Thursday, June 21, 2012

How NOT to Write a Query 5: Breakdown

On Tuesday, I broke a great query by removing all the specifics that might have helped distinguish its book from all the other dystopian books out there. 

Only... people recognized it anyway. I'm going to assume it wasn't that my vagueinator was broken, but just that this particular book is super-duper famous right now. Anyway, the winners are:

Matt
Heidi
Eric
L.M.
SA
Ru
and Jamie

That's right: everyone who commented on Tuesday gets a prize, if they want it. Even Ru, who guessed the wrong books. (Mainly because I'm so grateful that SOMEONE guessed wrong, even if it was intentional.) :)

What is the prize? *Drumroll*

A query critique by yours truly. Winners can choose to either: 1) have me critique YOUR query; OR 2) give away the query crit to someone on your blog. Winner can also pick whether I tear the query apart in private or right here, on my blog, to be seen by tens of people--who just might comment an help you even more. Please keep in mind that I can't tell you how to do it right, but I can probably help you spot some of the things you're doing wrong.

Now, on to the breakdown!


I'm going to add the real sentences back in, one sentence at a time. When do you recognize the book? (Or, rather, when would you recognize the book if it wasn't the first book that springs to mind whenever you think "dystopian?")

First, this is my vaguanated version from Tuesday:
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane is a survivor. She fights back. But if she is to survive, she will have to decide what is really important.
Let's add in one of the real sentences, shall we?
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane is a survivor. She fights back. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
Got it yet? How about another? (Names are staying neutral for now.)
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature.  She fights back. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
 Still kind of vague, huh?
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
What's most interesting about this particular query is that the last three sentences are actually kind of vague in their original form... when you don't know the concrete details that come before them.

Can you guess the book yet?

Are you sure?

Since the rest of the blurb is quite impossible to mistake, I'll give you the rest all at once.

As soon as we're far enough down the screen....



A little farther....



Just a bit more....



Far enough?

Good.

Here's the real back cover blurb:
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
Do you even need me to tell you the title? Do you see the obvious superiority of the details in the real blurb over the vaugueosity of my own poor imitation? How even the more general sentences at the end relate back to the details (with words like "before" and "contender" and "win") to make them come alive? Would you even give a book with my blurb on it a second glance?

I participated in a pitch contest a few weeks ago and one of the primary concerns of the agents was--you guessed it--they couldn't tell what made THIS book different from all the other books out there in that genre. It was a brutal and enlightening experience. If agents feel like they've heard it before, they will pass. Different is not only good, it's essential.

So the take-away is probably obvious, but I'll spell it out anyway:
  1. Look at every sentence of your query
  2. Identify which sentences could apply to a book other than yours
  3. Add details until each sentence screams with uniqueness
What do you do to make sure your query describes your book and not everyone else's?

9 comments:

  1. Ha, awesome! I think I'll give it away on ye olde blog, I'm taking a break from querying until the fall. Thanks Robin!

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    1. Very cool. Can't wait to see how you sell it as a worthy prize... :D

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  2. Be specific. It's the number one thing I tell people when they ask for help with their queries.

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  3. I'd love for you to critique my query in public. If getting ripped apart in public helps someone else like you've helped me with this series, then it's great!

    Also, every time I scroll by the updates list and see the square wheels I crack up. They're so accurate.

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    1. Awesome! When you're ready, email me at robinweekswriter at gee-mail dot com and I'll post it with some comments. I'd be happy to do more than one round, if you want to edit it and go again. :)

      Heaven knows my own query has been completely revised 6 times and tweaked a score more.

      So glad this is helping someone besides me! :)

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  4. Wow, that's very generous of you (but then again, you always are!) . . . not sure if you heard I signed a publishing deal this week? I posted about it on my blog:) So when I post again on Wednesday I'll let someone know they're eligible for your query critique--how exciting! This was a very helpful post, great stuff!!

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    1. I can't believe I missed your news! I really need a better way of keeping up than my own blog's blogroll.

      So exciting! *Loves knowing famous people*

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  5. Another good breakdown, Robin. Thanks for taking us on your journey with you. lol

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