Ask Daphne! About My Query XXXXIII (Guest Blog)

colorfulshoes-nytAnother Friday, another image of fabulous shoes, another About My Query post! In the spirit of this week, however, we’ve got a guest blogger commenting — Maureen Johnson, author of Scarlett Fever and many other fine novels, available wherever books are sold! Without further ado…

Dear Ms. Unfeasible,

I am seeking representation for my manuscript, COLORS LIKE MEMORIES, complete at 65,000 words. It is targeted toward an upper young adult, adult crossover audience.

Living with Julia’s college roommates is like living in a mine-field, one wrong step and she’s going to lose one of them. Navigating this treacherous ground is Julia’s job, and if she can get the three girls to work together they are supposed to be a powerful source of good, but only if she can keep them alive. Julia is a Sary, the soul of a child who died before she was born, only allowed to obtain a body and stay on earth if she secretly aids humans in need. She’s supposed to forget herself through service for others, but Julia’s never been very good at keeping that rule, or she wasn’t until it cost her the man she loved.

While her roommates struggle with grief, abuse, and suicide, a new boy in Julia’s classes, and at the bookstore where she works, draws her attention. Something about him reminds her of the man she lost, but also of memories better left buried. As the problems facing her roommates threaten to detonate in the form of a stalker bent on terrorizing their apartment, Julia can’t deal with her own issues, let alone help anyone else. Julia must get her life, and memories, together if she has any hope of saving her roommates, and herself.

I am a graduate student at the University of California, where I am in constant contact with college-aged students facing problems much like those Julia’s roommates face.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best,
MHS

Hello! Since I’m author and not an agent, I’m not really going to address the form of the query. I’m entirely concerned with the story as it is presented here. I’m going to be honest—I don’t really understand what this is about. I have a lot of comments, so I’m going to talk through the letter.

THE FIRST PARAGRAPH:

“Living with Julia’s college roommates is like living in a mine-field, one wrong step and she’s going to lose one of them. Navigating this treacherous ground is Julia’s job, and if she can get the three girls to work together they are supposed to be a powerful source of good, but only if she can keep them alive.” You begin with “Living with Julia’s college roommates is like living in a minefield . . .” Your first sentence, a simile, is instantly destroyed. You’re comparing something to itself. What you seem to be saying here is—if Julia makes a wrong move with either of her roommates, they will explode in some way. In fact, you say that if she must keep them alive. That’s dramatic! But . . . what? What is trying to kill them? I must know instantly! But there is no answer to this. From there, we learn that it is Julia’s job to manage these people in some way. Why is it her job to manage these dangerous, explodey people who face this undefined threat? The implication seems to be that the three of them, working together, have some kind of special power. (Like the Power of Three in Charmed. That’s what springs to mind.)

“Julia is a Sary, the soul of a child who died before she was born, only allowed to obtain a body and stay on earth if she secretly aids humans in need.” I guess this is the explanation, but these concepts aren’t really linked up. Now I have three sentences that fly in different directions. Moreover, the concept of dying before you are born is a bit tricky to get the head around. Because if you’re born—you’re born. You didn’t die. Birth and death are clear markers. And who let her “obtain a body”? Is it some kind of god or a committee or something? This concept needs to be explained. And why does she have to do this in secret?

“She’s supposed to forget herself through service for others, but Julia’s never been very good at keeping that rule, or she wasn’t until it cost her the man she loved.” Okay, now I’m really lost. “Forget herself” is a slippery expression, and I don’t know what you mean by it—so I don’t know at all what you mean when you next say that she’s not good at this. Then we get to losing the man she loved! That sounds juicy! But what happened?

THE SECOND PARAGRAPH:

“While her roommates struggle with grief, abuse, and suicide, a new boy in Julia’s classes, and at the bookstore where she works, draws her attention. Something about him reminds her of the man she lost, but also of memories better left buried.” So now I’m thinking that the roommates aren’t imbued with any special powers—they’re just insane. I still don’t know why it’s Julia’s job to deal with them, since they are so deeply unstable. Then the new boy breaks into the sentence, and he’s in two places at once. And then, the memories come. And they’re even more ^#&$*ed up than what’s going on, I guess, but I have no idea what they are. None of these concepts are defined or completed.

“As the problems facing her roommates threaten to detonate in the form of a stalker bent on terrorizing their apartment, Julia can’t deal with her own issues, let alone help anyone else. Julia must get her life, and memories, together if she has any hope of saving her roommates, and herself.” Yeah, I don’t know what’s happening. The first sentence throws a lot of information at me (I think the detonate is an attempt to carry through the minefield thing, but the verb doesn’t quite work and the whole image is still wobbling). The second sentence doesn’t make any sense. From the title, I get the idea that memories must play into this in some big way, but I have absolutely no idea what you mean when you say she has to get her life and memories together.

“I am a graduate student at the University of California, where I am in constant contact with college-aged students facing problems much like those Julia’s roommates face.” Given my confusion, I find myself staring blankly at this. Is this book about “college issues” or being some kind of creature that dies before it is born?

There seems to be a LOT going on in this book. The major thing that leaps out at me is that it seems this is a story about a girl with powers of some kind (does she have powers?) who had a tragic romance that she doesn’t want to repeat. I can’t tell if the roommate stuff is a plot of equal importance. One plot must win. You can have other things going on in a story, but there has to be one throughline.

When rewriting this query, here’s what I would focus on:

I think you are trying to write in soundbites or in sentences you think might look good on the jacket of a book. On examination, they don’t mean much and they don’t fit together to build any kind of clear picture. That means the query will fail. To succeed, you need to sharpen. You need to be clean and clear and proceed in an orderly fashion. And you need to provide answers for some very basic questions.

What is Julia? Sary means nothing to me. Is that a thing? I don’t have a clue, and therefore, it is likely that most YA readers won’t either. (Google also doesn’t know.) You’re going to have to explain right up front. The concept of dying before you are born is going to make a lot of people scratch their heads—so you’re going to have to deal with that fact. (It can be done, but it will take work and finesse.) I want to know who or what has sent her into the world with this mission. (Whatever it is, it must be pretty mean. And how do you negotiate with someone in utero?) I need the mission defined, I need to know what the consequences are of failure.

Because you said she already has failed. And that means, from what I have read, that she should be dead.

So why is she still here? What are the rules? Is this some kind of last-ditch chance? Is that why she has to live with these crazy people? Has she been told by whatever it is that rules over her that she can have no more guys?

I feel like that’s paragraph one. What is she? What is her mission? What happened last time to the other dude?

Paragraph two can move you into the current situation. I’m sort of making this up now in my head—but I’m thinking she’s been given some kind of second chance. What is up with this second guy? All I know about him now is that he goes to class and hangs out in a bookstore, and that doesn’t sound too problematic.

I don’t know what to tell you about the roommates, because I just have no idea what’s happening. I know it sounds serious but I can’t build a picture from these facts. If the story is about saving the roommates, then don’t dwell on the guys in the query. As for the memories, they seem to be a tertiary concern. These scary memories are not defined or explained in any way, which in a query is annoying . . . especially when the concept is in the title. Don’t play games. Say what the memories are about. Then decide which point is most important. Of these three things, I must know which to focus on.

And definitely go for clarity over nebulous, quasi-atmospheric phrases. Agents want to know what the book is about. The minefields and the detonating stalkers will blow up your chances. I understand the impulse—but QUASH it! QUASH the SQUISHY BITS! It’s fine to say something poetically, but every sentence must have a clear underlying meaning, correctly expressed.

I know that’s a lot to take on board! But good luck!

-mj

[Note from Daphne: MHS, you should also know that the “upper YA/adult crossover audience” is more a thing of hope than a true market. Yes, St. Martin’s has launched a New Adult line, but it’s still a little early to hope it opens up a world of possibilities for authors. Stick with calling your work “upper YA” for now, I think.]

[Another note from me: So what do you guys think?]

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