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Saturday, October 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Ask for the Full Manuscript After Reading this Query?

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 November 17.

This week’s question:

1. Would you ask for the full manuscript after reading this query?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The Lost Island of Ilien, a young adult fantasy novel of approximately 88,000 words, chronicles the tribulations of a magical seventeen year old girl named Nira.

Nira never wanted magic. In fact, she would have given her right arm (and probably her left too) to just spend time with animals, travel, and live in peace. Orphaned at five and ignorant of her father’s identity and the circumstances of her mother’s death, she works on her Aunt and Uncle’s farm, endures daily taunting and ostracism from her fellow townspeople, and watches as her country is overrun by the evil Karg Empire.

Then one day, a witch seeks her out and reveals both Nira’s history and a prophecy: A mixed-race person, such as Nira, will overthrow the Karg Empire and save the Lethian people from their century-long subjugation.

However, magic is forbidden throughout the island chain, so Nira is woefully unprepared to face the challenge ahead of her. Her task is further complicated because magic has been dying since triumph of the Karg in the Dragon Wars 100 years ago.

Meanwhile, her father Azhvet, one of only a handful of Karg Warlocks throughout history, discovers a magical stone which can transport him to the Lost Island of Ilien, the origin of magic. He wishes to rekindle magic so he can use it to conquer all of the islands. As he tries to figure out how to get to Ilien, Azhvet discovers that he has a “half-breed” daughter and, aware of the prophecy, he sets out to kill her. Nira must defeat her father before she can save her people, and they must both pursue their missions without getting caught by the Select Society of Karg to Eliminate Magic.

Nira must grow up quickly, and learn to put anger, resentment, and impulsivity aside, find her own inner strengths, and make some very difficult choices.

I have a BA in Writing Arts, and worked as editor for two years at Steege/Thomson Communications, a public relations firm in Philadelphia. I have spent most of my adult life writing marketing materials for the veterinary hospital my husband and I owned, as well as numerous articles and handouts on dog training for my dog training and pet behavior consulting business. I’ve been an ardent fan of Fantasy Fiction and Science Fiction since I first picked up JRR Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” around age ten. My author page, including blog, can be found at loringslivinski.com. I’d be thrilled to send you a copy of my full manuscript.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The Lost Island of Ilien, a young adult fantasy novel of approximately 88,000 words, chronicles the tribulations of a magical seventeen year old girl named Nira.

Nira never wanted magic. In fact, she would have given her right arm (and probably her left too) to just spend time with animals, travel, and live in peace. Orphaned at five and ignorant of her father’s identity and the circumstances of her mother’s death, she works on her Aunt and Uncle’s farm, endures daily taunting and ostracism from her fellow townspeople, and [watches as her country is overrun by the evil Karg Empire.] She’s feeling a little passive as a protagonist

[Then one day,] why this day? There’s no sense of immediacy yet a witch seeks her out and reveals both Nira’s history and a prophecy: A mixed-race person, such as Nira, will overthrow the Karg Empire and save the Lethian people from their century-long subjugation.

However, magic is forbidden throughout the island chain, so Nira is woefully unprepared to face the challenge ahead of her. [Her task is further complicated because magic has been dying since triumph of the Karg in the Dragon Wars 100 years ago.] This feels a little tacked on 

[Meanwhile, her father Azhvet, one of only a handful of Karg Warlocks throughout history, discovers a magical stone which can transport him to the Lost Island of Ilien, the origin of magic. He wishes to rekindle magic so he can use it to conquer all of the islands. As he tries to figure out how to get to Ilien, Azhvet discovers that he has a “half-breed” daughter and, aware of the prophecy, he sets out to kill her.] This all makes me think part of the book is also in his POV. You probably don’t need it Nira must defeat her father before she can save her people, and [they must both] both who? Nira and her father? [pursue their missions] I'm not 100% sure what this refers to [without getting caught by the Select Society of Karg to Eliminate Magic.] This feels like another antagonist and issue

[Nira must grow up quickly, and learn to put anger, resentment, and impulsivity aside, find her own inner strengths, and make some very difficult choices.] This is true in almost every YA novel, so it doesn’t really say anything about this particular novel. Be specific

I have a BA in Writing Arts, and worked as editor for two years at Steege/Thomson Communications, a public relations firm in Philadelphia. I have spent most of my adult life writing marketing materials for the veterinary hospital my husband and I owned, as well as numerous articles and handouts on dog training for my dog training and pet behavior consulting business. I’ve been an ardent fan of Fantasy Fiction and Science Fiction since I first picked up JRR Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” around age ten. My author page, including blog, can be found at website. I’d be thrilled to send you a copy of my full manuscript.

The question:

1. Would you ask for the full manuscript after reading this query?


This is a tough one, because it's very subjective and not based on writing or skill. I’d say no, but not because of the query itself (readers chime in here). It has a few stumbles, but it’s not bad overall. The potential problem is that I’ve seen this same premise dozens of times. The “unaware of their past Chosen One who’s told who they are by a stranger and that they will fulfill a prophecy” is probably the single biggest trope in fantasy fiction. “Outlawed magic” is another one. “Child of a powerful bad guy who must eventually battle the parent” is a third.

Now…This has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of the writing or the story itself. This might be a fantastic book and be a terrific read. A lot of books have been published with these concepts, because they’re fan favorites. Star Wars even has this premise.

(Here's more on playing with common tropes)

However…agents and publishers are looking for fresh, original stories, and odds are agents have dozens more with this same premise in their inbox. I don’t yet see anything unique here that will put this story above the others. And I know that’s a horrible thing to hear, because I’ve been there myself.

I’d suggest looking for the unique aspects of your story and putting them front and center. Minimize the tropes as best you can so you can get past the query stage and give your pages a chance to grab an agent. A book is so much more than the premise, and all it needs is a chance to prove that.

Maybe avoid the word prophecy, and say something such as, “a witch needs her help and she discovers her true identity on the journey.” Maybe she’s not “destined” to help, she’s “expected” to help. You don’t want to lie or misrepresent the novel, but you also want to avoid the most cliched aspects of this particular trope.

(Here's more on making cliches work for your story)

From a purely technical standpoint, the query itself isn’t far off. The conflict is fairly clear—Nira is prophesied to defeat her father and save the land, and must learn how to use her untapped power to do so. I can see where this story will go.

It starts nicely with “Nira never wanted magic,” so perhaps build off that. Now she has it, and she has to deal with it how? She’s not just “saving people” she’s doing something specific that will make them safe. What are the challenges she’s woefully unprepared for? Why is she taunted? She wants to travel, so maybe this is her chance, but it comes at the price of having to deal with this “magic stuff” she wants nothing to do with.

It gets a little fuzzy for me toward the end. The “meanwhile” paragraph suggests part of the book is in her father’s POV. There’s also a lot of extra issues and problems that get tossed in that feel unconnected to the rest of the story. Her father seems to go from antagonist trying to kill her to someone on a mission with her and they need to avoid the Select Society. I'm not sure what's going on there. Everything after “Nira is woefully unprepared…ahead of her” feels like it’s trying to shove a lot of extra backstory and explanation into the query.

(Here's more on diagnosing problem queries) 

Overall, it’s using a lot of tropes and general statements that suggest a familiar story, but the specific details that will make this story stand out aren’t yet coming through. Find the specifics, avoid the general tropes, and let what makes this story unique shine through.

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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12 comments:

  1. Like Janice said, this is a good framework for a story that sounds more familiar than it needs to sound. Genre-following stories can be some of the best (Star Wars!) but they need to focus on their own spin on it, and this query doesn't show you doing that.

    I especially like the first full-sized paragraph, but it bothers me as well. Unlike many queries, you start by giving a sense of your protagonist, instead of rushing on to get lost in establishing the plot and world. At the same time, it uses up your first real paragraph without giving much sense of the conflict ahead, instead of weaving it in so we'd get a sense of what being in this world means to Nira already. It could also give us a more intense picture of who Nira is: does she have a burning passion to be around animals, or is it the travel she longs for, or is she an overall ordinary girl and reluctant heroine? Ideally this paragraph would give us a specific sense of her and already some sense of how much trouble she's about to be in, so that we're set for the synergy of "THIS girl has to face THAT? wow."

    You also flatly call Nira an orphan, so revealing her father's alive disoriented me. You might find a way to hint it's more that she doesn't know what "took her parents from her" or even say she "believes" her father's dead. Living with her aunt and uncle with the life she has fills in the picture for us.

    You probably know this, but the last line ("send my full manuscript") should absolutely be tailored for the specific agent. Some agents want two chapters, some want three, and some want the complete MS and/or a summary. If you have any reason to think this agent wants one thing, be sure that's what you offer.

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    1. Loring SlivinskiNov 1, 2018, 8:41:00 AM

      Thank you for taking the time to comment Ken! Great suggestions.

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  2. It did catch my interest, but I agree the last part isn't as clear, maybe unnecessary. I've been told to play up my unique aspects of the story, and agree that could help you, too. I did get the conflict right away. Good luck.

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    1. Loring SlivinskiNov 1, 2018, 8:42:00 AM

      Thank you Pam. Exactly the kind of feedback I needed! :)

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  3. no. If I was 14 years old, maybe.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Loring SlivinskiNov 1, 2018, 8:43:00 AM

      Well, it IS a YA novel. Got anything more useful to add?

      Delete
  4. I agree with Janice and Ken's observations and advice, but will add a couple thoughts:

    In the first line, I would remove 'approximately' to keep things moving along. The last part of this line actually created a question: Is Nira 'magical' or does she know/use magic? I leaned toward her having some kind of magical properties or unique abilities. I'm still uncertain what her status is, but the half-breed reference seems to infer she's not a plain 'ol human.

    I also wondered why she was ostracized 'daily'. Did she look different? Or had she done unusual things, maybe accidentally, that had been seen and now she's the 'weird' girl?

    The statement that Nira doesn't like magic is a nice punchy start. I immediately asked: why doesn't she? Are there people around her who practice magic? Has she had odd experiences she (or others) attributed to magic? These are good questions. They mean I'm interested and that you have my attention. Take advantage of that and give me some rich, maybe disturbing, information that explores an answer here -- and maybe addresses why she's tormented as well.

    I would suggest you consider what questions are being raised in your query and how you can avoid them or answer them in ways that create speculation that sparks interest. I was surprised by the warlock dad, but that was okay, as it made me speculate that there was a potentially creepy, evil story behind Nira's conception.

    So overall, hidden under a bit of a pale delivery, there seems to be an interesting story with some dark happenings and relationships (dad wants to kill Nira).

    I'm an editor, not an agent with 50 other query letters to go through, so I take/make time to re-read, wonder, and speculate. I fear a busy agent would scan to the break (Then one day...) and, as Janice pointed out the issue with tropes, would not spend further time going to the next one (However, magic is forbidden).

    Your facts point to a darker story, but your presentation reads as passive/matter-of-fact...



    You wrote the story, now pull out the pieces that make it unique, exciting, unusual and unwrap them with some active verbs and dark hints. You can do it!!

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    1. Loring SlivinskiNov 1, 2018, 8:45:00 AM

      Maria - thank you so much for the suggestions and encouragement. As a writer, putting yourself out there can be brutally hard, and encouraging feedback is just plain awesome.

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  5. I like young adult fiction so I was interested in this and like the idea of a string young women. I was instantly put off by the mixed race reference as it is culturally offensive to define people by race. Unless you meant mixed species and you are using this as some kind of parallel with mixed race? I would find another way to make this young woman unique preferably a way that doesn’t define her by her race. Maybe by a unique power she has that is in the prophecy?

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    1. Loring SlivinskiNov 1, 2018, 8:51:00 AM

      Thank you for your input - I had some questions as to how to handle this sensitively...she is a child born from parents with two very different heritages, and it's central to the story because it's why she's an outcast - she's seen as "bad" because she's different, as happens all too often in real life. I'd love to hear any suggestions as to how to do this better?

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  6. Thank you all for taking the time to comment!

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