) or is in an environment so tough (like join a gang or else) that basketball is the savior-activity. So--is he this strong-willed person, ready to hold onto this thing that saves him from a life of crime? Unfortunately, I'm not being told anything about his commitment to 'escape' or what he is escaping.

    I almost feel like there are some assumptions of knowledge -- about the story, the characters, the culture the characters live in, etc. This feeling mostly just means that I feel like I'm missing 'something'. Not what we want an agent to feel, eh?

    I would suggest presenting the character and his 'dream' first, and then showing the main obstacles to obtaining this dream -- or having to alter the dream, and what that means. As an agent, I think I would want to know if he loved the girl, what this fledgling family would do to his dream, what he fears about his grandmother's lies -- and what, specifically, would affect his dream if his father really isn't his father?

    I would also be hoping that any twists in plot would take the story far from traditional resolutions, offering some gritty choices. If the author could convince me that pathos and joy would result in unusual ways, I'd want to read on.

    As the letter sits now, the agent is being asked to read between too many lines.

    Be bold! You've a great story! Be unabashedly dramatic in your presentation -- then go back and carefully tone it down.

    I've found that an author has but a few sentences to snag an agent's interest -- maybe. So, the writing needs to be intense, almost demanding...definitely stronger than the coffee the agent is sipping. lol

    Good luck to this volunteer -- I urge you to write your synopsis until every word has a purpose, and then pluck bits out to re-work for the query letter.

    Thanks again for this opportunity for everyone to learn more about query letters.

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  2. I agree with the above. If you can get the letter to match that amazing title, I think you'll have it made. But that's me.
    Gale

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