Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Query Critique, at last!

At long last, I’m delighted to post Brian Buckley’s prize for winning my summer writing prompt contest: a public critique of his query letter, here on the blog. (The delay is on my end, not Brian’s, I hasten to mention.)

Here is Brian’s letter, with my comments rather obnoxiously posted in bold throughout.

Dear Ms. Miller-Callihan,

You’ve spelled my name right and used my preferred form (Ms. Miller-Callihan). Ten points to Griffindor.

I've enjoyed your blog from the very beginning, but I never queried because you don't rep science fiction. Then you said "Send me your query letter," and my keen writer-sense just knew, somehow, the time was right. Here's what I've got:

This is funny and clever, but unless someone specifically encourages you to query them in a category they don’t represent, don’t do it. Still, I like the tone here; it’s confident and charming, and doesn’t read like a form letter you copied out of a book called How to Write a Query Letter. I also like that you mentioned the blog, as it shows me that you’re not planning to spam everyone in the industry indiscriminately. Telling the agent why you are querying him or her, in particular, is a good way to try to forge a connection. I’m more likely to put in the time reading a query if I feel like the author’s done their homework.

Petras Fairburn is clueless when it comes to politics. Too bad he's Emperor of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Witty and concise. The short paragraph is a great strategy here, and you’ve got me wanting to learn more about your story.

Petras didn't want to be Emperor, of course, but he has very persuasive friends. There's the Star-Witch, for one: the most wanted criminal in the universe, near-omnipotent and nearer-immortal. For reasons all her own, she befriended him way back when he was a twelve-year-old nothing on a backwater colony world. He didn't ask for a friend like her, but it's hard to say no to the Star-Witch.

A lot of good detail here, but I’m starting to worry that Petras is too wimpy or passive a figure to carry the story. Readers want active characters that do things, not characters to whom things just happen. You might be better off cutting this paragraph and jumping directly into a description of the main plot of the novel, instead—I feel like this is probably mostly backstory.

And there's Karmindy, his wife, whose sweet homemaker smile conceals the virtuosic mind of the shrewdest tactician in the Empire. He didn't ask for a wife, either, but it's hard to say no to Karmindy.

You’ve got a nice echo of the previous paragraph—“it’s hard to say no”—which is starting to give me a sense of Petras as a character. But again, I think this is mostly backstory, and you might want to cut it.

When Karmindy unleashed a plot to put her husband on the Gardenia Throne, the Star-Witch was only too glad to help. When it actually succeeded, they told him not to worry: they'd handle everything. He'd just be a figurehead.

Backstory. Combine these three paragraphs into one short paragraph—remember that we don’t necessarily need all the character names upfront. Just give me the barest possible outline of what I need to know.

Now Karmindy's dying of a ripgun wound, the Star-Witch has disappeared, and a quintillion human beings are looking to Petras for leadership. They certainly need it. The Empire is one stray shot from a civil war, and the Sagittarians – a billion-year-old race of reclusive, telepathic methane-breathers – seem less friendly every day. But worse than the Sagittarians, worse than the seemingly inevitable war, is the doubt in Petras's mind that whispers: it's impossible, you're in over your head, you'll never, never be good enough...

Some good world-building going on here. I like “quintillion,” I like “reclusive, telepathic methane-breathers,” and I like the humor of the twist at the end, that this is really a story about a character’s anxiety about his inadequacy. I’m still worried that he’s too passive a figure, though, so make sure you’re able to include something showing that he is in fact a hero (I assume this is the case?), so the reader knows this is a story that’s going to be fun to read.

With a novel, the query letter should read like the copy on the back cover of the book (or the hardcover jacket flaps). You’re trying to convince someone to read the book.

True confessions time: when I’m working with a debut author, I often crib heavily from the author’s original query when I’m putting together my cover letter to send to editors. I figure if the query was good enough to catch my eye, it’ll likely do the same for the editors to whom I’d like to sell the manuscript.

At any rate, Brian, I think you’ve got a lot of these details nailed, but I can’t shake the sense that most of your query consists of the things you think the reader needs to know before turning to page 1. Try recasting it instead like a movie trailer, where you’re giving away some elements of the plot in order to entice the reader. You don’t have to give away the ending, but you do have to give me a sense of where the story is going. Tell me enough that I’m eager to find out the rest for myself.

You don’t have a bio paragraph here, which I think is a mistake. Even if you feel like you don’t have much to say, I like to know if you have a blog, if you are on Twitter or Google + or anything else of that ilk, who your favorite authors in your genre are, whether you’ve won any blog contests, that sort of thing. Tell me where you live and one detail about you that would be fun for the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” This is a chance to make yourself memorable, to help yourself stand out from the maybe-100 other queries an agent gets that day.

The Counterfeit Emperor is science fiction, complete at 111,000 words. Thank you for your consideration.

Concise, detailed, a solid and professional wrap-up. Were this a “real query” to me, I’d want you to include somewhere a line like “Per your submission guidelines, I’ve included a synopsis and the first three chapters of the novel.”

Brian D. Buckley

Mailing Address

Phone Number

Email Address

I’ve edited Brian’s personal details here (except his website!), but I always want to see all this stuff included. If I love your query, you want to make it as easy as possible for me to get hold of you to tell you so. Leave it up to the agent how to communicate with you; give them all your contact info.

SUMMARY: This is a solid query that could just use some fine-tuning. If this were a genre I know anything about (I admire SF but don’t get to read much of it), I’d read the first three chapters with interest.

Well done. Thanks to Brian, and thanks to everyone who participated in the contest! Let’s do this again soon.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for including the critique in a post. This was so helpful for me. I can be told a million times how to do something, but being able to see it "done" and see your critique is priceless!

Anonymous said...

Courtney - thanks so much (once again). Very helpful advice. I appreciate it!

Sara Rayne said...

The bio paragraph is something I really struggle with. (I also noticed your agency's submissions call for a brief bio or resume.) If you have no writing credentials, no contest wins and you're writing fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi (so real world experience doesn't exactly apply), what do you include? I have a master's degree in education, but that has nothing to do with the novel I'm writing, and every piece of advice I've gotten says not to include un-related details. The best I've got is - "I have a beautiful imagination that I cherish and am grateful for every day. I love words, writing and skipping through new worlds on the spines of books." Which isn't eactly a query worthy statement. Any advice for debut authors like me?

Courtney Miller-Callihan said...

Hi Ms. Snip,

That's a great question. I'm not crazy about the line you suggested-- a little flowery for my taste-- but you could say something like "While I don't yet have any publication credits to my name, I've been working hard to educate myself about the business by reading agent and editor blogs, and I've loved reading SF/paranormal/sci-fi since I was a kid. I live in Anytown, USA with my partner and our eleventeen parakeets." Check the back cover or jacket flaps of some of your favorite authors' books for ideas of what sorts of things to include. It's true that you don't want to include anything that's truly irrelevant (as your M.A. or M.Ed. is in this particular case- though it wouldn't be if you were writing an amateur sleuth who's a teacher!), but those small snippets of detail about your personal life can really help you seem like a real person to your readers.

I can go into more detail about this in a blog post next week, now that I think about it more. Thanks for the idea!