Tuesday, July 3, 2012

HNTWAQ: Practice 4

Once again, this is a little series I started when it became painfully obvious that I had no clue how to write a good query. I still don't know how to do that, but I'm sharing everything I've learned about all the many, many ways there are of screwing it up. Once you cut these puppies out of your query... well, you'll probably have made a few of your own, unique mistakes, but you'll be that much closer to perfection.

I never really intended to critique real life queries (preferring to take book blurbs and reverse-engineering them to the crap their authors probably wrote first), but, well, these folks volunteered. And there's this contest coming up and how fair would it be if I didn't help my competitors beat me?

I really wanted to do this one in a line with the other three from last week. I really did. But, MAN! Critiquing queries is HARD! And draining. I will never again criticize an agent who won't give specific feedback. Three in a row just about did me in, and I didn't want to short change this last one just because my brain had melted.

So let's do one more:


This query is the brain-child of L.M. Miller, who won a query crit from me on June 21st. (And, yes, I've talked about nothing besides queries and query contests since then. Why do you ask?) Here's her original, un-ripped-and-torn query:

Dear Agent,
Seventeen-year-old Adalmund Port will do anything to save her country. She’s left her home, gone to war, and sacrificed her arm. As the last person in her country able to see and manipulate the threads of magic woven across her world, she enjoys her new position as tutor and protector of her country’s heir to the throne.
But her first job ends in failure. The queen orders Adalmund to infiltrate a neighboring country and assassinate the man who killed the heir. Seeking redemption and revenge, Adalmund complies. Instead, she finds an army—larger than any her nation could ever raise and better armed than any military she’s ever seen—prepared to attack her country. To stop them before they cross the border, Adalmund will have to strike a deal with that country’s revolutionary, Peace.
A charismatic and violent man with the same magical powers as Adalmund, Peace is leading a rebellion against the military. He’ll stop at nothing to overthrow the neglectful nobility of his nation. Adalmund will have to work with him to stop the army marching towards her home and find the murderer she’s there to kill.
To stop a war she’ll have to start a revolution.
REBEL THREADS is a young adult fantasy of 70,000 words. It is a standalone book with series potential.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Once again, I removed some wayward hard returns so the lines would break naturally for the blog, but other than that, my initial reaction was: Very cool story idea. I love revolution plots, especially with magic. I think you have a lot of great details, but I think the central conflict thread is getting lost.
This comes up a lot (it absolutely comes up a lot in my own poor query efforts), so let's talk about it. The central problem is the goal. That one thing that must happen for the heroine to be successful and without which the world will end (literally or figuratively). A query is not a magic trick. It is not a place to practice slight-of-hand. Therefore, follow this rule:

Everything that distracts the eye from 
the actual, central goal... should go.

This includes (oh-so-sadly) those shiny, sparkly things that we love. Our sub-plot darlings. Our tricky-turns-of-phrase. Our backstory beauties. That kid in the background of the picture who gives such quirky life to our story world, but who doesn't drive the main plot.

If you can use them to bolster the main plot, sure, but if they're there just for flavor, cut them. Salt the meat of the story and skip the garnish.


Once again, the four questions:

Who is the protagonist: One-armed 17-year-old Adalmund Port, who can manipulate the threads of magic (I don't have a clue what this means) and who is a tutor and (ultimately unsuccessful) protector to her country's heir. I'm a little confused at the get-go about not just the magic thing, but also how such a rare person becomes a tutor. I know the heir is important, but what makes a one-armed ex-soldier and rare magic user qualified to tutor the heir? How old is the heir? Is this a way of putting her to pasture or a promotion? I wonder if the query might be better if we cut the heir--or at least her relationship to the heir--out. She goes to the enemy country at the command of the queen. That's probably enough of a motivation for the query.


What does she want: This is also a tad muddled by the heir backstory. She wants to avenge his/her murder by killing the assassin AND she wants to prevent the slaughter of her countrymen by the hugenormous (don't use that word in your query) army she finds. One of these plots feels slightly more important than the other, and I sincerely hope that the war is more important to her than her guilt-driven vendetta.

What stands in her way: For the war plot, what stands in her way is the gigantmous army and the government behind it. For the revenge plot . . . not sure exactly what stands in her way, other than the natural difficulty of finding a single killer in a country preparing for brutal war.

What will happen if she fails: This part is actually pretty clear on the war plot: if she fails, her country is doomed. Very nice stakes. The revenge plot . . . she'll fail again? Not quite enough to drive a book. Revenge plot is a subplot.

So my main advice is to cut the revenge subplot and focus on the war. (Please note that this advice ONLY applies to the query. I really like the revenge subplot idea for the book itself.)

Let's see if I can give some advice on how to do that (and maybe how to save a bit of the revenge plot):
Dear Agent,
Seventeen-year-old Adalmund Port will do anything to save her country. She’s left her home, gone to war, and sacrificed her arm. As the last person in her country able to see and manipulate the threads of magic woven across her world, she enjoys her new position as tutor and protector of her country’s heir to the throne. 
The first sentence here is telling--and unnecessarily so. (Yes, some telling can be good.) More, it doesn't describe your book to the exclusion of all others, other than the name of the MC. Try something like "Seventeen-year-old Adalmund Port sacrificed her arm to her country's defense. She would have given more, but, as the last magic weaver, she is pulled home to protect the heir." Only, you know, better.

If there is a quick way to describe exactly what her magic can do somewhere in the query, that would be good, too. Also, people who "enjoy" things are boring in queries. Just saying. Hurry forward to the part where everything goes boom.
But her first job ends in failure. The queen orders Adalmund to infiltrate a neighboring country and assassinate the man who killed the heir. Seeking redemption and revenge, Adalmund complies. Instead, she finds an army—larger than any her nation could ever raise and better armed than any military she’s ever seen—prepared to attack her country. To stop them before they cross the border, Adalmund will have to strike a deal with that country’s revolutionary, Peace.
I'd suggest emphasizing the primary motivation, here: that the queen ordered it. Saying that she was seeking redemption and revenge when she complies suggests that she wouldn't have gone if she didn't have her own motivation. Nothing in the rest of the query hinted at that level of self-rule. Maybe just say that when the heir is murdered, the queen sends her to kill the assassin.

A couple words of explanation about why she was chosen for this task might be relevant and help build her character--was the queen angry with her for failing? Is she really the best warrior/spy her country has? Why send their only magic weaver away?


Also, I'm picturing this army lined up in ranks, all ready to march. Can you say how much time she has to foment rebellion? A day? A month?
I do love the description of how she'll have to strike a deal with Peace.
A charismatic and violent man with the same magical powers as Adalmund, Peace is leading a rebellion against the military. He’ll stop at nothing to overthrow the neglectful nobility of his nation. Adalmund will have to work with him to stop the army marching towards her home and find the murderer she’s there to kill.
Again, I'm completely lost on what "the same magical powers" means. Keep in mind Brandon Sanderson's rule of magic use: if you want to solve problems with it, your readers must understand how it works. This isn't completely necessary for a query, but a few hints will get my imagination working for you. How will their magic abilities help them? Since you mention both of them having the same abilities, I assume it will factor in?
Also, "neglectful nobility" seems so cliche. Is there some sort of specific thing they do that can help me quickly understand why he's so intent on overthrowing them? It might be good to throw in some specific details about how big the rebellion is. Are we talking 30 rebels or 3,000? What are their chances of success? Since this rebellion is the main driving force in the plot, a bit more detail is probably in order.
To stop a war she’ll have to start a revolution.
I love this line. Great summary of the main conflict.
REBEL THREADS is a young adult fantasy of 70,000 words. It is a standalone book with series potential.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

To sum up:

  1. Focus on the war/rebellion plot, cut anything that doesn't support it.
  2. Describe the magic so we can see how that will help the rebellion.
  3. More information on the rebellion. (Yes, I love me a good rebellion.)

Thanks for playing, L.M.!

Okay, your turn, bloggers. Any advice I missed? Any advice you completely disagree with? Either way, chime on in, so L.M. doesn't think I'm just making this stuff up. :)

6 comments:

  1. Wonderful job, Robin! You sure do know your stuff! Talynn over at http://inkinthebook.blogspot.com/ commented on my blog that she'd love a query critique from you. If you're too tired (understandably), then I'll critque hers instead. Just let me know:-) Happy 4th to you and your family!!!!

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    1. I think I'm good for another one. Have her send it to me and I'll get to it either this Thursday or next Tuesday.

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  2. Thanks for the critique! I have no many problems parsing it down to what's important. It's already under revision. Thank you.

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    1. You're so welcome! Thanks for letting me! And that problem with figuring out what's important? Yeah. I can totally relate. (Which shows how hard it is to apply what you know to your own stuff.)

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  3. great advice, robin! i'm going to beef up my stakes! i think i have the other questions...

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