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Saturday, September 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Would This Query Letter Make You Ask for 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 we 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: Three


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 13.

This week’s question:

Would this query letter make you ask for more?


Market/Genre: Young adult fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The Secret of Witch’s Lair
- SF/FA, YA complete at 67,855 words is Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat.

A feisty feline named Buffay lives in a clowder on Mayfair Street. She and her friends are happy. But their peaceful and idyllic life ends when space trash, i.e. an evil alien named Beelzebub, is ejected through a newly formed Black Hole at Witch’s Cove.

These body snatchers take control of the marshlands. Hiding in its murky waters by day, at night they use the children of the island to search for a treasure so valuable it could mean total annihilation of Earth if it falls into the wrong hands.

On a mission to save Earth Buffay and her friends journey to the cove. There they uncover a secret so deadly her nine lives may not be enough to save her. The cove is home to Elnora keeper of its secrets and the ticking bomb long hidden beneath its waters is about to be uncovered.

In a stand-off Buffay is shot when a bullet meant for one of the children ricochets off the spaceship mortally wounding her. World War III begins soon after the bomb is detonated.

Witch and Buffay enter the Black Hole in a vacuum sealed bubble Witch creates to keep Buffay alive. The only way to repair the damage is to recreate their timeline. If they are successful they will return to their peaceful island. If not they will be lost in space.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The Secret of Witch’s Lair - [SF/FA, YA] science fiction and fantasy are two separate genres. Since this has aliens and time travel, it would be science fiction complete at 67,855 words is Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat.

[A feisty feline named Buffay] Animal protagonists are more typical of middle grade than young adult, so this makes me wonder if you have the right age group lives in a [clowder] I don’t know what this is [on Mayfair Street.] Which is where? This doesn't give me an actual setting She and [her friends] are these other cats? are happy. But their peaceful and idyllic life ends when [space trash,] this is an interesting phrase coming from a cat. Are they watching for this? i.e. an evil alien named [Beelzebub,] since this is a well-known name of the devil, it feels odd as the name of the alien [is ejected through a newly formed Black Hole at Witch’s Cove.] Do you mean a wormhole? Black holes are highly destructive, and one forming on Earth would destroy it.

These [body snatchers] it never mentions they can do this, so this feels as though I’ve missed something take control of the [marshlands] there's nothing to show how this is connected to where Buffay lives. [Hiding in its murky waters by day, at night they use the children of the island] I’m not clear on this. If they’ve snatched bodies, and look human, why do they need to hide? Are they snatching the children? to search for [a treasure so valuable it could mean total annihilation of Earth if it falls into the wrong hands.] something’s off about this phrase, as the words don’t really go together. Treasure doesn't typically "fall into the wrong hands," but weapons or information does

[On a mission to save Earth[,] Buffay and her friends journey to the cove.] I’m not sure how the cat, the children, and the aliens connect [There they uncover a secret so deadly her nine lives may not be enough to save her.] Cute line, but it’s a repeat of the “something so something” you just used [The cove is home to Elnora[,] keeper of its secrets[,] and the ticking bomb long hidden beneath its waters is about to be uncovered.] This comes out of the blue and isn’t connected to anything else, though I suspect this is the treasure? It's also an awkward sentence and I'm not sure if the covert is home to the bomb or if Elnora is the bomb.

[In a stand-off[,] Buffay is shot when a bullet meant for one of the children ricochets off the spaceship mortally wounding [wounds] her. World War III begins soon after [the bomb] what bomb?  is detonated. ] This also comes out of nowhere. What bomb? Who shoots Buffay? “Bullets” suggests a gun, but aliens would have their own technology. “The spaceship” is too ambiguous to get a sense of where this is happening or what’s going on.

[Witch] who is this? and Buffay enter the Black Hole in a vacuum sealed bubble Witch creates to keep Buffay alive. The only way to repair [the damage] to Buffay? is to [recreate their timeline.] How do they plan to do this? Isn’t Buffay still dying? Are they going to go back to when the aliens land and take them out? If they are successful they will return to their peaceful island. If not they will be [lost in space.] wouldn’t it be “lost in time” since they’re time traveling? How does failing cause that?

The question:

1. Would this query letter make you ask for more?


Not yet. It looks like there’s a lot going on in this story, but I can’t tell who the protagonist is or what the actual problem is. I can tell that aliens invade Earth and cause WWIII, and a cat and a witch have to travel in time and fix it, but I don’t understand how that ties together or works. Is this about saving the kids and stopping the aliens, or is it more about traveling through time? I can’t yet tell where the bulk of the story lies.

It opens with Buffay the cat, but I never get a clear picture of what she has to do with the rest of the story. Is she the protagonist? If so, what is her goal aside from “save Earth?” I get the sense that she lives in a different place from where the aliens attack, so how does she end up there trying to stop them? How does she even know to go there?

I’m also not sure how the children fit into the story. None are named, but they might be the friends referred to in the first paragraph. Other characters are introduced as if I knew who they were, but I have no context to figure out who they are. Who’s Witch and Elnora? Are they the same person? If it's her cove and she's the keeper of the secrets, why isn't she the protagonist trying to stop the aliens?

Much of the information is dropped in as if the reader already knows the story and details, so it’s confusing as to what is going on and who is involved. Frequent mentions to a treasure or time bomb are used, but I have no idea what that is. I’m not even sure if they’re the same thing. Did the aliens come to Earth to get this? I got the sense that the aliens arrived on Earth by accident (the black hole was “newly formed” and they were “ejected,” which implies this was not the plan), yet they get right to searching for the treasure. How did they even know it was there if they didn’t plan on landing on Earth? If they did, then perhaps rephrase so it seems deliberate, not accidental.

There’s also some terminology that gives me plausibility concerns. Black holes are super-dense matter that create gravitational fields that suck everything in, but wormholes are the classic holes that join different regions of space and time. I suspect you mean wormholes, not black holes. Traveling through time would get you lost in time, not lost in space. Perhaps there’s more in the story that affects how these terms are used, but in the query, it suggests a lack of understand about the science of the premise.

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

One of my bigger concerns though, is that this reads more like a middle grade than a young adult novel. Animal protagonists are rarely seen in YA novels, and having children involved (not teens), also skews this younger. I’m not sure this is aimed at the right audience, and might be better suited for the 9-12 year old reader. Perhaps it’s written that way and you actually mean this is for MG, not YA, and just have the wrong market here.

I’d suggest reworking this query to make the conflict of the story more clear. Who is your protagonist? What is the problem? Why is this bad? What do they have to do to resolve it?

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

While I think you do have much of that here, it’s not coming across clearly yet. Query letters are more specific than cover copy, since you need to reveal the specifics so agents know what the book is about. I don’t know what the treasure/weapon/time bomb is. It could be a rare mineral that provides free energy for an entire planet or a bomb that could destroy it. “Something valuable and dangerous” isn’t enough for an agent to know if they want to see more. “Valuable treasure” also conjures a different image than “Earth-destroying weapon,” yet the “item” is implied to be both.

Instead of trying to summarize the entire story in a few paragraphs, try filtering this through the eyes of the protagonist and the problem she faces. If that’s Buffay, then show her encountering this problem and then having to act to fix it. Explain a little more about what these things mean, and cut out the details that don’t matter right now.

You don’t need to tell the entire tale, just introduce the protagonist, set the scene, and show the inciting event. Then wrap it up with what has to be done to save the day. For example, fixing the timeline is enough, you don’t need to say Buffay is shot and is dying.

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

Overall, I think this is trying to fit too much information into a small space, and it’s losing the clarity necessary to hook an agent. Pare down, focus on the core conflict and protagonist, and explain just enough to pique interest and make this understandable. With science fiction, you can explain a little more, so flesh out the critical aspects of the story.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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6 comments:

  1. I'd agree, this doesn't flow the way a query letter should.

    A good query letter needs a careful balance of plot details with more general excitement. I think you go further into the weeds than you want, with some of the events that happen and how many stages the story goes through, and adding conspicuous excitement-builder phrases in the middle may also disrupt things. "Not all her nine lives can save her" is a great line, but that kind of summary probably goes best near the start or the end.

    Like Janice said, are cats and kids really YA rather than MG? Related to that, is this simply a cat, in a Disney-like style where all cats are smart enough to save worlds and maybe talk to other animals? Or is she a magic cat of some kind?

    One thing you might explore: once you're sure what genre to call this, surf through book descriptions on Amazon. Queries aren't the same as sales descriptions (Janice's articles have a lot about what they really need), but queries do need some of the same kind of excitement that a description uses. Amazon can give you hundreds of examples of good (and many bad) descriptions to start you thinking, if you remember how they're different from a query.

    There's a lot of great material here, but I think you want to study more about what's proven to work with query letters. And Janice has some of the best articles around.

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  2. My only thought is witch's or witches?

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  3. Lots and lots of info here! My first thought was: this is a synopsis, a long, too-detailed synopsis -- not a query letter.

    Janice's articles on writing query letters will immediately reveal that they have an expected structure, so no sense in re-inventing the wheel.

    Janice's questions and suggestions are important to take to heart, as most agents are forced to be intolerant of confusion or a less than concise presentation. Getting the basic format correct can help you avoid an outright rejection a few sentences into the letter.

    You want the letter's recipient to 'see' a confident, well-informed author who has knowledge of publishing essentials, like the correct genre, as Janice points out.

    The run amok feeling of the letter might also cause an agent to question if the story is solid, since the protagonist isn't strongly presented. As Janice advised, you're trying to cram the whole story into the query letter when that isn't necessary.

    For me, the first big disconnect was wondering how Buffay knew about the alien threat. From there, questions cascaded.

    With a little study on query letters and how to present yourself and your book, you'll see that it's not so tough to accomplish and will sail through it!

    Good luck!

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  4. I think a query letter, like a first page, should be an example of the best writing the author is capable of. Far more time per word should be spent on those than normal.

    Viewed that way, this query doesn't make a good impression on me, mainly because it's verbose. For example, "peaceful and idyllic" is three times as long as it should be: "idyllic." And similarly, the entire sentence "She and her friends" is redundant, because that's what "idyllic" implies. When an author tells me the same thing three different ways in a single paragraph, in what should be the tightest, most efficient prose she can create, I worry the book will be a slog.

    Now, after first admitting I've never queried and am not published, please indulge me by letting me spin an alternative. Feel free to point out its flaws, but I think it has some strengths too:

    "Evil space-trash, arrogantly calling itself Beezlebub, brings an abrupt end to the idyllic life of the Mayfair Street cats. Now Buffay, the chowder's feistiest, and the Witch, Elnora, secrets-keeper of Witch's Cove, must travel through time to undue the apocalypse that Beezlebub has unleashed."

    Now, I'm just guessing that Elnora is the Witch mentioned in the query. And I've ignored the friends because, in my view, anyone who deserves more than a single oblique reference in a query needs to have a name (even if it's an organizational name, as "clowder" could be if it were capitalized.)

    So there's my amateur opinions. I hope you find some use for it.

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    Replies
    1. Oops, "She and her friends" should be "She and her friends are happy."

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  5. Thanks for the comments and the critique Janice! I admit total confusion when it comes to the query and this has been most helpful. Back to the keyboard!

    ReplyDelete