Sunday, June 24, 2018

#315-revised 1x


Question:

I’ve put in two comparable titles, Atonement which inspired me to want to write a heart-wrenching love story and I wanted the mystery of The Miniaturist, but how do you compare yourself to such great writers?


Dear Query Shark,

It’s 1977, Leda recently moved with her father to a mysterious Georgian estate in rural Ireland.

This isn't a compelling first sentence.  If you show us why the Georgian estate is mysterious, or why Leda and Dad are moving there, you'll have a better chance of engaging your reader. But really the best way to start is with what Leda wants, and what's getting in her way.

In the throbbing heart of the forest not far from the house, where shadows duck away from sunbeams like wild cats, she stumbles on the murder of a young man dressed in strange old-fashioned clothes. She realizes she must have witnessed something from the past.

Forests don't have throbbing hearts of any kind, and this kind of metaphor makes me roll my eyes. That shadows duck away from sunbeams is telling me something I already know, and not in a way that makes me see shadows or sunbeams in a new light. If you start with "In a forest not far from the house Leda finds a young man dressed in antique clothes. And he's dead" you've got my interest.



In other words, don't try to be fancy. Not here, not in the novel. Too much fancy is like an overdecorated cake. Save the marzipan filigree for the top of the cake, not covering the entire thing.

Terrified and lonely, she finds old letters hidden in her bedroom written by a teenage girl dated 1803. The letters strangely comfort her, and visions of past events start to trickle into her daily life.

This is too abstract to be compelling. We have no idea why she's terrified, why she's lonely, why she's finding letters hidden in her bedroom.



And if she's having visions, what is she seeing? Is that what's scaring her? If so, you have this in the wrong order: visions, then tell us she's scared.





But the big problem here is we still haven't gotten to the plot.  I really need to know what the problem is, and what's at stake for Leda.

Then, she meets the first kind person in the village, slaughterhouse worker Connor, and it doesn’t take long for her to fall in love with him. As she uncovers the secrets of the letters, she discovers that the murders that started 174 years ago have never really stopped and Connor may be hiding the darkest secret of all — she might lose more than just her heart.

Still no plot. What does Leda want? What's keeping her from getting it.


Written for a readership that also enjoyed Atonement and The Miniaturist, The Ghost Swan is a general fiction novel of 96,000 words, set in 1977 and 1803, and told from two perspectives, the young, murdered man in 1803 and Leda.

There isn't really a "general fiction" category when you're talking about your novel. You'll see that in libraries maybe, but here in a query you can just say fiction (but NEVER EVER "fiction novel")



Atonement isn't a book you'll want to use a comp. First, it's now too old to be useful (it was pubbed in 2003). But, more important, Atonement sold very very well. You'd think that would be a plus as a comp, but it's not. More than anyone, agents know what a crapshoot it is to get a novel to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. (Hell, tens of thousands of copies is hard enough.) And of course, it was nominated for the Booker Prize.



Comparing your book to an outlier like this is akin to saying "The woman who won Miss America played the trombone for her talent. I play the trombone, so I could be the next Miss America." And no matter how well you play the trombone, that is not something people will take seriously. Even if you are young and lovely.



You can use Atonement if want to compare tone or style, but even that isn't a great idea.



The Miniaturist is a better choice, since it was pubbed in 2015, but it also has more than a thousand reviews on Amazon, thus might be a big reach.



Comps are very difficult to get right.  You're safer to say "the tone of my book is reminiscent of X or Y" or "the two time lines of my novel are similar to Z and A."



Readers who liked B and C should have B and C no more than two years old, and not runaway best sellers. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.


The answer to your question, how do you compare yourself to such great writers, is "you don't."



While I would LOVE it if your book moved me like Atonement, it's better for me to discover that it does, rather than be disappointed if it doesn't.



I remember when I read the very first draft of Lee Goodman's INDEFENSIBLE. I put my monocle down at about page 30, took a breath, and thought "holy moly, this guy writes like Scott Turow."  Lee hadn't mentioned Scott Turow, or even Presumed Innocent  in his query at all. He let me figure it out on my own. And because I saw it on my own, I was sure I was right. (I am right!)


You've still got the same problems you did in the first version: no plot.
This leads me to think that the problem might not be the query, it's the novel itself.

Make sure you have a plot in your novel. Yes, it is entirely possible to write a novel without a plot.
It's not a character flaw, or a sign that you're a bad writer, or you should throw up your hands in despair and become a taxi dancer at a waterfront dive bar.  It means you should figure out a plot and get it in the book.


 -------------------------------------
Original query

Questions:

1. I was raised in Ireland but born in the Netherlands; technically English is my second language, should I mention this in the query or would I be better off keeping my background a secret?

2. I’ve lost count as to how many agents I’ve queried; my novel was requested twice. I’ve had it assessed by official assessment agencies twice as well, both were very positive but had different views to what I should adjust. Could it than be the query that is posing the problem?

3. Is this query too short?

4. Should I mention the courses I did?


Dear Query Shark,

Florian relives one day over and over again, 11th February 1803, the last day of his life.
Leda discovers 174 years later who murdered him.


Your sentence structure is robbing that second line of any zing.
Consider: 174 years later, Leda discovers who murdered him.
See the difference?

But the problem of course is that reliving one day over and over again has been done so often that it's not only NOT fresh and new, it's tired and cranky.

This opening does not catch my interest. That's not fatal in a query, but it's not good either.

Although Florian and Leda live in their own time, each simultaneously embarks on a quest for truth, not knowing what the other discovers will affect them both in ways they never dreamed.

I don't understand what that means. Specifics really help in a query. And as far as I can tell there's no plot and nothing at stake. I really need to know about those in the query.

The Ghost Swan is a literary novel of 96,000 words set in Ireland in 1977 and 1803, and told from two perspectives.

And here's what's really amiss about this query. You're calling it a literary novel, but this query is the antithesis of literary. There are no lyrical turns of phrase, no deftly wrought metaphors, no words tangoing the reader across the dance floor of the novel, beguiling them to read on.

In other words: your query shows me what kind of writing to expect in the novel, and after reading this I do not expect literary fiction.


Plain is good. Plain is very good. But plain as in the beauty of an Amish quilt or the negative space of a spider web on a dewy morning.


I am an artist, and divide my time between writing and painting large watercolors. I’ve completed the writing a Novel, course at (School) in London, and (named) course in Scotland, and the (another name) Short Story Course. I published a short memoir in (another) Magazine in Dublin, and also made the artwork for the cover of (another) Literary Magazine, which was published last January.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

To answer your questions:
1. I was raised in Ireland but born in the Netherlands; technically English is my second language, should I mention this in the query or would I be better off keeping my background a secret?

There's a difference between keeping it a secret and not announcing it in a query. If you were raised in Ireland my guess is your English is pretty darn good. I didn't see anything in the query that made me wonder if it was your second language.

2. I’ve lost count as to how many agents I’ve queried; my novel was requested twice. I’ve had it assessed by official assessment agencies twice as well, both were very positive but had different views to what I should adjust. Could it than be the query that is posing the problem?

This query doesn't work at all. It starts with something that doesn't sound engaging, and there's no hint of plot, or what's at stake for either main character.

3. Is this query too short?
It doesn't have any mention of plot or stakes, so yes. That said, don't just add that. Think about how to entice your reader.

4. Should I mention the courses I did?
 No. The only thing that matters is the book.

Start over. Get some plot on the page here in the query.
SHOW me that you're writing literary fiction. 
If you're not, it's ok, but call it something else (like commercial fiction.)

7 comments:

nightsmusic said...

Your query gives me no sense of urgency. No idea if what either character finds is good, bad, earth shattering or life changing. So what that they find something? Does it change the fact that he dies? Does it change her life in some significant way?

Nothing.

This is a query for a novel. While you don't have to 'give everything away' to an agent, you need to entice the agent to read on. Right now, this query doesn't do that. Like Janet said, put the stakes on the table here. What is it that changes for each of them? Destiny? Who knows right now? You haven't given any information here and that's what the agent needs.

Go through this site and read the queries. Pay close attention to the ones that worked and the ones that didn't. Then revise.

Mister Furkles said...

In a query, specificity is you friend. Vagueness will kill you.

Harley Bishop said...

This isn't literary, because it's speculative fiction.

I dont mean it that it has no literary merit, I mean simply that it doesnt fit into "literary" the marketing category.

Simply put, speculative fiction (which includes sff under its umbrella) is a genre defined by setting elements. Not by the quality of writing or structure. Speculative fiction can be romance. Crime. Literary. Historical. It can be featherlight (station eleven) or in your face (war of the worlds).

Just about the only thing I get from your query is that it has speculative elements; if it is literary speculative fic, then you have to show that in the writing.

If you aren't querying agents who want spec fic, you may well be querying the wrong agents.

Jenny Milchman said...

In addition to the wisdom from the Shark and two commenters, I am curious as to what you mean by "official assessment agencies" for your manuscript? or query letter alone?--hoping you haven't paid for this service. You'll be able to amass both tips for revising your novel and your query by reading the responses to your post, and the archives here. Good luck!

Cody Fox said...

I didn't notice this at first, but if Leda's discoveries can affect Florian, and he exists in his own time, does that mean there is some kind of time travel element here? If so, maybe it would be good to lay that out there. I saw a tv show recently called Frequency that used a similar device and I thought it was quite good (though aparrently it didn't do so well.) But yea, if her discoveries in the future can change the past that is an interesting hook I think and maybe should be played up as far as what that means for the characters and their worlds. If not, well as others have said your query has no stakes so it just boils down to a few generic concepts regarding him having a Groundhog Day (or Happy Death Day, to use a more modern reference) and her being some kind of history detective.

Francesca Strada said...

Not only you should be specific with your query, but you should also write it in a way that makes an agent eager to read your ms.
I know it’s easier said than done, I’m struggling with it myself, but any attempt you make in writing a query will bring you a step closer to the right and final version.

DLM said...

Apologies, letter writer, I have no wisdom to share. I passed out at the gorgeousness of "the negative space of a spider web on a dewy morning."