Sunday, January 10, 2010

Query: New and Improved! Now With Notes!

Current Reading: Infinity Hold 3, by Barry B. Longyear

Inspirational Quote: "Writing is learning to say nothing, more cleverly each day." -- William Allingham

Since queries seem so difficult for everyone, and since the Rejectionist's comments on my attempt seemed to attract a lot of interest, I thought I'd offer up my subsequent thoughts and their results. Bear in mind, of course, that this isn't the finished product. It's just another step along the way. The next version will incorporate some of the things I point out below (I hope), and maybe it'll make Edison proud.

When last we left my query, before I took the Rejectionist's advice to heart, it looked like this:

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, and at [url redacted because I like the word "redacted."].

Thanks for your time.

Not pretty. Not good. Oh, it's got its strong points, like the salutation. I think that works well. And I still like the word "redacted."

I think the first paragraph is fine as is. From what I've read, most agents like basic information up front and spare: title, genre and word count. This seems like a good place to put personalization, if I've got anything to say on that score. I suppose I could put it at the end, but I'd rather give them a reason to pay that extra bit of attention up front than give them a reason to say "Oh, that's why I should have paid more attention."

Likewise, I can't think of any way to improve the last paragraph. It's just a bit about me that might indicate why reading some of this might not be a horrible ordeal. I've been published, and I've got a website and blog... so I'm internet aware, and at least prepared to be professional.

The big hole here, the flaw, is right in the middle: the pitch. Details are missing and, in an attempt to be brief, I've omitted anything that might be of interest. So I've gone a bit longer this time.

First, I wanted a nice short paragraph that introduced the main character: his name and some things about him that are important to the plot. I also wanted to introduce the fantasy element right up front by contrasting the real world with the fantasy world. Last, I want this first paragraph to include a summary of the main conflict: what's at stake. I'd like to have worked in who the conflict is between, but I think that would just have made the paragraph longer and more confusing so I concentrated on Ken.

Ken Williams is a sailor tormented by past mistakes and consoled only by music that he hears in the sky. When a magical storm throws him from a sinking yacht in the modern Caribbean to a flying galleon in another dimension, he lands in the middle of a struggle over the shape of a new world.

Flaws: "tormented by past mistakes" seems cliche. If you eliminated all the books on the shelf in which a character is not "tormented by past mistakes," you'd eliminate probably two-thirds. But his past is the prime motivator for the choices he makes, good and bad, and I couldn't think of a shorter, less trite way to put it.

"The shape of a new world." Well, it's accurate, but it doesn't convey the excitement I wish it would. Why is the "shape" of a new world important? I suppose I could use "fate," or "destiny." Those are portentous words, especially in fantasy, but they tend to be overused.

Second, I need some details about the new world and what it's like. Then I've got to work in the antagonist and the state of things when the plot starts. I'm going to try to give some idea of how the plot develops, so I've got to show how it begins. Now that I've established a few other characters, I can get specific about the conflict "in the middle" of which Ken "lands." In the novel, it is El Diablo's desire that Ken obstructs, so I wanted to highlight that desire and how important it is to El Diablo.

In this place, islands float in the air, ships fly, and the four elements have taken human form. El Diablo del Fuego, the Lord of Fire, has already imprisoned Senorita del Agua and exiled Father Sky. Only N'gali, the woman who is Mother Earth, has escaped him. She has fled on a ship filled with escaped slaves and captained by a renegade pirate. They are hunted by El Diablo's fanatic legions, for N'gali has the power to create a new world, and it is a power El Diablo will do anything to possess.

Flaws: It's got a lot of names in it. Maybe too many, and the mix of African-inspired and Spanish names may seem strange out of context. Maybe mentioning that N'gali's people are inspired by a mix African slaves and Central American natives, while El Diablo's people are drawn from the Spanish conquest of South/Central America might clear things up, but I think it's unnecessary wordage in a note that's supposed to concentrate on plot.

"Will do anything to possess." Cliche again? Yes, but I'm at a loss how to put this in a fresh manner while retaining its brevity and punch.

Strengths: I like the first sentence. It sounds interesting, especially that last bit: "the four elements have taken human form." "A ship filled with escaped slaves and captained by a renegade pirate." I like that bit too. "Slaves," and "pirate," are exciting and emotionally charged words.

Now that the setting is in place and the plot in play, I'd better get to Ken's journey: what does he have to do, and what's going to make doing it tough? This is a good place to bring up the plot twists. Then I'd better get to describing the resolution, or at least a few points about it. I've got to make it interesting and intriguing, to make the reader want to read the book in order to understand how all the elements enter and fit into the story. Last, I want to make it clear that the end of the book reflects on some of the things I raised in the first paragraph.

When N'gali's captain sacrifices himself to delay El Diablo's fleet, he conjures the storm that brings Ken to N'gali's deck. Since none of her people are sailors, she is forced to rely on Ken's skill to keep her ahead of her pursuers. As Ken struggles to adapt to this new place and his role in it, he must deal not only with El Diablo's armada, but with the mistrust of his new crew, the effects of shaman magic and the efforts of a saboteur. The chase takes him from the cloudscapes of the endless sky to an island refuge where the earth swallows whole ships and the water speaks in riddles. But El Diablo is relentless, and his fleets drive Ken and N'gali to a confrontation in the vast, windless expanse called the Eye of the World. To save N'gali, Ken will have to disturb the dreams of sleeping gods, discover the fate of the missing Father Sky and learn the meaning of the music that haunts him.

Flaws: It's a big paragraph. I may be trying to do too much in too little space. The remedy is, of course, either to do less or to give myself more space. Like every other writer on the planet, I don't want to do either. I think the first two sentences are clumsily written, but they explain how Ken arrives and ends up in charge. I like the next sentence, but "the effects of shaman magic" is awfully vague. What effects? Why should the reader care?

I think I might have written the "chase" sentence wrong. It reads as if the journey ends at the island, so in the following sentence I've got to get them moving to the Eye. It's a clumsy transition, and I can do better. I like the last sentence, but I'm concerned its use of the "list" approach, as used in the list of Ken's complications and the list of destinations, is far too repetitive.

In winding up, I feel I should indicate that the things I brought up in the first paragraph are resolved. I mention the music, but I don't mention his past mistakes or their impact on the story's resolution.

So there's the latest incarnation of my query, with my thoughts.

What do YOU think?

No comments: