Monday, August 16, 2010

#170

Dear Query Shark:

Kelly is hunted by the Guild for the simple fact of being a necromancer. If that wasn’t bad enough, her zombie friend is threatened by a voodoo priest who will do anything to possess her, even kill Kelly for the privilege.

This is almost reminiscent of the old "walks in to a bar" joke motif: a necromancer, a zombie, and a voodoo priest walk in to a bar.

You're too close to the novel to see this. In fact, my guess is that when you read this you'll think I'm being harsh. One of the writing skills every author needs to master is objectivity: getting OUT of the story enough to see how someone else might interpret it. The only way to learn this is practice ("the first million words are practice"--Stephen King).

The same applies to queries.


There's a simple way to figure out what goes in the first paragraph of a query.

1. What is your main character's name?

2. What problem/choice does the character face? (20 words or fewer)

3. Who wants to foil the main character's plan and why? (20 words or fewer)


These three questions are the blueprint of your query. You don't write the answers and send it as a query any more than a real estate agent posts blueprints instead of photographs of a house for sale.

You USE these questions to guide you on what to include (action/plot) and what not to include (description/character list)

Think of it as a writing exercise. Answer each of these questions. Use as many words as you need, then pare down to 20.




To further complicate her life, she finds herself attracted to Rayne, whose relentless pursuit of her is about to tip off the Guild to her whereabouts.

You've got four characters mentioned in one paragraph. That is at least two, and probably three too many.



What Kelly doesn’t know is that Rayne is a Guild hunter and despises her kind. But he hides a sinister past from his Guild brothers. He once worked with black magic. After witnessing the death of his girlfriend at the hands of Demaskus, his old mentor, Rayne abandoned the dark arts and vowed to avenge her. When Demaskus returns and starts murdering hunters, Rayne is determined to destroy him at any cost. Trouble is, Kelly’s skills might be the key to defeat the man who wants to bring down the Guild.

At this point I'm confused, and I don't care. In fact I've stopped reading.



Rayne’s secrets unravel and Kelly discovers how deeply she’s been betrayed. When her friend is kidnapped by the voodoo priest now in league with Demaskus, her only hope lies in the Guild and the men who’d rather see her dead. Both Kelly and Rayne must face their enemies in a battle that will save either the Guild, or plunge society into chaos.

You mean society isn't already in chaos? You haven't seen our office when cupcakes arrive have you?

DEATHLY VEIL, is a completed 101,000 word urban fantasy romance.


I’m an active member in (redacted) and have had (redacted) ebooks in publication. (list redacted)

I can send you a partial and synopsis or full of my manuscript for your perusal anytime. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

I stopped reading after the second paragraph and sent a form rejection.

Start over.

35 comments:

Thari said...

Based on the plethora of detail - confusing detail for a query - I'm not sure I'd ever want to read this book. Mostly because I'd probably need to read it several times to figure out just what is going on.

Did you read any of the queries posted here that succeeded? I doubt it.

This is going to sound odd - but try it. Starting with the first sentence of your query, read only the odd numbered sentences. Just doing that simple exercise makes your query about 100% more readable. (I hope this does not mean readers of your novel could read only every other sentence and still make sense of it.)

Katie Avery said...

This query letter is too confusing, mainly because there are too many characters listed in it. Maybe take out the part in the beginning about the zombie friend. That part doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the letter. Also, simplify the explanation of the plot. Once you do those things, the letter will be much better.

P.S. Thanks for the query first paragraph blueprint, Query Shark! I'll be using it to revise my own letter.

Sue Repko said...

I'm sorry did this post have something to do with queries? I can't seem to find the information about whether cupcakes arrive at your office at regularly scheduled times and if I'm allowed to show up then. Please advise.

Alexa O said...

I think this query fails in another way as well: it doesn't sell this world.

If you're going to write a (very looooong) book about zombies and voodoo priests, you have to prove in your query that it's vibrant instead of silly.

I love sci fi and fantasy, but we all know that there's more of it that's terrible than there is that's great. Especially in the wake of the Twilight world takeover.

Good fantasy creates a world the reader wants to climb into.

This query doesn't sell this *world* any more than it sells the plot or character(s).

Casey said...

I wouldn't be able to read this book, simply because the Guild is the primary setting for the Pokemon Explorers of Darkness game. Other than that, I didn't even know what was happening in the query. It was extremely confusing.

Claire said...

I would have called it disjointed more than anything else. The Shark's criticism is well deserved; there's no sense of the actual story, or if there is, it's buried under acres of irrelevant information.

From what I can read here, the book does sound vaguely interesting. But only because I like things with zombies.

Stephanie Barr said...

This is my favorite genre. I should be all over this book. I'm not. This is a problem.

First, first sentence is awkward. Read it out loud. The first sentence in a query should not stink.

Secondly, the second sentence has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the query. Leave it out.

Third, The relentless pursuit of Rayne means that his turning out to be a hunter is hardly a surprise. The background on Rayne is probably not helping. Isn't this about Kelly? Why don't you tell us something about HER? Who she is, why we should care that she's being pursued.

Genre fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction, are sold on either worlds or characters or both. Except for the faceless cliched aggressor (the Guild), there is no hint of the world and there's no description of them and what power they have. Not even WHAT guild.

So, that leaves character. What have you told us about Kelly that makes her worth the time to read? If you want to sell a hackneyed plot to science fiction/fantasy agent/publisher (and this is), you have to have something that makes it interesting, something worth the trouble. You need to put it in the query or no one will ever see it.

lodjohnson said...

I think what happened was you lost focus with your protag. (I'm struggling with that as well). K.I.S.S. is the best advice I can give. Read everything Ms. Reid has out here. You'll begin to see a trend.

Emily White said...

The problem with the query is not just that it is a tad confusing (I did have to reread a couple times just to understand), but the author head pops from the MC to Rayne in the middle of a paragraph. This isn't a very good use of POV and indicates he/she probably head pops in the novel.

I'd stick with one character in a query even if other characters get the same amount of attention in the novel. There's usually one around whom everyone else revolves. Decide who this is and tell his/her story.

Irene Troy said...

Although I’m not much of a fantasy/science fiction reader, I’ll try anything that catches my interest. Unfortunately, even after reading this query several times and even after reading what others have commented upon, I can’t see a plot anywhere. What the heck is the story about? There is a long line of characters, but, so what? There is nothing compelling here, nothing that says “this is worth a second look” or even “put aside your critique and consider the premise of the novel”. I can’t even figure out the premise. Back to the drawing board for this one.

Kim Zimring said...

What about something like this:

Kelly Blank is a necromancer. She didn't start out to join the dark side--it's just that dead things love her. Besides, it's time to fight the prejudice against death magic. Just because she can raise a zombie army doesn't mean she will.

The Guild doesn't understand this. They're stuck in the past, all 'murder magic' this and 'your kind killed my mother' that. It's time for them to get to know the necromancers individually, Kelly thinks. Judge us by our actions, right?

One of them, Rayne Blank, is all too ready to get to know her. His intention isn't reconciliation, though: it's assassination. First, however, they must join together to fight a true dark sorcerer and--at least for Kelly--attraction grows quickly into need.

In the end, she faces a terrible decision. Rayne is too damaged by the past, too caught up in an old love's death to care again. But Kelly knows--remember--dead things just adore her.

Deathly Veil is urban fantasy, complete at 100K. Thank you for your time.

I hope this re-write doesn't offend you and maybe offers some useful thoughts. Coming off a query myself, I think it's easier to write someone else's. No temptation to put too much in, for one thing.

Anyway, hope this is of some help. The book sounds like something I'd like (go zombies!)

NG James said...

I'm intrigued, unlike most other people, with the first paragraph. It almost sounds like a fantasy version of a Carl Hiaasen novel. Lots of crazy crap happening, and much of it enjoyable. When the query started going down the romance route I was putting the book back on the shelf.
If romance is the focus, maybe start there so you don't hook the wrong sort of reading demographic.

A3Writer said...

I'm going to focus on names in this comment because I think the Shark and the other commenters have hit everything else.

The Guild, the League, the Council, the Society, the Conglomeration, the Cooperative. None of these words has any meaning beyond indicating some kind of organization, but so what? If we say the Company, we know we're talking about the CIA because of cultural references. We don't have any of that background to infer special meaning about the Guild. Why is it just "the Guild" instead of a name which might reflect something of the culture of the society?

Also, Demaskus? De-mask us? I know you were going for something that sounds like Damascus, but this just feels like you're trying to set up a ploy that shows Demaskus will reveal the true nature of the Guild.

Christina Auret said...

This query reminds me of nothing so much as the ramblings of someone who has just watched a movie they absolutely adored, who is trying to convince a friend they have to watch it too.

You are trying to tell us about all the awesome things that happen without giving us any of the context that would actually make it great.

Doesn't mean the movies/your story isn't great, but you should give your enthusiasm a bit of time to simmer down.

Also:Kim Zimring makes me want to read this book much more than the original post does.

tales-of-the said...

As a fantasy writer myself, I can understand the overwhelming desire to explain everything in a query letter. The world in all its rich detail and vibrancy, the characters and their troubled pasts and complex motivations, the powerful cultures and their customs not only very different from our own but from other cultures within the story. I understand this. These are the things that make your world so intricate and laudable, and these are the things that make your story inexpressibly fantastic--it is fantasy, after all.

Your book is where all that should rise to the surface, though. Your novel is where the setting shines in all its unabridged glory (mind, no one wants to read an ornate description of the setting, so working in all that detail without overloading the momentum can be a fun challenge!).

Your query, however, is not.

As QS has demonstrated time and again, a query is short. A query is enticing. A query is the free sample on a toothpick outside the food court. If you try to fit a tiny piece of every menu item in a free sample, not only is there way too much in the sample cup but there are bound to be flavors that clash. These flavors could certainly work well within the context of a full meal, but in a tiny sample it all just seems irrelevant.

I know it's hard, and it seems like you're leaving things out. I know how important it feels to make sure the agent knows the why and how behind the plot, and moreover I know how imperative it seems that you convey the sense of imminent mystery that is likely prevalent in the novel. You want the agent reading to feel the intrigue, the enigma, the urgency--because that's what makes the novel so alive for you.

But just as a free sample cup can be overloaded all too quickly, so can a query. Imagine a person whose job it is to stand outside the food court all day and do nothing but eat free samples, in order to make recommendations to others about the available choices. That person would naturally become very discriminating and picky; she might (and I believe did) take one look at your sample cup and decide to pass.

Make it short. Make it delicious. Make her hungry. Your query is not there to explain the details and sate her questions; your query is to pique her appetite so she chooses your restaurant. Sell your flavors, don't give them away.

tales-of-the said...

Your book is where all your story's details should rise to the surface. Your novel is where the setting shines in all its unabridged glory (mind, no one wants to read an ornate description of the setting, so working in all that detail without overloading the momentum can be a fun challenge!).

Your query, however, is not.

As QS has demonstrated time and again, a query is short. A query is enticing. A query is the free sample on a toothpick outside the food court. If you try to fit a tiny piece of every menu item in a free sample, not only is there way too much in the sample cup but there are bound to be flavors that clash. These flavors could certainly work well within the context of a full meal, but in a tiny sample it all just seems irrelevant.

I know it's hard, and it seems like you're leaving things out. I know how important it feels to make sure the agent knows the why and how behind the plot, and moreover I know how imperative it seems that you convey the sense of imminent mystery that is likely prevalent in the novel. You want the agent reading to feel the intrigue, the enigma, the urgency--because that's what makes the novel so alive for you.

But just as a free sample cup can be overloaded all too quickly, so can a query. Imagine a person whose job it is to stand outside the food court all day and do nothing but eat free samples, in order to make recommendations to others about the available choices. That person would naturally become very discriminating and picky; she might (and I believe did) take one look at your sample cup and decide to pass.

Make it short. Make it delicious. Make her hungry. Your query is not there to explain the details and sate her questions; your query is to pique her appetite so she chooses your restaurant. Sell your flavors, don't give them away.

KyCactus said...

The good thing about this query is that it gives me hope for my own stories and queries. I'm involved with online writing communities and it blows my mind how many necromancer/zombie/sexy vampatrix/shape shifter/fae/zombie-garden-gnome stories are out there. I'm glad that Twilight and other books inspire people to try it out, because it makes my odds that much better.

Advice for this query writer: It often helps me to write my entire story in 25 words, or at least one sentence. I find this helps me focus for the query and really get at the heart of the matter. Slash out all side characters and most subplots. Focus on your protagonist and the inciting incident and the antagonist and the stakes. Mmmm, steaks.

Brad Jaeger said...

Simplify! Your query will be stronger for it!

Stephanie Barr said...

@ Commenters rewriting the query for the author - be really careful. Making a good query based on a book you've written or at least read is tough. Writing one for a book you haven't read, well. At the least, let me encourage you not to embellish.

(As I had a well-meaning friend once rewrite my query taking out what he didn't like and putting in what he thought my book would be, well, let's just say I was aghast, horrified, and repulsed. Scarred.)

I'm not saying you're not giving good advice nor that those efforts aren't well-meaning, but, as authors, if we can't master this skill, our work will not ever leave desk drawers.

M. G. E. said...

I like that the author has taken things so far off the beaten path with a necromancer protag. But you guys are right, ultimately this query doesn't work.

Yes, the apparent PoV shift to Rayne in the middle threw me. And the apparent plot shift to romance also turned me off.

Lastly the voice, the prose, is a bit off.

For instance: "Kelly is hunted by the Guild for the simple fact of being a necromancer."
- I doubt that being a necromancer is a "simple fact," in fact it's probably quite difficult to become one and very complex in its activities :P

Also, that construction implies that no one could possibly find anything wrong with being a necromancer, as if being a necromancer was akin to gender, skin color or creed, as a dumb reason to discriminate.

But I'm fairly sure people have some good reasons to hate necromancers generally :P

These are the types of queries I like to see best because the query is fairly well polished yet ultimately isn't successful for more subtle, more difficult to ferret out, reasons.

@ Kim Zimring: You made the protag sound both adorable, and the story interesting, I like! Did you really craft that in 10 seconds? Wonderful.

alaskaravenclaw said...

The shark bites on a Monday? Yay :).

I was stopped by "Demaskus" too, but didn't think of "de-mask us," only Damascus.

Then my second thought was "A Latin ending on a word with a K in it, when Latin has no K? Ridikulus!"

My third thought was, "Please, not a punning writer! Puns are okay when people make them in real life, because then the person is thinking on their feet, which is sometimes admirable. But a writer who's had months and months to think up a pun, punning? That's just annoying."

And, like everyone else, I was confused by this query.

@StephanieBarr-- actually, I never mastered the skill of query-writing, but my work got published anyway. Lord knows how. I really liked Kim Zimring's version-- it's snappy and conveys confidence.

MomCO3 said...

This was great advice-- thanks. And way to go #170, being courageous.

Stephanie Barr said...

@alaskaravenclaw

It *is* snappy and shows voice, but does it show the author's voice? The query done for me might have been a fine story (even though, as it was described, I didn't care for it) - but it wasn't MY story. And I thought, at least, that it should reflect the story.

If the query and book didn't have to match, we could just hire professional query writers to write something compelling that had nothing to do with what we write. Of course, when agents and publishers caught on, that would probably be the end of the query process.

Bear in mind that this is just my opinion. Perhaps what Kim Zimring wrote is just what the author needed to get it straight. Maybe she caught the story just right.

I'm just noting it doesn't always work that way, so take care.

alaskaravenclaw said...

Stephanie-- True enough.

I remember Miss Snark stopped blogging at the point when, she said, she had taught the world enough about query writing that they could write kick-ass queries even if their novels were strictly blah. I'm paraphrasing. That was the vague gist of what she said.

Sometimes I wonder if the query has been elevated to an art form in its own right these last few years. I just looked at the Shark's blueprint and yeah, it looks terrific-- and I don't think I could write a query like that for the novel I'm finishing right now. Nor for the last one I sold.

So it just makes me wonder about the whole query writing process, and the importance that's attached to it. Not that I don't love this blog, and the conversations about writing that go on here.

But I would add to your caveat: don't attach too much importance to writing an excellent query.

As for Kim's query, I assume she (he?) was just trying to give an example of a well-organized query with a confident voice, not provide something for the writer to actually use.

Kim Zimring said...

Well, the author would certainly be welcome to any/all of my two cents.

I found the specific suggestions people made for mine really helpful, so I thought it was worth a try. There's just no substitute for other eyes, I think, with queries.

At the very least, someone else's version can tell you what they understand. If it's completely wrong, that can be exactly what you need to know.

Lise1977 said...

Query Shark:

The 1, 2, 3 steps you mention are of course OK for a plot-oriented novel.

However, what would you do for a character-driven one?

Or, say, for "Mrs. Dolloway?"

Advance thanks for any such examples.

AA said...

I think the point of rewriting someone else's query is to show stylistic elements that the author is missing. That is, which POV to use, how much detail, which characters to add and which to leave out, that sort of thing. I never thought it was meant as, "Here, I've done your homework for you, now turn it in."
Even if the story is a lot different, the structure and style can be copied, or at least considered.
If someone reads all the comments and still isn't sure what to do, an example can sometimes cause a light bulb to go on.

AA said...

Looking at the plot as logically as possible-
1.Kelly is in love with Rayne, but Rayne wants to kill her. Rayne has been hired to do this by the Guild. The Guild wants Kelly dead.
2.Demaskus wants to destroy the Guild. That's good, because the Guild wants Kelly dead.
3.Demaskus is also killing hunters. That's good, 'cause Rayne is a hunter working for the Guild who wants Kelly dead. (Even though she loves Rayne, it's better for him to die than her, because she's the M.C.)
4. Kelly's zombie friend is kidnapped. Only the Guild can fix this, for some reason, but she can't ask for their help because the Guild wants Kelly dead. She can't ask Rayne for help because he works for the Guild and the Guild wants Kelly dead. She could maybe make a deal with the Guild, they'll work together to defeat a common enemy, but once her part in that is finished they'll kill her anyway because the Guild wants Kelly dead.
I seem to see a recurring theme here.
Get rid of the Guild. It's really clogging up the plot. There isn't any reason why these people can't all have personal reasons to hate each other. They don't have to be hired to do it.
Another note: You don't need the priest at all. Demaskus is the villain and you don't need two villains. Technically, you've got four, if you count the Guild separate from Rayne, and you have to count it separate because I suspect that Rayne becomes a sympathetic character. So, if you remove the Guild, have Rayne working on his own to kill all necromancers because his girlfriend was killed by one, then you have a protagonist, an antagonist who later becomes sympathetic, and one real villain. Then have Demaskus kidnap the friend, upping the ante and making himself seem more evil at the time of highest tension in the plot.
Throwing all sorts of problems to be resolved in front of the MC seems like a good idea to create conflict, but it isn't. She doesn't need stuff coming at her from all directions, she just needs to be in love with somebody who wants to kill her, and then her and her lover must destroy a villain. It can really be as simple as that. Drama is created by conflict, then the tension caused by the conflict not being resolved, then the conflict being resolved. Of course you can have more than one conflict, but you don't need dozens. The main emotional conflict is where the story lies, and story is the whole point.

Becky Wallace said...

Shark, thanks for the "Form Query."

Can you give provide a formula to follow when the story has two protagonists?

JS said...

It's actually quite easy to write a straightforward, formulaic query for MRS. DALLOWAY (which, of course, Virginia Woolf wouldn't have to query anyway, even if queries had been the norm at that time, as she was already quite well-known for her three previous novels and her essays).


Clarissa Dalloway is organizing a dinner party, while all around her the comfortable upper-middle-class life she's always known is falling apart. Caught between her reveries of the pre-World War I countryside and the realities of a 1925 London still reeling from the war's effects, she goes through her day mostly unaware of the struggles of those around her--until a shell-shocked veteran's suicide breaks the surface of her guests' sophisticated conversation.


The point of the query is not to say everything that can be said about the novel. The point of the query is to say enough about the novel to make the agent want to read it.

Lise1977 said...

Dear Shark:

Very nice of you to post the "Mrs. Dolloway" model query so quickly.

It helps a lot.

Janet Reid said...

Lise1977, I can take no credit for it. The credit belongs to the writer of the comment. I just clicked "publish."

Lise1977 said...

Dear Shark:

Right, for a moment I confused JS and JR:-))

Thanks go to both of you.

But would the kind Shark personally agree with the posted query for "Mrs. Dolloway?" Just so we could sleep well.

greg said...

I really appreciated you posting those three questions, Janet. They are a big help. A nice framework around which to fill in the brick and mortar to make a nice, strong query letter. Now, all i need to do is find the right combination of detail to add to the framework. I have found it a confusing exercise so far, to say the least. I keep finding myself stuck.

Bruce Harrison said...

The Shark's response impressed me. She tells us that words are our toolbox. I agree.

Then she provides us with a demonstration of how that works. Observe the numbered points two and three under her heading, "There's a simple way . . ." - aside: did I use ellipsis properly, oh sharky one?

The Shark writes, "20 words or fewer."

Bravo. 'Fewer' is used when a comparison of quantity can be assigned a number. "Less" is used when a quantity is indeterminate in numerical value.

To wit: "My glass is less full than yours." Compare that with, "I have fewer apples than you do."

Writers must use the language with precision; otherwise, they will fail to communicate their meaning properly.

I appreciate the lesson, Sharky one. Please continue to enlighten us. Even when you don't intend to do so, you're teaching us about proper grammar and punctuation.

Thank you for your time and consideration (another thing I have learned from the Shark).