Saturday, January 05, 2019

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Query Blurb Make You Want to Ask for Pages?

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: One

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 12.

This week’s question:

Does this query blurb draw attention and make you want to ask for pages?

Market/Genre: Romantic Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

[Standard opening paragraph]

Privileged recording studio owner, Emma, is on the verge of losing her most valued possession after agreeing to work for her conniving grandfather. She finds herself smuggling jewels, associating with slimy criminals, and dodging an Interpol General. Emma yearns to break free from her family obligation and return to the lifestyle she loves with the man she craves. All she needs is a successful sting operation—a challenge for a studio geek.

Humor and romance blend with adventure and suspense from San Francisco to Europe with a sexy female protagonist and her wealthy, insane family. Crazy Rich White Folks mix with action-packed James Bond is the blend for this romantic thriller.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Standard opening paragraph]

Privileged recording studio owner, Emma, is on the verge of losing her [most valued possession] which is? after agreeing to work for her conniving grandfather. This opening sentence is a little clunky and hard to read. I also don’t know why she agrees to work for him [She finds herself smuggling jewels, associating with slimy criminals, and dodging an Interpol General.] These are details with no context Emma yearns to [break free from her family obligation] if so, why did she agree to work for her grandfather then? And what is that obligation? and return to the [lifestyle she loves] which is? with [the man she craves] who is?. All she needs is a successful [sting operation] how and why?—a challenge for a studio geek.

[Humor and romance] if so, you want to show that in the blurb blend with [adventure and suspense] same here from San Francisco to Europe with a sexy female protagonist and her wealthy, insane family. [Crazy Rich White Folks mix with action-packed James Bond] gives a good feel for the concept is the blend for this romantic thriller.

The question:

1. Does this query blurb draw attention and make you want to ask for pages?

Not yet (readers chime in). I can see there are things here that would likely pique my interest, but the blurb is packed with details without context or a sense of voice, so I don’t know what this story is about.

Slow down and give this another two paragraphs. There’s really only one for the story itself, as your second paragraph is more of a closer. Use paragraph one to set up Emma, who she is, and what her predicament is. Then move on to the conflict and what has to be done. Then end with the stakes. Where it fits, toss in the hook and/or twist.

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

I have too many unanswered questions right now, so it’s confusing not compelling. But those areas could be easily transformed into the good kinds of questions. Why does she agree to work for a grandfather who’s a criminal? What is she about to lose? Who is the love interest and how does he fit into all this? Why is she the one who has to go on this adventure?

Remember—in a query, you want to share the details since they’re what the agent needs to know to determine if they want to see more. Cover copy holds back so it doesn’t spoil the read, but not queries, even though they have the same feel and structure.

I can’t tell yet what the main conflict is. There’s no real sense of escalating sense or plot movement, just a quick line that sums up general action. Try showing how she gets into a mess and what has to happen to get her out of it—and what the conflict is between those points. Then pepper it with a few moments where the stakes are raised.
(Here’s more on the anatomy of a query letter)

You also want to imbue this with your character’s voice. If you say it has humor, it needs to show that. Same with the thrill. I’d suggest rewording things more as Emma would say them to get a sense of her voice and how the book is written in there. Make agents like her right away and want to go on this adventure with her.

(Here’s more on voice)

Overall, I think it’s a solid start to get a sense of what you find important in the story, and now, it’s time to flesh this out and make every element really pop. I’ve seen enough of this story in other RLDs to know it’s all there, it’s just a matter of crafting the right sentences to get the story across.

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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  1. Query letters are the easies thing for agents to toss away. They receive hundreds (thousands) and a unsolicited query must be excellent. First, I would suggest going to a writing conference where you have the opportunity to pitch your book. If an agent is interested in it there, they will usually tell you a tag line to use when sending your query (like writer's conference 2018) which will help yours stand out from the others.
    Query's must have a good hook and should reflect your voice. I would suggest looking at examples of successful queries and then comparing them to yours, it will help show you where you can tune in the story's plot and hook.
    Query's are often harder than writing the book itself, so don't get discouraged. Taking the time to make sure you have a perfected pitch (and do make sure you follow the agent's guidelines-and yes they are all different!) will ensure you a better chance at standing out in the crowd! Good Luck!!

  2. Like Janice said, this gives facts without really giving a sense of what's important. It's worth rethinking.

    One key about queries: size. Be positive how many paragraphs a standard query should have (see Janice's link), but also if a given editor or agent expects a different number. Then be certain you're thinking in terms of that scale, so that what you include gets just enough detail to do it justice without anything feeling cramped.

    You're presenting pieces of the plot, but I'm not getting a feel for how they come together:

    Emma as a character could be the thing that pulls it all off, but I'm not getting that. She's rich, and a "studio geek"-- is she a reader-friendly nerd who only wants to keep her recording studio a nice place despite family meddling, until Events pull her into action she's deliciously unprepared for? Or is she more worldly, maybe already staking out a hot romance with the guy before things happen? Like Janice said, Emma's voice in this could bring this all to life.

    --Especially, work out how readers will connect to her if being rich is so much a part of the story. Some readers like that glamor, others hate it and need a lot of convincing that Emma is "real people anyway" (and those readers are the ones who say "privileged" most, so I'd avoid that word at all costs).

    Also, this isn't playing up a particular tone. In fact it's not clear what the genre really is, and agents and publishers LIVE for genre categories. Humor and action can make very different combinations: James Bond isn't quite a "thriller" because there's enough humor and cinematic escapism to soften the suspense, while most romances have either less humor or more, and then there are degrees of comedy that follow action and/or romance plotlines but are really about the laughs. Just where you're placing your story's balance gets muddled here, when it ought to be grabbing the reader with its appeal. I'd suggest thinking more about authors that are closer to your specific style, well-known but probably not as much a stretch as Bond and Crazy Rich Asians-- or keep *one* of those if it's close to one side of your style, but not both. (And start your search with books the agent or publisher has worked with!)

    In the details, I have the sense you're being spoiler-shy: "valued possession", "slimy criminals" and so on. Once you're certain how many paragraphs you're trying to fill, try starting with the assumption that you're giving the juiciest key detail about everything-- a query isn't to hook a reader with a promise, it's showing off to a pro that your twists are good enough to build hooks around. Think in terms of exciting full disclosure (except for the climax), and only then reconsider where it's better to be more vague to save space for something else.

    Queries are some of the hardest writing we ever do, because we have only a few lines and every phrase has to be feeding the right kind of fire. In many ways they're less like prose than poetry, but with a specific business goal in mind.

    Keep reading, and keep trying. If this story does push that many buttons it must be a pleasure to read; we just need to feel what combination of them is making it work.

  3. Janice, I would think the author would be giving too much away if he/she answered your questions. Yes, the first sentence is a little clunking. Maybe just rewording it slightly would do the trick. I don't think the last sentence is needed. Besides, it sounds as if it was written for a young reader than the rest of the blub.

    1. In a first scene, yes, I'd agree. But not for a query. Without those details an agent can't make an informed decision on what the book is about and she wants to read it.

  4. This exercise gives me greater understanding about the structure, and role, of a query.

    When I read it, it sounded stiff, not flowing. From the context this is a book I would read but this doesn't draw me in. If I were an agent I'd be concerned the book would sound as stiff as this piece.

    The advice / critique offered is excellent and full of teaching points.

    Thank you.

  5. ( I would appreciate comments on my query)
    Dear agent or publisher:


    A passionate and mystical tale about the love between a virgin and an angel
    Fantasy/Mythology-approx. 50K

    Ayekah The Damned, loosely based on Holy Writs, is the first book of IMMORTALS – The Series.

    It is the story of when, why and what happened after The Archangel of Light. Highest of all angels, is dammed for eternity. The tale proceeds to describe the Virgin who seduced the Archangel, who she was, is and will become.

    The story starts in prehistoric times, when the Archangel of Light, and multitudes of other angels are commanded to witness Earth’s evolution but never to interfere. Angels are not male or female but can take any form. However, the Archangel becomes enthralled with humanity, and to escape violating Holy Creeds, hides in a Blackhole for ages. It remains hidden until it hears what it now questions, weather it was The Almighty’s command that forces it to return to earth where it finds a primitive clan.

    After observing the clan’s people, the Archangel is ready to take flight, but lured by a soaring eagle, by accident, it comes upon a deserted almost inaccessible marsh near the clan. It calls this place “my earthly paradise” where it stays. Until, to this marsh a virgin runs to escape a barbaric ritual. She seduces the angel and he is damned for eternity.

    His name becomes Ayekah; he names her Haya. He wants her to stay with him, but she goes back to her tribe. Ayekah flees, but in despair over the Almighty’s damnation and lost without Haya, he returns to find she has mysterious powers and a destiny that, without him, she cannot fulfill.

    The story is told by the Ayekah.

    (Then it goes on to describe Mythology and History)

    1. Thanks, Marta! The critique submissions need to be emailed to me at, subject WIP Diagnostics. You'll go into the queue and either Maria or I will critique it when its turn comes up.