Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Gentle Hand of Correction

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." -- Gene Fowler
"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." -- Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

I announced last month that I had won a contest. The prize was a query critique. The query and its critique by the Rejectionist are presented below for the edification of all who might find it edifying. I realize that, should the work described below ever make it to the bookstore shelves, those with long memories and an eye for detail will find that I've outed myself. To them, I say: well, there you go.

Dear Agent Awesome:

I am seeking representation for my 86000 word fantasy, Aria. [Insert bits here indicating that I'm familiar with Agent Awesome's list, preferences and/or favorite cheese].

A modern-day act of piracy taps into a magical storm and throws sailor Ken Williams into a dimension where islands float in the air, ships fly and the four elements have taken human form. He lands on a ship filled with escaped slaves including N'gali, Mother Earth.

Ken is forced to assume command in a race toward a distant mainland with the vast armadas of El Diablo del Fuego close behind. If they catch N'gali, El Diablo will use her power to create a fiery new world where her people will be slaves forever.

It's Ken's chance for redemption, but saving N'gali may take more than even his considerable skill.

My short stories have appeared in [print]. Further information about me can be found at ulysses-ithaka.blogspot.com, and at [url redacted because I like the word "redacted."].

Thanks for your time.

--Ulysses, Ruler of Ithaka, Hero of the Trojan War, Blinder of Cyclopses, &c, &c...

Alright, sirrah, here you are. We subscribe to the ruthless-but-loving school of critique, in case you hadn't guessed, so be warned.

Dear Agent Awesome:I am seeking representation for my 86000 word fantasy, Aria. [Insert bits here indicating that I'm familiar with Agent Awesome's list, preferences and/or favorite cheese].

Yep, good. One thing that always pleases us when a query comes in is something along the lines of "I'm a huge fan of Feminists are Delectable by your client Rejectionist Doormathater and think you might be a fan of my similarly witty and incisive take on the postmodern," or something--not just "I know who your clients are," but "I am doing something in a similar but distinct vein and that's why I am approaching you." Agents eat that up with a spoon. Favorite cheese might be a little stalker-ish, but it's your call. Don't SEND ANY cheese.

Now, as for the following, it seems a little bit to us like what happened is you wrote an awesome, epic novel, with a complex and lively plot and lots of different interesting things going on, and then you thought OH F*CK I HAVE TO MAKE THIS INTO A TINY SYNOPSIS NOW and then your brain came out your ear a little bit. It's okay, these things happen.

A modern-day act of piracy [fantasy piracy? what modern day? are we originating in a world of fantasy, or this world, which then goes into a world of fantasy via the magical storm?] taps into a magical storm and throws sailor Ken Williams into a dimension where islands float in the air, ships fly and the four elements have taken human form. [okay, good. That's interesting. We are intrigued.] He lands on a ship [space ship? boat ship?] filled with escaped slaves including N'gali, Mother Earth.[What?!? N'gali is a person? Mother earth is a person? Mother Earth is an enslaved person? WE ARE LOST NOW.]

Ken is forced to assume command in a race [forced by whom? why is there a race? what mainland?] toward a distant mainland with the vast armadas of El Diablo del Fuego [who is this? why is this person/entity issuing armadas in pursuit? is this the person who was enslaving them previously?] close behind. If they catch N'gali, El Diablo will use her [N'Gali's or El Diablo's?] power to create a fiery new world where her [again, which her?] people will be slaves forever. [but they were escaped slaves? who was enslaving them before? HELP US WE ARE FLOUNDERING IN A SEA OF BEWILDERMENT]

It's Ken's chance for redemption, but saving N'gali may take more than even his considerable skill. [Skill at what? Redemption from what?]

My short stories have appeared in [print]. Further information about me can be found at ulysses-ithaka.blogspot.com, and at [url redacted because I like the word "redacted."].

Yep, great. The "redacted" is just for us, we are assuming. We like that word too.

Thanks for your time.

Also great.

So here is some good news for you: you have more room than this. We don't really have a Magical Word Count, but think of it in terms of a cover letter. You can give yourself a nice fleshy paragraph to sum up your novel. Like:

"Ken Williams, interstellar pirate and man of no morals, didn't plan on sailing into a magical storm that would catapult him out of this world and into a universe where islands float in the air, ships fly, and the elements have taken human form; but intergalactic adventure is par for the course in the life of a scoundrel like Ken. He lands on a ship filled with slaves escaping the infernal demon queen El Diablo; among those slaves is the foxy and mysterious N'Gali, a woman whose powers can lead to the creation of a new world--or, in the wrong hands, the destruction and enslavement of her people."

Etc. etc. With fewer semicolons. We do over-love our semicolons. Anyway, you have room in which to breathe. You're telling us about more than the plot of your book--you're telling us why we should care, what's interesting about these characters. Have FUN with it (we know, we know, a fun query? Kind of like a fun visit to the urologist?). Try writing the Most Ridiculous Query for your book imaginable, be totally silly and over-the-top, see what happens. What happens might be delight and wonder.

Something that's always nice as well is a little moment at the end where you tell us why we should care about this book--i.e., "More than just an epic and intricately plotted fantasy, Aria is an examination of the politics of slavery through one man's journey from ne'er-do-well scallywag to leader of the free world." Obviously that is a little silly, but something along those lines. A query is not just about your book--it is your chance to show off your pyrotechnic capabilities as a writer and make us love you. We want to see your sly and charming personality shining through; it's things like that that make us open a query letter and say THANK GOD FINALLY YES YES MORE OF THIS ONE. Be yourself, be pleased with yourself, and we will be pleased with you. We know a query is a crazy shit-ton of pressure, we know we know. But we also know that you, sir, can be funny and charming, or else you would not have won our contest. So be funny and charming. Be Ulysses, not Generic Panicked Writer. Act like you are in charge.

Many thanks to The Rejectionist, who sponsored the contest, followed through on the prize, and graciously consented to allow me to post her critique.

18 comments:

CKHB said...

Thank you for sharing with everyone! I'm sure your awesome, epic novel with a complex and lively plot will shine through beautifully in your query's final version.

Ulysses said...

Well, that's the idea, and that's what I'm working toward. Thanks for the faith.

RKCharron said...

Excellent & very helpful.
Thank you for sharing.
Happy Holidays,
RKCharron

Jean said...

Thank you for sharing your query. I'm going to see if I can put a little 'over the top' in my own query.

It's always nice to read some fresh insights and have a real-life example to read over.

Thanks!

Irk said...

Thanks for posting the critique! This makes the prospect of writing a query letter a lot less intimidating.

Looking forward to seeing Aria in stores eventually. :)

RJS said...

Excellent post, thank you for sharing it! There's endless "do this/do that" rules lists out there, but so very, very few real examples, this sort of thing is great.

I'm with those who would rather get a paper cut than write a query, so it may take a few tries before it become fun. :)

Dorothy Dreyer said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I'm sure I speak for a plethora of struggling query-writers when I say this helps a lot. Good luck!

Heather said...

Thanks so much for sharing! I wish QueryShark updated more frequently (I know she's busy, but it doesn't change my wish!), so this was immensely helpful.

Lisa Katzenberger said...

Ulysses, thanks for sharing, that took a lot of guts, I'm sure.

lora96 said...

Ulysses:

I entered that contest of awesomeness and you definitely deserved to win. I am not much of a fantasy-genre fangirl but I think Aria sounds cool. Really enjoyed reading the Rejectionist's Snark-like incisive comments. Thanks for sharing.

litdiva.blogspot.com

Ulysses said...

My thanks to everyone for their comments.

RKCharron:
Thank-you for your kind words, and the best of the season to you as well.

Jean:
I'm struggling with "over the top." I really want this thing to sing, but so far it's just croaking along to the tune.

Irk:
Thanks, and I hope to see it on shelves soon too. Preferably not my own shelf. Preferably a store shelf. Preferably a bookstore shelf. Or even better yet, a reader's shelf. Lots of reader's shelves. That'd be nice.

RJS:
If you're looking for other examples, I highly recommend Evil Editor and Miss Snark (in my links sidebar), also Janet Reid's Query Shark blog.

Dorothy Dreyer:
Many thanks. I'm glad you found it useful.

Heather:
Yep, you and me both. However, I'm pretty sure she doesn't much care what I want... and this is as it should be.

Lisa Katzenberger:
What makes you think bravery was required here? I assure you, I have guts (stomach, liver, spleen... the usual set), but they're nothing special.

lora96:
I was lucky. The responses to that contest were pretty darned amazing, and I suspect that the only way I could have won was by "misappropriating canonical text" as she put it.

Susan Quinn said...

Thanks for sharing! It's amazingly instructive to see a)query, b)critical-yet-loving critique and I would love to see . . . what you do with it! Query 2.0? Please?

Congrats on the contest! You rocked over there, too.

Ulysses said...

I'm giving it some thought, Susan.

Sophie Playle said...

Great advice. An interesting post. Thanks for sharing! (And congrats on winning the contest.)

Blogging Mama Andrea said...

I stumbled over here via Janet Reid's site who had linked to Rejectionist's site. Congrats on the contest win (the book sounds confusing and yet very interesting...).
I love the Rejectionists response. It'd kind of be worth being rejected to get something so witty other than the Your Project Doesn't Fit Our Needs line.

Ulysses said...

Sophie Playle:
You're welcome, and thank-you for reading.

Blogging Mama Andrea:
I often consider submitting something to Ms. Reid just so I could have one of her rejections. It would be like a battle-scar or something.

However, I can't thank the Rejectionist enough for the time she put into my drivel. That kind of guidance is without price.

maine character said...

I printed this up a while back and just got to it today. It not only made me appreciate the Rejectionist's straight-shooting humor even more, but also gave some valuable tips that all those books on the "proper way" miss - that of making the query actually interesting to read. Many thanks for sharing it.

Ulysses said...

Maine character:
You're welcome. I always find reading the critiques interesting because there seem to be so many points of divergence and preference between agents (and agent assistants). Truly there is no one-size-fits-all, but there are certain points all critiquers seem to agree on.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to put this through the mill because it seems the only way to learn is to do.