Tuesday, October 9, 2012

HNTWAQ: Practice 7

Before we do another round of How NOT to Write a Query: Practice, I want to remind everyone about the Vlog-Pitch contest coming up October 15th. Which means you have less than a week to outline (not write-and-memorize) a great, casual pitch, practice it, film it, edit it, watch it, scrap it, do it over (times infinity), post it on YouTube, and slap it on your blog.

There will be 30 finalists and, if the writer's blog-o-sphere stays as chicken as they have been since they posted the linky list on September 21, almost all of the entries will be in the finals.

So come make a fool of yourself with me, huh?

And here's the next installment of:


This query comes courtesy of Kristen Strassel (@KristenStrassel) who shares my pain in that every time she revises her query, it seems someone else gets confused by it. (That's my interpretation of what she said, which was that people seemed to be misunderstanding her plot and getting confused.) I think she has a great concept (vampires + rock and roll = coooool), but there's room for improvement in how she describes it.

First off, Kristen classified her story as a "New Adult Paranormal Urban Fantasy" for GUTGAA, which I think is a mistake, since it's possibly both redundant and misleading. "Paranormal" means fantasy elements will be present, and I think that common wisdom is that "Paranormal" is synonymous with "Paranormal Romance" which suggests the love story will be at the fore, while "Urban Fantasy" suggests any love story will be secondary. **Is NOT an expert on genre** So I suggest going with PNR or UF, without trying to blend the two. Which one will depend on how important the love story is to the plot.

So let's start with her current query. Since she first asked to be part of this blog series, Kristin has read my archives and revised her query twice. Each one is better and better, but I still think certain elements could be clearer. Keep in mind, though, that Kristin told me that this very version of her query has already earned her a full request--so what I think is "wrong" isn't necessarily a fatal flaw. The only job of a query is to get the agent to want to read more, so this query is already working for her:
Immortal Dilemma is the hottest band in the Las Vegas vampire rock scene. These vampires draw insatiable fans from around the globe thanks to a supernatural attraction called Bloodlust. Tristan Trevosier craved such an opportunity to fill his empty mortal life, and now he has eternity to earn his place along the legends of rock n roll debauchery. 
Blade Bennett came to Las Vegas looking for excitement and he found it with Immortal Dilemma. After having a taste of what the vampire scene had to offer, he turned down it down and chose a normal, mortal life. But Blade can’t get away from the scene or Immortal Dilemma.
Callie Chabot-Wilkes could never forget her first love, Tristan. He walked away from her four years ago. She defies her overprotective family and enrolls in Las Vegas State to reconnect with him. She is determined to make the best of this unexpected situation and braces herself to weave her way through a world she had no idea existed. Callie always knew that Tristan’s excesses would get him into trouble, but she never thought they’d lead him to immortality. Tristan still struggles with his mortal addictions, and once he sees Callie again, she becomes one of them. 
Blade is everything that Callie wishes Tristan could still be. Callie tries to conceal her attraction and her desire to protect Tristan from Blade, but the paparazzi and ever-present Immortal Dilemma fans make their relationship impossible to hide. 
After an attempted murder investigation sends shockwaves back to Callie’s family, she realizes she is no longer the sheltered girl who left Martha’s Vineyard. She must now find her place in Las Vegas before she has no home at all. She hopes it can be with Blade but Tristan refuses to be forgotten.
Callie’s attachment to Tristan finally pushes Blade over the edge. Her pain sends her to Tristan’s waiting arms where she learns the true meaning of Bloodlust.

As always, the 5 questions:

1: Who is the protagonist? Honestly, if Kristen hadn't told me in an email that Callie was the protag, I wouldn't be able to tell. We don't even hear about Callie until after we've heard about Tristan and Blade. So judging strictly on the information in the query, it looks like Tristan, Blade, and Callie will share the spotlight equally.

Tristan is a recently-turned immortal-vampire rock-star who attracts his fans through a supernatural something-or-other called Bloodlust while struggling with his "mortal addictions" which, apparently, can still be added to (since Callie "becomes one of them"). It's unclear what Bloodlust is--is it the attraction of a human (prey) to the vampire (predator)? Are humans drawn to all vamps or just rock-star vamps? Is it something that can be turned off? Is it voluntary? Does it effect the vamps at all? The first paragraph seems to suggest that Bloodlust works remotely--since fans come "from around the globe" thanks to Bloodlust. Are all vampires also rock-stars or are these vamps just capitalizing on the lucky coincidence of Bloodlust to drive their real passion for music (and debauchery)? The last paragraph suggests that there's a "true meaning" of Bloodlust that hasn't been explained. Since Bloodlust is so central to Tristan's character, I think it should be explained.

Blade is a human who considered becoming a vamp rock-star, but decided not to. He's not from Vegas, but I don't know what his background is or even how old he is. He thinks he's chosen a "normal" life but is still caught up in the vamp rock-star scene in some undefined way--is he a groupie? A sound tech? A magician with an ax (meaning guitar--oh, yeah, see me pretend to know the lingo)? What does he do in his free time? Does he have a real job? Is he tied in some mystical way to the vampires or is he just too caught up in the glitz to make a clean break? It's suggested that he's a better person than Tristan, but I can't tell in what way he's better. Is he nicer? Able to abstain from harmful substances? Less full-of-himself? You don't have to list every way he's better, but giving a concrete example will go a long way to defining both boys... er, guys.

Callie is a sheltered girl from Martha's Vineyard who fell in love with Tristan 4 years ago when he was still mortal. It's not clear how old they both were then or are now, by the way, though if she's just now enrolling in college I can guess she's a freshman, meaning 18 or 19 years old, meaning she was 14 or 15 when she fell in love with Tristan, who was already engaging in "excesses" when he walked away from her. That he was able to walk away suggests he was at least 18 then, so 5 or 6 years older than Callie. Be that as it may, Callie heads off to Vegas to reconnect with Tristan--which seems like a euphemistic way of saying she chased after him like a groupie stalker. I think this impression could be tempered a bit if she can show a bit of reluctance? Some ongoing connection between the two? WHY is this young privileged girl chasing a world-famous rock star she hasn't seen in 4 years? All we really know about him is that he's a rebel who has taken his excesses to the point of becoming a vampire-rock-star-wild-child. What did she love about him? What was it about their connection that would make her stoop to this level, abandon every vestige of class she's been bred to, and throw herself at a loose-living celebrity who probably won't recognize her from her adolescent years? I'm really not seeing much to like about Callie, frankly--I can't even get a sense of her personality other than the stereotype of spoiled-rebel-rich-girl. I know there's more to her: what makes her do such crazy things? Does she like rock-and-roll or is it just Tristan? If she's willing to change everything about herself for a guy . . . I'm not ever going to respect her.

2: What does the protagonist want? Tristan, as far as I can tell, wants to live a life of fame and debauchery and would enjoy pulling Callie down with him. I'm pretty sure this isn't a good life goal, and it makes him seem very flat as a character. Does he have anything else he'll be working toward? Is he willing to change for Callie? Does he at all recognize how unhealthy this life is or does he just not care?

Blade also wants excitement and to live in the vampire rock scene without becoming part of the vampire rock scene (that distinction could be more clear, methinks). He also wants Callie. That's about all I can tell. What does he want to be when he grows up? Is he working for something in the book that is separate from the vamp-rock scene? Is he at least working to solidify his permanent-though-mortal position in the vamp-rock scene? Is he just in the book to be the other point in the love triangle?

Callie wants Tristan. No, Blade. No, Tristan. She seems to have some sense of what she wants in a man, since she is able to see that Blade has what Tristan doesn't, but she proves twice in the space of one query--once when she moves to Vegas and once when she flees to Tristan's arms--that she is willing to ditch all her principles to be with Tristan. So WHAT DOES SHE WANT? What sort of life does she want to live? Does she dream of taming Tristan, slapping him into a 3-piece suit, and hauling him back to Martha's Vineyard to live next door to mom and dad while they raise their 2.3 kids? Does she switch her attentions to Blade because he fits that ideal better? (Well, the name Blade will NEVER fit on Martha's Vineyard, but still.) Does she have musical aspirations of her own or does she dream of being a groupie for the rest of her life, perhaps while raising a passel of babies in the back of a tour bus? What is she majoring in? Does she HAVE a major, or is college just a ruse to get her to Vegas? What kinds of grades is she pulling down while she chases vampires all night?

Because the protagonist--let's assume it's really Callie--should drive the plot with the thing s/he wants, that thing must be clear. Ditto the next question:

3: What stands in his/her way? Here, I'm at sea. Tristan seems to get everything he wants through Bloodlust or Callie's inexplicable attraction to him, so nothing seems to stand in his way. Blade, likewise, doesn't seem to be languishing, gets to make his own decisions, and is the one to call off the relationship with Callie. Callie... well, since I can't figure out what she wants, I can't really see what stands in her way. Who or what is the antagonist? Is it the Bloodlust? Is it just Callie vs. Callie, trying to decide which boy she likes best? Is Callie at all bothered by the debauchery or does she want to be a full participant? What, exactly, does it mean to learn "the true meaning of Bloodlust?" Will it turn her into a mindless slave to Tristan's will? How will that stand in the way of what she wants if what she wants is Tristan, even at the sacrifice of everything else in her life?

This element is the conflict, which is the basis of the story. Without a conflict, we don't have a plot. So make the antagonist stand out more.

4: What will happen if s/he fails? If Tristan doesn't get Callie, I assume he'll suffer a bit, then drown his sorrows in booze, drugs, and flesh before moving blithely on with his life. If Blade doesn't win her heart, maybe he'll wake up and finally leave the scene for good, which is sort of what he wants anyway, right? Callie seems to have a choice between the two guys, but if she gets neither of them, she'll probably have a better life.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and assume that the Bloodlust is important to the plot. That it's an actual antagonist. If that were so, Callie might be fighting to save her sanity or sense of self or free will. Maybe she realizes that the vamp rock stars are dangerous to the world at large and are hypnotizing their "fans" to ensure a ready supply of donors. Maybe she comes to realize that she needs to expose this Bloodlust thing and help save the world from it. Or maybe that's not the conflict and it's really just choosing between the rock star and the groupie to spend the rest of her life with. Either way, her choice and the consequences must be clear.

5: What will s/he have to DO to succeed? All Callie really does in the query is steel herself for the shock of entering the rock-vamp world, flee back to Tristan, and realize she has changed and needs a new permanent home. The boys don't seem to be doing anything specific toward meeting any specific agenda.

This element helps agents understand what sort of story you are presenting them. Will it be an introspective novel with a lot of hand-holding during deep, soul-searching conversations? Will there be danger? Fighting? What's with this murder? Will Callie have to be on her guard to stay alive and sane? Will Tristan and/or Blade have to save her from something? From each other?

Be careful NOT to try to relate the whole plot, but give the first step of the road. What are they (or, probably, what is Callie) willing to do to win? What will be required? What kind of a ride are you going to take readers on?

One more thing before we go back to the query: this sucker is LOOONG. 321 words in just the blurb. If I'm not mistaken, Query Shark says that 250 is good--for the whole thing, with comp paragraphs, intro, the works. So I'm going to advise cutting everything that isn't related to Callie and the choices she has to make. If Tristan or Blade is mentioned, talk about them from Callie's perspective. What she thinks of them. What she wants from them. It's not enough to talk about the protagonist MORE than you talk about secondary characters--almost every word of the query has to be about the protagonist, with other elements coming in only to explain what the protagonist is up against.

So let's see if I can help cut the fat:
Immortal Dilemma is the hottest band in the Las Vegas vampire rock scene. These vampires draw insatiable fans from around the globe thanks to a supernatural attraction called Bloodlust. Tristan Trevosier craved such an opportunity to fill his empty mortal life, and now he has eternity to earn his place along the legends of rock n roll debauchery. 

This isn't an awful way to start the query, but, again, it must relate immediately to Callie. So try something like this: "Immortal Dilemma is the hottest band in the Las Vegas vampire rock scene--and there are so many reasons why college freshman Callie shouldn't become a groupie. But the lead singer, Tristan Trevosier, broke her heart four years before and she can't stop herself from trying once more to win him back." The rest of this paragraph is sort of implied by the phrase "vampire rock scene." You can weave Bloodlust in later, as Callie realizes what it is.
Blade Bennett came to Las Vegas looking for excitement and he found it with Immortal Dilemma. After having a taste of what the vampire scene had to offer, he turned down it down and chose a normal, mortal life. But Blade can’t get away from the scene or Immortal Dilemma.
Don't waste time trying to explain Blade. As far as Callie seems to be concerned, he's the soft place to fall when she can't/shouldn't have Tristan. Your book should explore his personality, but you don't have to detail it in the query. Go ahead and mention him as the tempting-tech-guy (or whatever he is) but keep the details specific to what tempts Callie away from Tristan.
Callie Chabot-Wilkes could never forget her first love, Tristan. He walked away from her four years ago. She defies her overprotective family and enrolls in Las Vegas State to reconnect with him. She is determined to make the best of this unexpected situation and braces herself to weave her way through a world she had no idea existed. Callie always knew that Tristan’s excesses would get him into trouble, but she never thought they’d lead him to immortality. Tristan still struggles with his mortal addictions, and once he sees Callie again, she becomes one of them. 
Most of this can be shortened, like how I slipped the heart-breaking into the first paragraph. This is a great place to introduce the conflict. Stick with Callie's POV--what she sees, wants, knows, observes. How does she feel when she realizes that Tristan has gone vamp? Don't talk about the fam back on Martha's Vineyard unless it's part of the conflict--does she struggle with lowering herself to Tristan's level? Does her family constantly badger her to make different choices? She's an adult now, so she gets to make her own decisions. It's time to rise above her roots.

Also, she defies her family, enrolls in Las Vegas State, and plans to reconnect with Tristan in the vamp rock scene--so what part of that creates an "unexpected situation?" Surely she knows he's a rock star. Is it the vamp thing she was unaware of? Just how many people know about vampires in this world? Are the fans caught up in Bloodlust not knowing that the rock stars are vamps? Why doesn't that bother Callie? If it does bother her, what is she going to do about it?
Blade is everything that Callie wishes Tristan could still be. Callie tries to conceal her attraction and her desire to protect Tristan from Blade, but the paparazzi and ever-present Immortal Dilemma fans make their relationship impossible to hide. 
How is the paparazzi part of the conflict? Is she cheating on Blade with Tristan? What made her date Blade in the first place if she came here specifically for Tristan? Give some specifics about what Blade has that Tristan doesn't.
After an attempted murder investigation sends shockwaves back to Callie’s family, she realizes she is no longer the sheltered girl who left Martha’s Vineyard. She must now find her place in Las Vegas before she has no home at all. She hopes it can be with Blade but Tristan refuses to be forgotten.
This paragraph threw me, possibly because I don't know how the attempted murder investigation fits into the main story. Possibly because I'm not sure what the main story IS. Who was almost killed? Was it Callie, Tristan or Blade? Someone Callie knows? How did it ripple back home and why does that affect her present circumstances? Honestly, this attempted murder is the closest thing to conflict mentioned in the query, but you use it as a footnote--is the murder related to something Callie wants? To the main plot? If not, leave it out. Is it the inciting incident? When does this happen in the book? If it's after page 30 (or so), leave it out.

The second sentence suggests that the real conflict is that she doesn't have a home and must find one quickly. If she's in college, why is this a major problem? College students, practically by definition, are transitory. They mostly live in temporary student housing, away from the families they grew up with, and will leave as soon as they graduate. Real life starts after college, and is normally quite different from either pre-college or college days. Why is Callie so concerned about establishing a permanent place in Las Vegas right now? The world is her oyster at that age--why is she limiting herself?
Callie’s attachment to Tristan finally pushes Blade over the edge. Her pain sends her to Tristan’s waiting arms where she learns the true meaning of Bloodlust.
This tells me that Callie chose Tristan, Blade didn't like that and dumped her, and she got hurt... because she couldn't have them both? Focus instead on answering the last two questions: What happens if she fails and what will she have to do to succeed? If Bloodlust factors into that, give a clear explanation on what Callie knows about it and whether she's okay with it. Frankly, if she's okay with Bloodlust, it's probably not the conflict and might not need to be in the query at all.

Finally, it looks like you've gone waaay beyond the inciting incident, here. Queries aren't a chance to lay out your plot--just the start of your story. You only need to hook the agent and make them wonder what will happen. Don't go too far into the plot--just until she meets the main obstacle and maybe a step or two beyond that. Lay out what's at stake. Depending on the query, what's at stake might be revealed later in the story--use your judgment on how much to reveal, but you MUST have clear this-awful-thing-could-happen-if-she-fails stakes.

To sum up: 
1. Focus on Callie, NOT Tristan or Blade.

2. Lay out what Callie wants (if she could lay out her life exactly the way she dreams, what would that look like?), what stands in her way, what will happen if she fails, and what she's willing to do to succeed.

3. If Bloodlust will be an obstacle to Callie's goals, lay out what it is and what she plans to do about it--or at least hint at what havoc her foolish naivete will wreck on her life.

4. Cut everything that doesn't relate to the main plot. No subplots, here, except perhaps in passing.

Kristen--In closing, please remember that queries are a grueling work-in-progress for almost everyone. Heaven knows I'm still struggling myself. I don't know how to write it right, but hopefully this will help you figure out the best way to present the awesomeness of your book so it can get the recognition it deserves.

Good luck and let me know if you want me to take another look--or if you get an agent!

Okay, everyone else: what do you think? Remembering that the query I crossed almost completely out has already earned a full request, what do you think this query did RIGHT? (Again, I'm not so good at pointing out what someone did right--I'm certainly not qualified for that.) Do you disagree with any of my advice?

10/24 UPDATE: This query--the one I tore limb-from-limb, above--garnered Kristen an agent. Before she rewrote it based on my, um, advice. She announced it today on Twitter. So see? All you need is a query that helps the right agent for you to see the genius of your book. As always, please feel free to disregard any of my advice. #NotAnAgent :D

5 comments:

  1. I thought this was an excellent query critique. The original query read much more like a synopsis--it definitely needs to be cut down. I don't have anything to add though, as you covered all the key points.

    I wish Kristen the best of luck with this. Queries are a huge pain in the butt. It took me a bazillion tries to get mine right. :)

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    1. I wish luck weren't so important in querying, but yeah. Good luck is sooo necessary. :)

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  2. This is the best query critique I've read in a while. You're better than Mr. MacNish!

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    1. O_o Dang. That there's high praise! Thanks!

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  3. Hey saw your comment on my Pitch Live! post :) Thanks! I actually used iMovie from like 2008. It comes with Mac :) I do know that if you have a PC there is some software you can download for free :) Just Google around

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