Thursday, October 4, 2012

HNTWAQ: Practice 6

On Monday, I asked for volunteers on Twitter for Tuesday’s How NOT to Write a Query post. I got lots. LOTS. And since I can quite literally feel everyone’s query pain, it’s dang hard to say no. So I’ll be doing a lot of HNTWAQ posts over the next few weeks—but since I still have to write and work and spend time with my family, I’m probably not going to do more than two per week. These suckers take me 2-3 hours each.

If you’re still thinking about submitting your own query, please read my archives first, then edit. I’m happy to help, but I’d rather not do for you what you can do for yourself—you’ll do it sooo much better than I ever could.

That said, let’s do another one, k?

Read more here

This query is one I hosted on my blog for the Gearing Up to Get an Agent blogfest. It’s written by Catherine Scully (@CatMScully), who approached me for advice on POV: her book has alternating POV’s, and she’s having trouble figuring out which one to use for her query. Jennifer is the title character, so she seems to be the most obvious, but the first chapter features Marcus, which confuses people after they read the query. She’s tried putting them both in the query but got lots of feedback indicating that the result was awkward and she should just pick one.

I have some suggestions, but first this is her most recent query, using Jennifer’s POV: 
Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange believes in measurable facts, not in the occult. When a lost ghost tears apart her Chemistry class and a Ghost Hunter named Marcus Blackwell claims she is a Medium, Jennifer must admit that ghosts exist. 
After agreeing to team up with Marcus to help find the ghost, Jennifer inadvertently meets Marcus’s sinister Grandmother and their family of Ghost Hunters. While Jennifer doesn't believe the Grandmother’s claim that Jennifer is the most powerful Medium alive, her unusual gift is clear: Jennifer can touch ghosts. No other Medium ever knew such power, but Jennifer has no desire to become a Medium for the Blackwell family Ghost Hunters. Despite her feelings, Jennifer must still help the ghost remember who he is before a wraith possessing his soul is unleashed and devours them all.
 In a “Ghostbusters” meets Kendare Blake’s “Anna Dressed in Blood,” JENNIFER STRANGE shares dark occult themes, black comedy laughs, vibrant horrors, and forbidden love told in alternating chapters from Marcus’s and Jennifer’s perspectives.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about what we know:

1. Who is the protagonist? Both Jennifer and Marcus share this distinction. Marcus is a ghost hunter and part of a family of ghost hunters. Not exactly clear on what a ghost hunter does. Does he find and kill them? Send them peacefully to the other side ala Ghost Whisperer? Does he have a special knife ala Anna Dressed in Blood? Gimme a picture. Marcus serves as a bit of a mentor to Jennifer and gets her to team up with him to hunt ghosts. It’s unclear how he feels about being a ghost hunter and whether he is attracted to Jennifer. Has he ever wanted to do anything else? Is Jennifer simply a means to a ghost hunter end or does he have other designs on her?

Jennifer is a skeptic – slash – medium who is forced to believe in ghosts when one manifests in chemistry class. She is possibly the most powerful medium EVER. She has no desire to be a medium… but does it anyway to help a ghost… which is what mediums DO. So she’s sort of in denial. We don’t know if she’s attracted to Marcus or why she thinks his family is sinister or how this medium gig interrupts her real life—or even what she did in her real life before this medium gig. All we really know about her is that she’s a reluctant superhero—that’s an awesome label, but it’s so common, you really need to distinguish her personality more.

2. What does he/she want? Marcus wants Jennifer to help this ghost remember who he is before a wraith devours them all. Not sure why remembering will help, or what effect success will have on Marcus’ life. Is this just another job for him? What is Marcus’s personal motivation, beyond the not-wanting-to-be-devoured thing? If it was just another, more normal ghost, would he let it be or still hunt it? What would happen then? Don’t spell that all out—hints are good. Just flesh it out a touch. 

Jennifer wants the same thing: No devouring. We actually know more about what Jennifer doesn't want than what she does want: she doesn't want to be a medium, she doesn't want to hunt ghosts, she doesn't want to be devoured. We can intuit the why behind that last one, but I have no clue on the first two. What in her normal life is so exciting and important that she turns her nose up at this kind of power and adventure? What is it that convinces her to give it a try?

3. What stands in his/her way? Um…? If the goal is to help the ghost remember who he is, how bad is this memory loss? Is the ghost communicative? Elusive? Does he rip people in half whenever they try to talk to him? Is he allergic to mementos? Does he want to remember? Is the wraith the problem? What affect does the wraith have on the ghost? Has anyone seen this before or is this a try-stuff-until-something-works kind of problem? Clearly answering this question (or providing clear hints) will help us understand just how hard the MC’s will have to work to succeed.

4. What will happen if they fail? DEVOURING! Not sure if the whole world will be devoured by the wraith or if it will just be the team, though. Also not sure what kind of time frame we’re looking at—can they tell when the wraith will unleash? Just how imminent is this devouring? If it does unleash, can’t they just run away? Kill the wraith separately? Is it possible to fail at helping the ghost remember who he is and still kill the wraith?

5. What will they have to do to succeed? This I’m also unclear on, which is probably the worst problem because this is where your story lies. So far, we have premise: reluctant superhero medium meets novice mentor ghost hunter and they must save/kill a ghost/wraith before the wraith devours someone. So will they be meditating inside a circle of magic rocks? Looking through old photographs trying to find the face of the ghost? Searching old newspapers for a record of his death? Will their lives be in danger before the Great Unleashing? Give a brief picture of the action of the book. How will our heroes go about solving the problem? How will Marcus’s ghost hunter skills be used? Why is Jennifer’s ability to touch a ghost so significant? How exciting is this story going to be, anyway?



Okay, now for the query POV question. I’m going with an idea that focuses on the market, as I understand it: write the query from Marcus’s POV. While my favorite idea is to use them both for the query (romance novels get away with that all the time), if that’s going to throw off agents, don’t do it. Using Marcus’s POV has several advantages: 1) people won’t get confused when he’s the POV of the first chapter; 2) boys are more likely to purchase Jennifer Strange if it looks like it might be a boy-book; 3) Marcus knows more about this ghost hunting thing than Jennifer does, so you don’t have to waste words being reluctant—you can just tell what Marcus knows.

With that in mind, let’s look at quirking the query:
Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange believes in measurable facts, not in the occult. When a lost ghost tears apart her Chemistry class and a Ghost Hunter named Marcus Blackwell claims she is a Medium, Jennifer must admit that ghosts exist.
This paragraph should detail Marcus’s history in his ghost hunter family and his need for a medium. Emphasize what he wants out of life and what he’s prepared to do to get it. If he meets Jennifer in this paragraph, what is his initial reaction to her? Is he understanding about her mind being blown or is he impatient at her slow learning curve? Is he attracted to her?
After agreeing to team up with Marcus to help find the ghost, Jennifer inadvertently meets Marcus’s sinister Grandmother and their family of Ghost Hunters. While Jennifer doesn't believe the Grandmother’s claim that Jennifer is the most powerful Medium alive, her unusual gift is clear: Jennifer can touch ghosts. No other Medium ever knew such power, but Jennifer has no desire to become a Medium for the Blackwell family Ghost Hunters. Despite her feelings, Jennifer must still help the ghost remember who he is before a wraith possessing his soul is unleashed and devours them all.
Don’t spend much time on grandmother and what grandmother thinks about Jennifer--and don't use words like inadvertently if you're not going to explain them. Let Marcus tell us that no one has ever seen a medium who can touch ghosts, let him react, and move on to the problem: the wraith. We really, really, need to understand the wraith more. What does it do? How and why is it attached to the ghost? What kind of ghost is it? How can they stop the wraith (in theory)? What is the danger level? What is the first step they’ll have to take? Maybe mention Marcus having to drag Jennifer along, but again, the reluctant superhero is so common, mentioning it once is plenty enough. We get it—move on to something we haven’t seen before.
In a “Ghostbusters” meets Kendare Blake’s “Anna Dressed in Blood,” JENNIFER STRANGE shares dark occult themes, black comedy laughs, vibrant horrors, and forbidden love told in alternating chapters from Marcus’s and Jennifer’s perspectives.
These are great comparison titles, but you take it a hair too far. I've read several agent blogs that say you shouldn't cross the line into praising your own book. Also, you shouldn't use the comparison paragraph to say things that aren't obvious in the query—just make them obvious IN THE QUERY. Show, don't tell. Does your book have black comedy laughs? Then make the agent laugh darkly as she reads the blurb. Vibrant horror? Splash some bright red blood around (with words, lest someone misunderstand—never use gimmicks). Forbidden love? The blurb had better talk about why Marcus and Jennifer can’t get together—there’s not even word one about them liking each other! Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to say you have alternating POV's: no need to turn off agents who don’t prefer that sort of thing right up front. If they've made it all the way to chapter 2, you've probably hooked them enough that they’ll be happy to see Jennifer chime in.

Okay, to sum up:

1. Marcus, not Jennifer—and more details on Marcus: what he likes, what he knows, what he thinks about Jennifer.

2. More about the wraith! If the wraith is the antagonist, it deserves more than a half a sentence.

3. Describe (or hint at) how they plan to defeat the wraith and how their awesome powers will help.

Catherine, I hope this helps. I think you have the makings of a great story here, and I’m assuming that the answers to all my questions are already in the book—we just need them in the query, too. Let me know if you want me to look at a rewrite--I really want to see the improved version, though it will have to wait until I go through the new ones, so take your time. Good luck!

For everyone else, please chime in--do you agree with using Marcus's POV? Do you, also, want more info on the wraith, or should she focus on Marcus and Jennifer more? Did you like Catherine's query the way it was and now think I'm being mean? Seriously, guys, I'm a lawyer--how am I supposed to argue if no one will disagree with me?

5 comments:

  1. I'll have a go at arguing ;)


    Helping Catherine with her query, I did so just from a pure storytelling stand point - I have a background in animation/sequential art. There's a big emphasis on storytelling in this field (within the right studios) so I will confess I'm not sure how the novel pitching/querying process works!

    That being said, I pushed for Jen's POV pretty hard. Why? Because as an introductory book, the reader needs to learn about this world at a comfortable pace, which is what Jen provides. A base "normality" that helps introduce the reader into this crazy ghost hunting world as this character continues to grow.
    Also, I'm assuming that since Jen is the title character, this too makes the most sense.

    Marcus' first chapter POV isn't confusing too much because I see it as a prologue. If it were labeled as such in print then that would be okay. We get this background and foreshadowing of things to come, and then when Jen takes the reigns the reader can go all-in. I also assume that if the POV changes chapter to chapter, then it would be pretty clear from the get-go who's driving.

    If the pitch DID go from Marcus' POV, then that first chapter should have a bit more "Oomph" . Right now (according to the draft I have read) there isn't enough information hinting at the needs and dire straits (the medium, the wraith, or any danger in the world) for Marcus to agree to what he's doing- so again, it seems more like a basic introductory prologue to The World.

    I think as the book series continues, THEN we can shift those book jacket blurbs to Marcus for fun, but I strongly think that Jennifer is the meat of the story and the basis for the audience to connect.

    I DO agree to make the dangers of the ghost/wraith more clear, though. As well as this potential forbidden romance!

    So, again, this is my speculation from a storytelling standpoint!

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    1. Adding to that general line of thinking, my professors always told us to ask ourselves this and it's something I ALWAYS keep in mind with storytelling;
      "What is your character's dramatic need? How do they go about achieving that need? Do they fulfill that need?"

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    2. I think if the story is clear, she can choose the POV that makes it the most exciting.

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  2. I am really happy you did Cat's query! I love this story already and I haven't even read it yet! I think you are onto something with using Marcus's POV in the query. Seeing Jennifer through his eyes can not only give us more on both characters, but any kind of possible romantic relations between them or any secrets he might be keeping from her (going out on a limb with that one based on the sinister grandma).

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    Replies
    1. I do think Marcus would be a great, informative choice.

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