Saturday, February 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Would This Query Letter Grab Your Attention?

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: Five

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 11.

This week’s question:

Would this query grab an agent's attention?

Market/Genre: YA thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Ciro’s father is assumed dead. He grew up under the reign of the oppressive dictatorship that is The Authority. He was conscripted to a teen solider training camp, The Centre, where the Cadets are harshly trained and even more harshly punished. And all of that was before his life got bad.

On the day his mother is allowed to visit him for the first time in years, The Nation is hit by a nuclear strike. The resulting earthquake dislodges The Centre, which turns out to be on a massive ship built to look like part of the mainland, setting it adrift with no one to help them. When the Cadets combine to over throw the Guards still on board leaving them the freedom they always craved, Ciro thinks turning the ship around and going back to The Nation save his family will be easy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Ciro is thrust into the role of leader all he wants to get home to see his family, and get them out of The Nation before the war intensifies but not everyone left on board The Centre agrees. As tensions rise, a violent warring faction develops led by the tyrannous Ozzie. With every passing second the ship drifts closer to Arua, the country they are at war with, and a guaranteed death. When his own crew begins to doubt him and a second threat emerges from where he would least expect it, Ciro must ask himself how far he’s willing to go to get what he wants.

SHAKEN is a 70,000 word YA tale set in a post apocalyptic world that resembles the United Kingdom. I am a student studying at Swansea University and am an active member of the English Language society. I have received a few writing recognitions before such as the Allied Arts Creative Writing Award. YA and its post-apocalyptic and dystopian sub-genres have always been my passion although I enjoy all varieties of literature. I would be honored if your agency helped the thrilling story of SHAKEN be told.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my query, I look forward to hearing from you.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Ciro’s father is assumed dead.] Opening with this makes me think the story has something to do with his father [He grew up under the reign of the oppressive dictatorship that is The Authority. He was conscripted to a teen solider training camp, The Centre, where the Cadets are harshly trained and even more harshly punished.] Feels a little list-like And all of that was before his life got bad.

On the day his mother is allowed to visit him for the first time in years, The Nation is hit by a nuclear strike. The resulting earthquake dislodges The Centre, which turns out to be on a massive ship built to look like part of the mainland, setting it adrift [with no one to help them.] This feels off. Help isn’t what they’re looking for, it is? [When the Cadets combine to over throw the Guards still on board leaving them the freedom they always craved, Ciro thinks turning the ship around and going back to The Nation save his family will be easy.] Feels awkward, with two separate ideas here. Also, “Guards” feels wrong if this is the military. Nothing could be further from the truth.

[As Ciro is thrust into the role of leader all he wants to get home to see his family, and get them out of The Nation before the war intensifies but not everyone left on board The Centre agrees.] Too much going on in this sentence [As tensions rise,] Careful of similar structure—just used As Ciro is thrust… a violent warring faction develops led by [the tyrannous Ozzie.] He’s hasn’t been mentioned before, so he comes out of the blue a little [With every passing second the ship drifts closer to Arua, the country they are at war with, and a guaranteed death.] I like the problem, but it feels like there’s a lot going on so far When his own crew begins to [doubt him] why? and a second threat emerges from where he would least expect it, [Ciro must ask himself how far he’s willing to go to get what he wants.] It says this, but I see nothing in the query to say what that means

SHAKEN is a 70,000 word YA tale set in a post apocalyptic world that resembles the United Kingdom. I am a student studying at Swansea University and am an active member of the English Language society. I have received a few writing recognitions before such as the Allied Arts Creative Writing Award. YA and its post-apocalyptic and dystopian sub-genres have always been my passion although I enjoy all varieties of literature. I would be honored if your agency helped the [thrilling] subjective, so I’d suggest cutting. They’ll decide if it’s thrilling story of SHAKEN be told.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my query, I look forward to hearing from you.

The question:

1. Would this query grab an agent's attention?

Yes and no. The query feels a little rough and unfocused, but I think the story is one that will pique interest. I would totally buy this book. It feels like an idea that would generate page requests.

As is, the query is trying to do too much, so it’s getting in its own way (readers chime in here). Because of that, the sentences are long and convoluted, suggesting the novel is written the same way (even if its not), and might not be ready for publication. I suspect this is a problem with the query and not the manuscript though.

Although I see the gist of what this story will be, there’s no clear core conflict and goal for Ciro. I can’t tell you what this book is about, even though I see tons of things that happen in it.

These are all the problems mentioned, with some suggestions on how they might work (or not) with the query (naturally, ignore me if my story guesses are off base):

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

His father is “presumed” dead, leading me to believe this will be a major issue in the book since it was the very first line of the query. Yet it has nothing to do with the story that I see, so it immediately sets up expectations for the story and fails to deliver. If I had to guess, I’d say the threat from the unexpected source is Dad. If so, I’d cut this and leave that reveal for the novel.

Ciro wants to see his mother and save his family, though there’s nothing that shows why his family is in danger. Their country was nuked, but that’s not specific enough to drive the plot. “Getting them out of The Nation” is too vague, and there’s no sense that Ciro has the ability to do this. There’s also nothing that says Mom is in immediate danger and he has to get back by X time or else. It’s a great motivator for Ciro to act, but it doesn’t feel like what’s driving the plot. I’d suggest using this as a motivating subplot for the query.

His country was attacked by (I assume) the Arua. A nice world building conflict, but Ciro isn’t taking on Arua on his own, so they don’t feel like the antagonist.

Drifting toward Arua is also a problem, but if they nuked The Nation, they’re clearly capable of taking out the ship from a distance. Aside from a general sense of “these people are bad” I’m not sure how they directly threaten Ciro. Arua feels more like a great inherent conflict world building issue that sets the scene and establishes the world in the query, not an antagonist.

(Here's more on writing a query letter)

Ciro’s adrift on a ship with cadets who have gone rogue, though the reason isn’t clear. They want their freedom, but they have control of a massive ship, and have been trained to fight, so I’m not sure what the problem is. This feels like where the core conflict is coming from (gaining control of the ship for personal reasons), but it’s not yet clear specifically how that all works. I’d suggest spending more focus here in the query.

Ciro wants to go back, but others don’t (why not?). Yet he’s made leader, so why doesn’t he just do what he wants if he’s in charge? This also feels like it connects to the core conflict. I’m guessing this is one faction an the reasons he can't just take off come from here.

Ozzie leads a warring faction, but I don’t know what he wants or how he opposes Ciro (I assume he doesn’t want to go back, but what is he trying to do?). I’m not sure how things go from “we’re free and adrift” to “waring factions” so quickly. He feels like the antagonist for this novel. If so, the factions are probably part of the core conflict, and I’d suggest developing this more in the query as well to show what’s opposing Ciro.

There’s a “second threat” with no details or hints about what that is (Dad?).

And finally, Ciro has to make a tough choice that will probably compromise his morals, but there’s nothing that says what that is or how it will affect him. Again, this probably connects back to Dad, or perhaps the people who sided with him. If it’s Dad, I’d cut it. If it’s Ozzie and the ship, perhaps clarify.

I suspect these are all things that happen during the novel, and probably work just fine within the context and setup needed to understand them. But in a query, covering this much feels overwhelming.

I’d suggest reworking this to focus on the core conflict, and the subplot that’s causing Ciro to make that hard choice about how far to go. Show the problem with Arua and the war as part of the world building, but trim back all the extra problems.

Try showing the setup and inciting event, and then the main problem to be resolved. This is how Ciro gets pulled onto the plot path to solving this major problem, and if he doesn’t do it X happens.

Trimming out the extra plot events will allow you to focus on the conflicts and how they cause trouble for Ciro. Right now, I see nothing preventing him from stealing a lifeboat or some kind of vehicle and jumping ship to go home. It wont be easy, but he has no reason to stay on the ship if he just wants to leave and go find his family. What’s keeping him there? From a conflict standpoint, not a “because he can’t leave the ship” type problem. If he doesn’t have a boat but would leave if he did, that’s still a “he can leave and it doesn’t matter” issue. There’s no personal stake or goal keeping him there.

Overall, I think this is a marketable story and just needs to get the query worked out. Try reading a lot of cover copy in the genre, and pattern your query after that—but instead of being vague, use the details of your story. Cover copy doesn’t want to give anything anyway, but agents needs to see the specifics to know if the book is working or not.

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. The query letter feels a bit more in its first draft. The first line wasn't very attention-grabbing (unfortunately) and there were some places where commas were needed. I found a sentence that wasn't even a complete one. Query letters are harder than manuscripts because they are the ones that introduces our manuscripts to the world and decide their fate. I hope whoever this query belongs to will polish it even further cause the plot sounds very promising. All the best.

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  2. What sticks out in my mind is how this concept throws *everything* at its hero-- in a good way, mostly. Like Janice, I'm fascinated by a concept this exciting, but I also think the query sometimes trips over the number of conflicts it brings up.

    My suggestion: think about putting more of this in terms of Ciro as an unlikely leader. You have such a variety of problems for the cadets to face, the best way to unify them behind a character we can root for might be to capture that all the pressure is on Ciro to lead them through it all. Combine that with how, from your first lines about Ciro, the core of his nature makes him a surprising (or just an interesting) choice for the person in charge.

    The best queries show how much potential the story has, and you certainly capture that. They also give it a strong center, almost always about a character, and I think "unlikely leader" would be the best way to focus a query that has this much excitement going on.

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  3. From my personal experience of successful queries, three sentences should be enough to get your point across. See my quickie version of you interesting story:

    A young man grows up under the reign of oppressive dictatorship where he is trained as a teen soldier. When a nuclear strike hits his Nation, he is thrust into the role of leader but his goal is to see his family and get them out of the Nation before war increases and death nears. With threats emerging where he least expects it, the young man needs to decide how he can best save his family from the tyranny his oppressors have thrown their way.

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  4. This sounds like a great story. Congrats.One thing that struck me immediately is that it is a bit list-like and lacks voice. It feels like - and we all know the feeling - that the writer is terrified of the person reading this and must get the facts out ASAP. Wrong. Agents are looking for voice too. Voice requires confidence and a sort of inner relaxation. Pretend you're sitting back in the pub with friends and let your enthusiasm and passion show. Your story and hard work deserve it :)

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