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Saturday, October 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Query Working?

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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 20.

This week’s question:

Is this query working?


Market/Genre: Query Letter

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Evangeline has lived her whole life as a character in “Alive in the Darklands” an eerie horror novel. In a life of tentacled monsters, sentient vines and ash raining from permanently black clouds, reading other books is Evangeline’s only escape.

Until a mysterious librarian hobbles into town – a librarian who is very eager to see everyone “catalogued correctly.” The librarian discovers Evangeline’s wish for a life of safety and order and transports her to her dream world - a YA high school novel. After a brief rundown of the genre conventions, Evangeline is left to fend for herself in this new world.

After she stops treating everyone like they might sprout tentacles, Evangeline quickly makes friends. But she is not the only one who has been “re-catalogued.” Classmates are disappearing from school and turning up in books. And it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up in a post-apocalyptic novel or worse.

Still haunted by the horror novel she left behind, Evangeline must choose between her dream story, or venture out beyond the page breaks to rescue her new friends and bring down the librarian.

CATALOGUE OF QUESTS is a 50,000-word upper middle-grade novel and could appeal to fans of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, or The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. I have a BA in English Literature and an MA in Scriptwriting from XXX. I worked in a library for five years. This book is not true to life.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Thoughts in Purple:


[Evangeline has lived her whole life as a character in “Alive in the Darklands” an eerie horror novel.] Intriguing, and I’m wondering what this means In a life of tentacled monsters, sentient vines and ash raining from permanently black clouds, [reading other books is Evangeline’s only escape.] I’m confused here, as this suggests she isn’t really a character, but just loses herself in books. Except I think you do mean it literally. The nature of her existence could use some clarification.

Until a mysterious librarian hobbles into town – a librarian who is very eager to see everyone [“catalogued correctly.”] hehe The librarian discovers Evangeline’s wish for a life of safety and order and transports her to her dream world - [a YA high school novel.] Funny. Most teens would consider this the horror novel. After a brief rundown of the [genre conventions] funny, Evangeline is left to [fend for herself in this new world.] This hints at the conflict, but I wanted more about she has to do this

[After she stops treating everyone like they might sprout tentacles,] This doesn’t flow well after “fend for herself.” The two concepts seem at odds [Evangeline quickly makes friends. But she is not the only one who has been “re-catalogued.”] I feel like something is missing here. Is one of her friends also a re-cataloged? [Classmates] Perhaps a particular friend she cares about? are disappearing from school and [turning up in books.] Since books are real worlds here, I’m not exactly sure how to parse this. Which books? Where? [And it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up in a post-apocalyptic novel or worse.] LOL Some really great lines in this

Still haunted by the [horror novel] feels like the wrong word—it’s more her old world she left behind, [Evangeline must choose between her dream story, or venture out beyond the page breaks to rescue her new friends and bring down the librarian.] This doesn’t feel quite right. It’s also a choice we know is no choice, since she’ll clearly fight the librarian or there is no book.

CATALOGUE OF QUESTS is a 50,000-word upper middle-grade novel and could appeal to fans of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, or The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. I have a BA in English Literature and an MA in Scriptwriting from XXX. I worked in a library for five years. [This book is not true to life.] hehe

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The question:

1. Is this query working?


Not totally, but I suspect it would get a few bites anyway. I think it could use another pass for clarity to bring out the story and the gems here. It’s a little muddled in spots about what’s really going on and how the world works, and some of the word choices and phrases feel a tad off, but there are some great lines and a voice that shows promise.

The idea of worlds within books is very cool, and an “evil” librarian re-cataloging people is pretty funny. I like how Evangeline gets her wish, but there are other problems. It has a nice “be careful what you wish for” vibe. But her actual problem isn’t clear. It’s suggested, but it’s still a bit vague.

What’s missing, is a solid sense of what this world is like and how these various book worlds co-exist. She lives in a book, but reads books. Are those books also worlds? Is this a funnel of infinite book worlds?

(Here's more on how movie trailers can help us write query letters)

I also don’t know if Evangeline is a self-aware character (a’la Deadpool) or not. She seems like it, but she reads other books to escape, and someone who knows those books are “real worlds” might see them in a different way. Do all characters know they’re characters? I’m left with too many questions, which is distracting me from the query itself. Some “ooo, how does that work?” curiosity is good, but I think this goes a few steps too far and gets confusing. I can’t quite ground myself in the world yet, so I can’t quite buy into the premise.

You might also consider tightening the conflict aspect. She has no reason to risk her dream world, except I get the sense that the friends she makes mean more to her than is stated here. To understand her stakes and motivation to risk her world, I wanted to know more about why she’d do it. I suspect a particular friend who goes missing is the reason. That wold also help explain why this is bad. She changed worlds and is happy. How does she know the missing people are in trouble?

Lastly, what she needs to do is a but murky. Stopping the librarian and rescuing her friends is good, but I think “venture beyond the pages” has a lot more to it I'm not seeing. I get hints of more interesting goals here, such as traveling through book worlds facing different challenges, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. What does “venture out” actually mean?

(Here's more on diagnosing problem query letters)

Overall, this is pretty close to ready. It has a good voice and some strong lines that make me want to read it even as is. It’s an interesting premise, but I wanted to see a little more depth to fully understand it. Tweak a few things and clarify the murky areas and it’ll be good to go.

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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3 comments:

  1. From the first line, I was grinning-- but also wrinkling my brow (a librarian myself) trying to figure out what it meant that she was a character in a book.

    Janice put her finger on it: this is a marvelous premise and has all the pieces it needs for a solid story, but it could be clearer. The biggest part is what the concept means for Evangeline and other characters' sense of themselves, because a meta level like that could change their whole experience, and how readers share it.

    Has she only just found out she's in a story and other stories are real too? Or has she always known and considered her place in horror fated, or is she a rebel who always thought her destiny was unfair-- those make her completely different characters. How many people in the YA know about bookworlds, and how do they react both to her and to other reshelvings? How long is Evangeline keeping quiet about what she only suspects because speaking up will endanger her new place, or do people know her past and blame her or expect her to help or say she's been through enough?

    Related to this, like Janice said, you could anchor this by mentioning a friend or two she makes in high school-- and maybe also a hint of what issues she had to go through to make them, since "quickly makes friends" seems like skipping its own bit of character growth. And did she have (surviving) friends back home, that she hated to leave?

    I'd suggest thinking about how many things the meta levels could mean, and how someone reading the query will be left guessing what people like this really are like. Look for ways to clarify how these characters' awareness is part of the conflict they're going through at each stage. The trick might be saying that in just a few words each time, as part of how it also sharpens that conflict-- but without slowing the query down much. This is a well-paced query, and you want to keep it moving like it is, but there's room for a few words here and there.

    This sounds like a book that might fly off the shelves. I just want to know where it would land.

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  2. Hello fellow librarian,

    Thank you so much for the feedback. This gives me quite a few jumping-off points for revising the query. I also like the idea that I can show aspects of Evangeline's character simply by clarifying her reaction to the meta level situation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I just wanted to say that I would totally buy a book like this for my kids. I love the premise! Best of luck to you, anonymous author.

    ReplyDelete