Saturday, May 14, 2016

Query Lab #1: YA Urban Fantasy Query Critique

Query Lab #1 : YA Urban Fantasy Query
Public Critique

image: holdentrils
Welcome to The Query Lab!

The Query Lab is a new feature on my blog. Each month, I host a giveaway and three winners receive a private query & 1st 10 page critique/consultation from me, while one victim lucky runner-up receives a PUBLIC query critique posted right here on my blog!


    {  Watch this space for future giveaway windows. 
        The next giveaway will open May 27  }


My first lovely subject guest is MonTanna, with her YA Urban Fantasy query. She said she would love any feedback you guys have to offer her as well, so please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on the query. She'd really appreciate it!

You can find MonTanna on Twitter here. Drop her a line and say hello!*

   *Note for future participants: You do not have to have any personal info posted in the public query critique,
     but MonTanna thought it would be fun to connect with y'all, so that's why it's here!!   :o)
     If you'd prefer to be completely anonymous, that's totally fine too!


Now, without further ado ... the query critique!

I do tend to go a bit comment-wild when I crit, so just warning you in advance: be prepared to grab a cup of tea and settle in for awhile! ;o)


Title: TITLE REDACTED

Genre/Age: YA Urban Fantasy


----- ORIGINAL QUERY -----


Dear Ms. Taylor,

All Demons are different. Adeline Ellsworth knows. Not only because she can see them, but because they’ve spent more time in her body than she has. Some are kind and quiet while others are abusive, overbearing and manipulative. But they all have one thing in common. The urge to possess her.

Roderick Lyle doesn’t understand. His whole life fits in his accordion case, his friends are nonexistent, and this strange girl is telling him that Demons exist. These things all make perfect sense. What he doesn’t understand is why humans have such outrageous issues with murder. Death is natural. If he really wasn't supposed to kill anyone, they wouldn't have died. Nobody even noticed the bodies anyway.

Nothing is invisible to Stein; Demons, aliens, emotions. His addled mind may interpret things a bit differently but he can see it all. Everything but the last fifty years of his life. Some things he forgets how to remember.

But Adeline remembers every moment that hasn't been stolen from her and is determined to stand up against the Demons. With Roderick, the first person to ever offer her help, and Stein, the only one able to see the way, she sets out to confront the Demon’s creator. Even though something else seems to have found the creator first.

And it only looks like an Angel.

I would love to offer my novel, BOOK TITLE, for you to consider publishing. It weaves a dark layer of fantasy through our modern world, placing complex and diverse characters in a realm only seen by the creatures hidden within. BOOK TITLE laces together our instinctual fears of the unknown, our learned distrust of those around us, and our constant strain against the evil inside us all.

Born in Kansas eighteen years ago, I graduated high school just before turning fourteen and have spent my time since then traveling, reading, and writing. BOOK TITLE is a YA Urban Fantasy approximately 108,000 words long and is the first in a series. It is told from the viewpoints of Adeline, Roderick, and Stein, allowing the reader to explore events in a multifaceted way. Thank you for your time and I hope to hear back from you.



----- "FIRST IMPRESSIONS" FEEDBACK -----


After reading through the query I'm intrigued by the story and characters, but feeling like the query is pulling me in several different directions. It brings up three different MCs and hints at a few subplots, and I'm having trouble getting a good handle on how everything ties in to the central storyline.

Queries for multiple POV novels are such tricky things. In a query you have limited space. In that space you have to get the reader to connect to your main character and be drawn in by the conflict they're thrust into. When you introduce two or three characters' stories in that limited query space, it makes it harder and harder do justice to each of their storylines.

Right now, I'm feeling like I'm not getting a clear enough picture of Adeline beyond the fact that she's possessed by demons. How old is she? Is she in school? Working? What are her dreams and aspirations? What does she do when not demon possessed? What do the demons force her to do when possessing her? In what ways have they ruined her life? This isn't to say that all these questions need to be answered in the query, but adding in a bit more detail could really flesh out her storyline.

Roderick has a fascinatingly creepy backstory and set of morals! This is great, because I'm going to remember him long after I finish reading this query. But ... I feel like I'm missing a key piece of info: how does this outlook on life (and death) play into his dynamic with Adeline, and ultimately the central plot? If there is a way to weave this in more clearly (or at least hint at it), that would be awesome. 

My initial instinct would be to cut Stein's POV for the purposes of streamlining the query. Then use that space to delve more deeply into Adeline's story, and how Roderick plays a role in it. I also think a few of the sentences in the query are bit on the vague side. I'd love to see a few more specific details. Use every opportunity to highlight what makes your story unique! (I'll point out some places I think might work well for this in my comments below.)


----- QUERY WITH FEEDBACK -----

Edits in orange. Rework suggestions in blue. Comments in purple.


Dear Ms. Taylor, Dear Ms. Taylor:

Not a big deal by any means, but there are agents out there who prefer a formal, business-letter type greeting at the opener of a query. For that reason, I always recommend authors stick to the formal greeting ( Dear Ms./Mr. Surname: ) -- using the colon to close instead of a comma.

All Demons are different. Adeline Ellsworth knows. Not only because she can see them, but because they’ve spent more time in her body than she has. Some are kind and quiet while others are abusive, overbearing and manipulative.

I like this opener, and LOVE your "hook" (demons have spent more time in her body than she has) but I think this paragraph needs refocusing so we learn more about Adeline. I feel like I'm getting a better sense of who the demons are than who Adeline is, and in this first paragraph, I'd really love to get to know herA bit of a sidenote, but I also generally recommend putting the MC's age right up front in MG/YA/NA queries, just so the reader feels nicely oriented. 

You might think about re-arranging and reformatting slightly to focus the paragraph more wholly on details about Adeline.  For example, something along the lines of:

When she's not possessed by demons, seventeen-year-old Adeline Ellsworth spends her days [insert hobby/aspiration etc here]. Unfortunately, that's difficult to do when a demon is [ insert things they do while they inhabit her ] every other day. Pretty soon they'll have spent more time in her body than she has.

But they all have one thing in common: the urge to possess her. 

I'm a bit on the fence about this as the ending to your opening paragraph. I think it's because it's a little vague, and I'm not sure exactly how to interpret it. Is it saying that all demons mysteriously want to possess her (as opposed to other people)? Or is it saying that demons in general have urges to possess people in general? If the former, I think this needs clarification and maybe delving a little further into details (for example, is she curious why she in particular is such a demon magnet)? If the latter, I'm not sure it gives the right amount of punch as a last line for your opening paragraph because it's generally understood that demons possess people. If possible with that last line, you want to highlight a super unique aspect of your story

Before the query launches into the paragraph about Roderick's story, we should have a clear idea of who Adeline is as a person. Also -- if it seems to fit -- it'd be nice to highlight the inciting incident that drives her into the demon-hunting frenzy we see later on. If the inciting incident is actually meeting Roderick and Stein, and realizing for the first time that she might be able to fight the demons I'd mention that! This might even serve a dual-purpose as the cliffhanger-punchline to close out your first paragraph.

Roderick Lyle's  doesn’t understand. His whole life fits in his accordion case, his friends are nonexistent, and this strange girl is telling him that Demons exist. These things all make perfect sense. What he doesn’t understand is why humans have such outrageous issues with murder. Death is natural. If he really wasn't supposed to kill anyone, they wouldn't have died. Nobody even noticed the bodies anyway.

I think Roderick's paragraph works really well to set up his character. I love the details about his whole life fitting into his accordion case, as it shows an interest he had/has, and the fact that he seems to be a bit of a roving loner (and murderer and possibly not human - eep!). What we're not getting here is how he fits into Adeline's story. I'm okay with that for now, but in the next paragraph I'm hoping I'll see more detail on how and why she enlists his help, and how and why he decides to help her. 

Nothing is invisible to Stein; Demons, aliens, emotions. His addled mind may interpret things a bit differently but he can see it all. Everything but the last fifty years of his life. Some things he forgets how to remember.

Like I mentioned above, I'm feeling like we don't really need this much detail about Stein's backstory. He does sound like a really cool character, but there's only so much you can squeeze in a query and now the focus has shifted pretty far away from Adeline and her story. Instead of naming him in the query, I'd just summarize his role in the next paragraph. (See suggestion below)

But Adeline remembers every moment that hasn't been stolen from her and is determined to stand up against the Demons. With Roderick, the first person to ever offer her help, and Stein, the only one able to see the way and a wise but forgetful demon-tracking guide, she sets out to confront the Demon’s Demons' creator.

In this final paragraph, I think we need more details about Adeline and Roderick's relationship. How did they go from being strangers to being quest-partners? How did Adeline convince Roderick to assist her? What does he have to offer her in terms of help finding the demon creator? Do his complicated moral stances on death/killing cause any problems between them? Delve into some of these details here!

Sidenote: are "Demons" different than "demons?" I'm not sure the word "demons" needs to be capitalized ... too many capitalized words in the query can be distracting to the eye.


Even though But something else seems to have found the creator first.

And it only looks like an Angel.


Oooh creepy! I like this ending!

You've already set the stakes up nicely in that we know Adeline must "successfully" confront the demon-creator in order to exorcise her own demons, and for me these final two lines are great because they (1) show that even more devious threats are in her path, and (2) reveal that in really succinct and punchy way. 

I would love to offer my novel, BOOK TITLE, for you to consider publishing.

Sidenote: MonTanna is currently querying publishers, not agents, which is why she has included this line. If this query letter were being sent to agents, then I'd recommend striking the above line. 

It weaves a dark layer of fantasy through our modern world, placing complex and diverse characters in a realm only seen by the creatures hidden within. BOOK TITLE laces together our instinctual fears of the unknown, our learned distrust of those around us, and our constant strain against the evil inside us all.

I'm not 100% sure the information conveyed in this paragraph is necessary in the query. Much of it we were already shown in the query pitch, so we don't need to be told again here. I've read agents say that too much time spent telling the reader about the themes of the book can detract from the query itself (and I'd imagine the same is true for editors/publishers). But I'd go with your gut instinct here. If there are elements you think are particularly important to convey, perhaps just streamline and condense these sentences (skip down to the blue paragraph below for a suggested format re: this!)

Born in Kansas eighteen years ago, I graduated high school just before turning fourteen and have spent my time since then traveling, reading, and writing. BOOK TITLE is a YA Urban Fantasy approximately 108,000 words long and is the first in a series. It is told from the viewpoints of Adeline, Roderick, and their demon-land guide, Stein. allowing the reader to explore events in a multifaceted way. Thank you for your time and I hope to hear back from you.

Is the book the type of book that can only be part of a series, or would it also be able to stand alone? Agents and publishers are getting a bit leery of series-only books to be honest, as it's a big gamble to agree to a series from a debut author. I always recommend -- if you can do so truthfully of course, hehe -- that you say something like the following: "BOOK TITLE is a YA Urban Fantasy complete at 108,000 words. It is written as a standalone, but has strong series potential."

There is another problem here that I feel I'd be a bad critter if I didn't point out. Your word count is pretty high for a YA manuscript. That in and of itself is going to unfortunately make an uphill battle for you in the query trenches. There are a lot of agents/editors who see anything over 100K as pretty much an auto-reject for YA. Again, it comes back to the risk-factor of a debut author, and the fact that the longer a book is the more expensive it is to publish. (Agent Jennifer Laughran's Wordcount Dracula is still the sort of definitive word on this topic, so it's worth a read.)

I feel your pain. I always write books that are on the long side and have to cut back. But I do really, really recommend that you try to get the manuscript under that 100K mark if at all possible. I actually have a blog series I did awhile back on cutting down your word count, because it's definitely what I struggle with as well! (You can find Part I and Part II here, if you're interested!). 

Last, I recommend keeping the "housekeeping details" about the book separate from the Bio paragraph. In the Author Bio you want to keep things short and sweet and most importantly, as focused as possible on your credentials for writing this book. These two websites have some great tips for what to put in your bio if you (like me!) don't have an English degree or an MFA to flaunt: Rachelle Gardner - Author Bio || Writer Unboxed - The Bio Section

Here is a suggestion for reformatting these final two paragraphs so that they are more in the classic query format (Your book's "housekeeping details" first, followed by a bio paragraph): 

BOOK TITLE is a dark YA Urban Fantasy complete at 108,000 words. Though part of a planned series, it could also stand alone. It is told from the viewpoints of Adeline, Roderick, and their demon-land guide, Stein. Through a diverse cast, it explores themes of fear of the unknown, learned distrust, and the battle against the evil inside us all.

I am a writer, book lover, and traveller based out of Kansas, and an active member of several critique groups. 

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Your Name

CLOSING THOUGHTS:

I know I've written a lot of comments here (I always do!), but I really think you've got a very interesting story here, and there are some excellent hooks (demons having spent more time in Adeline's body than she has, Roderick's "murder isn't bad" ethic). For me the query just needs to be pared back a bit in terms of extraneous details and hone in more on Adeline and her story and how Roderick fits into that. Also keep in mind that of course this is only one opinion, so take any and all of my feedback with that in mind. You know your story best!



Readers: What do you think of the query? Please leave your comments or suggestions below!

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