Query Critique

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3 Comments
Recently on tumblr, one of the questions was about queries (shocking I know). The author said she loved her book but hated her query and had written and re-written it an endless amount of times but couldn't seem to figure out how to get her novel across.

Naturally this made me want to look at it. With her permission, I'm going to share the query and then my thoughts on it here.

The query:

At 8:00AM, sixteen-year-old Aly Shapiro sketched the world she has dreams of on her desk. At 10:00AM , she accidentally pushed Zurich, the weird transfer student, into a car, after he antagonized her about the sketch. And at 11:30AM, Aly and Zurich traveled to Prithium, the place he claimed she dreams of. But, sometimes boys with violet eyes and magical worlds aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
The first thing Aly witnesses in Prithium is a public execution put on by the Protectors: a group of arachne that control the citizens. Then, the victim’s body disappears into thin air. Aly thinks she's finally gone crazy. That is, until the protectors accuse her of tampering with the murder and pursue her for the crime. Prithium is more corrupt than Aly could have imagined. Infants are born only in pairs and are deemed either virtuous or maleficent at birth. The latter are banished to a dissolute place called the Badlands.
But, Aly’s presence here may not have been by chance. She discovers she can harness energy and create portals to transport anywhere she wants- an ability only someone from Prithium can possess. She is warned to keep the truth hidden because it can mean certain death by the Protectors. But when conflict grows and her family’s lives are threatened Aly’s secret could end up saving those closest to her …or it might destroy her.

Here are my thoughts:

First, formatting. It sounds lame, but it really helps. More white space makes it easier to read.

At 8:00AM, sixteen-year-old Aly Shapiro sketched the world she has dreams of on her desk. 
At 10:00AM , she accidentally pushed Zurich, the weird transfer student, into a car, after he antagonized her about the sketch. 
And at 11:30AM, Aly and Zurich traveled to Prithium, the place he claimed she dreams of. But, sometimes boys with violet eyes and magical worlds aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

In theory, I like this opening. It's slightly non-traditional and I love the lead up (Josin McQuein pitched her novel Premeditated this way and it was stellar). However, I don't think it works here. None of these things are high stakes enough, and the different actions don't build the way that they should. I was interested in her sketch, but then I expect something BIG to come of it. Pushing a transfer student into a car after he antagonizes her isn't big enough. In fact the way it comes out is kind of weird. Then they travel to this other world, which makes me think it's a "trip into a portal fantasy" which is probably what would make me pass. That's not to say it's not good the way it's executed in the novel. It could just sound that way. The best part of this paragraph is the last line.

The first thing Aly witnesses in Prithium is a public execution put on by the Protectors: a group of arachne that control the citizens. Then, the victim’s body disappears into thin air. Aly thinks she's finally gone crazy. That is, until the protectors accuse her of tampering with the murder and pursue her for the crime. Prithium is more corrupt than Aly could have imagined. Infants are born only in pairs and are deemed either virtuous or maleficent at birth. The latter are banished to a dissolute place called the Badlands.

There's too much information in this paragraph about Prithium. The details feel all over the place. Focus on what is absolutely necessary to the main plotline. Backstory and worldbuilding can be left in your book. It's also losing sight of Aly a little and that's not good. We want to feel compelled to follow her through this story. Also WHO IS THIS DREAM BOY? You caught my interest with that and then there's nothing about him.

But, Aly’s presence here may not have been by chance. She discovers she can harness energy and create portals to transport anywhere she wants- an ability only someone from Prithium can possess. She is warned to keep the truth hidden because it can mean certain death by the Protectors. But when conflict grows and her family’s lives are threatened Aly’s secret could end up saving those closest to her …or it might destroy her.

Be careful of grammatical errors. I'm the first to admit that my grammar sometimes blows. But this is important. Commas go before conjunctions not after. Little things like this feel like glaring mistakes to us. Anyway, back to the content--in this paragraph we discover a little more about Aly, except it feels a little cliche. She discovers she has a power and it's special. That sounds like every other YA book I've read lately. What makes this one different--you have to show that. I do like the implication that she is actually from Prithium. However, this is again introducing too much information and maybe not enough of the right information. Reading this paragraph, I asked myself these questions: Can' everyone from Prithium use magic? If so why is it a secret, if not why can she? Who are the Protectors really? And wait they're arachne, like spiders? What conflict is growing? How are are family's lives threatened if they're back on earth? So I'm not hooked because I'm still focused on what I don't know rather than what I do know. I'm also still asking myself what happened to Zurich the weird transfer student who disappears from the query after the first paragraph and WHO IS THIS DREAM BOY?

So here's what I would do with this query.

Start with Aly. She's sixteen but tell us something else about her. Show us who she is. Then give us the catalyst: traveling to Prithium. The first paragraph would look something like this. (And yeah, keep in mind I'm making this up). 

For sixteen-year-old Aly Shapiro, the dream has always been the same. It starts with the sun on her face and a feeling of power that comes from within her, some kind of magic that makes her strong. Someone takes her hand, the feel of his fingertips sending shivers up her arm. She turns to him--a boy with violet eyes--and she feels like melting into him. The perfection doesn't last that way though. The dream is a nightmare, and she always dies at the end. Then she wakes, still feeling the burn of the rope around her neck and gasping for air. When reality and her dreams collide, Aly realizes that beautiful boys with striking eyes and magic aren't all that they're cracked up to be.

Okay this is a little long--too long--but it's the best I can do off the cuff. You can cut a sentence or two from that first paragraph, but it sets the scene and gives a quality to Aly (I went for wistfulness because I'm a romantic and then a threat to her life because come on that's exciting). I also implied that the dream world is magical and different without making it sound like she tripped and fell into a portal. Because that's a turn off.

In the next paragraph introduce the direct threat she faces in Prithium as well as a few key worldbuilding details. And introduce this boy with violet eyes.

Prithium is the world of Aly's dreams, but it's more than that. The events of her dream, they're real, and they're happening to her now. Damon, the boy with of her dreams, makes her feel lightheaded with his touch and his devilish smile. She has a strength that she didn't know was inside her, a magic that died out with the massacre of the royal family fifteen years ago. A magic that's now illegal.

But things aren't perfect. Damon is one of the leaders of a rebellion against the ruling protectorate of the city. He wants to use her and her magic to put his uncle on the throne, someone that despite all logic makes Aly want to cringe. She has to help them though. If she's exposed the protectorate will execute first and ask questions later, something Aly has witnessed firsthand. She needs to figure out the truth of who she is and where her magic comes from, and she needs to pick a side. Because she knows how this dream ends: with her death.

There are still some cliches in here. (Missing royal heir and rebellion). And over all I don't think this actually is the story of the query, so it's just an example. BUT it introduces a love story (Damon), the choice she faces (should she use her illegal magic to aid the rebellion), and the potential consequences (exposure, execution).

It's not perfect. I don't know that I would request this as I've rewritten it. YA is so crowded and I don't know that it's quite different enough (dream worlds as a concept are tough), but I would scroll down and look at the pages and check out the voice. And if it sucked me in I would request.


Those are my thoughts on the query. Let me open it up to everyone else. What are your thoughts on the original query?


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3 comments:

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

From the original query, what leaps out at me is this:

"Infants are born only in pairs and are deemed either virtuous or maleficent at birth. The latter are banished to a dissolute place called the Badlands."

I would want to read a book about that, and I'm not a person who minds if books are YA or "for grownups".

Rochelle said...

Hmm... my thoughts on the original query (that Suzie didn't touch on already):

"boys with violet eyes and magical worlds" reads to me like the boy owns the magical world. On a micro level, I think switching it to "sometimes magical worlds and boys..." would work better, but I'm not sold on the first paragraph anyway.

If I were Aly, I would have thought I went crazy if I traveled to a place I'd been dreaming about, not later than that. I don't think you need that sentence.

"pursue her for the crime" seems worded strangely.

"Prithium is more corrupt..." the execution and pursuit show me this. If you want it to come as a surprise, it should be something like "At first, it was amazing to be in a place she'd only dreamed about. Then she witnesses an execution and gets accused of tampering with the victim. Prithium is far more corrupt than her dreams prepared her for."

Between your sentence of infants born in pairs with one banished at birth and the fact that Aly's probably from there, my mind immediately jumps to saying "she's the maleficent baby and her 'twin' is here somewhere." If that is true - and you want it to be a surprise - maybe word it somehow differently?

As to your last paragraph, I still don't really know what conflict is growing or what truth she is hiding or anything...

But the story itself does sound good, if executed well.

Felix Alexander said...

Quite informative.

I agree. The story is compelling if executed effectively.

I recall a quote, something along the lines of: "As if writing the novel wasn't challenging enough, try writing a query letter."