Sunday, August 28, 2016


1. I know log lines are forbidden and place names unwelcome, but every time I cut that first paragraph, readers are confused about the setting. Since the conflict revolves around a setting of rival nations, I cannot figure out how clearly convey that without the first paragraph.

2. I have had 8 professional query critiques. Every single one contradicted the previous - on everything from structure to worldbuilding to plot. At this point, I feel like the old man trying to get the donkey to market, and the query's about to drown. Please chomp on it.

Dear QueryShark:

Princess Allisane Kent and Captain Damien Ardeo will sacrifice everything to protect their people. Unfortunately, they're on opposite sides, and the fragile peace between Æled and Voluce is disintegrating.

This isn't a log line. A log line synthesizes a story by using recognizable comps to create a new image: Jaws In Space; Heathers meets The Shining; Die Hard meets The Berenstain Bears and Mama's New Job.  It's a tool used by our film guys to attract attention.  It's worse than useless in a query because it forces you to try to look suave in a suit made for someone else.  

Start with the story.  I don't know who the hell can be confused about the setting here since it's clearly Not Earth. What the hell else do they need to know? It's SF. Run with it.

Allisane struggles to earn the respect of her uncle, the King of Æled. As a Wind Rider, she trains in combat on her personal winged horse, and any lord who disapproves can go hang. Her people's ability to control light and fire vanished generations ago. Training the wild, winged horses is their only protection against the superior might of the flying Volucians.

Did the power to control light and fire vanish or was it lost? That seems to me to be a pretty important distinction. Words are your tools here, and you want to use them with precision.

Damien is common born, struggling to earn the respect of his high-born military commanders. His people fear Æled's control of fire, and every winged horse Æled trains threatens Voluce's very existence. He should follow orders and slaughter the tamed horses - if his conscience can handle it - but flying to war means leaving his family unprotected from a sociopathic nobleman.

Wait wait wait.  I read in your first paragraph that the AEled's ability to control light and fire "vanished generations ago" but now Damien's people "fear AEled's control of fire"  This seems contradictory. Contradictory confuses me. I don't like to be confused in a query letter. 

And how exactly is it that he has "tamed horses" if all they do is kill them? In other words, you've confused me here, and that's not a good thing.

When overzealous Volucian soldiers attack Allisane, mistrust ignites into war. Her kingdom under attack, lives in the balance, Allisane must choose between saving her family or leading her people. When following orders sparks a war, Damien must decide who deserves his protection - his nation, the innocents under attack, or the Æled Princess caught in the fray.

And now I'm just totally lost. How can be soldiers be overzealous if the two countries are at war? You have Damien flying to war in the second paragraph. And how is he flying if he's killing all the winged horses?

Right here is where I'd stop reading and send a form rejection. If I can't follow the query, I don't assume I'm stupid. I assume the query isn't well-organized, and from that conclude the book is probably a mess as well. That may not be fair, or even accurate, but it is the truth. Use that to your advantage when revising.

Remember you can NOT skip ahead chronologically in a query letter. What happens in paragraph two should precede what happens in paragraph three. Queries are too short for any fancy back and forth timing.

I like the mirroring you do with both main characters trying to earn respect. I like horses in any kind of book which means you've got my interest. Then it goes splat. I think you're trying to explain too much.

A query need only to entice me to read the pages you've included in the query. You don't have to do anything more than that.

You've got too much going on here. Pare down.

One wrong choice, and they're all dead

Yea  yea yea, that's such a cliche I don't even pay attention. Anything that sounds like a voice-over in a movie trailer should be revised out. We all write this kind of stuff on the first or even second pass. The trick is to recognize it when you're revising and CUT CUT CUT.

ASCEND is an adult high fantasy with YA crossover potential complete at 105,000 words.

Well, for starters, you don't have enough words here. High fantasy is world building at its finest. You need 125K minimum to do that. More can be better.  If I hadn't already sent a form rejection, I'd do it here.

I'm MORE likely to reject a query for a book that's too short than too long. I can suggest revisions to cut word length. A book that's too short lacks some essential infrastructure and that's a whole lot harder to revise IN to a book.

Don't put anything like "with crossover potential" in a query. That's like telling me a book has film potential. We all hope for sales to as wide an audience as possible, but how a book is marketed and publicized has a whole lot more to do with the audience it reaches than the content does.

A recent graduate with a degree in English, I am a recipient of multiple academic awards for writing but am not yet published. Thank you for your time and consideration.


8 professional critiques? Wow, that's a lot. And they're all telling you different things? Not surprising. Any of them from the actual target audience (agents?)  

The acid test for a query is whether it gets results. That's the ONLY test that matters. If you haven't taken this out for a spin on submissions, you don't know if it's effective.

I don't think it's effective yet because even though I love love love horse books, I'm not yet tempted to read this book.

Simplify this down to the precipitating incident and resend. 


Laura W. said...

For me, what the query didn't quite do was explain the connection between Allisane and Damien. Why should he want to protect her? Is she just passively "caught in the fray" or is she asking something of him? I didn't quite understand how their different stories were supposed to interact with each other. It would be different if it was something like "When Damien captures Allisane, he thinks he can use her as leverage for peace terms, but his commanders demand her execution..." then that would make sense. I got lost when the query neglected to mention where/how/why they met each other.

First Turn said...

I'm confused by the paragraph about movie industry loglines. My prior understanding is the examples could also be delineated like the following:
A High Concept is no more than half a sentence to give an instantly graspable gist:
"Sharks in Space"
A Logline to 24 words expanding upon the high concept, by describing the main character's stakes, risks, obstacles, and how the MC grows:
"Spacewoman Suzie is the only humanoid who can save Earth2050, but space sharks block her, until she reads all of the Query Shark blog."
A Mashup is another way of describing the queried work, via a quick comparison of titles of two well known creative works (preferably recent and in same industry and genre), which expands upon the high concept and supports the logline:

Lennon Faris said...

A few things I liked:
- I like the army on the winged horses --immediately gives it a good epic fantasy feel.
- guy and girl on opposite sides of a war - talk about romantic tension! - although I may be imagining this, because it doesn't actually explain their connection in the query.

I think you are doing what I did with (the first twenty versions of) my query: you know too much about your story and you love your story, so you're putting in unnecessaries, and omitting important connections. I think you can make it much tighter/ cleaner and less confusing.

Some concrete examples:
-The mention of the lost light and fire abilities seemed unnecessary as it didn't seem to be a part of the plot.
-"lives in balance" seemed redundant to me (of course peoples' lives are in balance with war decisions).
- "if his conscience will let him" - I wouldn't add this unless we know something of his character already or an internal struggle he's having. I'm assuming he's a compassionate person and doesn't want to kill the horses? But a soldier fighting for his life wouldn't necessarily have that qualm, so I wasn't sure what he was having a conscience crisis for.
- The first paragraph (what you had listed as 'log line') could def. be incorporated into the query, just say that she's the princess of one country at the beginning of her paragraph, and state he's the soldier of the other at the beginning of his. We can see that peace is disintegrating!

Good luck! The query's confusing but I feel like it could be an interesting story.

JeffO said...

I believe Damien is from Voluce. If this were more clear from the get-go, that would help keep the query from going "splat," as the Shark says.

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

I, too, gathered that Damien was from Voluce, and that his people have some other sort of flying ability. (Dragons? Giant eagles? Wings? We don't know but I assume it's not winged horses.) Once the query gets cleared up this sounds like something I would want to read, especially if there's romantic tension involved between the principals. Good luck!

Standback said...

So here's an observation I don't think has been brought up yet:

Your query fails to cohere.

You have a long list of details about your story, but they don't seem to form into arcs, or plot, or meaningful stakes. Take a look:


Princess Allisane Kent and Captain Damien Ardeo (...) fragile peace between Æled and Voluce is disintegrating. <-- You were rightly concerned and QS rightly struck this, because it's a vague hand-wave-y intro instead of getting us to story details.

Allisane struggles to earn the respect of her uncle, the King of Æled. <-- OK, but he's never mentioned again in the query.

As a Wind Rider, she trains in combat on her personal winged horse, <-- Her combat ability is never mentioned again. Her personal winged horse is never mentioned again.

and any lord who disapproves can go hang. <-- Disapproval of Allisane is never mentioned again.

Her people's ability to control light and fire vanished generations ago. <-- This is mentioned again! As something that (I think) the other side doesn't know.

Training the wild, winged horses is their only protection against the superior might of the flying Volucians. <-- The winged horses and enmity with Volucians are repeating elements - the central elements, really. I'll get back to this.

Damien is common born, struggling to earn the respect of his high-born military commanders <-- His struggle for respect and his military commanders are not mentioned again.

His people fear Æled's control of fire, and every winged horse Æled trains threatens Voluce's very existence. <-- Counterpoint to Allisane's paragraph.

He should follow orders and slaughter the tamed horses - if his conscience can handle it <-- Qualms about slaughtering horses are not mentioned again. (Unless you're using this as a way of saying "Killing fighters from Æled", in which case that isn't clear.)

but flying to war means leaving his family unprotected from a sociopathic nobleman <-- His family and the sociopath are not mentioned again.


I'm going to stop here a second before the last paragraph, and make my point. The repeating elements you have in this query are: two nations are at war; one uses flying horses, the others fly themselves.

And that's it.

Everything else feels disjointed, incidental. Allisane may have conflicts with her uncle, Damien may be protecting his family, but those elements just don't seem to be important. They have no effect on the query. They are mentioned, and forgotten.

The last paragraph bears this out: it's the climax of the query, and it is about one thing and one thing only: There is going to be war; war would be bad; can they stop the war.

War can make for an exciting and powerful book. But don't ever make the mistake of thinking that because war is so devastating, readers (or gloriously be-finned literary agents) will care who wins yours. Until you give us something to care about, a query going "Two imaginary kingdoms are going to WAR", and nothing more than that, is going to fall flat.

You need to convince us that your war is going to be exciting, or tragic, or scary for a character we love, or something. If your story is about war, what your query needs to do is make that war matter.


Or, maybe that's not what your book is about. Maybe it's about Allisane and Damien. Maybe it's about winged horses. I don't really know.

But what you don't have here is a compelling narrative progression. You don't have an arc - leaving your query feel disjointed, unstructured. There's no clear stakes he wants to see resolved.

Standback said...

Here's a handy exercise I'd recommend: Write three lines each of Allisane, for Damien, and for the war itself. For each one, write:
1. What they want.
2. What's in their way.
3. What they do about it.

Keep it simple. Be specific - you don't need every nuance, but you need one central, concrete answer to each of them. "Takes a stand" isn't "What they do about it"; "steals a bunch of winged horses" is.

That's an arc. And knowing your various arcs will be the backbone for your query - and maybe for your whole book.

All the best :)

Sara said...

Agree that there's a lot of confusion going on here and it's making the story feel very disjointed. I found myself asking a lot of questions while reading the query. Part of your job while revising will be to either answer these questions or not raise them in the first place.

- How is Allisane planning to earn her uncle's respect? If I had to guess, I'd say it's be becoming a great warrior, and defending the kingdom from its enemies, but you don't want your query reader to have to guess. I'd focus the first paragraph on Allisane's goals and how she's trying to reach them rather than long lost powers.

- Is there a reason lords might object to Allisane being a Wind Rider and training on her flying horse? Because she's a woman? Because she's a noble? This is part of your world building: setting up,the society, what's expected of people in it, and what's out of the ordinary. If it's unusual,for a woman or a noble to be a Wind Rider, but no one is in a position to give Allisane any trouble about it, then it's not worth mentioning.

- Do the Volucians have wings? Gliders? Do they fly like Superman?

- What's the payoff for Damien earning his commanders' respect? You've explained what the two main characters want, but not why. I need something like "If Damien can earn his commander's respect, he'll get a promotion that will allow him to move his family out of the slums." "if Allisane can win her uncle's respect, she'll be upgraded to a flying horse that shoots lasers."

- Why is Damien in a position to slaughter the tamed horses? Are they the enemy's flying horses? Why does the idea of doing this bother his conscience? I get that killing animals that didn't ask to take sides in a war ain't fun, but we need specifics.

- If you don't have space to explain the sociopathic nobleman, leave him out. One "either the character does this with X consequences or that with Y consequences" is usually enough and I don't understand this one.

- Why are any of the choices the two characters have to decide between at the end of the query mutually exclusive? It needs to be clear that saving her family will completely prevent Allisane from leading her people or Damien can't defend his nation while also protecting the innocents or helping out Allisane. Because right now, I don't see why Allisane can't just lead her people to defend her family and I'm to confused about who's who and what's going on to make sense of Damien's choices.

There are ideas in here that I like, but we need to see them connecting in a clear, logical narrative.

rkcapps said...

I too was confused but I gleaned enough to know I'd want to read. For me, I want to understand more of the romantic tension. I felt you were telling more than showing. Let it sit a few weeks and I think you need to start fresh from a new angle. Pick why a particular character trait clashes with the other. That's my 2 cents. Take or leave it. You choose. I look forward to reading your next attempt. At the moment I can see why it won't hook an agent but you've hooked me.

Surrly said...

Just listened to a screenwriting agent on a podcast and he says he (and believes most agents in Hollywood) never reads loglines. Sounds like it's pointless even there.

french sojourn said...

"....because it forces you to try to look suave in a suit made for someone else."

I don't even know where to begin...insanely elegant.

Cheers H.