Wednesday, June 27, 2012

HNTWAQ: Practice 1

Yesterday, I passed along word of a query contest and offered to help two blog readers get ready to, well, beat me in the contest. 'Cause I'm a big fan of karma, mostly. And embracing the inevitable.

Anyway, two of you took me up on it, so today and tomorrow, we're going to see how well I've learned from my own How NOT to Write a Query series... and all the query revisions I've done of my own query... and all the advice I've picked up along the way.

Welcome, then, to the first ever:



It's called practice because, just like Edison, we need to keep writing bad ones until we figure out all the ways NOT to write one. Then whatever's left will be right. Or something like that.

Ready for my first brave victim volunteer?

Randy Lindsay was first to raise his hand, so we're doing his first. He assures me he has an extremely thick skin, and I'm taking him at his word. Long-time blog readers will know that I only normally critique others' work anonymously, but, well, he volunteered.

First, here's his query, all pristine and intact and exactly as he delivered it to me:
Banan, an Anglo-Saxon warlord in life, has one chance to escape from Hell. To do so, he will be competing against some of the vilest and most ruthless souls the Earth has ever produced. As the race is about to begin, however, he discovers that his wife bore him a child after his death. Now, the last of his descendants has been targeted for murder by his arch nemesis, Wregan. He must choose between saving a girl he doesn’t know and winning HELLATHON.
Wregan and his lackeys are given free entry into the race. While Banan scrambles for the opportunity to compete, his enemy attempts to thwart him at every step. On Earth, Banan’s wife, Morna, watches over Loni as a heavenly spirit. Fearing that the last living monument to her love with Banan will be slain by the forces of darkness, she defies the rules of angelic intervention and protects the girl, but is forbidden to help further.

All of them come together during the race, which passes through all the cultural versions of hell, as well as through an Earth street that lies not far from where Loni lives. Wregan prepares to sacrifice Loni during that earthly portion of the race to further his ambitions in Hell. Banan rescues her, but the two of them are forced to continue the race together.
Parts of the story take place in 700 A.D. England, during the Saxon conquest of the Britons. I have done considerable research on that time period, and chapters that take place there are historically accurate.
My first impression (which I was kind enough to email to Randy yesterday) was that I love the idea of hell games, and he has some enticingly high stakes, with wanting to get out of hell and also save his last descendant. However, I think he's including a few too many details, and I'm getting lost in them.

First, let's break down what we know (and what we don't):

  • Banan was a warlord who is now in hell (Why? Was he bad?)
  • He has a chance to escape from Hell (And go where?)
  • The games have vile, ruthless people in them (And these people get a chance to escape?)
  • He has a descendant, Loni, still alive (How did he find out? Why didn't he know this before?)
  • Loni is targeted by his arch nemesis, Wregan (Why? How does that make a difference?)
  • Wregan gets free access, but Banan has to scramble to compete (Why? I thought he was IN the race?)
  • Banan's wife, Morna, is Loni's guardian angel, breaks some angel rules to protect her, and is prevented from forbidden to help more (What does she do? Who stops her? How?)
  • The HELLATHON passes through cultural versions of hell (What does that mean?)
  • Wregan thinks sacrificing Loni will help his hellish ambitions (What makes him think so?)
  • Banan rescues Loni from Wregan and they have to continue the race together (Why? How does that make a difference?)
  • Parts of the story happen a long time ago and are historically accurate. (I'm not at all curious about this detail.)
For me, the problem isn't that I have questions and, Randy, please DO NOT TRY TO ANSWER THEM ALL IN THE REWRITE. The problem is that, for every concrete detail, I have a question. That's too many questions.


Let's review the purpose of a query letter:

TO GET THE AGENT TO READ THE FIRST PAGE

That's it. You want them to be curious enough to read your actual writing sample. Or, if they don't have it, to get them to request it. Nothing else. It's not a synopsis, and it's not an opportunity to convince them that you're a terrific sub-plotter. A lot of common wisdom says to stick to the main plot and the first 30 pages.

Other wisdom says to focus on just four things:

  1. Who is the protagonist? 
  2. What does he want?
  3. What stands in his way?
  4. What will happen if he doesn't succeed?
To that end, let's break down which details we need.

Who is the protagonist: Banan is an Anglo-Saxon warlord who is now in hell. Is he a bad guy? Was he falsely sent there? Do I WANT him to escape from hell? Has he been rehabilitated? Should I be scared at the thought of unleashing this man on the world?

What does he want: Banan wants to win the Hellathon so he can get out of hell. We don't know why (there are worse places, certainly)--where does he want to go once he's out? Will he be accepted into heaven if he wins? (Would ANY of the vile competitors be accepted into heaven?) Will he be free to roam the earth? What does he want to do when he gets out? How does winning improve his life? Who is letting people out of hell, anyway, and why?

What stands in his way: Wregan is his arch nemesis (um, don't call him that--show me) and if HE wins, Banan can't. I don't know why Wregan is so formidable--giving some concrete details about him will not only convince me why I should be afraid of him winning but also a sense of how hard it will be to beat him. And then you don't have to call him the arch nemesis, because I'll already know.

Loni is also something that stands in Wregan's way, since she is being used as leverage... but it seems that Banan HAS to race to save her since Wregan will sacrifice her during the race AND that Banan has to choose between saving her and winning... which is confusing. Make this obstacle more concrete: what, exactly, threatens her, and how, exactly, does that prevent him from winning? Also, if it's a complicated subplot, you might stick with mentioning that Wregan is threatening his last remaining descendant if Banan tries to stand in his way, or whatever is accurate--then leaving it alone.

What will happen if he doesn't succeed: Um, dunno. Maybe it's just that Banan has to remain in hell, and I'm sure that's awful, but he's been there long enough to get used to things, so what's the big whoop? If Wregan wins, will terror be unleashed on the earth? Will he get to take his lackeys with him? (Does Banan get lackeys?) Is it just that Loni could die? That tends to happen to all people eventually. Family lines die out all the time and that's awful, but this is a fantasy--it needs bigger stakes. What will happen to the world at large if Banan fails? If Wregan wins?

Okay, so I want you to add a lot of information, so let's help you make room. Let's go back to the query:
Banan, an Anglo-Saxon warlord in life, has one chance to escape from Hell. To do so, he will be competing against some of the vilest and most ruthless souls the Earth has ever produced. As the race is about to begin, however, he discovers that his wife bore him a child after his death. Now, the last of his descendants has been targeted for murder by his arch nemesis, Wregan. He must choose between saving a girl he doesn’t know and winning HELLATHON.
This first paragraph seems to be a whole-book pitch and isn't all that bad as a short pitch. In the context of the query, it's a bit confusing, since the race is about to begin... but in the next paragraph he's scrambling for the chance to compete. I don't think either the timing of the you're-a-daddy reveal or the biological fact that descendants come from children is necessary to include.
Wregan and his lackeys are given free entry into the race. While Banan scrambles for the opportunity to compete, his enemy attempts to thwart him at every step. On Earth, Banan’s wife, Morna, watches over Loni as a heavenly spirit. Fearing that the last living monument to her love with Banan will be slain by the forces of darkness, she defies the rules of angelic intervention and protects the girl, but is forbidden to help further.
None of this is essential, in my opinion. Wregan getting free entry doesn't convince me that he's a strong competitor, and since I already know that Banan will compete, I don't need the query to tell me he struggled to get in--it's wasted space that could be used to tell me what the actual conflict is. Also, enemies thwart. That's what they do. Don't use phrases that can describe a book other than yours. Finally, as wonderful as the Morna subplot is, this is the query. Unless Banan's motivation is somehow based on her guardian angel status, leave her out.
All of them come together during the race, which passes through all the cultural versions of hell, as well as through an Earth street that lies not far from where Loni lives. Wregan prepares to sacrifice Loni during that earthly portion of the race to further his ambitions in Hell. Banan rescues her, but the two of them are forced to continue the race together.
This is plot synopsis and doesn't help me understand the conflict--only the steps to resolve the conflict. It is enough to know that Loni's in danger: we don't need to know the course of the race... especially when it travels through terms we do not know.
Parts of the story take place in 700 A.D. England, during the Saxon conquest of the Britons. I have done considerable research on that time period, and chapters that take place there are historically accurate.
This paragraph really just confuses me. Will this be a book that jumps back and forth among time periods? Also, if you included this to prove that you are the perfect author to write this book... it doesn't quite go there. Anyone can research. The quality of your research will play out in the text. I can't see an agent being ho-hum about the rest of the query and decide to request because you tell them you've done research (though I'm sure it was fantastic). Do you have some special connection to or expertise in this period? If not, leave this part out.

Now, Randy, if I knew how to write a good query, this would be the point where I'd tell you what to say and how to say it. Sadly, even if I was good at writing good queries, I still haven't read your book, so I'd get it all wrong. So, instead, please feel free to revise and, if you're still speaking to me, send it back. I'd be happy to tear it apart again--either in another blog post or in a more private setting.

And, if you're not speaking to me, please keep in mind that my own poor query has gone through more than 6 complete rewrites. Sooo much of the first draft is gone completely. And good riddance.

How about everyone else? Do you have any advice for Randy on how to rewrite his query in time for the contest in a week and a half? Please feel free to disagree with MY advice, too. As long as this post is, I'll never be able to say everything in every way to explore all different sides of what to do and what not to do.

Thanks for playing, Randy!

4 comments:

  1. Thanks Robin. I'm going back to the proverbial drawing board and see what I can come up with.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, how well I know that feeling. ;)

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  2. I bookmarked this for my own query-writing purposes! I think your advice is spot on. Finding the heart of the conflict is key. When I initially drafted a query, it pointed back to the fact that my conflict and stakes weren't strong enough. I had to revise the story to get a better query!

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  3. Great advice, as always! I also found lots of helpful advice on querytracker too . . . have you ever visited their site? Oh, so I took you up on your offer to give away a query critique on my blog. We'll see if anyone bites:) THanks for the fun!

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