Ask Daphne! About My Query XXXXIII (Guest Blog)

February 26th, 2010 • Kate

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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16 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About My Query XXXXIII (Guest Blog)”

  1. Suzanne Casamento Says:

    Hey MJ! I think you did a good job of breaking that down. And I totally agree with you about quashing the squishy bits! Just stick to the facts. A query doesn't have to be a crazy, drawn out, dramatic diatribe. Just stating who, what, where, how, when and why should do the trick.

    Nice work with the pointers! Good luck to MHS!

  2. Stephanie Says:

    I liked reading this. It gives me good points for my own query, when I get to it.

    I, too, Googled Sary, not knowing what it was, and this is what I found: Sary is a suffix array library and tools. It provides fast full-text search facilities for text files on the order of 10 to 100 MB using a data structure called a suffix array. It can also search specific fields in a text file by assigning index points to those fields.

    Uhhhhhh … now I'm very, very confused.

  3. Emma Says:

    Excellent job, MJ. I too, am confused. I believe the author made up Sary and did no

    discover it from folklore. I hope the author of th query posts so we can figure out this confusion!

  4. MHS Says:

    Author here: thanks for the comments. Obviously this query is going into the trash can (which is not as satisfying as dropping it into a bonfire, which is what I'd really like to do…). Anyhow, as for the confusion, yes, the Sary are made up–I'm not pulling them from any mythology or other sources. They are basically the souls of those who are stillbirths, or otherwise don't make it to being born. It's built around the concept that souls inhabit bodies once they have taken a "breath of life," but for those souls who are conceived but never make it to birth and that first breath, they technically die before they are born. Hopefully that makes a little more sense 🙂

    And now I'm going to go find myself some chocolate…

  5. Lysh Says:

    Yeah, I think the author made up Sarys (Saries?). But I don't see how it works in with her roommates and/or the new guy. I LOVE "quash the squishy bits!" Wise words for everything in life. 😀

    I was just trying to find YA books in college. A lot of people seem to think that won't sell. But it's nice to see.

    Great blog, Maureen!

  6. Chantal Kirkland Says:

    This query definitely needed help–and you did a good job of giving sound advice. I think one thing missing is the first line–the line that can be the kiss-of-death or the hook. This author needs to work on that, then build from there. That's my two cents. LOL!

  7. Libby Says:

    I agree with the suggestions, but I do think that, once the problems are worked out, the book could be very interesting and appeal to an older YA audience. I was wondering, though, if maybe Ms. Daphne could post a previous query from one of her clients? Maybe one from a book that's already been released, so we can get a feel for what a good query is.

  8. Bethany Says:

    First. I have to admit, this was not only informative but highly entertaining. I will be saying "Quash the squishy bits" on repeat until someone pays me to stop. Dying.

    Also, think it is really awesome that the author commented and explained the S concept. REALLY like that concept. Way more than everything else in this query, ever.

  9. Adam Heine Says:

    I agree with the suggestions so far, although I didn't have a problem with the soul of a child that died before it was born. It made sense to me (though all of MJ's questions about who sent her on the mission, why, etc. applied to me as well).

    I have an odd, nit-picky comment though: which University of California? I ask because there's like 8 of them and I've never heard anyone refer to them as a single entity like that. Folks always say (as I once did), "I go to UC San Diego," or more formally "I graduated from the University of California at Davis," etc.

  10. Lucy Says:

    "And definitely go for clarity over nebulous, quasi-atmospheric phrases. … 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."

    This is my favorite piece of query writing advice ever. 🙂

    MHS, if you want more query help, go over to AbsoluteWrite forums, and post in Query Letter Hell. It is called Hell for a reason. The squirrels there have fangs, not teeth, and they don't offer you any anesthetic. However, many surviving victims have produced greatly improved queries, and you can try as many times as you like, or until you get tired of being squirrel chum.

    We squirrels–um, I mean, other writers–look forward to seeing you there. 🙂

    P.S. You've received an excellent crit here already. My suggestion is for future versions.

  11. pete Says:

    I don't see any these problems that you point out. You're either being picky ("dying before being born" and "life is like a minefield" are perfectly understandable concepts to me, not everything in writing has to be literal), or being insecure ("omg, I don't know what a Sary is, you're making me look stupid". maybe it's something the author made up; that's what authors are for. you don't have to know everything all the time). If you have so many questions, it's the perfect excuse to grab the book and read the first chapter. isn't that the point of these letters?

  12. Maureen Johnson Says:

    MHS: hope it was helpful! I was aiming for thoroughness. Really, your attitude is just right–just keep having a go at it! And good luck!

    Pete: I feel like you're missing the point of the entire exercise. The query IS the shot. If it doesn't make sense, it's out. It's not about being picky. I'm not even sure what you meant by insecure. Not everything in writing is literal-in fact MANY things in good writing are not literal. That's utterly different from making sense. You can write whatever you like, be as fantastical as you like . . . but you must demonstrate skill throughout. Meaning MUST break through. Alice in Wonderland is a crazy book, but the MEANING breaks through because of the author's skill.

    Queries IN PARTICULAR must be firm, clear, and skillful. If the query makes no sense (or just isn't quite right), no one is going to ask to read the rest. THIS IS THE POINT OF THE QUERY. If you don't know that, then you're going to be kind of lost in both writing and trying to sell your work.

  13. Lucy Says:

    Pete, have you studied Query Shark's archives? I can highly recommend it as a way to learn to recognize query problems. Otherwise, if you really don't see any of the things Maureen pointed out as being problems, I'm afraid you're going to have a nasty sharp learning curve ahead.

  14. Shannon Says:

    I'm no expert at queries, but I've read a lot of responses to queries on different blogs. I've also read a lot of submissions guidelines. Almost without fail, the agents say in their guidlines to be specific, give details, DON'T surprise them.

    You have 30 seconds … tops. I'm guessing if your query falls in the last 100 query readings of the day you have less time.

    I don't see this query getting far. Others have given you lots of great advise. I won't add to it.

    I've found that the people who piss me off the most are usually totally right. Another writer said this on a forum but I completely agree with him and it has been true for me over the years.

    So, my suggestion to you is to figure out who pissed you off the most and then apply what they said to your query. IMO if you do that, you will have a great query and a thicker skin. Both, might actually land you an agent – who knows.

  15. Anna Says:

    Don't be sad, MHS! This book sounds intriguing. You'll get there!

    Another thing that Daphne has said before in About My Query posts is to leave out the parts about you. You don't need that part about you being a graduate students at The University of California. If you really do have a grasp on an authentic voice and concerns of college students, if will show in your writing. You don't need to mention it. The query should be about your book. Also, mentioning that you are a graduate student (even though it probably isn't, and students can be any age) sounds like you are trying to impress the agent with your relative youth. If your writing is strong and your story is compelling, that will show. Writing, especially on fantasy topics, isn't something you need to or can establish your authority on. Focus on presenting your story in a way that conveys that you know what problems real college students face.

    On a lighter note, I'm in college and I certainly don't deal with the souls of stillborns with any frequency 😉 though I really would like to see more authentic books about life in college.

    Good luck, MHS!

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