Friday, April 30, 2010

Just A Cat

I promised to introduce you to my ducks this Farm Friday. I'll do that next week. Today, I want to remember a sweet boy that disappeared from my life last Sunday: Gandalf the Gray, aka Gray Kitty, aka GK.

GK came with the house when I bought it. The owner left him here because she was afraid he wouldn't adjust well to life in town. I was afraid he wouldn't adjust well to my dogs -- or my dogs to him. Turns out GK had ideas of his own and used his considerable likeability skills and fearless heart to worm his way into the dogs' social pack. Wherever the dogs went, he was sure to follow.

Once I was convinced he was staying, I had him neutered. Afterward, he stuck around the house more and decided snuggling on a warm, soft bed at night with the rest of the family was a fine life indeed. He tolerated other kitties that strayed into our lives, and took to mothering a couple of them. He was definitely the kind of cat that needed to be liked. He also loved to be held, would beg to be held, and would hug me tight when I held him, which, you may have guessed, he insisted I do often.

Small prey he wasn't so tolerant of. He was a mouser who liked to play with his catches, often bringing them into the house to enjoy. Mice, rats, bunnies, birds -- he tormented them all.

A couple of days before he disappeared, a large dog I hadn't seen around visited the property. My dogs engaged in the traditional stiff-tail-wagging introductions and GK was in the middle of it all, sticking his nose right up to hers without first making sure she wasn't going to do to him what he did to mice. I called him a "stupid cat," and remember thinking he was a bit too intepid and trusting for his own good. Was it precognition that I worried right then about how he would react if a coyote came visiting?

Mostly GK slept inside, only occasionally venturing out through one of the doggie doors in the early morning hours. I never worried much about him. My house is a good distance from the road, so cars aren't a safety factor. Besides, he normally stayed close to the house where he could dash to safety under the porch through small cat-friendly lattice. To do that, though, he would need to be trying to get away from a stray dog or coyote, not walking up to it trying to make friends.

I'll never know what took him -- a dog, coyote, or owl -- all I know is that between the time he was gently licking my hand, purring me to sleep, and when I woke up he was simply -- gone. Disappeared. A not-there presence.

I knew him for five-and-a-half years. That's a lot of hours of lap sitting and snuggling and learning to love and being loved back.

If it had been my human child that had disappeared, society would grant me at least a few days to deal with my grief and come to terms with the loss. Lapses in concentration at work and home would be forgiven. People would understand. As it is, I haven't even told coworkers I'm close to about my loss or the nights this week I haven't been able to sleep, staying awake to ensure none of my other "children" disappear in the dark.

To everyone else, he was just a cat. For me, there's never been any "just" about it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Rejection

I'm good with rejection. Really, I am. The requests for partials and fulls are far better, but I'm cool with the fact that not everyone I send my queries to will respond favorably.

I admit when I see a response in my inbox, I get a rather unpleasant twinge in my gut. I hesitate for a moment, savoring the terror/anticipation of whether it will be a request or rejection, before I take that deep breath and click.

At the query stage, I like rejections that are obvious form letters. The more impersonal the better. Anything beyond "no" is open to far too much unwarranted speculation. Tell me up front you're sorry to be sending a form letter so I know that's exactly what it is. A form rejection at the query letter stage is as quick and easy to disposition for me as it was for the agent to send. After the obligatory deep sigh and shoulder slump, I can go about the business of filing the mail and recording it to my spreadsheet, acts that in themselves help bring closure.

The polite form letters where the sender includes something positive and seemingly personal about the work feel like a cheat: "interesting idea," "much to like about the writing," "nice description", etc. I crave validation that my work doesn't suck, but I much prefer a cold "I'm going to take a pass" to false praise, especially when I can't tell for sure whether the praise is actually being offered in response to my work or is there because the sender is a sensitive soul and wants to soften the blow. For me, these types of letters have the opposite effect; instead of being able to file them away immediately and move on, I now agonize over figuring out what note goes in the spreadsheet: "form rejection" or "personal response - yadda yadda". It's kind of like when you break up with someone in a public restaurant then have to go back to their place to get your things.

Personal rejections at the partial and full stages are pure gold, right? "Just give me a reason why you don't like me -- er, the work," we beg. "If I know what's wrong, I can work on changing it," especially when more than one rejector gives the same reasons. Personal observations give us a chance to examine our work more closely or to validate that the one rejecting it wasn't the right agent or editor for us anyway, since they so obviously didn't "get" our work because they, of course, are wrong and we are right.

Sometimes, though, personal rejections are the curse in "be careful what you ask for."

Recently I received a most lovely, wonderful, validating rejection for a full that left me feeling like my heart had been ripped out and run over by a semi. It was from a savvy, successful agency -- one I'm quite sure many of you know -- who has expressed interest in adding more SF to their list. The rejection was gracious and encouraging, nothing less than what I would expect from this fabulous agency. The full was read by two agents, and they agreed that my "writing is very strong and the story is compelling and unique" and believe I "will have good luck finding an agent". The work for them, though, was too plot-driven and reminded them more of "Stephen King-like books" rather than SF. Their final analysis: "There's really nothing I would change about the work itself, it's just too much like horror or like THE STAND for me."

Sometimes the chemistry just isn't there. And because there's nothing you can really do to change "chemistry", the most heartbreaking words when being rejected have to be the very sincere "it isn't you, it's me."

Still, the agent used the name of my book, Stephen King, and THE STAND in the same paragraph. Even though the agent wasn't comparing my work directly to that of King, the mere juxtaposition did make my heart dance just a little, right there under the wheels of the artery-crushing semi.

Sometimes, I guess, you can have it both ways.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Query Revision 6

Face-Lift 752: 11:11

Here we go again. ;-)

We have all made wishes and have subsequently been disappointed when they didn’t come true. Dannie-Lynn was disappointed because hers did.

Dannie-Lynn Grady has spent the last three years living at the bottom of the high school food chain staring up at Jeff Rogers, the gorgeous captain of the football team. She learns of an old superstition--the 1,111 Spirit Guardians will grant you a wish at 11:11 to help you with your destiny--and decides to give it a try. She wishes she was Jeff’s girlfriend.

Not only does it work, she is now the most popular cheerleader in school who has changed her entire persona and appearance to be with Jeff. Like an idiot, she buys into the “I love you’s” and “I need you’s” from the egotistical jerk, who is only using Dannie-Lynn to make one of the other cheerleaders jealous.

She tries again, thinking her past wish has led her to Aiden Walker, the sweet, sensitive new student from England. Sure she has found the one for her as she doesn’t change when her wish is granted, she discovers his constant blubbering, poems and public serenading are enough to have her check into a psych ward.

Not understanding why her wishes are being granted as they are doing nothing to help her with her destiny, Dannie-Lynn realizes this wishing comes with a price; it not only affects her destiny, but everyone else’s as well. Her selfishness may have just cost her the person she’s really meant to be with.

11:11 is a 70,000 word young adult novel. I am a freelance writer and have a short story that won the 2001 Brampton Library Short Story Award, which led to library publication. I thank you for considering my submission and look forward to hearing from you.

Comments

Hi Stina: You've done a good job in fleshing out the plot; now let's see if there are ways to refine the letter to make it clearer. No agent will read as critically as your critique teams do, but you (meaning everyone) do want to remove any poor construction, questionable word choices and plot confusion so as to make your query as crystal clear and brimming with bubbly personality as a glass of sparkling water. You don't want to give an agent any reason to stop reading.

We have all made wishes and have subsequently been disappointed when they didn’t come true. Dannie-Lynn was disappointed because hers did.

I wouldn't generalize and break the 4th wall with "We have all." Maybe something more like: Seventeen-year-old Dannie-Lynn isn't disappointed that her wishes don't come true; she's disappointed that they do.

The tense change also feels awkward -- I'd keep the hook in present tense.

Dannie-Lynn Grady has spent the last three years living at the bottom of the high school food chain staring up at Jeff Rogers, the gorgeous captain of the football team. She learns of an old superstition--the 1,111 Spirit Guardians will grant you a wish at 11:11 to help you with your destiny--and decides to give it a try. She wishes she was Jeff’s girlfriend.

Is there a way you can segue from the first sentence of the paragraph into the next? Also, a little more about the Spirit Guardians and the superstition might be nice. How does she learn about the superstition? Who are the Guardians? Which definition of "spirit" are we talking about? If it's a play on ghost spirits/school spirits, maybe make it a bit more tongue-in-cheek obvious. Will the Guardians grant anybody a wish (I would change the second person references)? And is this 11:11 twice a day, every day that she can make a wish? That's a lot of wishes and a lot of chances to make things right/better so seems to dilute the stakes.

Not only does it work, she is now the most popular cheerleader in school who has changed her entire persona and appearance to be with Jeff. Like an idiot, she buys into the “I love you’s” and “I need you’s” from the egotistical jerk, who is only using Dannie-Lynn to make one of the other cheerleaders jealous.

That first sentence throws me. I'm a little lost as to what exactly it means that she's "changed her entire persona and appearance". Did she do this voluntarily? Are the changes part of the fulfillment of the wish? In other words, how much control does she have over the changes? If the wish changes her into the type of person who buys into the "I love you's", what's the plot point that brings her back to her senses? Maybe: Like an idiot, she buys into the “I love you’s” and “I need you’s” from the egotistical jerk, until she discovers he's only using her to make one of the other cheerleaders jealous.

She tries again, thinking her past wish has led her to Aiden Walker, the sweet, sensitive new student from England.

Again, a segue from one thought to the next would be good. Once she realizes her mistake, she tries again ... . However, I have no idea why she would think her past wish led her to Aiden. I don't see a connection.

Sure she has found the one for her as she doesn’t change when her wish is granted,

If she doesn't change this time, does this mean she doesn't change from the persona she took on after her last wish? Or did she revert back to her wallflower persona?

she discovers his constant blubbering, poems and public serenading are enough to have her check into a psych ward.

Does she literally check into a psych ward? I'm betting not, but for me this sounds too literal and the funny falls a bit flat. Also, I had to reread a couple of times to "get" that it's Aiden who changes this time around. Since you introduced him as "sensitive", I just assumed the poems and serenading were part of his regular personality.

Not understanding why her wishes are being granted as they are doing nothing to help her with her destiny,

How does she know what her destiny is to know whether they're helping or not? Does the plot play off a misunderstanding of whether a person can influence their destiny through wish fulfillment vs the wish fulfillment being a part of a predetermined destiny? I'm afraid I'm a little lost on this point, and it seems to be the crux.

Dannie-Lynn realizes this wishing comes with a price; it not only affects her destiny, but everyone else’s as well.

I'm not quite clear on how it's affecting "everyone" else's destiny, too. Jeff's still a jerk, so it doesn't seem as though he was affected. Can you drop a hint in the query that demonstrates why Dannie-Lynn comes to this generalized conclusion?

Her selfishness may have just cost her the person she’s really meant to be with.

Her selfishness in trying to snag a boyfriend through wishing?

What I don't see reflected in the query is why she thinks Aiden could be "the one". I also think we need an inkling as to what she'll do next. Leave the situation as is (no) or try to resolve it through another wish (she's been burned twice) or her own devices. I think you also have an opportunity here for a wrapup line that ends the situation on an active rather than a passive note.

11:11 is a 70,000 word young adult novel. I am a freelance writer and have a short story that won the 2001 Brampton Library Short Story Award, which led to library publication. I thank you for considering my submission and look forward to hearing from you.

Nice close :o).

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Query Revision 5

Face-Lift 746: Rage of a Hero

After getting killed, while trying to stop the corrupted Corporation Erebus, Arthur Van Rui strikes a deal with the Grim Reaper to come back from the dead. The Reaper only agrees to do so if Arthur takes the soul of a prisoner of hell with him, but little does Arthur know that this will wipe his memory.

The allies he left behind, The Legends, are losing the battle against Corporation Erebus, and unaware of his death and his deal with the Reaper, the group is frustrated by Arthur's memory problems. They need his memory in the fight though, or else Corporation Erebus will succeed, and complete their secret weapon, forcing all the world governments to fall under their control.

And that soul Arthur had to take with him? He is only known as Rage, a powerful lunatic who destroyed cities for pleasure when he roamed the Earth some eight hundred years ago. The Reaper knows this, and he also knows that Arthur won’t possibly be able to restrain this soul forever…

Rage of a Hero is complete at 75,000 words, and is ready to be sent upon your request. Thank you for your time.

Comments

After figuring out what elements go into your query, the most important thing to remember is to: Tighten. Tighten. Tighten. And once you think you've got it tight enough, turn those screws some more. You have precious few words in a query -- make sure every one of them counts.  Especially with action-adventure, you want it to be short and punchy. (By you I, of course, mean everybody.)
 
And here's a secret. Tightening doesn't just mean removing extranneous words. It also means using simple, short declarative sentences. Convoluted sentences with multiple, wandering phrases just feel long.
 
My version is shorter than yours by just four words. Which has a faster pace? Which sounds more plot-driven, action-adventury?
 
Still, kudos, author, for bringing your revisions -- here and at EE's -- in under 200 words!
 
After Arthur Van Rui is killed trying to stop Corporation Erebus from taking over the world, he strikes a deal with the Grim Reaper to return from the dead. The Reaper's price: Arthur has to bring the soul of a prisoner of hell back with him. The obligatory catch: Arthur's memory won't be going along for the ride.
 
What Arthur doesn't bargain for is his old allies, The Legends, needing those memories to destroy Erebus' newest secret weapon. Without him, The Legends lose the one shot they have to stop Erebus from forcing all the world governments to their knees.

But something far worse than Erebus is about to be unleashed. The soul the Reaper sends back with Arthur is known only as Rage, a powerful lunatic who destroyed cities for pleasure when he roamed the Earth eight hundred years ago. As long as the soul is bound to Arthur, it can do no harm. The Reaper, though, is counting on Arthur not being able to restrain his Rage forever.

RAGE OF A HERO, a superhero novel, is complete at 75,000 words. I look forward to sending you the manuscript.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy 4th BlogEEversary, EE!

Wow. Just wow. Four years. I've critiqued four queries now and I'm exhausted.

So, in honor of your fabulous 4th, I salute you -- 4 times.

Salute 1: To your stamina. Because 4 years of catering to the needy masses really has to take it out of you.

Salute 2: To the community you've built through your blog. We hang with you because yours is the cool kid's house -- the one where we can push the boundaries, turn up the music and wolf down junk food. Where tough love reigns, and when we get smacked around -- which we do, a lot -- we know it's for our own good.

Salute 3: To the laughs you provide. Let's just say I hope you have insurance because the minions have been saving all their receipts for ruined monitors, keyboards, and office reputations. There's 4 years worth piled up now and at last count the abacus puts the total loss at $934,441.24 (USD).

Salute 4: To the success you help foster. From the small success of an agent's request for a partial to the ultimate success of being published in Novel Deviations, we look to you to provide the foundation upon which hope is built.

Thanks for caring enough to stick it out for 4 long years. Here's to you being able to tough it out 1 more!

ChEErs!

Visit the Blog Party! Everyone's invited!

Query Revision 4

Face-Lift 757: Embers

A machinist’s apprentice in the mountain town of Inavael, Lenka Pelakova has been hiding a secret: she is the enormous, burning phoenix that’s been painting the night sky with colour and beauty.

But her phoenix half is as cruel and vain as it is beautiful, and has begun to resent its subservience to its human half. As it steadily asserts control over her will, Lenka finds herself unable--and to her own horror, sometimes unwilling--to control her transformations and the phoenix’s subsequent fiery rampages.

Realising she is a threat to everyone around her, Lenka hitches a ride with two merchants to the kingdom’s grand halls of learning in the hopes that the wizards there will be able to rein in the phoenix’s madness.

But it isn’t that easy. A strange woman tails Lenka’s every step, intent on bringing Lenka to justice for the death and sorrow she has unwillingly sown. She, too, can transform into a bird of legend--and is fuelled by a determination stronger than Lenka could ever imagine…

…For this woman does not seek merely justice. The only way to release her dearest friend from undeath is to destroy the phoenix--a symbol of life and rebirth--and Lenka along with it.

At 92,000 words, EMBERS is a fantasy novel with traces of steampunk. I am a student at the National University of Singapore studying chemical engineering.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours Sincerely,

Comments

Evil Editor sent along a general comment on this one:

It reads fine, but even if what [s/he] describes is four fifths of the book, it's still mainly setup. Which I suppose is okay if nothing more interesting than the setup ever happens.
Here are some thoughts that could maybe help strengthen what you have a bit more.

A machinist’s apprentice in the mountain town of Inavael, Lenka Pelakova has been hiding a secret: she is the enormous, burning phoenix that’s been painting the night sky with colour and beauty.

But her phoenix half is as cruel and vain as it is beautiful,

Yep, that's my namesake to a tee. Go namesake!

and has begun to resent its subservience to its human half. As it steadily asserts control over her will, Lenka finds herself unable--and to her own horror, sometimes unwilling--to control her transformations and the phoenix’s subsequent fiery rampages.

Just a subtle tense issue: The first paragraph shows the phoenix as a nonthreat, yet this paragraph talks about "fiery rampages". Perhaps "once painted" in P1. In P2, I would like to see a concrete detail about what a "fiery rampage" is. Does she burn entire villages to the ground? Raze a crop field? Are the rampages targeted toward certain individuals or just willy-nilly? And, most importantly, is there motivation other than just asserting control? Keeping Lenka in phoenix form would show control. Why is it rampaging? What's in it for the phoenix? Once the phoenix sublimates Lenka to its control, will it keep on rampaging? Is it more than simply mindless evil?

Realising she is a threat to everyone around her, Lenka hitches a ride with two merchants to the kingdom’s grand halls of learning in the hopes that the wizards there will be able to rein in the phoenix’s madness.

But it isn’t that easy. A strange woman tails Lenka’s every step, intent on bringing Lenka to justice for the death and sorrow she has unwillingly sown. She, too, can transform into a bird of legend--and is fuelled by a determination stronger than Lenka could ever imagine…

I adore elipses. However, I don't think they work well here.

…For this woman does not seek merely justice.

This is a bit of a cheat as you've just indicated this woman is intent on bringing Lenka to justice. And if the woman is a "bird of a feather", would she really be blaming Lenka for the destruction? Seems of anyone, she would be quick to separate the acts of the phoenix from the person of Lenka.

The only way to release her dearest friend from undeath is to destroy the phoenix--a symbol of life and rebirth--and Lenka along with it.

This sentence, which should be a strong ending, is hard for me to track. Since I don't know the rules in your world, I don't know if "undeath" is the same as being undead (vampire, zombie, etc), nor do I understand how destroying a symbol of life and rebirth can turn her friend and give her back life? or let her truly die?

At 92,000 words, EMBERS is a fantasy novel with traces of steampunk.

Is there a way you can work in the steampunk aspect beyond the "machinist's apprentice" reference at the beginning as this gets forgotten very quickly? Maybe even locating Inavael in a specific country (Russia?) in a popular steampunk era: A machinist’s apprentice from a forgotten village in Russia in 1810, Lenka Pelakova has been hiding a secret: She is the enormous, burning phoenix that once painted the night sky with colour and beauty.

I am a student at the National University of Singapore studying chemical engineering.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours Sincerely,

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Query Revision 3

Face-Lift 740: The Milky Way: China's Tainted Milk Scandal

Dear Literary Agent:

Gillian Heath thinks the QC job in Shenzhen, China is far enough way to distance herself from the pain of her son's death and uncovers a profit scheme - cutting milk with melamine - that is killing infants. Adults get sick but babies are at high risk because of their smaller body mass. Gillian goes after the Party member who poisons for profit. He's in charge of selling raw milk to her company, a US food distributor.

Gillian frames him by publishing photos of him with a hooker and the article explaining how the construction compound built his personal wealth. He is arrested as Gillain is taken into custody trying to exit mainland China.

Tom Quinton, Gillian's boss, flies to China when he learns Gillian is being detained. Whistleblowers disappear in China. Beatings, starvation, rape, and torture are common treatment for prisoners. Tom is picked up inside the entry point. He's loved Gillian since he hired her and now he's in trouble and unable to get her out.

A US official can get Gillian and Tom out but risks political suicide if he gets involved doing the right thing. Prisoner exchanges are tricky and diffiuclt to keep quiet.

I was in China when the milk scandal broke, switched to black coffee and wrote The Milky Way; China's Tainted Milk Scandal, a 36,000 word commercial fiction manuscript. The West is curious about contemporary China and how it runs.

I wrote for the media in Canada in advertising. My next ms is woven around the Sichuan earthquake during the ramp up to the 2008 Olympics.

I appreciate your time reading my query. Thank you.
 
Comments
 
Bibi, I think you have all the right highlights in the query now; I would just rearrange them a little differently and add a little more motivation for the actions. I would also dump the subtitle "China's Tainted Milk Scandal" as that makes it sound like a nonfiction account.
 
Here's how I would rearrange the elements so they flow a bit more logically and build the tension.
 
Gillian Heath thought the loss of her only son was the worst thing that could happen. She was wrong.

Even Shenzen, China, isn't far enough to run from the pain of her son's death, but it's a start. Brick by brick, Gillian's building a new life in a new country. Then she uncovers a deadly profit scheme -- cutting milk with melamine -- that's killing infants. Stopping the guy who poisons for profit won't be easy. Whistleblowers disappear in China. Beatings, starvation, rape, and torture are common rewards for doing the right thing. Adding to the difficulty, the man in charge of selling raw milk to the US food distributor she's working for is a Party member -- a political untouchable.

But Gillian is determined not to let more babies die. First she publishes photos of the culprit with a hooker, then writes an exposé on how he exploited the construction industry to build his personal wealth -- and what he's doing now to maintain it. To her relief, her frame works and he's arrested. To her horror, when she tries to flee mainland China, she's taken into custody.

Her boss, Tom Quinton, has loved Gillian since he hired her. When he finds out she's being detained, he flies to China with intentions of a white knight rescue but no clue as to how to accomplish it. He makes it just inside the entry point before he, too, is picked up.

Their only hope now lies in the one US official who can arrange a prisoner exchange. But will his sense of morality be enough for him to risk political suicide to do it?

I was in China when the milk scandal broke. That's when I switched to black coffee and wrote "The Milky Way," a 36,000-word commercial fiction novella. I've also written advertising for the media in Canada.

I look forward to sending you the completed manuscript.

Sincerely

 UPDATE: Bibi sent a re-revision just prior to this post going up. That version is in the first comment. Feel free to comment on either version.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Query Revision 2

Face-Lift 755: The Burning Times

Is this better...I tried to follow your guidance and answer all your questions...Make me bloody again I guess...lol...I will continue to improve it until it's right...

The following is a query for my approximately 102,000 word novel entitled: The Burning Times.

It's our world, with one difference: It doesn’t exist…No one knows how or when it happened, but the planet below was scorched 20,000 years ago, leaving it in a state of ruin, and mankind left to fend for itself in a space city now called Galantria. A prophecy foretelling the future of the planet said that one day the Bringer of Life would rise again. The prophecy was forgotten and mankind moved on…evolving…thriving and building a new society.

C’ La Andria- They are the modern day Merlin and the lawmakers. Their Spiritual Guidance is often called upon during times of crisis.

Dream Dancer- an outlawed mystic power that uses mind manipulation to control a victim. Jarik is such creature. His ultimate goal is to feed his hunger for death and is fulfilled by causing Lord Paxton to kill his wife. Lord Paxton is then put to death in an incinerator and his daughter Sheria is banished to the ground below. The only person Jarik fears is the one who gives him his orders in secret. He doesn’t know his name or what he looks like, but he knows the power the person has and obeys without question.

Stavon is Sheria’s true love. He has a twin sister named Dallia. On her wedding, Stavon fakes his death so he can join his love. There he finds out about that his father, Lord Cyrus has known all along that the ground below is inhabitable again and has been using the survivors as slaves. This is punishable by death according to the laws of the C’ La Andria.

Jarik decides his hunger for killing is not satisfied and he attacks Stavon’s mother, Lady Alleanna, putting her in a coma. This enables the C’ La Andria to learn the identity of the dream dancer and forces Jarik to escape to Mars. When she awakens from her coma, Jarik returns for revenge and hopes to kill Dallia’s new born son in front of her. Lady Alleanna kills Jarik and saves the baby.

With Sheria and Stavon leading them, the ground dwellers are at full force and attack Galantria, letting everyone know the planet is once again inhabitable. Dallia finds out her twin brother has been alive all along and feels betrayed. She is forced to watch as her father pays for his crimes. She signs a treaty in his stead, momentarily, stopping the war before it begins.

Comments

The best thing about having the courage to share your initial drafts with strangers who truly have your best interest at heart is that you have the opportunity to work the kinks out before someone who matters sees it. You only get one shot.

Figuring out exactly what a query is is the first step to creating one that gets requests. This revision isn't exactly what agents are looking for in a query letter. Let's take a look at some of the red flags that have all to do with structure. You'll need to be able to get these right before even thinking about whether the story itself will wow a reader.

  • Genre: Word count and title are good, but we also need to know what kind of story you think you're telling.
  • Names: Too many slows a reader down. Use descriptors in place of names when possible.
  • Characters: Stick to just the two or three main characters that carry the weight of the story.
  • Plot: Stick to the main plot. You may allude to subplots if they are relevant to your genre. For example, in a romantic suspense, you'll want to demonstrate both the romance and the suspense in the query to assure the agent the work is marketable.
  • Synopsis: Keep it short. A 3-paragraph synopsis in a query is not the same as the separate synopsis. Let us know what is unique about your plot and/or characters but don't give us the chapter-by-chapter play of how your story unfolds. The query is the sense of the story told using some well-chosen details. A synopsis is the progression of the story that demonstrates it all hangs together.
See what the commenters have to say about which plot points and characters to highlight, then try another version. This one runs 400+ words. See if you can get it down to about 280 words. That will help force you to decide what the most compelling pieces of your story are.

We'll wait.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Query Revision 1

Welcome to the first query tag-teaming exercise!

First versions of the queries appearing here were originally posted on Evil Editor's blog and treated to EE's inimitable, gut-bustingly-funny skewering that somehow always seems to teach as it entertains.

After EE's minions lend their perspective and maybe the author posts a first revision there for more critiquing, futher revisions will be bumped here for another round of workshopping. Think of it as the second session that takes place after lunch -- in the room down the hall.

I'll put up the revised query in its entirety, then offer either my comments or a revised version immediately after. Then it's up to YOU to add more helpful suggestions. Click on the Face-Lift number and ms title to see the original query and comments on EE's blog.

One of the most gratifying experiences of hanging out at EE's is seeing an author's work improve over the course of the revisions. Even more gratifying is when they come back and report they went from getting no requests to multiple requests for partials/fulls based on the strength of their new queries alone. The process works.

So let's get started!

Face-Lift 754: Eden's Rat

Demons are invading Eden, and no one can agree what to do about them.

The Antang believe things will be fine when everyone is under their control and following their strict brand of religion. The sorcerers of Selzburg don't really see much of a problem. They have a demon of their own caged in the basement, and quite useful it has turned out to be. They figure they can catch and cage any other troublesome demons. They are more worried about the Antang, who take a very dim view of sorcery, and are on the point of invading.

When the Antang invade his homeland, a young sorcerer flees to Selzburg in hopes allying with them against their common enemy. Maac-Kail is a pretty good mage, but he's also a back-country hick who can't walk the streets of Selzburg without his mouth hanging open as he peers up at the tops of the tall buildings.

He immediately runs into trouble when the Antang kidnap the princess of Selzburg to marry to one of their princes. Maac-Kail, a foreigner and with circumstantial evidence against him, is suspected of being part of the plot.

Can Maac-Kail escape the combined forces of the King and sorcerers of Selzburg, thwart the Antang plot, rescue the princess and fulfill his mission to find allies for his people? Yes. Yes he can. (He also has a few ideas on how to handle the demons.)

Along the way he meets a pretty girl, marries her, repents of it then changes his mind again when she hunts him down and tackles him. A full nelson can do that to a guy, particularly at the climax of a novel.

Edens Rat is a YA Fantasy. 83,0000 words.

The first five chapters are posted on my blog: http://riverellan.blogspot.com/


Comments

Demons are invading Eden, and no one can agree what to do about them.

The log line seems to ground me in Christian religion on earth. It's a good hook; however, the rest of the query points out my initial understanding was wrong, so I feel cheated. Plus, after reading the query, I really have no idea what "Eden" refers to as nothing sounds "eden-ish". I'm also not sure what "no one can agree" means as the sorcerers and the Antang both seem to have a plan of apathy.

The Antang believe things will be fine when everyone is under their control and following their strict brand of religion.

Does this mean they think the demons will just go away once everyone believes the way they do? Are the demons in league with them? Or are the demons a threat to the Antang, too? I'm not getting a sense of how things tie together.

The sorcerers of Selzburg don't really see much of a problem.

I'm not sure but that the Antang and the sorcerers are both the bad guys at this point.

They have a demon of their own caged in the basement, and quite useful it has turned out to be.

I know Selzburg isn't a house, but a first read of the query could make it seem so with the use of "the basement".

They figure they can catch and cage any other troublesome demons. They are more worried about the Antang, who take a very dim view of sorcery, and are on the point of invading.

Hmm. If the Antang are the true threat, why lead off with the demons that no one seems much troubled by?

When the Antang invade his homeland, a young sorcerer flees to Selzburg in hopes [of] allying with them [the sorcerers] against their common enemy.

The Antang are on the point of invading in the preceding sentence, so I immediately think they've invaded Selzburg. But no, that's where MK flees to.

Maac-Kail is a pretty good mage, but he's also a back-country hick who can't walk the streets of Selzburg without his mouth hanging open as he peers up at the tops of the tall buildings.

This gives us a good idea of MK's personality, but dropped in this way, it doesn't give me a sense of why it's here.

He immediately runs into trouble when the Antang kidnap the princess of Selzburg to marry to one of their princes. Maac-Kail, a foreigner and with circumstantial evidence against him, is suspected of being part of the plot.

I'm trying to understand the logic here in the plot. Arranged marriages are generally used to establish ties to prevent war. Or a minor prince might wed the captured princess of a conquered people to keep the peace. I'm not clear why a people about to invade would kidnap a princess. What advantage does that have except to incite war? Then, if MK is a suspect, is he just being watched or is he in custody?

Can Maac-Kail escape the combined forces of the King and sorcerers of Selzburg, thwart the Antang plot, rescue the princess and fulfill his mission to find allies for his people? Yes. Yes he can. (He also has a few ideas on how to handle the demons.)

Bravo for MK's industriousness, but the question/answer format here isn't working for me. An open-ended question can work as a tease at the very end of the query, but here it doesn't even tease as you answer it immediately. I'm also unclear as to what Antang plot you're meaning since you also mention rescuing the princess in the same paragraph. Are you referring to the Antang wanting to convert everyone to their religion?

Along the way he meets a pretty girl, marries her, repents of it then changes his mind again when she hunts him down and tackles him. A full nelson can do that to a guy, particularly at the climax of a novel.

This comes out of left field. I don't believe you should intro yet another character and subplot this late in the query. Plus, as written, it makes it sound like her tackling him IS the climax of the story. Also, "repents" is not your best word choice.

Edens Rat is a YA Fantasy. 83,0000 words.

What makes this YA? Is MK 17 years old or under? If so, then him marrying may be problematic when it comes to marketability. Is it that it's a light-hearted work? Help the reader understand and feel the YA. The voice is a good start; it just needs some refinement in the query. And you'll need to establish MK's age up front.

The first five chapters are posted on my blog: http://riverellan.blogspot.com/

Most guidelines I've seen advise against pointing an agent to a link. If an agent doesn't specify how many pages to send in the initial query, embed the first five or so. As to posting so much on your website, be careful. Up to 10 percent of your work is generally acceptable on a public site.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ahh, Spring

(Query update: Evil Editor has sent over a handful of revised queries. I'll be posting a few of them out early – probably Sunday or Monday. Thanks, everyone!)

The daffodil and forsythia blooms are faded now, but the late-leafing pecans and crepe myrtles have finally turned on their leaf engines. The hummingbirds returned this week, and I had to hurriedly put nectar in their feeders. The bluebirds have moved on and although I've seen a few barn swallows, they didn't come back to the nests they've used the past four years. Some flycatcher pairs have taken over the abandoned nests, though, so at least there will be birds and babies nearby.

I already had to mow this past weekend. I used a small lawn tractor to mow about an acre around my dad's place and one of the ponds, then took the John Deere out to mow about 5 acres at the far back of the property with the brush hog. With rain expected this weekend and late next week, not sure when I'll get the opportunity to mow again.

The forsythia bloomed several times over the winter, which they've never done before. And they ended the season with a far more glorious show than ever, too.


When the grass is cut, as in this photo from last year, the place looks almost like an expensive manicured horse farm. Which it isn't. Not even close, except when you squint a bit.




Meet the Beasties: Fafnir

Since Whirl asked, I'll lead the introductions to my menagerie off with my iguana. My little beauty is likely a female, nearly 5-feet long from snout tip to tail tip, and about 9 years old (iguanas live about 10-12 years). Her name comes from Norse mythology: Fafnir was a dragon slain by the hero Siegfried (aka Sigurd).

Like many of my beasties, Fafnir was a rescue. She came from the Holifield Science Learning Center, a part of the Plano Independent School District, which somehow became known as a dumping ground for reptiles people no longer wanted. Those small, bright green iguanas pet stores sell grow rapidly. When they outgrow the aquariums folk invariably try to raise them in, they are often let loose or given away. The lucky ones in North Texas make it to Holifield.

Like me, Fafnir is a vegetarian. Unlike me, her meals are quite healthy and consist mainly of greens, chopped fresh veggies and chopped fruit, with the occasional handful of processed chicken feed. She's a fairly sedate and gentle lizard, and quite tolerant of other animals. Over the years, she's shared her cage with baby chicks, ducks and rabbits, as well as adult chickens, parakeets and ducks needing medication or cage rest due to illness or injury. On warm days, she enjoys going out on a cat leash and climbing trees. Well, she enjoys the trees; the leash not so much, sometimes throwing herself into alligator death rolls when it's first put on her until she remembers it's not going to hurt her.

The death rolls are about her only trick. Unless you consider basking for hours on end a trick. Or shedding her skin like a snake does 3 or 4 times a year. And except for having to chop fresh food for her daily and trimming her claws occasionally, she's a pretty easy keeper.

Please don't get a juvenile iguana unless you plan to build it a decent-sized habitat and keep its environment around 80+ degrees Fahrenheit. I used 2x4s, 1x2s, ½-inch hardware cloth and peg board (for added ventilation) to build Fafnir's cage, which is about 7-feet long, 4-feet wide and 6-1/2-feet tall. I gave it a raised plywood floor that I covered with sheet vinyl, two shelves for basking, and a hammock for sleeping. In the early days, it even had a fountain, floor plants and hanging baskets. When I started using the cage to house young, sick and injured animals, the pretty decorations had to go. I miss them, but I don't think Fafnir does.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Query Strategy

For me, writing the query is the easy part of querying, even if my latest query did go through several revisions. I don't agonize over the process of query writing, I just agonize over the individual words. Evil Editor, his minions and my critique partners were all invaluable in helping me hone my query for Sector C. My thanks to everyone who offered advice. I listened and have a better letter for it.

What's been hard has been deciding HOW to query. What's the best strategy for approaching agents at a time when the economy is poor, competition is stiff and agents have become a lot more selective? Do you pour the powder in your musket, drop a ball in and tamp it all down before taking careful aim and pulling the trigger? Or do you slide an ammo belt into your machine gun and spray your bullets hoping at least one of them hits the mark? (And why do I think firearms and bullets are appropriate analogies?)

Aside from not querying agents who don't represent your genre, is there an etiquette to follow or an approach that works best? What do you think?

There are a lot of agents who represent the genre I'm querying. To go through them all at just 10 or 20 at a time would take several months. For this approach, the possibility of feedback that could be used to make the next submission stronger is probably the biggest incentive. As I look back over my spreadsheets, I'm finding that at the query stage, it's either a form rejection, no rejection or a request. I'm confident in my query, my story idea and the first few pages, so I'm not really looking for feedback at the query stage (except, of course, in the form of requests). Feedback on the partials and the fulls, however, would be great, assuming an offer of representation isn't extended. If there's a fatal flaw, better to know it quickly and deal with it, right?

And yet the process is slow. Agents are busy and backlogged. One kind agent requested a partial along with a plea for patience as they're 90 days behind in their reading. Some agents mention on their blogs they're even further behind than that. And even after the wait, there's no guarantee of feedback.

So what to do?

In the end, I compromised and pulled out the semi-automatic.

Querying a number of agents at once is time-consuming when done properly. I'm checking every website, cross-referencing Publishers Weekly, and reading blog posts and articles and guest blogs where available, then making sure I conform to guidelines. I queried a number of agents in my first round because I felt a connection through social media or else knew them as heavy hitters. I took a breather, then started going systematically through QueryTracker and AgentQuery. I'm still identifying more agents to submit to and will likely still be submitting for the next 3-4 weeks unless I get "The Call" from one of the agents currently considering (I'm lucky -- I'd be thrilled to work with any of them).

Agents dive into their slush looking for the rare gem, the perfect ms that connects with them. I submit to the slush, looking for the perfect agent who connects with my work. We're all looking for the perfect storm where everything connects. It's an art and a business. I want to make each agent feel special and I don't want to take up time with work "not right for them", but I also want to give myself the best chance out there and to not miss someone who I may not yet know is the best person to represent my work. And, whatever the decision, I want to keep moving on and forward, not allow this process to drag out longer than necessary.

So what is your strategy? Do you have a dream agent? Or are you hoping to find that perfect someone in a place most unexpected? Could the agent of your dreams be reading the 218th query you sent out? Or do you plan to get your agent after only a handful of queries?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And The Winner Is...

Wayne Pollard, who writes the very funny Bo’s CafĂ© Life strip, which is full of observational humor about everything from the coffee klatch set to the writing life, held a contest last week – and guess who won?

Great, you're thinking, right? Except…

The winner was the one who'd garnered the most rejections for their writing in the first quarter of the year.

In case any potential agents stumble across this post, I will immediately caveat this with the fact the same work getting rejections has also gotten several requests: right now, the partial is out with two agents and the full is under consideration by three.

I started querying Sector C in March, and the contest counted rejections received Jan 1 – March 31. During March, I received 12 for Sector C plus one from Carina Press for Cameliard Rising after it had been read by three acquiring editors.

This, and earlier conversations with my critique group, has gotten me thinking about the strategy of querying - musket shot vs. machine gun. A post I'll save for the first Writerly Wednesday.

So what was the prize? I'm glad you asked. Here's the description right from Wayne's contest info:

The writer with the MOST rejection letters will get a FREE one-page evaluation of the first TEN pages of a fiction or nonfiction manuscript OR a FREE one-page evaluation of a short story (not to exceed ten pages) provided by freelance editor MELANIE RIGNEY, former Editor of Writer’s Digest magazine and former Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest Books.
Yay me! Off now to decide which manuscript pages to submit…

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monday Musings ...

... are on hold till Tuesday. I have a post all ready but can't pull the trigger till someone else posts and they can't post yet because I was late getting them something to post, so suffice to say I will have a post on Tuesday instead of today. (No, no, don't get your expectations up. It's nice but not phenomenal news.)

All in all, not a really auspicious start with the schedule, eh?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reinventing Yourself

Hello world. Thanks for dropping by.

I've been torn as to whether to start blogging with a bang or a whimper. If you're reading this on post day, you'll know the whimper theory won out. Mainly because if I kept waiting for a bang, I realized I might never get started.

Finding my blog voice has been a challenge. How do I fuse who I am and what I know into an interesting and entertaining series of posts – ones that won't bore even me? For the answer, I looked at what defines me today and thought about how that contrasts with what defined me yesterday. Which made me realize I am a different person with a different life and different priorities today than I was just 5 or 10 – or 30 -- years ago.

How about you? How much has changed in your life? What milestones have diverted you along your life path?

While there were times I would have defined who I am in terms of gymnast, glider pilot, or melee fighter and swashbuckler in the Society for Creative Anachronism, those days are behind me. As are my days as a Registered Veterinary Technician, dog trainer, and enthusiastic weekend movie-goer. These things all shape the current me, however, and without them, I would be a much different person in the here-now.

So what might you find here in upcoming posts? I've grouped my current interests and talents into two broad categories: writing and farm life.

Writing

I'm a writer/editor for a mega-huge global IT company. While I write about technology and have an entirely too geeky understanding of a broad range of technical things from applications to networking hardware, I loathe technical writing. Instead, I write persuasive copy: proposals, marketing collateral, white papers, etc. As I've been doing this for over 20 years, I not only do it pretty well, I make a fairly decent living at it. Sadly, it's not very fulfilling.

Before I got into the technology field almost a generation ago, I was an evaluator for a distributor of K-12 educational books and other teaching aids. The owners cared deeply about their catalog offerings and it was my job to ensure we accepted only the best and to filter out anything that smacked of discrimination (family, career, gender, religion, race, etc.). I wrote catalog descriptions for the material we accepted and at lunch got to watch wonderful classic movies submitted to us to be part of our inventory. It was a great job. Sadly, it didn't pay much.

I hold an M.A. in English and taught freshman composition while taking graduate classes. Sadly, I was never able to make a career out of being a perennial student.

I also dabble in creative writing. I've sold a handful of short stories and have written a handful of novels. Along the way, I discovered that my catalog copywriting and advertising/marketing background gave me a knack for crafting effective query letters. As I'm more a content editor than a copyeditor, I have nothing new to add to the wealth of quality "how-to" writing information already available in the blogosphere. What I can provide is the occasional query critique or rewrite and the occasional rant about writing-related topics. If you have a query you'd like me to critique publicly, send it over.

Farm Life

I grew up in middle-class suburbia, but my heart has always been rural. In the early 90s, I moved out to the country, alone, on 14 acres. I didn't have much money and the community was what would be considered poor "trailer trash". I had a couple of Dobermans, not simply because I liked the breed, but because I felt I needed the protection. I dreamed of horses. Reality gave me a 40-minute commute into the city and a job with long hours. There simply wasn't enough time for a career, upkeep of the property, and equines. After 5 horseless years, I moved back to suburbia.

Flash forward to now. While there is much about my current job to complain about, one thing overshadows it all: I work from home. In fact, the company encourages remote workers. It supplies my laptop, wireless connection, international calling card, permanent conferencing number, and persistent virtual room so I can connect with my immediate and extended team members around the world from the comfort of my home office.

Five years ago I moved onto 19 acres about 60 miles north of Dallas. Last year, I annexed an additional 8 acres from a neighbor. The area is modest middle-class. So far, I've only improved about 5 acres to house a few animals: 4 miniature horses, 2 pygmy goats, 5 ducks, 3 guineas, 25 chickens, 3 dogs, 4 cats, 1 iguana and some finches and parakeets. The goal is to one day provide a haven for a few abused or homeless animals in need of a forever home. There's a lot of work that needs to be done before that can happen, and right now job obligations, general upkeep of what's here now, and taking care of my dad (who lives in a separate residence on the property and has been debilitated by a stroke) takes up far too much time to consider taking on any more responsibilities at present.

So What Does All This Have To Do With Blogging?

Yes, well, there is a connection. I plan to post 3 times a week.

Wednesdays, I'll tackle all things writerly, from query letter critiques to observations about the act of committing prose to paper. Be warned: I'm a liberal when it comes to grammar. If you're a grammar snob, you will likely be offended by my attitude toward the written word. If you shudder at any of the following statements, avoid this blog on Wednesdays:

  • Stylistic sentence frags are OK.
  • First and second person in business correspondence is OK.
  • All those gray areas in style that Strunk and White try to pigeonhole into black or white? Not really worth arguing about.
  • Grammar is graceful and fluid and evolves with each new generation. Rules change. That's a good thing.
Fridays, I'll recap the week around the farm. I'll post a few pictures and introduce you to the beasties. You'll hear my laments about the fickleness of the weather, join me on my tractor outings, and guess along with me how many trees will fall into the pond before summer is over. Yes, farm life is exciting, and I will capture it all for you in excruciating detail. Don't miss out.

Mondays I'll reserve for all things miscellaneous. Be prepared for anything. I know I will be.

I'm also considering a Saturday or Sunday post about science-related topics: links to new discoveries/innovations, articles about medicine or paleontology or whatever else strikes my fancy. But I'll see how time-consuming 3 posts a week is to start.

Posting Schedule
  • Miscellaneous Mondays
  • Writerly Wednesdays
  • Farm Fridays          
  • Science Saturdays (tentative)
Follow Me, if you will. It's good for my ego. I'll also link to you if you link to me. Typical drill.

I look forward to spending time with you. Virtually, of course, nothing stalkerish. Or maybe I'll just be talking to myself. That would be OK, too. I do that often enough that it doesn't feel so weird any more.

Welcome!