Thursday, December 15, 2011

Breakdown: How NOT to Write a Query 2

So my second How NOT to Write a Query was very fun, and I had some great comments, but I don't think we actually covered all the mistakes, so I'm going to try to make a more complete list, as well as explain (in my own, poor, noobie way) what went wrong in mine. See the real blurb for Jessica Day George's awesome book TUESDAYS AT THE CASTLE here.

Once again, this is my awful bastardization of her blurb (please don't judge a book by a bad blurb):
Celie's brother is training to be the next king--and the castle she lives in likes him enough to move his rooms right next to the throne room. Her sister is regal and efficient, just like their mother, the queen. The castle likes her, too, and gives her lavish rooms to live in. But the castle likes Celie the best. It gives her ramps to slide down and turrets to hide in. All of which comes in handy when Celie's parents go to pick up her oldest brother from wizard school and don't make it home. As the Counsel moves to set up a regency and control the royal children and as foreign powers close in, the castle will have to help Celie protect her siblings and keep her country safe... until her parents come home.
The comments on Tuesday identified the following mistakes:

  1. No sense of the conflict
  2. Too much backstory and world building
  3. Doesn't seem to be a point

Just for fun, let's compare the parts of the good one and mine, shall we?

Good Conflict:
But when King and Queen Glower are ambushed and their fate is unknown...
Bad Conflict:
Celie's parents go to pick up her oldest brother from wizard school and don't make it home. As the Counsel moves to set up a regency and control the royal children and as foreign powers close in...
What's the difference? 
In the good one, we know that the king and queen didn't just get lost or decide to stay longer at the wizard school. Also, though my bad one has more details about who the antagonists are (the Counsel and the foreign powers), it doesn't really explain why they're bad. This is a case of less being more: we don't always have to know exactly what the threat it--just that there is one and what the heroine will do about it. Details can sometimes confuse things. For instance, why is a regency so awful? Wouldn't that make sense when the new king is too young to rule? What do the foreign powers want? How do we know they're not just trying to help or express condolences? I'm starting to think that the confusing parts of my own query might be fixed if I don't try to explain quite so much....

Again?

Good Backstory:
Tuesdays at Castle Glower are Princess Celie's favorite days. That's because on Tuesdays the castle adds a new room, a turret, or sometimes even an entire wing. No one ever knows what the castle will do next, and no one-other than Celie, that is-takes the time to map out the new additions.
Bad Backstory:
Celie's brother is training to be the next king--and the castle she lives in likes him enough to move his rooms right next to the throne room. Her sister is regal and efficient, just like their mother, the queen. The castle likes her, too, and gives her lavish rooms to live in. But the castle likes Celie the best. It gives her ramps to slide down and turrets to hide in.
What's the difference?
The good blurb frames the backstory as it helps tell us about Celie, the main character. In this way, the backstory does double-duty. In my blurb's backstory, we learn about more about Celie's brother and sister and the castle than we do about her. While her brother and sister are very cool, Celie is the main character. CELIE. She should be the focus of the query. In mine, all we know about Celie is that she has siblings, the affections of a castle, and occasionally slides down stuff. In the good blurb, we know that she loves her castle enough to actually map it out, even though no one else bothers. Make sure any backstory in your query is also helping your reader learn about your main character.

Also, in the good backstory, it is much easier to see how special the castle is. My backstory makes you wonder how the castle is doing all that stuff--does it just assign the best rooms to the people it likes? Does it just lead Celie to the already-existing slides and turrets? The magic system is completely muddled. Bad world building.

One more time:

Good Point:
...it's up to Celie, with her secret knowledge of the castle's never-ending twists and turns, to protect their home and save their kingdom.
Bad Point: 
...the castle will have to help Celie protect her siblings and keep her country safe... until her parents come home.
What's the Difference?
In the good blurb, Celie saves the day. In the bad blurb, the castle does most of the work. No matter how it actually happens in the book (the castle does help a lot), the query blurb has to show the main character acting. As cool as the castle is, the castle isn't human. We can admire it, think it's gee-wiz-neato, but we can't really relate to it. Human readers will rarely be able to picture themselves in the castle's position--and, perhaps more importantly, the book itself doesn't try to make us relate to the castle. Celie is the main character and we relate to her most of all. We want to root for her, so the query must hint that she will ultimately triumph--not "help" someone else do it for her.

The Devil's in the Details
One main thing that wasn't mentioned in the comments that I intentionally did wrong was the wealth of inconsequential details. The following details aren't mentioned at all in the good blurb:

  • Celie's brother who's training to be king
  • Celie's sister
  • Celie's eldest brother who's at wizard school
  • The Counsel
  • Foreign Powers
  • Moving rooms next to the throne room (a sign of succession)
  • Giving lavish rooms to favored people
  • That Celie's parents went to pick up her brother from wizard school
  • That the Counsel wants to set up a regency and control the royal children
  • That Celie's parents might come home



What did the good blurb mention that I didn't?
  • That the castle adds stuff on Tuesdays
  • That no one knows what the castle will do next
  • That Celie maps the castle
  • That no one else bothers to map the castle
  • That the king and queen are ambushed

What's the difference? My details are inconsequential and we don't miss them in the good blurb. The good details, however give us specific and essential world-building or character-building or plot information. When they're missing, we feel it.

Go look at your query and see what details you've included that could go. What are you leaving out that could help explain things better?

Golly, it sounds so easy, doesn't it? 

What else did I miss? Can you spot any other mistakes? Would you like to suggest a book for my next How NOT to Write a Query?

3 comments:

  1. It's so obvious when someone points out the problem with a query but so tough when you are writing one on your own (and frustrating). I think it just takes practice and research and more practice. Like it wasn't hard enough writing a novel in the first place. ;)

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  2. No kidding, Crystal: I'm hoping if I write enough bad queries, I'll be able to spot the same mistakes in my own. So far... not working.

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  3. Great breakdown here, Robin. It really helps me with the examples you provide. I'm very much a specifics kind of person.

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