How To Write Query Letters ... or, really, how to revise query letters so they actually work
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Shawn knows he’s going to die on his 18th birthday.
It’s not like it’s a secret. Shawn is a saviant, born to provide a vital organ transplant to his twin brother, Adam.
When you make up a word like "saviant" it helps to use italics so the reader knows you didn't just misspell savant.
Most saviants are wards of the Church of St. Gwyneth, but not Shawn. His parents kept him and raised him alongside Adam.
Shawn loves his brother. He doesn’t mind dying. He just wants Adam to be happy.
Then Adam’s girlfriend Ashley shows up at the door.
Ashley has never heard about Shawn. She’s never even met a saviant before. She assumes the boy in front of her is Adam. And she’s never been shy with her kisses.
It’s Shawn’s first kiss. Ever. He doesn’t know how to stop it. And Adam sees what happens.
The fight is bad. So bad, Shawn tells Adam the one thing he knows will hurt the most. That his death is Adam’s fault.
When it comes down to it, Shawn’s not so sure he really is ready to die. Not anymore.
He could run away. Live a life of his own.
All he has to do is leave Adam to die instead.
INTO THE SHINING SUN (74,000 words) is young adult speculative fiction. It’s my first novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Yup, this works. This entices me to read pages. It's taut, it's got stakes, it's got me caring about ALL the characters. This is ready to go.
The first half of the story makes it look like Shawn’s going to run away and live - a more typical dystopian tale - but Shawn chooses to die, and his death marks the novel’s halfway point. The second half follows Adam’s struggle to deal with his brother’s death.
I think the query is more enticing like this, but am I lying by omission? Should I give away Shawn’s end and give a clearer picture of the whole novel instead?
Also, my novel used to be 120,000 words. Thank you for admonishing us to pare it down. I needed it.
Tricky question, and there's no right answer here. I think you leave the query as is. I moved the question to the bottom of the post so as not to spoil the "surprise" second half for the blog readers. I think having this turn of events will be a good plot twist.
Of course, if you get requests for fulls, and a LOT of passes that say "the second half was a let down"
you'll know you need to work on keeping the stakes for Adam high, and building tension.
Posted by Janet Reid at 7:00 AM
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I wanted to read this novel! I admit I'm unsure about the mid-plot development, but it could be great as long as we care about Adam.
Wow. What a concept. Fantastic and tricky.
Nice job! I want to read it too. You already earned a resounding “yes” from the Shark, so take my grumblings with a grain of salt, but I had a few questions about the premise that I couldn’t get past.
When you have “born to provide a vital organ transplant to his brother,” I immediately thought of “My Sister’s Keeper,” so perhaps that influenced me…
• If they are twins, why on earth would his parents decide to swap one son’s organs for the other’s? At that point, they’re still both fetuses with no known personalities, so how could the parents choose to love/save one embryo over another at that stage?
• If the transplant is so “vital,” why do they know they won’t need it until exactly his 18th birthday?
• Shawn is described as a nearly impossible-to-believe martyr ...“doesn’t mind dying…just wants Adam to be happy.” I can suspend disbelief on that, but then to say that he completely does a 180 just from one kiss alone doesn’t ring true. I liked knowing that he later dies, because that feels consistent with the character you’ve established
• A nit, but, if Shawn is being bred for death, I have a hard time believing that his haircut, clothing and mannerisms would be so identical to his twin brother’s that he would be able to fool anyone
• If the parents “kept and raised Shawn alongside Adam,” and “it’s not like it’s a secret,” then why didn’t Ashley know about him?
I also love the concept, it sounds vaguely familiar, but still powerful.
I did get lost here....
"The fight is bad. So bad, Shawn tells Adam the one thing he knows will hurt the most. That his death is Adam’s fault."
Although you are trying to economize word usage, I would suggest clarifying this sentence / concept.
Really sounds fun.
I had the same nitpicks as Beta Shy.
Great premise, great query, but these practical concerns raise questions. We often have to take shortcuts in queries to convey complex situations in a few words, so I get it if these questions are fully answered in the MS and you had to oversimplify in the query.
The query is good enough that I wouldn't change it at the expense of answering these questions, but if it's possible to clarify (or not raise the issue at all) by adding or changing a few words, I'd do so.
For instance, saying Shawn was "born to" provide a vital organ - is that accurate? Is he truly a twin, or a clone? If he's a twin, was the zygote artificially split in the womb when Adam's organ defect was detected? If so, adding "artificially" or a similar, single word in the right place may help us suspend disbelief.
Good luck - it's a great query, and I can't wait to see it on the shelves.
I had all the same questions as Beta Shy... literally, all those same questions. The big one being why Shawn, who is "doesn't mind dying" suddenly wants to live SO MUCH. Also, how can he say he doesn't mind dying if he didn't know it was for Adam's sake?
I get distinct flashes of "The Island," that movie with Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor, which may be an influence on my perspective on this plot.
I wouldn't say to give away the major plot development, BUT you could shift the query's perspective to tell us about Adam's story - what he doesn't know, what he sees and experiences and doesn't. Telling us all about Shawn makes it feel like he's the main character - and if he dies: is he the main character??
I do have a lot of the same questions already asked, but my main concern is that the query invests us 100% in Shawn, not Adam - and so if we lose Shawn, it might feel like a betrayal. Also, the whole Magical Kiss changing someone's life - I may just be way too old ... but I'm also not sure I love telling a YA audience that kissing (sex) is the ultimate transformative moment in life. Is there really nothing more to it than that? I'm probably being an old codger on that point, but it's not a message I'd be pleased to give my nieces.
I am NOT the audience for this work, though (late middle-aged hausfrau), so anything I have to say can be taken with a whole lot of grains of salt.
About your plot question:
You could say something like, "All he has to do is leave Adam to die instead. And all Adam has to do is let him." Something like that added part would suggest there's more without giving anything away.
Best of luck! :)
I absolutely love this "saviant" idea, and I truly hope it does turn into a novel!
Please let me know when it is finished, I would love to read it
Wow. This is an example of a query that doesn't fit the standard format (1-3 short paragraphs), but it's intriguing and it lets me know who the protagonist is and what the stakes are. Makes me want to read it. I might be a bit disappointed to find, halfway through, that the story isn't really about Shawn. It's hard to say without reading it, however.
I really like the premise. However, I don't want Shawn to die. This would be a major letdown for me. I want Adam to die. Please let Adam die!!!
I like this a lot. I think though that 13 paragraphs might be too many. It's almost hard to follow with the spacing. Maybe you could merge the sentences on Ashley to form one paragraph?
Thanks everyone for your comments and questions. Being chum has been very rewarding, and it's been great to hear so many positive responses to the concept in general. There's always that nagging anxiety that one's idea is rubbish.
@Beta Shy, et al: Understandable questions. As I worked on the query I found it worked better and better the less I got into the Rules of the World. Robert McKee says you keep the audience's interest by withholding information, except that which is necessary for comprehension, and that advice really rang true as I tried to get the query to work.
I don't withhold those answers in the book, but I do space them out more than a query allows. The first drafts of my query were huge infodumps.
@french sojourn: That was probably the hardest sentence to work out in the whole query. The pronoun situation definitely didn't help - two he's make it easy to get lost. I'll give it some more thought.
@DLM: Shawn gets a few pages shy of 50% of the book, so I always felt he was just as much the main character as Adam. There are many more reasons than just a kiss, but a kiss is a very strong action and I thought it would be the best one to include.
@Marianne: Interesting idea. If I added another line, I think I would have to put it before, not after, as I think the idea of death makes for a very strong closing.
Christopher Meades: That was a conscious choice, since that's part of what differentiates Shawn's voice from Adam's.
Speaking of spacing, the night before this got posted, I had a dream where it made it to Janet's email in a single clump of text, despite the numerous test emails I sent to check the formatting.
Extremely original idea. Thus author is very creative.
I would vote for keeping the query as is. Shawn’s death is clearly the climax of the story, so if the second half is anticlimax, and there are 60,000 words of anticlimax, you don’t want to honk horns and ring bells telling unsuspecting agents that.
The problem is, they will find that out when they read the MS. If they rep it, the editor will find it out when she reads the MS.
In other words, you might consider leaving the query alone and re-thinking the book.
Instead of calling Shawn a “saviant” I would say he is on earth in case Adam needs spare parts. That is like the “heir and a spare” notion of British aristocrats. Prince Harry is a “spare” in case anything happens to Prince William. I have heard of people donating a kidney in case a family member needs one, a practice which means essentially giving away a considerable part of the donor’s life expectancy. But I never have heard of anyone committing suicide to provide someone else with spare parts. There are lots of interesting issues to explore here. The parents clearly consider Shawn a throwaway. Talking about a “Mom liked you best” story. So why is Adam precious and Shawn worthless? How does Shawn feel about being so completely devalued by his own parents? What if Adam dies during the transplant surgery and the parents are left with nothing? Would it not make more sense to avoid that risk and let Shawn live instead? Why would Shawn not decide his life is equally valuable with anyone else’s and say, “Sorry, Adam, but I choose to live. Tough shakes, Bubba.” I can see Shawn being kept in a prison and struggling to escape to save his life. You have some really interesting stuff to work with here, and I would love to read thus and see how you resolve it.
But a 60,000 word anticlimax? I would pass on that one.
It's a great query, but I have far too many questions about the premise to think the novel won't be full of holes. How did they know that Adam would need a vital organ in order to create a twin? Or in this world does everyone have a twin created just in case? But then you say that the 'spare' twin is designated from birth, but that his parents chose to raise him anyway - why would they do that, knowing he was destined to die? And who in their right mind is perfectly ok with being bred for slaughter?
I also agree with Steve Stubbs that the death sounds like the climax, and the second half sounds like anticlimax. If you hadn't asked those questions at the end I wouldn't be any the wiser about the problems with the MS, so if you left those out I think you'd get a lot of requests and a lot of R&Rs.
I think it's a great query. The only line I don't like is about the girlfriend never being shy with her kisses. There could be something more about the passion of it that sounds more teen.
This plot reminds me a little of The Lost Girl by by Sangu Mandanna. I like the idea of the aftermath. I, too, wonder how the family deal with it. How do they love one over the other?
Regarding your questions: I wonder how agents and readers will feel about identifying with one and then losing him.
I think the second half could work. In as much as its a cautionary tale in the value of life, the ending could have an incredible kick to it. A spin that makes the reader question sacrifice vs the nobility of sacrifice from both views. ( albeit one is a corpse at that point) We end with adam having twins and he has to choose which one is the organ donor.
As it is a dystopian novel, there is no reason that this would not be a common occurrence, as genes have split forming twins, in a darwinistic (?) necessity. The aftermath of an apocalyptic event that had radioactive fallout. (Mutating genes)
I would love to keep up with the progress of this novel. Good luck.
I love the query! And I didn't have *any* of the questions that Beta Shy mentioned and others have been seconding. So just letting you know there's a market out there that likes your story just as it [sounds like it] is.
Don't mention the 2nd half of the novel in the query. In a query, you don't have us caring about Adam enough for it to come off well; it sounds like crap. I'm assuming in the novel you've made us care about Adam a lot so that this works. (Because tragic YA just doesn't work unless there's someone left alive to root for; see "Fault in Our Stars" and "Allegiant.")
@Steve Stubbs: There are plenty of examples where the climax of one narrative arc has been the inciting incident of the next, so I don't agree that the second half of the book absolutely has to be anticlimax. I have certainly never looked at it as such.
@Kalli: Certainly something to consider. I think this is where I will have to rely on the query being enticing enough that agents will take the leap of faith that the novel's internal logic is consistent if I've gotten the point of querying.
@Theresa Milstein: I hadn't thought about it that way before. I'll have to ponder that word choice.
@french sojourn: There's definitely that angle. I'm glad you picked up on it.
@Liz Mallory: I've worked quite hard at making sure Adam is as empathetic is as Shawn. Responses from my readers have been positive in that regard.
I've got some big problems with this concept:
If Shawn is Adam's true brother, why do their parents favor Adam so heavily that they consider Shawn worthless except as spare parts? If they're twins, it doesn't even seem like a "he's the firstborn, so he matters most" explanation makes sense, and you haven't given any indication that they live in a society like that anyway. On a cold, calculating level, I can't see any reason why even unfeeling parents would choose to keep alive the physically frail/faulty son at the expense of killing the healthy one. If Shawn is a clone rather than a real brother, then how would they know early enough that Adam would need a spare part that they'd already be on top of cloning him?
This is something that, for me, really needs to be clarified up front for me to have any interest in reading the story. I need to know not only what the situation is, but why the characters are put in such a difficult situation. (It doesn't necessarily needs to be the real situation, if it turns out that the real reason is something other than what the characters initially believe, but it needs to be a believable enough reason for me to buy into it.)
If this whole thing is because Adam has some great destiny that only he can fulfill and the world needs him but not his brother, say so.
Best query ever! I found myself eagerly reading the next line, gobbling up every morsel of information you offered. Now I want to read the novel!
May the force be with you. You'll definitely get some bites on this one.
Hahaha are we here to comment on query quality or plot holes? Because I'm with the chumajority on this one - Query, yea, Plot, nay. I guess Janet's point is that if the query sounds good an agent is so desperate - I mean *caring* I meant CARING - for a good title they will literally read more from anyone who can put two sentences together without putting their foot in their mouth.
Maybe the book would make sense. Maybe it wouldn't. Query is QOTKU's job to decide - I guess plot is for us vivacious readers to chew up in the comments! :D Best wishes, either way, and congrats on a statistically significant thumbs up from the sharque! ;D
@Shawna: I'm not sure I can address those in the context of a query. Backstory takes up a lot of room, room that could be used on plot and character instead.
The archives are full of queries where Janet said there was too much backstory, but I can't remember one where she said to put in more.
@Songea: You are very kind, but I'm pretty sure #192 is the best query ever. I'd happily take the silver, though. Thanks!
@Stoich91: Good question! I've taken it as an open forum for either. It's been invigorating to see what people think, both the good and the bad.
That being said, I think that "plot holes" is a specious claim, given that none of the commenters have read a synopsis, much less much less the book itself. You are right, though: the goal is to get people to actually read it.
Note: this is a repost since my last one had a hyperlink to #192 that didn't work. Apparently, "some HTML tags" doesn't include hyperlink tags. Either that or it's been so long since I wrote HTML that I wrote the code wrong...
For me, as a reader, that's not a matter of backstory. It's critical information that I need about the set-up to buy into the conflict. And it seems like something you should be able to sum up briefly enough to include in the query.
Then again, this is a problem I have with most dystopian fiction. I end up barely getting into it before I get fed up with the entire premise of the world. I need the sucky situation to make some sort of sense (at least by some way of thinking that I can grasp), not just be a sucky situation for the point of suckiness so that the main character has something to angst over/fight against. So maybe I'm just not the audience for this book.
BTW, love your avatar, Adib.
@Shawna: I can see where you're coming from. For me, as a reader, it's often the opposite: I'd rather it be left to my imagination, rather than be disappointed by the explanation.
I think of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 as examples where too much backstory would probably have hindered my enjoyment. As long as the characters accepted the logic of the world, it was easy for me to do the same.
I recently made my way through The Maze Runner trilogy and ended up being somewhat dissatisfied when the big reveal occurred.
And thanks about the avatar!
Don't get me wrong, I would totally read this book. It's got my attention, and the brothers' relationship is interesting.
That said, I'm reminded very strongly of the book Unwind. For people who wonder how a parent could sentence one twin to die for the other, I would suggest reading that. It was an interesting view on how something like this could happen.
@Steve Stubbs: there is a certain Will Smith movie (don't want to spoil it completely if you haven't seen it) that deals with the issue of suicide to provide someone with "spare parts". Along with "The Island", there's that Keira Knightly movie "Never Let Me Go" about creating clones only to kill them and use them for spare parts.
And I really, really want to read this...sounds lovely and sad--the kind of story that haunts you for days afterwards.
Wow, I would love read it.
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