Sunday, January 31, 2016

#274-revised 1x


Dear QueryShark,
If the Ancients knew what Blackwater had been through, they would have asked someone else to save the world. The Ancients, a race of Phoenixian beings born of fire, and until their fall, thought to be immortal, had prophesied that a man born of water would come to save the world from Chaos and its minions. 
I like this. It sets up some expectations for Blackwater.  You don't need to explain the Ancients in the query. Keep the focus on Blackwater.

Blackwater knew the words of the prophecy all to well. He had been forced to memorize them as a child.
Blackwater is was a Key Master, the last Key Master, able to travel anywhere in the blink of an eye. All the other Key Masters have been where (you mean were here, not where) hunted down and killed, their power thought to (too) great to be allowed to exist. Blackwater was is walking death; his powers, coupled with the training he received from his father, made him one of the deadliest men in the world. 

Present tense provides an energy to your query that can really help.
So Blackwater IS, not Blackwater was, made him/make him
Now tucked away from the rest of the world in a forest where time moves much slower, Blackwater wonders what good power is if you cannot save the ones that mattered most. So many had died trying to save him. Blackwater’s father taught him that all life was precious, that he should preserve life and that he should not kill, unless absolutely necessary and in the defense of his own life.

And here you just fall off the story line in a big ol splat. "ones who matter most" "so many died" are all so non-specific as to be uninteresting. Uninteresting is death in a query.
And in fact, none of this really matters; you get to the gist of the book below.

Yet all he wanted to do was kill, kill those who had taken the lives of so many of the people he cared about. Doing so would disgrace his father's memory, and that was something he was not willing to do. So here he stood, still unable to preserve the life of anyone but himself. 
In a twist of fate Blackwater finds himself in the company of the Ancient forest god Arbor. Arbor reveals to Blackwater that the world is dying. Blackwater learns that the only way to save the world lies beneath it, in the underground city of Taenaria. The city is thousands of leagues from the forest where he now resides. In order to save the world of Tuarian, Blackwater must make a Keyway and travel to the Eastern Reaches, down into the depths of Taenaria.

I really can't tell you how much I hate the idea of a forest god named Arbor. It's like naming a dog Dog. It's funny if you're trying to be ironic. It's not really very funny here.  
In Taenaria, Blackwater’s choices go from bad to worse, when he must weigh his life against his newly found companions. If Blackwater saves his companions at the cost of his life, the prophecy might never be fulfilled and Chaos will reign, if he lets them die, the world will lose the only chance it has against the Chaos that is coming.

Because we know nothing about the companions I'm all for letting them die die die. In other words, I need something here to make me care about them. Are they sharks? Unicorn sharks? Let them live.
Fair maidens? Yea, not so much. Fair maidens are the source of much of the world's troubles.

The Key Masters Chronicles: Book I, The Last Key Master, complete at 100,843 words, is Science Fiction Fantasy. 
Thank you for your Cconsideration.

I'm still seeing a LOT of typos here.

Typos like this are just death in a query because you're not doing this for stylistic reasons, you're just making mistakes. When I see things like too/to, and where/were I know I'll find them in the manuscript. 

You simply must figure out how to handle this problem before you query further. No matter how enticing your novel sounds, this kind of mistake will mean form rejections.
 This is a vast improvement from the initial query, but you've got some problems to fix here.

Dear Query Shark,

(1) I don’t know if I can save her. I’m not sure I can save myself. I have failed so many times.My friends, my family, they all had a chance to live but I was never fast enough, never strong enough.

Because you've started with "I", my impression is you are talking about yourself.  This sounds like a memoir.

(2) Now they're gone, taken from me, their lives no longer bound to this dying land. Yet I remain, why, for what? To fulfill some Prophecy spoken four-thousand seasons ago.

Now it sounds like a memoir with religious overtones. This is where I stop reading. Two paragraphs and eight sentences. You're done.

This is a textbook illustration of why you do not write a query in the voice of your character. It's confusing. And when I am confused, I stop reading. I don't stop to try to figure it out. I don't skim past this to see what comes next. I stop reading, and go on to the next query. You'd get a form rejection from me; you'll get a vast silence from agents who practice No Response Means No.

(3) The Ancients couldn't possibly know me, or what I’ve been through, if they did they would’ve asked someone else to save the world.

When you revise this, you should consider starting at (3). Use the character's name instead of "me" and "I".  I like the phrase "if they did, they would have asked someone else to save the world."  That sentence snags my attention. I'm interested to see why someone else should have been asked to save the world.  (Too bad I wouldn't see it with this version of course)

Blackwater was a Key Master. Being blessed with the power to fashion magical keys, Blackwater could conjure Keyways, to travel from place to place in the blink of an eye. All the Key Masters that traversed the vast land of Taurian, have been hunted down and killed, their craft falling into myth and legend, yet Blackwater, the last Key Master, still lives.

You've got a lot of words here to say some pretty simple things: Blackwater can travel from place to place in the blink of an eye because he's a Key Master. The last Key Master; all the others have been hunted down and killed.

See the difference? You don't need all this information in the query. I'm going to assume that most of the backstory, and world building, will happen in the novel. Right now I'm keen to see whether you've got a plot, and whether the writing is taut.

Also, most queries are written in present tense even if the novel is not. Present tense gives you a boost of energy and verve here:  Blackwater IS a Key Master.

Aida cannot remember her name, nor where she comes from, or how she came to be with child. Confused and afraid, she stumbles into Blackwater’s forest. Aida is taken by the Taenarians who wish to steal the magic her child carries. Blackwater must now choose whether to use his Key Magic to rescue her, or watch another innocent lose their life because he did nothing to prevent it. Traveling into the depths of Taenaria, Blackwater seeks to rescue Aida, whose womb carries the essence of rebirth and the key to saving this dying world.

oh yuck yuck yuck. Here is where I lose interest very quickly. We've gone from something that looked appealing "wrong choice to saving the world" to saving some sort of fecund damsel in distress. (I'm really over the whole damsel in distress thing, but that's probably just me)

You've set up Blackwater's choice but there's nothing at stake. He saves her and what bad thing happens to him? He doesn't save her, and what worse thing will happen? Unless Blackwater has skin in the game, it's just a series of events with no tension.

Even without the problems in (1) and (2) I'd say no to this query because there's no sense of what's at stake. 

Also notice you dropped those evil Taenarians in without any explanation, and those poor doddering Ancients from (3) have disappeared.

If you think of a query as a piece of flash fiction it might help.  It has to hold together as a complete entity. You don't have to spell everything out (your reader will intuit things) but the query needs to be seamless. Mentioning a character only once leaves a gap. Seamless = no gaps.

The Key Masters Chronicles: Book I, The Last Key Master, complete at 111,843 words, is commercial fiction.

It's not commercial fiction; it's SFF.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The first thing to do is make sure your novel has something at stake. Even if you fix the query letter, it won't do you any good to send me a novel with nothing at stake. What's at stake for Blackwater needs to be clear in the first 20 pages or so. Generally I'll give a requested full about 50 pages to hook me, but you really want that to happen as soon as possible.

Once you've got the novel in shape, revise the query to remove the character's POV, and tighten up the paragraphs. Use present tense.


Allison Newchurch said...

The first three paragraphs sound like the first chapter (or perhaps even a prologue) of the book.

The next two give some indication of what the book is about. We learn about Blackwater, the Key Master; and Aida. We have no idea what connection the two have, nor why Blackwater feels he has to rescue her. We also don't know why her child carries magic. A lot of words, but not much information.

What happened to the "I" from the opening paragraphs?

I'm confused.

Anonymous said...

I am so Stoked! Okay, maybe the pieces of Chum that were my Query are now floating in shark invested internet waters but what an awesome opportunity I have to make it better. I get to receive advice from a great reputable agent and the rest of the writing community on QueryShark. I will revise and I will get it right!! Thanks to all for current and future comments and help from the Shark!

nightsmusic said...

Blackwater is a Taurian KeyMaster, able to fashion keys that allow him to travel anywhere, anywhen in the blink of an eye.

Blackwater is the last KeyMaster, all the others having been hunted down and killed by the ancient Taurians. (you probably need to say why they were killed here)

Blackwater learns of Aida, who has stumbled into the forest where he hides from those who want to kill him. Aida has been taken by the Taenarians, a rival culture, for diabolical purposes. Her unborn child holds the magic that, used for evil, can destroy the world.

Now Blackwater, who has tried and failed so many times before, must choose to use his own magic to save the world at the probable loss of his life, or allow another innocent in a long line of his failures, to die.

You have way, way too much confusion going on, but after reading this three or four times, the above is what I get from it. No agent is going to bother to read it three or four times. You get one shot. You have to use it as effectively as possible. Cause and effect. Blackwater is hiding for his life. Aida holds the key to the destruction of the world. Does he come out of hiding to save the world? Or does he continue to hide, let her die, and then try to live with himself? If he lives at all?

Clean up, condense, revise and resubmit.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

The problem with fantasy is that there's so much world building that it can be hard to write a sensible query without spending too much time on world-building. There's also a LOT of fantasy out there, and since high fantasy doesn't depend as much on current culture as other genres, you have more competition. There's no intrinsic reason why a high fantasy novel written in 2016 will mean more to me as a reader than one written in 1975.
So how do you set your query apart? I don't think the answer is by focusing on the plot. By all means, describe the stakes and the plot in the query, but that's not where your edge should come from. Your edge should come from your characters. There is nothing new under the sun, plot-wise. But fun, engaging, rascally characters? They're timeless.
Why should I care about Blackwater? Is he noble? Blah. Is he a reluctant hero? Yawn. Is he funny? Hmm... I could work with that. Brooding? I'm a sucker for brooding heroes. Is he finicky, whiny, feisty, big-hearted, foolish, intelligent, beautiful, ugly, sharp, dull? The only things I know about your characters are their circumstances. That isn't enough.
You've got a little of this with your first two paragraphs, though the shark is right. First person is confusing. But I sense reluctance, bitterness, and regret - three things that make characters interesting. You lose that in the rest of your query. Give me the regret, give me the heartache, give me the spilled blood. I want to see your character staring over the edge of a cliff. Gimme! :)

Anonymous said...

To all so far and those who may comment after. Thank you so much for your feedback. It is so inspiring. Your comments, along with those of the shark, have painted a mural of my queries shortcomings. You have also given me some of the tools that seem to be missing from my toolbox. Thanks again I will take your advice and revise, revise, revise.

Harmony Commissions said...

Building on what Bethany said, focusing more on the characters can bring Aida more into the picture. What is NOT timeless in fantasy is that it is lately less desirable (for good reason!) for women to only be walking wombs, which is what she appears to be in this query and what I hope she is not in the novel itself. Of course, going the "one character per query route" rather than "two per query" might cut her out much more, but that done well can still solve the same problem.

Anonymous said...

Hi Harmony. Yes she is absolutely not just a damsel in distress. Her memory is gone but when she remembers who she is; well lets just say shes not only capable of saving herself, but she might just find herself doing the saving in the end. Thanks for the comment. I will try to focus more on what's at stake and query with a little more depth of character.

Thanks Again,


abnormalalien said...

Here's something I've been wondering since my early archive-slogging days: how do others feel about word count rounding? Typically, in sample queries, we see these rounded (112k). Does it come as a major yuck-factor when spelled out in detail (111,843)? For my first query draft, I felt like rounding was misleading and didn't want to do it but after seeing everyone else do it in the archives, I adapted. Maybe it's my irrational annoyance at odd numbers (or the fact that this exact number WILL change with a revision) but I think I now like rounded better.

Julie Weathers said...


I always round. "My work is approximately 135,000 words." The agent will do an exact word count if they request the full. So, make sure it's very close.

Brittany said...

Taenaria/Tuarian is gonna get hella confusing. They're very nearly anagrams of each other. Proper names in a story should be distinct from each other both visually and audibly (unless the similarity achieves something specific) or readers will struggle to keep them straight. I forget where I heard this advice, but I keep an alphabet scorecard when I'm writing of significant names so I can avoid starting with the same letter for the most significant proper names.

And if you run out of letters, well, that's a whole 'nother problem there.

There still seems to be a lot of backstory after revising. What he used to be isn't nearly as big of a concern in a query as what he's dealing with right now. The query should focus on the essence of his current biggest problem; if I want to know more about it, I'll read the book (and getting me to the point where I want to do that is the whole point of this exercise, after all).

Bethany Elizabeth said...

First off - congrats to Jason for so much improvement! Query letters are difficult, and as a fellow fantasy author I'm thankful that you're offering up a query letter to the Shark. I can learn alongside you. :)

Here's my problem; I came away from this not being very fond of Blackwater. The two main conflicts you describe - vengeance v. honor, saving friends v. saving the world - are both fueled by decisions he has to make. Totally fine, but it makes him come across as passive. In fact, he's pretty passive in the whole query. That doesn't really fit with 'most deadly man in the world.' It also turns a brooding hero into a sulky one. It's a fine line, I know, but one that would be useful to keep an eye on here.

It might help to jump straight from your first line - which I like - to Taenaria. You're skipping a bunch, I know, but it sounds like the bulk of the story lives there.

Another good rule of thumb is if you have to explain anything parenthetically (Keymaster - he can travel in the blink of an eye. Ancients - beings who .... Arbor - god of the forest) then you should leave it out. I'm not saying you can't mention Blackwater's ability to travel through time in the blink of an eye, just don't introduce it in such a way that you have to break into exposition.

Phew, okay, I'm done. This is definitely an improvement! In the meantime, if you're still unsure about grammar or you're just not good at catching typos (I'm so guilty of that), get someone to read over your stuff to help you. :)

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Also, "fair maidens are the source of much of the world's troubles" may be my favorite comment in all of Query Shark.

Nina said...

Hi Jason,

I really like this line:

"Blackwater is walking death; his powers, coupled with the training he received from his father, make him one of the deadliest men in the world."

This is a guy I want to read about! Unfortunately, as Bethany Elizabeth points out, things get passive after that. Blackwater is tucked away. He wonders. He finds himself in the company of Arbor. Arbor reveals something to him. Choices are difficult.

I get that the world is dying. And someone has killed all the other Key Masters. And Blackwater's new friends are in danger. Okay, so what is Blackwater gonna do about it??

This is your opportunity to show us Blackwater is a powerful Key Master. He might not think he's very powerful, but we the readers MUST see hero potential in him. Show us that when someone dear to him is threatened, he takes action. Show us he will challenge his enemies, even if it means risking [insert something deeply personal to Blackwater here].

When you state Blackwater's goal, and you show him ready to risk everything to reach that goal, we'll want to see him succeed. We'll be pulled into the story. That's your hero's journey. It's not about Taenaria, or Tuarian, or newfound friends, or the world. It's about Blackwater.

K.A.T. said...

Would you say round up or round down? Is one or the other a no-no?