Continuing our theme for the week, I’ve got two queries here (one for a book, one for a game) and I’m going to take them apart to show you (and them) what is and isn’t working. The query is going to be italicized, and my comments are going to be in red. (In both cases I’m skipping the writer’s address and info, and just dealing with the meat of the letter)
We’ll start with the book query.
Dear Sourcebooks Editor, (actually followed guidelines – no names given.)
The italicized note is the author’s. This is significant because usually there’s some kind of personalization. The fact that there isn’t tells me immediately that queries get dumped into a large pile and who knows whether the reader is going to be an intern, an assistant, and agent or the nice lady who gets bagels every Thursday.
Quakes across the country intensify, threatening the environment, the economy, and families. Amber and Paule struggle to convince the military leaders to prepare the people of New Mexico for the worst. The danger is real. The devastation will spread. The distance is unknown. Lives will be lost. How many depends on the military’s decision.
Okay, there’s kind of a good opening here. The first stumbling block here is ‘intensify’, which means that the quakes have already been going on, and now they’re getting worse. BUT, there’s no mention of quakes before this, so I don’t know how to measure that. The second is that Amber and Paule are dropped into the front of the paragraph, but not given any explanation. If their reveal were to come later, then we could feel like these two people are victims caught up in all this chaos, but because they show up early in the text, (sort of like the opening of a movie trailer) this is telling us that these are our heroes. Also, the fact that they’re talking to New Mexico’s military leaders suggests that they’re just not two people – they’re people with means to make a difference.
Going one step further, I can’t tell what the important part of this paragraph is. I would imagine it’s supposed to be how Amber and Paule are going to survive the earthquakes, since those are characters with names, but the end of the paragraph tells me that I should care about the military. And there’s this sentence about distance that makes no sense, because there’s no mention of a journey or travel.
I’d suggest a rewrite here to find the important thing and either put it at the front of this paragraph (Maybe even start it with “Amber and Paule race against time as earthquakes intensify and the people of New Mexico do nothing” or at the end (talking about the earthquakes and how bad it is and THEN bringing up Amber and Paule.)
An opening paragraph that doesn’t have a clear important element or a set up to encourage me to keep moving my eyes down the text is kind of like yelling a stream of facts at me when I just wake up – I can’t process much of anything, and yelling is just going to make me grumpy, disoriented and tell you to stop.
Amber intended to join her mother at the Parkfield, California earthquake research center as a paid assistant during her seventeenth summer. Instead, New Mexico beckons, as activity along the New Mexico San Andres fault, where lava plumes push the Magdalena Peak upward faster than in recorded history.
Wait, what happened to Paule? And why isn’t ‘earthquake research center’ capitalized? Note the vague ‘her’ in the end of the first sentence that either tells me Amber is 17 or that her mother has been at this facility for seventeen summers. But then I stumble over ‘beckons’. Beckons means that I have to leave where I am and get to a place, but the first paragraph sort of made it sound like I was already in New Mexico. But now this paragraph maybe tells me I’m in California, or maybe I’m not in either place, since Amber has to go to Parkfield to join up with her mother. I’m confused. And confusion means rejection. I don’t even get to enjoy the lava plumes.
Here again is a paragraph where there’s no visible important element. Is the important part that Amber is supposed to see her mother? Or is it that New Mexico is more important? And by extension, more important for whom? Her mother has a reason to go, but why does Amber?
Lastly, I assume that while this event is happening, they’re recording it. So “recorded history” is misleading, since really we’re talking history before this moment.
I’d rewrite this paragraph much like the first – find the important part and if you wanted to keep the sort of ticking-clock element (seismologic unease isn’t as intense as VOLCANO EXPLODES) I’d oppose one against the other, (“As the San Andreas fault buckles and devastation looms, Amber goes not to her mother, but into the face of danger” Or something.)
I’ll also point out that when two paragraphs get rewritten back-to-back in a query, it almost always translates to “this query is going to see more rejections than acceptances”.
Kilauea expert, Paule, joins her in the search along the Rio Grande fault lines and the Magdalena Peak. Undiscovered fault lines and developing calderas spread across the desert. White Sands and other military bases are in danger of lava inundation. Military and mining leaders fear a panic, and insist on chain of command through red tape data before notifying the public.
Google tells me that Kilauea is in Hawaii. And again, we have a vague ‘her’ so I’m either talking about Amber or her mom, and I’m not quite sure what the Magdalena Peak is but I guess it’s important, since it’s come up twice now. And lava inundation is totally bad news, but wait, the people INSIST on red tape? Now hold on there, this might be more than a problem with the query, this might be a problem with the story. ‘Insist’ tells me that these leaders are rigid and this is their protocol. I don’t have explicit information that they doubt Amber/her mother/Paule (because the query doesn’t say so), so I can’t say any insisting is done because “there’s no hard evidence” (cliche, but let’s go with it a second). Now, I haven’t seen the manuscript, but without a sense of implied doubt, I’m not sure I see a believable reason to require bureaucracy. You would think that once the lava starts flying around, or the earthquakes rumble the ground, people would panic.
This lack of clear antagonist motivation would not only throw a wrench in the querying process, but even if it did get accepted, it’s absolutely something that would come up in editing. Now I know I get a lot of flak and complaints when I bring this up, but getting some edits done early in the process could clarify this and make querying easier. I’ll just float that thought out there and surely someone will come along and cry poor.
Here, unlike the other paragraphs, I see the important part. I just don’t feel it. And feeling it is SUPER IMPORTANT. Feeling it is what’s going to encourage me as a reader of queries to read your manuscript. And feeling it conveys not only a sense of urgency in your created work, but also a sense of urgency and excitement about your created work. It’s like seeing a movie trailer and saying, “I want to see that, right now.” versus seeing a trailer and saying, “Oh I’ll just skip it.” Be the first, not the second. How could I feel it? A rewrite that emphasizes the disbelief, and that puts the danger at the front of the paragraph. This is the final paragraph about the manuscript, so this should be the highest point of tension in the query and should lead me to read the manuscript to see how things work out.
TRAILS THROUGH THE FAULT LINES is a new adult apocalyptic novel at 83,000 words. It is the first of a three pair series, each pair set in its own time and place. The second pair is set two hundred years in the future. The third pair will involve time travel, reference earlier novels, and go further back in time. Series synopsis available upon request.
Oh boy. Okay, pump the brakes here. Wave the giant red flag. The first sentence, is awesome, it delivers me a title and a word count. Personally I’d chop out “new”, because you’re writing a query letter, and I’d assume it’s for a new novel. But the rest of the sentences? There’s a presumptive nature to saying “I’ve got a whole series, this is just the start”, because if the first book doesn’t take off, then did you waste your time putting together all these other stories? The largest problem here is that these sentences talk about books that aren’t the one you’re querying. It’s like going on a date and telling the other person about the other dates you’ve got lined up in the coming weeks. It doesn’t help your current situation, and while it’s nice to know that you’re forward thinking, keep the focus on THIS book. On a more specific note, if each pair (pair of what, I don’t know) is its different time and place, it’s sort of hard to market this as a series, unless we’re doing a set in like an anthology format or slipcase or something. The TV show True Detective can get away with saying “each season we’re going to feature different cases and detectives”, but that’s because they’re saying it not while promoting their on-going current story. It sends a mixed message to the reader – which story are we talking about here?
Start your relationship with a publisher/agent/other person off on the right foot. While it’s great to be ambitious, don’t overlook the importance of the manuscript in front of you.
I have published MOLLY’S SECOND CHANCE, a short story, in Beyond Centauri – October 2010. I am [NAME], and [PERSONAL INFORMATION DELETED]. Three cats, a dog, and a husband keep me busy with a garden and housework to complement my writing. Recently diagnosed as legally blind, I am working at retaining what vision I still have.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Everything here is groovy, (I took out the name and personal info – there wasn’t anything wrong with it, it’s just not something the author wanted splashed around) except for the last sentence. It’s well-meaning, but it’s placement is telling. Last sentences leave an impression. And by telling me you’re blind, you’re sort of passive aggressively telling me that if I reject you, I’m rejecting a blind person. Why not just tell me that when you were younger, your dog died? Do I need to know you’re blind? Do you start every conversation with new people that way? Maybe, yes, okay, you’ve become defined by your blindness, and I’m sorry if that’s become your identity more than other things about who you are, but unless you’re looking to make that a key point in your “writing persona” (the way some writers are known to be drinkers or only wear white or are recluses), this detail isn’t actually in your favor. Cut it out, and keep the focus on your writing.
Ready for a second one? Now I’m going to warn you, this one is TEN paragraphs long. And we’re talking block-of-text paragraphs, so buckle in. Also, this isn’t for a book, but for a game, so the tack we take in dissecting it will be different.
On the edge of Nidal the [PLAYERS] are sent to deliver a message from one brother to another. This is a journey through the Mindspin Mountains at the onset of winter. The hazards of the mountains include orc tribes, harsh weather conditions and (unknown to many) a Hag with her witch protégée. Agents of the Aspis consortium want to get hold of the letter, and will stop at nothing to obtain it. The [PLAYERS] are subject to a series of seemingly unrelated incidents, but at each turn some subtle marking of the consortium can be seen. Finally, when none of their machinations have succeeded, consortium agents confront the [PLAYERS] and attempt to seize the letter.
Alright, so this first paragraph, that’s a pitch. I’ve used [PLAYERS] here as a surrograte for player-characters as well as for the vernacular of a game that I’m not quite sure I can just toss around casually. I like this paragraph. It’s quite good. It tells me what I need, and should I want more information I know I can look for a paragraph about these orcs, a hag, maybe the weather and something about a group of consortium people. At best, I’m looking at 4 more paragraphs. What I get is nine more. 9> 4, and already I’m throwing red flags.
Reinard and Metheo, lesser sons of the Arch Duke Egamen and minor members of the Umbral Court, hated each other. Neither had any prospects of inheritance with older brothers in line, and so both looked to a life of adventure to cure their boredom. When Metheo decided to join the [PLAYERS] society, Reinard took that as a cue to make friends within the Aspis Consortium.
Okay, so this is set up info. If the PCs are supposed to deliver a letter from Point A to Point B, it would help to know about why they’re doing so, because invariably someone’s going to ask. Now, if I were a fan of this game, I’d probably know that this Consortium is a big deal and that’s bad. I don’t need to be a fan of the game to gather that from this text, which is a good sign that it’s well-written. I’m not yet questioning why I need to know this, which is another good sign.
The brothers excelled at what they did and became reasonably high ranking within their respective organisations. For their part both the Decemvirate and the Patrons kept a close eye on the brothers. After a few years of adventure, both brothers got bored and returned to their pampered lives. Both organisations kept up their watch though, and planted their agents.
Okay, now I am asking why I need to know this information in a query. In the text of the adventure, this is backstory, and I’d expect to see this in a sidebar or as character history detail. But since I’m supposed to be caring about what the players do in relation to these two non-player characters, I’m not sure how the players are supposed to gain this detail and use it in play.
Recently the Arch Duke died, leaving a valuable artefact unaccounted for. Reinard has information about the artefact but he cannot acquire it alone, his only choice is a coalition with his brother. Jealous of any claim the Aspis may make on his discovery, there is only one group he can trust to get the letter safely to Metheo: the [PLAYERS].
I have no idea why this matters or why I’m reading about it. This is a pretty big clue to me that the writer is nervous and just throwing details at me until something catches my eye.
The scenario begins as the PCs arrive to meet with Reinard. He is coy, and does a bad job of hiding his contempt of the [PLAYERS]. Once the mission has been accepted, he impresses upon the PCs that time is of the essence. The letter is urgent and winter is setting in. If they delay they will face severe, possibly deadly weather in the mountains. The Aspis Consortium spies know something is the matter the moment the [PLAYERS] gain audience with Reinard, and set out to stop them.
OH THANK HEAVENS, we’ve gotten to the exciting bit. It just took four paragraphs that likely can be collapsed into this one, which would require a rewrite AND show the writer to have an ability to make words count in a concise way. Now, for me, for my gaming, I’m not pleased with being told how to play a character in a query. Give me some bullet points or direction in the adventure itself, but if you’re trying to make me say yes to writing the adventure, focus on the exciting parts. Weather reports are not exciting. And I would hope the mission gets accepted, because that’s the point of the thing you’re writing. If the mission wasn’t accepted, what was the point in writing it?
The first challenge is a bridge, destroyed by the Aspis men to delay the [PLAYERS] while they set up further problems down the line. Unbeknown to the Aspis though, is that the bridge hid the home of a witch (or Green Hag, or both depending on tier) who now thinks the [PLAYERS] destroyed her home, and is not amused. This encounter is intended to be defeatable without fighting. The encounter begins as a simple skill test, how does the party cross the ravine without the bridge? As the party makes it to the bottom or the other side they are confronted by the Witch. The Witch, although angry, is not inherently antagonistic, and the Hag can be bribed. The encounter delays the PCs, and negotiating with the witch could put them far behind schedule.
Remember where I just talked about exciting bits? If you’re ever curious about how to make something not exciting, all you have to do is explain how it works or how best to overcome it. For example, I can say, “Watch out for speeding cars!” and that should give you a sense of fear that cars approach. But if I say, “You can avoid the speeding cars by either walking down the street or by taking the bridge,” then the tension is gone. And if the tension is gone, I have little reason to want to see how things resolve in your manuscript – because you already told me.
Further through the mountains, a group of orcs attack the [PLAYERS], paid by the Aspis to kill them and take the letter. They carry goods (weapons/armour) of better than usual quality for orcs, marked by the Consortium. This encounter takes place on a narrow path and into a cave; An obvious ambush point. The orcs have cunningly set some tribe members within the cave which otherwise looks to offer a tactical advantage to the PCs.
An optional encounter as the weather closes in and winter takes hold can occur here. A small flash flood, as part of a storm takes over the PCs, unless they can find shelter.
Again, the purpose of a pitch for anything (a book/a game/a movie/a webseries/a TV show/ A whatever) is make you want to check it out. Let’s say you and I are going to watch a TV show that you’re a fan of, that I’ve never seen. Are you going to walk me through the whole episode before you press Play, or are you going to mention a few things in broad terms so that I’m interested and have to watch in order to know more? If you give me all the details, it’s going to backfire because all the “Ooh I want to know more” is gone.
Finally, the [PLAYERS] are confronted with the Aspis men themselves, who have set up ambush a short distance from the [PLAYERS]’s destination. This is a fight to the death as the Aspis seek to recover the letter, and leave no trace of survivors.
Defeat of the Aspis agents, means a successful arrival at the home of Metheo. Metheo is pleased to see the [PLAYERS] and greats [sic] them as old friends. He rewards them amply, but does not reveal the contents of the letter.
I haven’t said this throughout this second dissection, but the language here is flat. Flat like paper. Flat like old Coke. It’s joyless. It is not sparking any interest in me, and reads in this sort of monotone that I usually reserve for academics, church services and old people complaining about taxes. You want me to read a thing? Want me to care about something? Arrest my attention. Keep me interested. Play with sentence length and word choice. Use active verbs and evocative language and encourage me to picture these things you’re saying in my head. Compare these two sentences:
“I think it would be a great idea to diversify your stock portfolio.” versus “Are you such a big fan of poverty that you’re not going change your stock portfolio?”
One is a sentence I hear from an old man with bad teeth who I don’t think has felt any happiness in his life since Ford was president. The other is a shocking statement that some windbag on TV said last week. During the first one, I tuned out and thought about tacos. During the second, I argued with the TV. I felt something, and responded. That’s the secret to a pitch, making people feel something.
As for how you do that, the key is language. Word choice. Sentence structure. Fragments. Long sentences with descriptors. Using that push/pull effect we’ve talked about to keep people paying attention, you have ONE PAGE (not 10 paragraphs) and about 250 words to develop an idea that makes someone want to solicit more information from you in a more comprehensive form.
Is it easy? No. Can you get better at it? Yes. You can write and rewrite. Come at ideas from different angles. Ask people (like me!) for help on what makes a good query. You don’t have throw your hands up and say, “I’ll never get it, publishing is out to get me.” because publishing doesn’t know you.
Practice. That’s the best strategy. Practice, refine, keep at it.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about “aggressive language” and some key words you’ll want to keep out of your queries.