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Saturday, September 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Handling Too Many Details in a Query Letter

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 12.

This week’s question:

I feel like the last paragraph needs more development, but I don't want to bog the query down with details.

Market/Genre: Query Letter

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Dear Personalized Agent

Eighteen-year-old Tina answers riddles before they’re finished and catches falling objects before they hit the ground. Lives in small-town Oregon, where the local Biomed company donates to the police force, helps everyone go to college, and offers free medical care and physiological counseling as often as they think you need. Life is good for Tina, the oldest kid in town.

Until her boyfriend asks her why no one ever returns from college and drops a hint about a mysterious place called China. China isn’t on the Internet. Not mentioned in her geography class. And it isn’t a lover’s joke when he’s killed by a hit and run in a town where nothing bad ever happens. The company shrink offers to help, but seems to knows her every conversation and develops a predatory interest in her memories before five, especially those involving a sister only Tina remembers.

College is six months away and that juicy scholarship is waiting. Only Tina’s graduation party might be escaping a town that won’t let her go and her biggest test saving a world she knows nothing about.

Sister, Dangerous is a suspense novel complete at 85K, in which a young woman finds out the secrets of her town are more than the world expected.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Dear Personalized Agent

Eighteen-year-old Tina [answers riddles before they’re finished and catches falling objects before they hit the ground.] I’m not sure what this means, but I suspect she has abilities? [Lives] I’m not sure if this is “lives” as in “life” or “lives” as in “she lives at this address” in small-town Oregon, where the local Biomed company donates to the police force, helps everyone go to college, and offers free medical care and physiological counseling as often as they think you need. Life is good for Tina, [the oldest kid in town.] I don’t know what this means. This paragraph feels disconnected and I’m not sure what it's trying to say

Until her boyfriend asks her why [no one ever returns from college] If this is true that why does Biomed send them away? Wouldn't there be no one left after a while? and [drops a hint about a mysterious place called China.] I’m getting a “The Village” vibe from this. “Drops a hint” suggests he’s knows about it and is trying to tell her, but I don’t think that’s what you mean here China isn’t on the Internet. Not mentioned in her geography class. [And it isn’t a lover’s joke] Odd phrase. What kind of weird lover’s jokes exist here if this could have been a possibility? when he’s killed by a hit and run in a town where nothing bad ever happens. [The company shrink offers to help, but seems to knows her every conversation and develops a predatory interest in her memories before five, especially those involving a sister only Tina remembers.] There’s so much in this to unpack it’s hard to get a handle on the story or what this means

College is six months away and [that juicy scholarship is waiting.] So the dead boyfriend doesn’t matter to her? Only Tina’s graduation [party might be escaping a town] these don’t really work together that [won’t let her go] how does she know this? and her biggest test [saving a world she knows nothing about.] I don’t understand what this is or how she knows she has to do it

Sister, Dangerous is a suspense novel complete at 85K, in which a young woman finds out [the secrets of her town are more than the world expected.] I don’t know what this means

The Question:

1. I feel like the last paragraph needs more development, but I don't want to bog the query down with details.


I think the entire query needs more development, because your instincts are right—it’s bogging down in details and the story is getting lost.

Aside from a girl getting out of a idyllic yet creepy town with secrets and saving the world, I don't know what this novel is about. There are a lot of hints of things that happen, but there’s no context for them, and no sense of a larger plot or conflict brewing. Tina goes from weird thing to weird thing without a sense of what she has to do, why, or how it affects anything else in the story.

(Here’s more on Deciding What to Put in Your Query Letter)

This query is a good example of trying to show too many specific details without any context or clear connection to the plot. As the author, all of these details make sense to you, but to someone reading this for the first time, it’s a random list of things that don’t make any sense.

Here’s what I learn from reading this:
  • The protagonists an 18 year old girl who might have some abilities, but maybe not
  • She lives in a perfect town that takes care of everyone, that send people to college, and yet no one who leaves ever comes back
  • She’s the oldest kid at 18, so there might be a Logan’s Run thing going on
  • China doesn’t exist in this town, yet people know about it somehow and that’s bad
  • They have the Internet, yet probably not really since details are being kept off of it
  • Just mentioning China gets you killed, yet no one seems to care about that
  • Tina has a sister only she can remember, but the company shrink also knows about her and is interested in dangerous way
  • The world needs saving from something
I don't know how any of these details are connected or how they form a plot.

I suspect there’s a cool, twisty tale here, but it’s getting lost under all these random details. It also gives the impression that the novel itself will be unclear and hard to understand (whether that’s true or not).

(Here’s more on What Your Query Says About Your Book)

I’d suggest starting over and paring this down considerably. Query letters are just cover copy with the specific details used instead of keeping them vague. Queries typically focus on the introduction of the protagonist, the setting, the situation that leads to the main conflict (the inciting event), the stakes, and a sense of what has to be done to fix the problem. You don’t need to share all the details in the story at this stage.

So, how would you introduce Tina? She’s a young woman who potentially might have abilities (smart and agile is what I take from the opening line). She lives in a town that takes care of everyone and offers an idyllic life, but it’s not what it seems.

Then, something happens to trigger what will be the plot. Is this the China thing? Is it the boyfriend’s murder? Whatever this point is, it's what puts Tina on the plot path to solving the problem of the book. Something happens, which makes her pursue/investigate/face/realize whatever it is that will drive her forward and create the plot.

Finally, Tina figures out she has to act to resolve this problem even though she has something at risk. Getting out of the town is what’s mentioned, and so is saving the world, but I don’t know why she has to do either of those things or how she’d accomplish it, and you’ll want to be specific in a query.

(Here’s more on Writing a Selling Query or Pitch in Four Easy Steps)

Look for the plot moments that tie the story together and give agents a sense of how this novel will unfold. It’s essentially the setup and how Tina is going to become embroiled in the story’s problem, and what she risks and has to gain by trying to solve it. 

(Here’s more on What's it About? How Movie Trailers Can Help You Write Better Query Letters)

And give the story away. In cover copy, you want to keep things vague so readers can still be surprised, but in a query, agents needs to know what makes this story unique. Every query that crosses their desk has characters discovering “things aren’t what they seem” and have “the world at stake.” It’s the specifics of your story that turn these vague phrases into strong conflicts and plot.

Focus on the story—what Tina discovers, what she has to do to fix it, and how that's bad.

(Here’s more on Testing...Testing...is This Query On? Identifying Problems in a Novel)

Another small question I had, was what market this was for. Tina is 18, so this could be adult or YA, but it feels YA to me from this. The market would change the tone as well, as a YA query would focus more on “girl trying to save the day” versus an adult would be more “young woman uncovers secrets that threaten her life.” It’s subtle, but it’s a matter of tone and voice.

Overall, I think this is trying too hard to get in too many “cool facts” about the book and forgetting the story, so the story isn’t coming through yet. It’s probably there, it’s just shoved into the background right now. Focus on “protagonist with a problem that has to be solved or else” and see how that works.

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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2 comments:

  1. I agree with the diagnosis. I got a little lost because I don't know the story. Should be an easy fix paring down what she does and adding the conflict and motivations as suggested and it will shine.

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  2. Agreed. Laid out this way, it's full of promised twists that could make a captivating tale... but it's hard to follow what those twists actually build.

    A query really is "like a cover summary but different." It has to follow a similar storytelling structure, with the key difference that it embraces some spoilers instead of dodging them. Making the right plot points clear (while not crowding your query's pacing) is your best chance at convincing the agent that your story not only *sounds like* a winner, you made some specific choices as well as anyone in the business. It's the best hard proof of your talent you can give.

    I agree, the main need is to restructure this to make it clearer what matters and what kind of excitement the reader should have, and especially to make a sense of who Tina is part of that. But I also want more clarity on the genre: is it YA (because "readers like heroes two years older than them") or general audience? Is that opening description a sign that she's got a superior brain, or actual precognitive powers? And how can you do justice to the line

    "China isn't on the internet"

    That's a shocking line that all by itself turns Tina's world into a dystopian place where *everything* she knows might have been manufactured by the conspiracy. You probably shouldn't lead with that line, but it's probably the key to hinting how much trouble she's really in. (Unless you mean "a town called China in the next county.")

    This sounds like a powerful story if it fits together. I'd suggest studying Janice's links and other samples of successful queries, so you can work out how to assemble your pieces as smoothly as the story ought to be.

    ReplyDelete