Sunday, October 30, 2011


Dear Query Shark

Amy’s a problematic drinker brooding over a fantasy world and her dead mother. Carrie’s overly uptight and spurns Dean’s hopeless advances. Mitch and Renee are deeply in love, but it’s all in jeopardy.

Egad. Five characters in four sentences and 33 words!  This is textbook "character soup."  Don't do it. The reason you don't want to do this is I don't know where to look or what to remember. It's akin to being introduced to five people in rapid succession, by first names only, at a job interview. Who's important?  Who's the intern and who's the guy actually deciding whether you get the job?

The first paragraph needs to be enticing, not the cast of characters.

Suddenly these problems get even more complex, especially considering they’ve tripped into Amy’s fantasy: Ezrantia. Revelations about her mother send Amy into an alcohol fueled downward spiral. Carrie obsesses over home. Dean is heartbroken. Mitch and Renee run from their fears and into a desert.
Oh, and Ezrantia is crumbling worse than a stale loaf of bread for the pigeons.

I'm absolutely and completely lost right now. This is a very bad thing in a query.

And then there's that stupid prophecy. Those things always make life a living hell.

These five teens and their new friends aren’t ready, mentally or physically, for an oncoming battle with a creeping shadow. Despite friendships, politics, magic, a fortuneteller, faeries and alcohol, they all must prepare. But it’s not easy putting emotions aside, especially those concerning your closest friends.

This is set up. What's the actual problem? Who are the antagonists? What's at stake? 

You're burying the place that the story starts: the oncoming battle. Everything else you've got here is set up or description. What's the plot?

All their new magic seems meaningless in the face of this beastly shadow because they can’t run from their problems forever. Sometimes they chase after you.

PAPER CROWNS, complete at 69,000 words, is a different type of YA fantasy. I’m an avid reader sick of vampires, elves and dragons. Instead I tossed talking animals, booze and bad attitude into the frying pan and am serving up something new.

"sick of vampires, elves and dragons"  I'm sure you are. But your query isn't the place to reveal that. Chances are the agent you're querying is making some pretty nice coin off those books.  While we're all looking for fresh and new, we don't have to trash the stuff that made us money last year.

Thank you for your time and consideration, I look forward to any input and possibly working with you in the future.

Simple and elegant is really hard to do. All the reviews of the new Steve Jobs biography mention his insistence on clean, simple and intuitive. Query letters are like that too: simply tell us who the main character is, what problem s/he faces, and what's at stake. It's harder than it sounds, of course, but you've still got to do it.

If you have an ensemble cast, you'd have done well to pay attention to QueryShark #199.


Anonymous said...

The first line made me think two things:

1. Why "problematic" instead of "problem?"

2. Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn...

"[C]rumbling worse than a stale loaf of bread for the pigeons" is the sort of metaphor that should stay out of query letters-- the image distracts from the story you're trying to tell.

Another problem with saying you're sick to death of vampires, elves and dragons is it invites the reader to say she's sick to death of faeries.

You should rewrite this from Amy's POV, assuming she's the protag.

Jennifer Campbell-Hicks said...

Also, I'm not sure I would pitch anything as a fresh new idea because the chances are high that someone else has already done it. Miserable teens stumble into a fantasy world: Lev Grossman's "The Magicians."

Anonymous said...

I have absolutely no idea what the central conflict it, except it involves a creeping shadow, maybe. The rest is list after list of stuff and people without a tie to gather it all.

Ezrantia is crumbling and there's a stupid prophecy. Those sound like important bits. Certainly more important than Dean being heartbroken and Carrie being homesick.

Focus on one character who is more main than all rest (Amy?). Define her problem (she fantasized a world and got her friends trapped in it). Introduce complications (fantasy world is crumbling, creeping shadow eatin' errbody out there). Define the stakes (trapped in Crumbworld forever, Mitch and Renee forced to become Fremen). Pose a choice (Amy could stay in Crumbworld to become Crumb Queen, Carrie wasn't liked by anyone in the real world anyway and was just gonna burn down the school). Tada! InstaTension™.

Anonymous said...

This query confused me from the start. I was never properly introduced to the fantasy world or the characters. I would've liked to know from the start that they were teenagers. Because I don't know anything about Ezrantia, I'm not sure what its crumbling means or why I should be concerned.

Calling the prophecy "stupid" might be what the characters are doing, but it doesn't make me want to read the story. I also don't understand why it's "despite" friendships, etc., that the characters must prepare. Isn't it because characters care about each other that they often band together in the face of everything else?

I agree with the other comments that trashing vampires and other books is a bad idea. It can make you look jaded. In this case, it's extra bad because of going on to say that booze and talking animals are new, which they aren't.

There could be a great and interesting story here. I would've loved to see the fresh plot set up for me so I could see it's something new and exciting.

Mister Fweem said...

I don't know about anyone else, but when I think of "YA fantasy," the first thing that comes to mind is booze.

Standback said...

I actually find this query intriguing. It's not a well-crafted query, but I think it knew exactly where it wanted to lay its focus: on the dysfunctional, escapist nature of this fantasy romp. From the first line to "sick of vampires, elves of dragons" closing, this sharkbait is driving home this point, which (it certainly seems) is what they see as the focus of the book.

And this might be just me, but that's a focus that appeals to me (as a devoted fantasy fan). Curiously enough, for a query like this, I feel like I'd want to see pages - not the first pages, but the last ones, because my primary concern is how one provides a satisfying ending to such a depressing set-up.

This isn't to say I disagree with the criticism QS and the comment gallery have mentioned - there's an unfortunate lack of specific detail and character focus. I'm just saying I think there is a clear focus here, and things I find compelling.

Kelly Robinson said...

I glossed right over "fantasy" at the get-go and thought I was reading about a love triangle in a romance novel. I concur that the the character "soup" should be tossed.

The Cardboard Crafter said...

I agree, I was totally lost in that query. I didn't even realize it was a YA until you mentioned that they were teenagers. Leading with the alcohol problem made me assume your characters were adults. And maybe you should try to focus the query on two of the characters instead of equal opportunity for all five; mention the others peripherally--if you need to--but you don't have to throw their names in, just a descriptive label. That said, it sounds intriguing and might be an excellent story. You've got some great ideas.

Stephsco said...

I learned the hard way through my first rough draft of a novel that too many characters is just too many characters. Yes, Stephen King does it, but for me, that's what bugs me most about his writing. There has to be one character who is the main POV, of if there are two or three, it can work using alternating chapters. So maybe that structure is used in this person's novel, but it's hard to tell from the query if that's the case and the story isn't presented well.

My advice to the author is to outline in query form one or two of your favorite books as if you were pitching it yourself. Then try again. This helped me a lot.

Rebecca Christiansen said...

I had no idea this was YA until you called them teenagers. That right there is a problem.

Anonymous said...

I liked this part: "...tossed talking animals, booze and bad attitude into the frying pan and am serving up something..."

Don't know about "new" or the sentence before it, for the reasons other commenters have posted, but for a second there, I had an entertaining image of a Poelle-traumatized Narnia.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Here's the thing: I sense this Ezrantia world is supposed to be important, but I don't know why from this query. It's said that these characters tripped into it, then there's random tidbits about the characters, then the revelation that it's crumbling.

Why, and even more importantly, so what? I think the agent/reader needs more of a sense of what is threatening this fantasy world, and why that should matter. Is it going to have some real effect on the people trapped within it? Like the Shark says, what's at stake? My feeling is that if you focus on that, the gist of the story will be more apparent and there will be less character soup.

I got the dysfunctional Narnia vibe, too, which could be really cool, but it'd be nice to know if that's really what's up in the query. Show us, rather than telling us you're rebelling against YA trends and including the oh-so-edgy elements of booze and bad attitude.

Simone said...

love all of your advice, but I'm really loving:

Query letters are like that too: simply tell us who the main character is, what problem s/he faces, and what's at stake. It's harder than it sounds, of course, but you've still got to do it.

Thank you!

Nick said...

There is a good idea buried underneath the confusion--something on the order of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for YA readers perhaps. Unfortunately as other commenters have written the query comes off as muddled and, well... flat.

I think Lead's suggestions for building InstaTension™ are spot on.

I'd also revisit use of "problem drinker." I don't think there's anything wrong with writing a teen character with a drinking problem, but for me at least that phrase evokes images of middle-aged people unable to control themselves at cocktail parties.

Good luck revising!

Anonymous said...

I agree with what others have said about not knowing these were teens at first. You introduce the first character as an alcoholic, which makes me think adult, possibly middle-aged, and then you introduce the other characters as couples with problems, which also makes me think adults, and not even particularly young adults. I think part of the problem is that the issues you're pointing out that the characters have aren't obviously what I would consider teenage issues. Not to say that teenagers don't have those issues, but with the sort of vague descriptions you've given, it certainly doesn't make me think that they're teenagers right off the bat.

I also agree about not bashing popular trends in the genre. People who are a fan of a genre usually like those trends. They're the ones that are making it popular. Bashing the whole sub-genres makes you sound like an outsider trying to come in and force your own views of what YA fantasy should be, with no respect to what YA fantasy is and has been. As a reader, this alone would majorly put me off.

Personally, this seems like it would be an incredibly cynical, depressing story. Some people are into that, I guess, but I know that the tone of this makes me completely uninterested in reading the book, even if the plot sounded more interesting and unique.

Marina J. Lostetter said...

Avoid negativity in your query--it’s unprofessional. Would you go into an interview proclaiming you're a cut above the sorry excuses they usually employ?

You especially wouldn’t say that if you've got mustard on your face and your shirttails sticking out, would you? Which is akin to slamming vampires and then following it up with the "originality" of talking animals.

Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

JS said...

I think I might like this book better if they were all 30-somethings rather than teens.

Because, yeah, right now it's a bit The Lion, The Witch, The Wardrobe, The Magicians, and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, but if it were a bunch of confused dysfunctional adults suddenly thrown into a magical universe...

Kind of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia And Also Hogwarts?

Beth said...

This query spotlights one of my little pet peeves, which is appending 's to a name to indicate a contraction, rather than possession. No, it's not technically incorrect, but it's very, very informal and can mislead the eye into thinking it's being used as a possessive. Just say "Amy is" and "Carrie is." Much smoother and clearer that way. There is absolutely no need for a contraction.