Sunday, October 3, 2010

#182--Revised

Dear Query Shark:

An old and mysterious globe launches Benjamin and Caroline Coffee into the perils of history as they to navigate through the Age of Discovery and back to the modern day.

The unexplained death of the  grandmother brings Benjamin and Caroline to rural Illinois on the summer following their thirteenth birthdays. That is, until they innocently spin a long-neglected globe. When they regain consciousness, the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world, The Earth Apple, designed by Martin Behaim. The threatening Martin imprisons them, leaving them hopeless, but they soon find out that twin globes have been made and the one they need is in Lisbon, Portugal. Unfortunately, it is the same globe needed by Martin’s most secretive friend, Christopher Columbus. Martin whisks Benjamin and Caroline off across 15th century Europe, but they are not alone in their voyage. The Portuguese Crown is in vigilant pursuit, along with a curious old man who holds many answers to the wonder of the twin globes and to the death of their grandmother. Should Benjamin and Caroline help the deceitful Martin in his quest with Columbus or should they give up on history and try to get back home?

You sent this as entire block o'text. Don't do that. Break up into three-four lines in an email. Don't break sentences obviously, but do break paragraphs into smaller chunks. White space is crucial in an email query.

Here's how I'd break it up:


The unexplained death of the their grandmother brings Benjamin and Caroline to rural Illinois on the summer following their thirteenth birthdays. That is, until they innocently spin a long-neglected globe. When they regain consciousness, the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, (let's remember that Germany didn't exist as a unified political entity till after 1870) and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world, The Earth Apple, designed by Martin Behaim.

The threatening Martin imprisons them, (why?) leaving them hopeless, but they soon find out that twin globes have been made and the one they need is in Lisbon, Portugal. (they're in prison, how do they know?) (why do they need that one and not this one?) Unfortunately, it is the same globe needed by Martin’s most secretive friend, Christopher Columbus.

Martin whisks Benjamin and Caroline off across 15th century Europe, (I thought he locked them in prison?)  but they are not alone in their voyage. (Nuremberg to Lisbon isn't a voyage last time I glanced at a map) The Portuguese Crown is in vigilant pursuit, along with a curious old man who holds many answers to the wonder of the twin globes and to the death of their grandmother.


Should Benjamin and Caroline help the deceitful Martin in his quest with Columbus or should they give up on history and try to get back home?

This is a choice without stakes. What happens if they give up on history? Does the world implode? Am I doomed?

SPIN: THE COFFEE CHRONICLES is an 80,000-word historical novel. Maps and illustrations have been created.


Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you,

If your query raises these kinds of questions as I read it, it makes me wonder if the book holds together logically.  (This is why a lot of agents request a synopsis--to see if the book really works in terms of plot and narrative arc)

You might have a fun book here, but I can't see it because all I am is confused. 

Start over. Simplify.


---------------------------------
Dear Query Shark:

After stumbling across an old and mysterious pedestal globe, a few innocent revolutions launch Benjamin and Caroline Coffee back into the midst of history’s greatest challenges as they re-encounter the Age of Discovery and struggle to find their way back to modern day.

There's a lot to be said for simple basic sentence construction. Consider: Benjamin and Caroline Coffee stumble across an old and mysterious pedestal globe.  A few innocent revolutions launch them into the midst ...

Writing it this way does a couple things: it helps you steer clear of long-ass sentences which is almost always the better choice.  It starts with the names of the characters.  It also helps you as an author write with forward motion.  Start at the beginning; move forward.

I'm not sure innocent is needed to modify revolutions. Whether they were innocent or malevolent, the result is the same.


When the two thirteen-year-olds regain consciousness, the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world, The Earth Apple, designed by Martin Behaim.


An attempt at using the globe to get back home leaves Benjamin and Caroline kidnapped and hopeless, but soon an unsigned note left in the pocket of an obscure young artist reveals that common throughout history twin globes have been made, and the one they need to get home is the same that Martin needs for the second discovery of America; unfortunately, it resides in the castle of King John II in Lisbon, Portugal.

You've got way too much going on here for one sentence.  Also, that one sentence is 74 words.  When I see this kind of sentence in a query, I know I'll see it in the book. That means I'm in for some pretty hard-core editing.  This does not bode well for "yes, I want to read pages."

I don't understand how using a globe gets anyone kidnapped, or makes them hopeless. Clearly there's some sort of precipitating event  but you don't mention it.  

"An unsigned note left in the pocket of an obscure young artist" is the worst form of Scooby-Doo

Martin whisks the artist, Benjamin and Caroline off across 15th century Europe, but they are not alone in their voyage. The Portuguese Crown is in vigilant pursuit, along with a curious old man who holds many answers to the wonder of the twin globes.



Fires are quelled, battles are fought, and secrets are exposed as Benjamin and Caroline unearth new perspectives of the Granada War, Renaissance Art, and the true discovery of America in SPIN: THE COFFEE CHRONICLES.

This is so general as to be meaningless.  You only need the events that answer the question: what is the hero up against? What is getting between the hero and his goal?  Everything else can be left out.

SPIN: THE COFFEE CHRONICLES is a 120,000-word historical novel. Maps and illustrations have been created.


whoa.  120K is not a problem for an adult historical novel. Not at all.

Your protagonists are 13.  I thought this was a middle grade book.  120K is way too long for that.

What you have described here is essentially a middle grade novel: kids out of place in time who need to get home. This isn't a novel that an adult would read.  You need to chop the word count by a good 50K.

I am currently in a Ph.D. program at the (redacted) so I am no stranger to research but new to novel writing. The research for this book has taken me to several of its scenes throughout southwestern Europe. I have also been in correspondence with experts at one of the largest and greatest museums in Europe, the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg, which plays an important role in the novel as well as houses many of the famous pieces featured, including Renaissance artwork and the oldest globe extant, The Earth Apple of Martin Behaim.



 That's very nice but you don't need qualifications to write a novel. 

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you,



This is a form rejection.  I see unnecessarily complex sentences, disconnect between length and target audience.  There's nothing here right now that makes me care about the main characters and their quest.

29 comments:

SARA J. HENRY said...

"You've got way too much going on here for one sentence. Also, that one sentence is 74 words."
When I used to review my nephew's English papers, I told him: If you can't say the sentence in one breath, it's too long. Methinks that's particularly true for query letters.

alaskaravenclaw said...

This is ungrammatical:

"After stumbling across an old and mysterious pedestal globe, a few innocent revolutions launch..."

This makes it sound like the innocent revolutions did the stumbling. The sentence subject needs to match the dependent clause. (Also, "revolution" has several meanings and "turning" wasn't the first one I thought of in this context.)

There are also too many sentences in which the subject is an inanimate object-- an attempt, an unsigned note, or, most alarmingly, The Portuguese Crown.

"History's greatest challenges" makes me think of the 1347-1350 plague. Though I suppose the "Age of Discoveries" could be history's greatest challenge, esp. if written from the POV of those for whom it was the "Age of Invasions" and the "Age of Newly Introduced Unfamiliar Diseases Against Which the New World Had No Natural Defenses".

I know from my own experience that the kind of writing rewarded in a Ph.D. progam is exactly the kind of writing you don't want to be doing in a novel. (And vice versa of course.) If you want to succeed at writing fiction, you're going to have to teach yourself a new kind of writing. Whether you want to take that on while you're still in your program is up to you.

(Ms. Shark, I've got papers proving I'm an adult, and I read middle-grade novels all the time. But also write them of course.)

agreen12345 said...

There are some problems with word usage here - for instance, "reveals that common throughout history twin globes have been made." I think you mean "commonly." And I puzzled over "revolutions" for a while before realizing that you meant turning the globe, not political insurrections.

To write well, you need to write well. Meaning that you need not just characters and a plot, but really skillful use of language. That doesn't mean just grammar and sentence construction and word choice (although those matter too), but also how language flows and hits the ear.

To me, this read like someone who isn't placing enough value on those things and who instead is thinking that plot and research are enough.

Joel said...

Linked globes as time travel devices is a nifty conceit. I like that we're not going to Arthurian England, Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England or France under the Sun King. Way to go on Germany and Portugal. Watch for info dumps (look it up). Don't turn it into a text book. If you want world class integration of historical detail, read the cooking scenes in “Beloved”. Read Connie Willis “Doomsday Book”, 1992. Beware qualified sentences: “the oldest globe in the modern world”. Try “the first globe since the fall of Rome a thousand years before” or “It was an age when every map was a treasure map, and the globe was the greatest treasure of all: to know the world entire.” Nope. Last sentence sucks. Takes you away from your book and doesn’t belong in a query. This book has tremendous potential. People are ravenous, parched for academics who can write well. This has great potential for your career, too.

lotusgirl said...

In some ways it sounds like the query writer is trying too hard. I often remind myself to "Keep it simple, stupid." It helps me make sure that everything is flowing. This is especially important for MG writing.

The storyline is very interesting and something that my kids would enjoy but not if they have to slog through mile-long sentences. They'd lose interest before the end of the first page. An older audience might give you a little more leeway.

arhooley said...

Well, you have some staggering advice: to cut 50k out of a 120k-word novel. If you can't do that, I've got some other staggering advice: make your main characters adults. If you like to write complex sentences and you don't want to waste tons of research on life in 1491 Europe and miles of ingenious plotting, it might be an easier task. This could be a hugely entertaining book for adults and a cool movie or game.

Marissa Doyle said...

It's so fatally tempting to cram all the lovely shiny research and cool stuff into a historical novel. But you just can't, especially in a middle-grade novel. You've got the plot and the setting, but you're missing something vital--why we should want to read about the Coffee children. Who are they? Make sure your protagonists aren't cardboard cutouts to which the plot happens.

Author, may I suggest an extensive course of reading books intended for your potential readers--which means 10-12 year olds if your protags are 13? I think it will help hugely.

wizardonskis22 said...

The story sounds interesting, but the query is pretty confusing. All those long sentences make it easy to get tangled up. It's getting Hawthorne-esque. If you cut it down and make it simpler, it can be perfect for younger readers. With that length of story and sentences, it seems like more of an older read, but I realize that making the characters older will not necessarily work with your story. If you were just trying to be fancy with the query, and your book is simpler, you could just make a good revision. It also might help to make the kids a bit older, maybe fifteenn or so, because then it will appeal to a larger audience. Kids tend to like to read books about older kids or kids their age, rather than younger ones.
All this said, I think you have a great idea, and it sounds very unique. Keep trying with the query, and best of luck!

College Boy said...

As someone with a PhD in the sciences, I can tell you that academic writing and literary writing are completely different arts. My adviser killed every single clever turn of phrase that I came up with for my thesis and scientific papers. That being said, my adviser insisted on clarity, and that is important to both types of writing. I am afraid that clarity is missing from this query (mostly due to awkward sentence construction), but if you learn to fix that, it will be useful for both your fiction and your thesis.

Irene Troy said...

Yikes! I have to agree with the Shark on this query: if the story is as complicated and as full of run-on sentences as the query, the writer is in trouble. A globe gets someone kidnapped? How? An unsigned note is found in the pocket of an artist (how is the artist related to the protagonists?) and leads the protagonists on a quest. Okay, but why make it so complicated? Can’t the protagonists simply discover they need a globe that is not readily available? And why a globe instead of maps? [I’m not saying this is a bad device, but you need to clarify why someone uses a globe in this age of GPS navigation]

“Martin whisks the artist, Benjamin and Caroline off across 15th century Europe, but they are not alone in their voyage. The Portuguese Crown is in vigilant pursuit, along with a curious old man who holds many answers to the wonder of the twin globes.” I’m assuming “Martin” is the map creator, but this is not at all clear and forces the reader to make an assumption, not a good thing. People pursue as ordered by the Crown. The Crown does not pursue. The Crown is not an active being, it is representational.

If this novel is meant for kids, then it is far too complicated. If it is meant for adults, it is still too complicated. Much of this reads as if the writer is trying a bit too hard to impress readers with her/his knowledge. Factual information has its place in a novel, but you really can’t bludgeon your readers over the head with these facts. Instead, integrate them into the novel through dialogue or part of the plot.
As someone who has written both fiction and non-fiction and who now earns her keep in technical writing, I am living proof of why it is hard to step out of one form and into another. However, one rule applies regardless of genre: keep it simple. Of-course, this is easier to say than for me to do at times! Don’t despair, just go back and reread your work and honestly look for the flaws others have discovered. Writing and rewriting (again and again) are all part of the process.

Lehcarjt said...

This immediately brought to mind the Magic Treehouse books (beginning readers). I kind of like the idea of books similar to those for older, more advanced readers, although it doesn't seem like that is really your goal.

I'm curious why you chose 13 as the age for you protags.

Stephanie Barr said...

I happen to love a number of authors who write long complicated sentences. Really.

Having said that, it only works if it makes sense, if it's clear. Convoluted makes it sound more erudite, but less clear, the opposite of what you want for a novel aimed toward children. Not really good for adults either.

Figure out who this is for. Adjust your heroes/length/complexity accordingly.

Either way, you need a more clear and concise query, focusing on your protagonists and what they are struggling with. Here it's muddy. Do they want to go back? Do they want to save the world? What's the conflict? Everything aside from that can probably be trimmed.

That may be true of the novel as well.

alaskaravenclaw said...

Technically the linguistic term for "the Portuguese Crown" as it is used here is a metonym. Reporters use metonyms-- "The White House had no comment." Nobody expects a building to have a comment; the metonym takes the place of the human(s). We all use metonyms... in my days as a school teacher, we referred to the state ed dept as "Juneau". "Juneau wants us to do it that way."

In a children's book, though, it instantly conjures an image of a bejeweled crown surging righteously over the seas. Or wherever.

I disagree about this being viable as an adult novel if not as a kids' novel. The writing in the query-- all those passive constructions and dependent clauses-- suggests that the book may need serious editing. Preferably the editing should be done by the author him/herself so that s/he learns how. Adults don't want to wade through heavy writing either. The writer needs to elminate every unnecessary word.

nn Angel said...

The thing I find the most confusing is how Martin factors in. Yes, he needs the other globe, but there doesn't seem to be a reason as to why he would help these two kids find it as well. That, and he just randomly shows up to travel with them. If he's going to be a third critical character, I'd personally like to see how he's going to figure in a bit more rather than just popping up out of nowhere to help save the day. Right now, it doesn't seem like he has any motivation to help them.

arhooley said...

alaskaravenclaw, I agree about the bad sentence construction. Convoluted and complex are two different things.

However, I doubt the word count could be sufficiently reduced (50k words) by editing at the sentence level. Whole chunks of the plot would have to be removed. As I see it, the author has a choice: s/he can do a complete rewrite that cuts massive amounts of plot and fixes every single sentence, or s/he can do a massive rewrite that swaps the main characters for adults and fixes every single sentence. Both choices are equally viable and equally daunting. To me, it comes down to what the author is more willing to sacrifice: his/her finely wrought plot, or his/her determination to write for kids.

alaskaravenclaw said...

Arhooley, I doubt it needs editing just at the sentence level. But I hesitate to speculate too far on a manuscript none of us has seen.

Most people who write historical fiction because of their own interest in history (me for example) tend to start out by making the plot and characters secondary to the history. I wouldn't be surprised if that's going on here. But we don't know.

I'm with Kurt Vonnegut: every sentence must do one of two things, advance the plot or show character. Otherwise it's outta there. Same goes for paragraphs. And scenes. Chapters.

As an example of the kind of cutting this writer could try...

For

"After stumbling across an old and mysterious pedestal globe, a few innocent revolutions launch Benjamin and Caroline Coffee back into the midst of history’s greatest challenges as they re-encounter the Age of Discovery and struggle to find their way back to modern day.

"When the two thirteen-year-olds regain consciousness, the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world, The Earth Apple, designed by Martin Behaim."


How about

"When twins Benjamin and Caroline Coffee spin a mysterious old globe, they suddenly find themselves transported to Nuremburg, Germany in the year 1491."

That sort of thing. For the whole novel. (In theory.)

M. G. E. said...

Okay, this book will -never- be published in its current form.

The author has say three years of work to do on their prose styling and surrounding issues before they're ready to complete a novel.

I, too, thought surely this was surely middle-grade. Wow, 120k. With massive cumulative sentences stacked end to end--sounds painful.

Part of the problem is that the academic world encourages stuffy writing as an affectation of respectability and high-mindedness. Unfortunately it also obscures meaning. Well written prose doesn't trip all over itself.

It's not that writing a long sentence is necessarily bad, but that you've lost clarity in the midst of it. There's already two of them in just your query. A "master sentence" should be rarely used, reserved for special occasions in the novel, times of heightened tension and revelation.

Remember the words of Gertrude Stein, "Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?"

Then think about the various ways that could've been phrased and why they would be less artful :P

@Arhooley: It might also be possible for the writer to split the novel into two separate books.

morphine-moniza said...

I think the book sounds like a fun read for middle graders. It seems to be educational, there's a nice fantasy element, sufficient adventure. You really should focus on cutting down wordcount and repackaging the book for middlegrade readers. Shorter sentences would probably be a good idea as well. Kids tend to have short attention spans.

Bridge Marie said...

Your research looks impressive and I'm especially intrigued by the true discovery of America but, as others have said, I wonder about the amount of stuff you're cramming into your sentences and your book. Maybe the action works better in a series?

Orlando said...

My focus will be on the plot rather than the writing ability and grammar issues previously discussed. For instance; why does this globe have time travel ability? How did the children stumble on to it? Why was this artist implicated with the children, I mean how does he fit in?

I don't really see it fitting together and that removes my interest. I would like to see a simple but interesting plot.

kmullican said...

Dear Author of #182 - welcome to the shark tank! I've been bit a few times and I know, about now, you wish you invested in kevlar. That being said, take the recommendations here and apply it.

I'm still working on it (see #176 for what NOT to do.) There are really great people here who went over to my blog page and offered assistance. Good luck and happy writing!

Jo-Ann said...

Dear #182. You've put a lot of effort into your work, that's apparent from the historical elements alluded to in the query.

My reaction to your title was "too much coffee makes my head spin", which I think cheapens it.

I'm also wondering whether the globe has transported anybody else through time, and if not, why did it start with those children? I'm guessing there's a twin-thing happening here (twin kids, twin globes). But that's my guess, it's not spelt out - the magical elements in a story need to have a logic to them.

Why can it draw the children to its time stream but not back to their own? Is the globe using the twins to reunite with its own twin? Or does somebody require THOSE kids in particular to do something specific? I'm asking these questons because I'm wrestling with them myself in a story featuring time-travel. I figure that time-travel does not invovle "simple" magic, and there's got to be a reason why somebody goes to the effort of recalling somebody through the aeons.

The twins' motivation is clear: "get us back home". Who's trying to stop them? Why?

I'm no expert on queries (just learning), but when a plot summary leaves so many questions in the reader's mind, it does not invite the response you're hoping for which is "quick- someone get me a copy of the book before the suspense kills me".

batgirl said...

Ooh, let me guess - is the 'obscure young artist' Albrecht Duerer?

And did they have pockets in clothes by then? My thinking is not, that they were still carrying pouches on their belts or just stuffing things in their breeches, if they'd got to the slop-breeches fashion.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

#182, I think you've received some good advice. My comment is along the lines of batgirl's. I think you need to check your history carefully. You stated the protagonists found themselves in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1491, but Germany was not unified as a nation until the 19th century. Such a misstep undermines your credibility. If I were an agent or editor, I'd wonder what other facts you may have missed.

Stephanie Barr said...

With no insight into the characters, I would think the plot would have to make sense.

Right now, it doesn't (and the note QS pointed out about Germany is particularly telling - if you're selling a historical book, glaring historical errors are likely taboo).

I don't have any idea why this is important or entertaining.

(For QS - this and 185 didn't make the latest revs list. Not complaining - I know you're busy - but making you aware.)

Blake said...

From the author of 182: I just found this list of comments and wanted to thank you all for your responses; I will definitely incorporate them into a revised query. When you become so engrossed in a topic, it’s difficult to recognize your own mistakes. A few comments about the comments:

Simplicity: I agree. I did a Flesch-Kincaid Level score on my query – it was at a 12th grade reading level. Yikes! Luckily, my book is written on a 6.5 grade reading level, so I need to better match the query with it.

Length: My goal is to pare down the book into a length more palatable. I may get wordy at times and suffer from “info dump,” which I will watch for in editing my book. Few journey books are short, but I will likely be forced to cut scenes.

Plot: The plot is somewhat complicated. Yes, Martin Behaim is a famous (but not so well-known) cartographer, and he plays a major role in the book. Yes, Martin kidnaps Benjamin and Caroline, but then realizes he needs them to accomplish his task of obtaining this other globe. Yes, the twin globes have twin powers (to be explained further in a future book, if I ever manage to publish the first one). Yes, Benjamin and Caroline begin to unravel the death of their grandmother when they travel back in time. Yes, Albrecht Durer is involved and is important. Yes, Nuremberg to Lisbon isn’t a simple train ride/ flight in 1491. Yes, there is another set of twins trying to foil Benjamin and Caroline’s plans along the way. Yes, Martin Behaim and Christopher Columbus need the same globe that Benjamin and Caroline need. Yes, King John II of Portugal has sent men to follow and kill Martin.

Okay, now how do I get all that into a clear and concise paragraph? I know this is a question I myself must answer, but I have to make choices. What do I include and what do I exclude? In my opinion, character development comes at the expense of plot explanation (and vice versa). Any suggestions on what ideas you find the most interesting and which ones I should further develop in the query?

Historical: Yes, “Germanic” culture existed, but Germany obviously was not a country in 1491. My poor wording makes it sound as though I think it was – in the book, Germany is not referred to as a country in 1491. That said, I’ve done years of research, but I’m fallible.

Again, thanks for all your constructive feedback, and I appreciate and welcome any additional comments.

alaskaravenclaw said...

Even with the QS's suggestions on your revision, the writing is still awkward. For example, this

the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world

had me wondering how old the damn thing was. So I googled, and learned that

Martin Behaim constructed his familiar terrestrial globe between 1491 and 1493

IOW in 1491 the thing, if it existed yet at all, was not old but brand spankin' new. Now, you may argue that it ought to be clear because you said modern world, but it's not. And the age of the globe is also not very relevant, at least in the query, so leave it out.

Similarly, leave out as many of your adjectives as you possibly can. Threatening, secretive, vigilant, curious, deceitful all feel tacked on in order to make the story sound more interesting, but they don't flow. Read your sentences aloud and see how they sounds to you.

(Not just the query. The whole novel.)

Katrina S. Forest said...

Blake -

For writing my own queries, I try to avoid bringing up any information that raises obvious questions I don't have space to answer. So, if you know that people are going to question how Ben and Caroline got out of prison, and it's really not relevant to the main plot, don't mention they went to prison in the first place. Cut straight to whatever deal Martin makes with them to find the other globe.

As to what ideas people find the most interesting, I would only use that approach if you're willing to do major revisions to the novel as well. If someone told you that they found a minor subplot the most interesting, and you revised the query to focus on that, anyone reading the query would expect the entire novel to have the same focus.

Just my two cents.

xSadistxFujix said...

(I know this was a year ago but still)

@Sara, I can probably say a sentence that long in one breath (I'm like Hermione Granger that way!), does that mean I get an exception? Heh.

(Joking, of course! Well, not about the breath part. I really can do that!)