Ask Daphne! About My Query LV

May 7th, 2010 • Kate

stairsGoing to look through today’s About My Query post paragraph by paragraph again, although I will put all my comments below, so your experience of reading the query isn’t interrupted by my thoughts. Lots more cutting and pasting to do, but you also get my more immediate thoughts, rather than those filtered by a longer experience. Ready? Go!

Dear Ms Unfeasible,

When sixteen year old Charlie Wilkins falls into the hands of a monster, he leaves the encounter alive, but loses the life he knew forever.

In this sleepy little town no one suspects that an ambitious monster lurks just beyond their periphery. Not even paranormal obsessed Charlie Wilkins can begin to imagine the evil that lays in wait. That is until Tom Anderson and Carl Sharp discover Charlie’s comic book in which he’s drawn Tom’s girlfriend, the beautiful Amy Gold as his queen, and Tom as a loathsome snake. Enraged, Tom and Carl drive Charlie off the road, and unwittingly hurl him into a nightmare.

Charlie awakens in a place of indescribable horror and is forced to become The first human test subject of a monster. Although unaware of it, Charlie is face to face with a creature of old, a loup-garou. Whose race has been persecuted to near extinction and whose use of Charlie will mark the start of his species’ rebirth. Thinking Charlie unconscious, the aging werewolf loosens Charlie’s restraints. Seizing the opportunity, Charlie runs, but when the old man only laughs at his escape, Charlie feels the first pangs of real terror.

As his fear, and frustration grow so does his anger. It was the beating he suffered at the hands of his classmates that allowed the old man to catpture him. The shy, sensitive artist he was is dissipating rapidly. With each new offense from Tom and Carl, every painful slight from the beautiful Amy Gold, and infuriating insult from his step father Charlie slowly loses his control. A beast has taken residence within him, and when his new abilities allow him to destroy everyone who’d ever hurt him he gives himself over to the conversions.

His savage new nature grows stronger with every passing day and every taste of blood. When he hurts innocent people and those who’d meant the most to him, Charlie summons the last bit of will left in him and sets out to stop the ancient werewolf from continuing his work. Charlie seeks to end the evil that has been unleashed whatever the cost. But, it might already be too late to save our race from a monster’s Unearthly beginnings.

Unearthly beginnings is a paranormal novel for young adults, complete at 62,500 words, and is available for review upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Rose

So, starting from the top: When sixteen year old Charlie Wilkins falls into the hands of a monster, he leaves the encounter alive, but loses the life he knew forever. This reads as a little generic to me. Honestly, you could take out “sixteen-year-old Charlie Wilkins” (which is how the age should be written) and throw in almost any other name, changing the gender of the pronouns as appropriate, and it still works. When Bella Swan falls into the hands of a monster, she leaves the encounter alive, but loses the life she knew forever. When Harry Potter falls into the hands of a monster, he leaves the encounter alive, but loses the life he knew forever. When Jane Jarvis’ best friend falls into the hands of a monster, she leaves the encounter alive, but loses the life she knew forever. When Clary Fray falls into the hands of a monster, she leaves the encounter alive, but loses the life she knew forever. You get where I’m going. “Falls into the hands of a monster” could mean anything, and I’m sure you have something much more specific in mind. Let’s get to it!

In this sleepy little town no one suspects that an ambitious monster lurks just beyond their periphery. What “sleepy little town”? Where are we? Grammatically, I feel like you need “this” to refer to something you’ve already made a stab at describing, otherwise, it sounds off. Also, how is the monster “ambitious”? He wants to open a blood-draining factory, a la Buffy’s Season Three episode The Wish? And periphery what? Periphery vision? Is he literally something you can only see out of the corner of your eye, like Prisoner Zero in the new Doctor Who series? (And am I going a little crazy with pop culture references? I think I am.) Or do you mean he’s lurking outside the perimeter of the town? Not to pick apart every word, but I fear this kind of writing makes an agent question the quality of your prose. It’s a little sloppy.

Not even paranormal obsessed Charlie Wilkins can begin to imagine the evil that lays in wait.We’ve already met Charlie once, in the first line of the query, so we don’t need to get his full name again. And he is obsessed with the paranormal, or both paranormal and obsessed? Either way, you need some punctuation — either paranormal-obsessed or paranormal, obsessed (in which case, what is paranormal about him and with what is he obsessed?). And if it is “paranormal-obsessed”, you’ve made this literary agent, at least, ask “Really?” Because I wouldn’t consider myself obsessed, and I can imagine some pretty big evil. This line is basically just a cliché, and I think you can be more specific and more descriptive, and give a much better sense of your character and the horrors to come. Also, grammarians? “Lies” or “lays”? I think it’s “lies in wait.”

That is until Tom Anderson and Carl Sharp discover Charlie’s comic book in which he’s drawn Tom’s girlfriend, the beautiful Amy Gold as his queen, and Tom as a loathsome snake. The link between the previous sentence and this one would seem to indicate that Tom and Carl are the “evil that [lies] in wait”. But they’re not, are they? Also, when I read “Charlie’s comic book,” I think of something published first, and after that, at least a fully written story. Or do you mean sketchbook? Either way, maybe indicate before this point that Charlie is an artist? In general, this sentence is just a little messy. Maybe something like “When dumb jocks Tom Anderson and Carl Sharp steal Charlie’s sketch book and find a drawing of head cheerleader Amy Gold as Charlie’s queen, Tom sees red. Amy is his girlfriend, and seeing Charlie’s additional caricature of Tom as a loathsome snake doesn’t help matters” would be smoother.

Enraged, Tom and Carl drive Charlie off the road, and unwittingly hurl him into a nightmare.How do we get from them reading the comic book to them driving Charlie off the road? Is there a chase scene? Or were they reading in the car and happened to see Charlie on the road in front of them, and decided to run him off it? (In which case, would Charlie even know why he’d been run off the road?) And beyond that, is Carl important to this story at this level? Can we just talk about Tom in the query, and not bother with Carl at all? As for them “unwittingly hurl[ing] him into a nightmare”, I feel like Tom’s deliberate attempt to drive Charlie off the road is pretty “wittingly”.

Charlie awakens in a place of indescribable horror and is forced to become The first human test subject of a monster. Ok, it seems like we’re finally at the meat of this story. But “indescribable horror” is weak – you’re a writer. Describe it. Who forces him to be a test subject? Also, watch your random capitalization. But you’ve got me thinking of a scientist monster, and I’m intrigued. More so than from the previous generalities.

Although unaware of it, Charlie is face to face with a creature of old, a loup-garou. Whose race has been persecuted to near extinction and whose use of Charlie will mark the start of his species’ rebirth. First of all, these don’t stand as two separate sentences. The second one is just a clause. But how is is Charlie both unaware of what’s holding him prisoner AND in a place of indescribable horror being forced to be a test subject? I do like the archaic term for werewolf, and hope this means you’re tying your “monster” into the old French legends.

Thinking Charlie unconscious, the aging werewolf loosens Charlie’s restraints. Why would he do this? Seizing the opportunity, Charlie runs, but when the old man only laughs at his escape, Charlie feels the first pangs of real terror. Does he get away, or is this only an “attempted escape”? Also, if this truly is where “Charlie feels the first pangs of real terror”, maybe pull back on some of the horror and nightmare you’ve told me to expect in previous sentences?

As his fear, and frustration grow so does his anger. Wrong placement for your comma. And are all these emotions growing simultaneously, or is Charlie seesawing back and forth between them? Does fear become anger? Frustration overwhelm fear? Anger lead to the dark side?

It was the beating he suffered at the hands of his classmates that allowed the old man to catpture him. The shy, sensitive artist he was is dissipating rapidly. Was he beaten as well as run off the road? I’d say it was his being unconscious from a car accident that let the old man capture (note correct spelling) him. Which, yes, was also because of his classmates, but you need to be precise in your language. Also, this is the first time you tell your reader that Tom and Carl are Charlie’s classmates. We assume it, but that’s not a position you want to put your reader in. Also, the “shy, sensitive artist” bit is almost too late here. Introduce this aspect of Charlie sooner, and try showing it to me, rather than blandly telling me. Also, can something “dissipat[e] rapidly”? I think of dissipating as per the dictionary definition of “to cause to spread thin or scatter and gradually vanish” (emphasis mine). Beyond that though, I’m suddenly thinking of The Incredible Hulk — would we like Charlie when he’s angry?

With each new offense from Tom and Carl, every painful slight from the beautiful Amy Gold, and infuriating insult from his step father Charlie slowly loses his control. A beast has taken residence within him, and when his new abilities allow him to destroy everyone who’d ever hurt him he gives himself over to the conversions. Wait, so he did get away? But he didn’t realize that the experiment on him already took place? In any case, this is playing pretty close to the Freudian implications of animorphism: the beast inside that allows him to ignore the restrictions of polite society in favor of brute strength and law-of-the-jungle revenge. (Or would that be Tarzanian?) Also, the way this sentence is written, it reads as if Charlie destroys everyone who’d ever hurt him. Not that he’s considering it, not that he pulls himself back from the brink, but that he did. Which is dark for YA, but intriguing — if that’s what you meant.

His savage new nature grows stronger with every passing day and every taste of blood. When he hurts innocent people and those who’d meant the most to him, Charlie summons the last bit of will left in him and sets out to stop the ancient werewolf from continuing his work. But now here I question just how far he’s gone. I assume maybe Amy is one of those innocent people he hurts, but didn’t destroy, unless there’s yet another character who means the most to him that he didn’t bother to mention before? Or was it the old guy who was actually doing the dark deeds, and Charlie only thought he was doing it? What do you mean by “continuing his work”? Whose work? The old man’s racial experiment to turn Charlie into a werewolf? The old werewolf’s continuing of Charlie’s work in settling scores? I think you can make this more precise.

Charlie seeks to end the evil that has been unleashed whatever the cost. But, it might already be too late to save our race from a monster’s Unearthly beginnings.I like the idea of Charlie being willing to consider killing himself to end the evil. I mean, that’s how I read “a monster’s Unearthly beginnings.” Because the monster you mean here must be Charlie. The old werewolf’s beginning doesn’t seem to have been covered in the book, at least to judge by the query. Although I missed the part about an alien abduction — in a paranormal novel where anything is possible, the use of a term like “unearthly” has me thinking about the literal: that the old man’s experiment on Charlie took him off world.

Unearthly beginnings is a paranormal novel for young adults, complete at 62,500 words, and is available for review upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.And just to finish up, when you refer to your title in your query letter, you want to use caps, if not all caps, at least for both words in a two-word title.

Phew! I seemed to have a lot to say! And yet, I’m not sure if I really covered the big picture, choosing instead (in this case) to focus on the details. And some of my early questions about the query were answered in later sentences, but that’s what you get when you go line by line.

Readers, what do you think about the query and story as a whole? Did I miss anything that caught your attention about this letter? Or was I totally off base? And just how big of a geek AM I? I mean, seriously, did you catch all those nerd references in my comments. Dude!

Edited to add: The author also shared with me another version of her query, which I will present without comment. How does this one strike you? Do you feel it tells the same story? Is it stronger? Weaker? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Dear Ms Unfeasible,

When sixteen year old Charlie Wilkins falls into the hands of a deranged scientist, he leaves the encounter alive, but loses the life he knew forever. Charlie finds himself in the middle of a bittersweet nightmare, as the transformations within him destroy everything he once hated—and loved.

Alone except for his mother, kindly old Mr. McFarland, and his paranormal artwork Charlie wants nothing more than to slip under the radar going unobtrusively from day to day. But, when he’s captivated by the unattainable beauty, Amy Gold—girlfriend of the star quarterback—and his most relentless antagonist, Tom Sterling, Charlie pours his emotions and passions into the creation of his own comic book with Amy in the starring role, and Tom as a grotesque snake like predator. When it is discovered by Tom and his peers, Charlie is pursued and brutally assaulted. Left to his own fate, Charlie awakens in a place of indescribable horror, and is forced to become the first human test subject of a monster. Although unaware of it, Charlie is face to face with a creature not quite human, who’s race has been persecuted to near extinction, and who’s use of Charlie will mark the start of his species rebirth. Having escaped the inhuman man and his lab, Charlie attempts to resume his life—but finds that his life is no longer his own. A beast has taken residence within him, and he must fight for control of his body, and mind. When his new abilities allow him to destroy everyone who’d ever hurt him however, he gives himself over to the conversions. Even those who’d meant the most to Charlie are no longer safe from him. Summoning the last bit of will in him Charlie seeks to end the evil that was unleashed, but it might already be too late to save our race from a monster’s unearthly beginnings.

This dark fantasy novel for young adults, complete at 62,500 words, is available for review upon request. Two of my shorter works have been featured in two literary journals: Think Journal, (Spring 2009), and Eclipse (2008).

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you
Sincerely,

Rose

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16 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About My Query LV”

  1. Becky Mahoney Says:

    Seeing as I understood all of your pop culture references, calling you a geek would be a case of "pot, kettle, black" on my part!

    I think the concept is really interesting, but the query needs quite a bit of tightening. There are a handful of grammatical and capitalization errors, and the syntax in general felt awkward at points. In addition, I didn't get a good sense of Charlie as a character. We got a lot of descriptors: I know he's a paranormal-obsessed tortured artist, but what's his personality like? I know he has a lot of things done to him, but what does he himself do? What's his goal?

    I'd also like a clearer progression of the plot. At first I thought the car accident threw him into a new world, but then he escaped. And the query made it sound like the old man accidentally let him escape, but then it sounded like it was all part of the plan? I think clearing these up would make the query read a lot more smoothly.

    Good luck!

  2. Tim White Says:

    The more I read about these supernatural book proposals, the more in awe I am of the level of adventure delivered by Suite Scarlett w/ no monsters.

  3. Kristy Colley Says:

    Wow. Just wow.

    First, Kate, you do a great job with this. To be honest, I didn't know where to start when I read it. I think that's mostly because I feel I'm reading a synopsis/query hybrid.

    Overall, Kate did a great job of dissecting the details. However the query, to me, was far too long. I really just need to know the major plot points. Sink line and hook, right?

    I was a little too exhausted by the end to be hooked. My advice: tighten. And maybe take a technical writing class.

  4. Jess Says:

    I agree with your assessment. My sense is that the experiment turned Charlie into some kind of werewolf Jekyll and Hyde, which would sound interesting if the standard werewolf trope isn't, essentially, the same thing, only man to wolf instead of man to man (Jekyll to Hyde). Show how it's different?

    But the execution of the query makes me think the execution of the idea is murky. my guess would be that most of this query deals with act 1 of the story, getting Charlie through the experiment. Then what? How does the conflict proceed? I can't tell from the way this is presented.

  5. Kater Says:

    I started to read this query and got very confused in the second paragraph as to what was happening. Comic book? Werewolf? Sleepy town? Instead of a clear plot, it's disparate sentences that feel like they're meant to conceal more than they reveal.

    It's very hard to summarize your own work. You don't want to say, "a boy gets turned into a werewolf. He doesn't like being a werewolf, but he wants to protect the girl he loves from another, older werewolf." You think you're doing your story disservice, because we don't get the cool bits, like that scene where they drive someone off the road, and how mad they get about the comic book, and about that other part. But if you can't simplify it down to its bare bones first, you lose people.

    Compare this:

    A man hires two crooks to kidnap his wife, so he can extort money from his father-in-law. When the cops close in on the crooks, the plan unravels, ending in murder.

    To this:

    He's out of money, and he needs it bad, but his father-in-law won't give him any. Then the cop gets shot, and the kidnapee is terrified, because she doesn't know they don't mean to kill her. The cop is worried about her baby, but she chases them down, not losing her cool even when one guy puts another in a woodchipper.

    If you've seen the movie I'm talking about, they both make sense. If you haven't, the second summary is baffling. I'm afraid I found your synopsis a bit like the second example.

    You might be afraid that if you just pare your story down to the basic plot, it will seem too much like everything else out there. That's a valid fear. But while good writing can overcome an overdone plot, a good plot can't overcome weak writing. This query doesn't show your strength as a writer.

    But it could just be that you don't really know what your story is about. Albert Einstein said "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Go through your novella chapter by chapter, summarizing each one in a few sentences. Then go through that and summarize it further. After you go through it a few more times, making painful decisions about what's most important, you should have the bare bones: one main plot and at most two subplots. This might be several pages. Keep a copy of this. Some agents and publishers want a 2-8 page synopsis.

    Then keep going. Pare it down further, until you can tweet your entire story, that is, say the gist of it in 140 characters. "Impossible!" you say? No, it's not.

    "Girl moves to sleepy town and falls in love with a handsome and dangerous boy who turns out to be a vampire."

    "Mysterious benefactor enables boy to become a gentleman and win the heart of a girl. He's horrified to learn that the benefactor is a crook."

    "A boy finds a map, and teams up with some men to sail to the island and claim the treasure. Mutinous crewmen thwart them, but they prevail."

    Is your novella really more complicated than TWILIGHT, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and TREASURE ISLAND? Probably not. Once you have your tweet, you have your elevator speech. And once you have an elevator speech, you should have no problem writing a concise and convincing query.

  6. Kate Says:

    Kater – Fabulous advice! Thanks!

  7. Stephanie McDonnell Says:

    This was great to read–all of it! My first thought when I looked at the original query was "Wow, this is long for a query letter," so I'm glad the author shortened it.

    I followed with the same sentences, one at a time, asking myself the same questions about each.

    One thing I think the author should take note of is the punctuation you made mention of (I.E. Sixteen-year-old). It may seem little, but it's significant.

    I might also question this being considered a YA novel. From her descriptions of his hell-raising and killing spree upon everyone in his life, especially those that hurt him, it seems it may be a bit graphic. But it is possible that the author leaves it to the imagination, which is great for reading!

    I do think the overall idea and plot seem intriguing, just needs a little work before it's put out there. There are so many things going around about vampires and werewolves right now, it's sort of nice to read something about the "dirty" side of such beings, instead of them trying to be good and doing so by falling in love with the girl that saves them. 😉

    Goodluck in your novel, Rose. You're really on to something!

  8. write-brained Says:

    First my head is spinning and I'm exhauted. 😉 I think the premise sounds great but the query is too too long and drawn out. Your critque is spot-on. There are actually things I liked about that second query that she shared. It somehow grounded me better. Hope that helps!

  9. darling Says:

    It's "lies in wait". And I would pass on this query based on that alone. Yes, I'm that much of a grammar snob. Confusing "lies" with "lays" is a middle school error and nothing annoys me more than writers who don't actually know how to write. The idea is just the first step. Vocabulary, grammar and punctuation is what makes you a writer. If all you have is ideas you should seek a career as a producer. They hire other people to execute their ideas.

  10. darling Says:

    Oi, that came out a little harsher than I had intended. =/ I'm sorry. I guess what I meant to say was that I tend to get so hung up on grammatical errors in queries that I can't even get to the story. So check, double check and triple check your writing, or a great idea might be obscured by silly little mistakes.

    Again, sorry if my first comment was a little too blunt.

  11. Rose Says:

    I can’t tell you all how much I appreciate your honest input. It’s true my grammar, and spelling aren’t really up to snuff. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but you’ve all made my job a little easier with your valuable advice. When you’ve written a book you're so close to the story that it’s almost impossible to distance yourself enough to gage your writing objectively, which is why I must reiterate how grateful I am to you all.

  12. Red Boot Pearl Says:

    The first query is complicated, it needs to be more simple/specific. One way to simplify is to get rid of all the names, it's hard to keep up so many people in just a few paragraphs.

    I liked the second query for the brevity, but it is pretty general, we don't know about the monster being a werewolf, and that's what I liked about the first query because it seems like Alien/werewolf/mad-scientist all rolled into one, which is kind of interesting…

    Also I'm curious about the shift in genre from paranormal to dark fantasy–Why did you pick/change the genre? Because the genre the comes to my mind is science fiction…(I guess this is interesting to me, because I'm not sure what I would put for my WIP–it seems a lot easier to categorize what I read versus what I write)

    I do think there is something unique in this werewolf idea, it amazes me how many different versions there can be of the same subject. Good luck with everything!

    RBP

  13. Lars Pergou Says:

    It seems to me that this sort of analysis contributes to the confusion and despair may new writers experience in relation to querying agents.

    You were right to point out some basic grammar errors and possible inconsistencies in plot (that may erode an agent's confidence in the work), but the gist of the story is somewhat clear. Surely you don't what an extrapolation of minutiae in a query. If you do, ask for more — a partial or synopsis — otherwise reject it.

    Ultimately, the query looks too long; mainly, in this case, because it provides unresolved material for pedantic agents to criticize.

    As Kristy implies, in between a query and a synopsis is not a good place to be.

  14. Rissa Watkins Says:

    I don't really have anything new to add, but wanted to thank Kater for her post. I have been struggling with my query and reading your comment made things click.

    Thank you very much!

  15. Ish Says:

    I referred this blog to a friend just because I saw that you misassigned Season 5's episode "The Wish" to season 3, but correctly referred to Prisoner Zero. I think the second version has a more cohesive plot summary.

  16. Kate Says:

    Ish, I must defend myself! The Wish was absolutely in Buffy's Season Three, as per this link (and my own memories).