Saturday, January 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Request Pages From This Query Letter?

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: Seven

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 5.

This week’s question: 


My query is the result of lots of input, and I’m still not jumping backflips in happiness. All my input says to have an intro paragraph about the book, genre, etc. My heart says start with the action, in this case, the suicide. Your opinion.

Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

In fifty-five days, ALEX and SARAH will die unless they discover the mystery of their shared body.

Matryoschka Sarah draws on the imagery of the Russian nesting dolls, Matryoschka, to explain the relationship of the protagonists in this SciFi Novel. This is the first of four in the Matryoschka Heritage series.

If they live separate lives, ALEX MONROE, 24, and SARAH MERK, 18, will die. To survive, they must live as one person -- one body until they solve the mystery of who they really are.

ALEX lives with his guilt of not being mature enough at five years old to save his great-grandmother when she was attacked. Two years ago, he and his squad couldn't rescue three children caught in the crossfire of an ambush in Tikrit, Iraq. He's committing suicide tonight to ensure his inadequacies never cause another death.

A shadowy agency kills SARAH on her first day as a freshman on campus. She refuses to remain dead, regains control of her body and escapes capture. To survive, she needs a stranger's LIVE BODY -- Alex's body -- to sustain her by being her body, female, most of the hours of the day. Alex must choose; finish his life or try to save someone one more time, even at the loss of his identity.

In their attempts to cope with their weird co-dependency in one body, they discover deep connections, going back generations. As a second grader, Sarah was damaged in an illicit experiment that made her aware of non-physical auras of the people around her. She ignored the ability and it faded away, and she forgot about it. Twenty years ago, Babushka, Alex's great-grandmother, trained him to save her from a mysterious force but died before Alex was ready.

Coping with repeated attacks from their unknown enemy unleashes their OTHER, the energy entity which instinctively protects them. No one knows about the Other. Alex and Sarah die in an accident, forcing the Other into sentience. It finds itself stuck in their combined body, fully female, fully sentient with a mission. It won't rest until it recovers Alex and Sarah, even if it means its own death. And while doing that, kill everyone who attacked Sarah and Alex.

Matryoschka Sarah draws on beliefs in personal responsibility, accountability for others, what is real, who are we really, and what are we here for. Matryoschka Sarah benefits from the crucible of Critique Circle and two weeks of the intensive Taos Toolbox 2015, with multiple Nebula/Hugo/Sturgeon winner Nancy Kress, and New York best seller Walter Jon Williams.

My professional papers and conference speeches cover esoteric sensors, wave theory, organizational theory, and how real organizations respond to what is now known as 'black swan' events. I served as director, chair, and secretary for national, non-profit, non-government (NGO) and international technology organizations. All these fold into the novel.

I’m seeking an agent who shares my enthusiasm for Science Fiction with a theme. Thanks so much, in advance, for your consideration. May I send you the complete Matryoschka Sarah manuscript?

My Thoughts in Purple:

In fifty-five days, [ALEX and SARAH] You don’t capitalize names in a query. That’s a synopsis thing will die unless they discover the mystery of their shared body. Nice opening hook. “Shared body” is intriguing and I’m curious to know more.

Matryoschka Sarah draws on the imagery of the Russian nesting dolls, Matryoschka, to explain the relationship of the protagonists in this SciFi Novel. This is the first of four in the Matryoschka Heritage series. I’d move this paragraph to the end (also add the word count). Your opening line captures attention, so run with that and now tell me what the book is about.

If they live separate lives, ALEX MONROE, 24, and SARAH MERK, 18, will die. To survive, they must live as one person -- one body until they solve the mystery of who they really are. I’d cut, as this basically repeats the opener. What I want to know now is, how are they sharing a body and why will they die? What’s the conflict of this novel? It's a cool setup, but what happens next?

ALEX lives with his guilt of not being mature enough at five years old to save his great-grandmother when she was attacked. Two years ago, he and his squad couldn't rescue three children caught in the crossfire of an ambush in Tikrit, Iraq. He's committing suicide tonight to ensure his inadequacies never cause another death. Unnecessary backstory, though the suicide is an intriguing detail. But this feels mundane after the shared body concept. Also, these things all happened years ago. Why kill himself tonight? What triggers this? Why didn’t he try this two years ago?

A shadowy agency kills SARAH on her first day as a freshman on campus. I’ve don't know when this happens in relation to Alex’s problem. She refuses to remain dead, regains control of her body and escapes capture. To survive, she needs a stranger's LIVE BODY -- Alex's body -- to sustain her by being her body, female, most of the hours of the day. Alex must choose; finish his life or try to save someone one more time, even at the loss of his identity. This presents too many questions so I’m confused more than intrigued. It also makes me wonder who the protagonist is. Alex or Sarah or both? If he has to choose, that suggests he’s the protagonist. I really like that he can’t die or it kills Sarah, and that’s a nice personal conflict for him and a reason to stay alive. Works as a good inciting event choice.

In their attempts to cope with their weird co-dependency in one body, they discover deep connections, going back generations. As a second grader, Sarah was damaged in an illicit experiment that made her aware of non-physical auras of the people around her. She ignored the ability and it faded away, and she forgot about it. Twenty years ago, Babushka, Alex's great-grandmother, trained him to save her from a mysterious force but died before Alex was ready. This is all unnecessary backstory that says nothing about the plot. It also makes everything feels little contrived if these two people just happened to find each other like this.

Coping with repeated attacks from their unknown enemy unleashes their OTHER, the energy entity which instinctively protects them. No one knows about the Other. Alex and Sarah die in an accident, forcing the Other into sentience. It finds itself stuck in their combined body, fully female, fully sentient with a mission. It won't rest until it recovers Alex and Sarah, even if it means its own death. And while doing that, kill everyone who attacked Sarah and Alex. This paragraph loses me some more. There’s too much I don’t understand and I don’t see how it relates to any plot. Also, the protagonists die in the first book? Is the Other the actual protagonist?

Matryoschka Sarah draws on beliefs in personal responsibility, accountability for others, what is real, who are we really, and what are we here for. Nice theme, but aside from one moment from Alex, I’m not seeing it represented in the query.

Matryoschka Sarah benefits from the crucible of Critique Circle and two weeks of the intensive Taos Toolbox 2015, with multiple Nebula/Hugo/Sturgeon winner Nancy Kress, and New York best seller Walter Jon Williams. If you need space, you can cut this paragraph.

My professional papers and conference speeches cover esoteric sensors, wave theory, organizational theory, and how real organizations respond to what is now known as 'black swan' events. I served as director, chair, and secretary for national, non-profit, non-government (NGO) and international technology organizations. All these fold into the novel. Don’t need this paragraph.You have four "about me and the novel" paragraphs, and you only need one.

I’m seeking an agent who shares my enthusiasm for Science Fiction with a theme. Thanks so much, in advance, for your consideration. May I send you the complete Matryoschka Sarah manuscript?

The question:

My query is the result of lots of input, and I’m still not jumping backflips in happiness. All my input says to have an intro paragraph about the book, genre, etc. My heart says start with the action, in this case, the suicide. Your opinion.

Intro paragraphs are a matter of personal taste. Either up front or at the end, you'll have a paragraph that shares the title, genre and/or market, word count, and a little about why you contacted the agent. If there's room, you could add a little about yourself, though it's not necessary. Personally, I like to add the intro up front to provide context for the query, but either works.

Some agents like them, others want to get right into the story. If you like them, add one. If not, don’t. Or, tailor the query per agent and adjust based on their preference. Totally up to you and it won’t affect if an agent wants to see the book or not. No agent is going to reject you because you had an opening paragraph. It's the book that matters.

The opening line sets up a nice problem and intriguing question—two people in one body, a mysterious reason why, and a high-stakes ticking clock to when they need to solve it. That works for me, and I’m curious. But after that, things go off track and I don’t feel this query is working yet as a whole.

(Here's more on deciding what to put in a query letter)

The query shifts to backstory and the history of the world, and reveals information I don’t understand and don’t care about. There’s no sense of a conflict or a plot, so I have no idea what this book is actually about or who my protagonist is. I’m not even sure if this covers one book or the whole four-book series you mentioned, since it seems like the main characters die and the focus shifts to another entity. With so much backstory in the query, it’s easy for the agent to assume the novel is also full of backstory and has no plot (unfair, yes, but often the query is a good representation of the novel).

(Here’s more on what the query letter says about the book)

This sounds like a cool book, but the query isn’t showing it yet. I’d suggest starting over and focusing on the plot and conflict of the novel. If the story begins with Alex’s suicide and Sarah somehow taking over his body, start there. Something along the lines of…
Tortured by guilt over (horrible past, keep it a few words), Alex thinks suicide is his only way out. He (a little about his plan to kill himself), when…(how Sarah suddenly enters his mind.)

Sarah is just as surprised. She (a little about her problem, perhaps explain the scifi aspect some here). Together, they face (what their problem is now).

Now, Sarah and Alex must (what they have to do to resolve this problem). But (who is after them trying to cause them trouble). They have only 55 days to find the truth or they die.

This is obviously very rough, but the goal here is to show the plot, the conflict, the stakes, and a sense of what the book is going to cover. Since it’s science fiction, you’d also need to setup the world a little and show the scifi aspect. The real trick, is to get this all into three to four short paragraphs. The sweet spot for a query letter is around 250-300 words (this is 500).

Query letters read like back cover copy of a novel. They don’t cover the entire story, just the setup. Their goal is to hook an agent and make her want to read the entire book. I’d suggest reading a lot of cover copy for books in your genre and target market range to get a feel for how they sound, then write your query letter in that style.

(Here’s more on diagnosing problem query letters)

You also want to be clear who the protagonist is. Based on the title, I’d think Sarah was the protagonist, but then it’s Alex who has to make the choice that triggers the plot (does he die and kill Sarah or live to save her?—which is a great conflict for an inciting event). Whose story is this? (based on that conflict alone I’d say Alex, as it’s a wonderful thing to struggle over) What’s their conflict and problem to solve or else? The stakes are clear—solve the mystery or die—but what does “solve the mystery” mean from a plot standpoint? What external goal are they trying to accomplish that will resolve this conflict and save their lives? That’s what you want to show.

(Here's more on writing query letters)

Overall, I think there’s a really interesting book lurking here that just isn’t coming through in this query letter. It’s trying to do too much world building and explanation about the setup, and ignoring the plot and conflicts of the novel. The premise is “two minds one body” and readers will accept that going in, so next they’ll want to see “now what?” and how the plot unfolds. Now that these two are in one body, what happens? Why should we care? What promise will you make us?

Try rewriting this to focus on those questions and I think you’ll be much happier with the query (and the results).

(Here's more on how to write a query letter)

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.

7 comments:

  1. I’m only a lowly reader, but based on the trial letter, I’d read this book.

    Which isn’t to say ignore Janice’s input. You can make the letter stronger. Use it for back cover copy if/when you decide self-publishing’s the right way to go. Read and understand any contract you’re offered!

    Thanks for sharing it with us, and Good Luck!

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    1. Not to discount your comment, but I have to disagree. Even though the plot does sound enticing, this query was confusing, which leads me to believe the book may be confusing, as this plot seems very complicated. Getting right to the point like Janice has shown would only improve this authors chances of getting published. Self publishing is NOT a back up option. If you're trying to go traditional and not getting picked up, you need to look at your work. Self-publishing a sub-standard book only enforces the stigma that self-publishing is for amateurs, and damages the market. Both forms of publishing require 110% hard work and dedication to make sure your book is the best it can be.

      Don't want to put in the work - don't publish.

      Not meaning to be harsh, but I'm really trying to destroy the bad stigma self-publishing currently has. Both are business decisions; make up your mind on one and stick to it.

      I'm P.Hen by the way :) I don't have any of the listed profiles which is why I'm listed as anonymous.

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  2. Perhaps you're confused with a synopsis and a query letter. This feels like a synopsis.

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  3. It's too long! The whole letter shouldn't be more than a page. I agree with Lori Atkins. This is a synopsis.

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  4. Thanks for the detailed comments. This is more of what I thought. As I noted in the question, I was nudged into a form that made me uncomfortable. If I were to name names, you would be shocked, or maybe not, who gave me the advice. I've reduced it to 274 words.

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  5. Have you read Query Shark? It's a blog by literary agent Janet Reid. Reading through the archives is insanely helpful. She's critiqued over 270 queries on the blog. Good luck! Sounds like an interesting story!

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    1. I second Query Shark. Another excellent one is Miss Snark. Read through enough of those and you get a much better sense of what works and what doesn't. Look up her Hook-O-Meter and Crap-O-Meter posts.

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