Thursday, October 24, 2013

Analysis of a SF/F Query Letter

This week we have a brave soul who is willing to have his query letter given a public critique.  And there's a good lesson in here about the overall challenges genre writers face with queries.  It's kind of the same problem we have with first chapters.    Let's take a look.

First, here's the letter as I received it:

Dear Mr. Maresca,

I have chosen to submit to you due to your interest in fantasy and young adult novels. I am a frequent reader of your blog and appreciate all of your advice to aspiring writers.

In my novel Eliza of Edge, a teenage girl discovers that her world and her memory have been altered to remove all evidence of a younger brother, a boy who has grown to become the fanatical tyrant of a magical land.

Alone during a summer storm, Elizabeth finds her home under attack by mysterious assailants who disappear as quickly as they arrived. Things only get stranger when she stumbles into a room that shouldn't exist, the bedroom of a younger brother her world has been made to forget. Within this room hides a mysterious stranger named Grim, a traveler from a mystical land. He has come to seek help in defeating Silas the Pretender, the tyrant who rules over the land of Edge...the tyrant who was once Elizabeth's little brother. Eliza of Edge is the story of a girl who is forced to confront not only a powerful magical ruler, but her own forgotten adventures in a world where her name lives within legend.

Eliza of Edge is a 132,000-word novel of the young adult/fantasy genre. It is the first novel that I have written.

Thank you in advance for your time.


Matthew Brown

 OK, Matt, the first thing that jumps out at me is how this is formatted, with a lot of extra lines between paragraphs.  It's a minor thing, easily fixable, but even a little thing like that, hitting the eye "wrong" can have a negative impact.  Of course, if the query letter really sells, something like that shouldn't matter.  That's not the same as doesn't, though.

Greeting and First Paragraph: This is pretty solid: it shows personalization, and he's researched enough into me (or rather, me-as-hypothetical-agent, but the premise stands) that I know he's not just blasting out to the world.  That was an especially good touch for this exercise-- keep that up for the actual queries.  My only real complaint here is "I have chosen to submit to you..." is a bit indirect.  Perhaps "I am submitting to you" or other phrase that hits with a straight line.

Second Paragraph: It strikes me this is giving me an overview of the book that you are essentially repeating in the third paragraph.  This is not a strong use of your limited space here, especially since the way you tell me in the third paragraph is far more dynamic.

Third Paragraph: Here's the real meat of the query.  The thing that has my attention is the twist on the "portal" story-- more on that in a moment-- in that the initial portal adventure already happened, and Elizabeth doesn't remember it.  Not only doesn't she remember, but there were real consequences to going.  Her brother stayed behind.  I really like that because it subverts one of the "rules" of portal stories: that the adventurers return home, with no tangible evidence of their journey.  Since that's impossible with him staying behind, "our" universe bends to accommodate, and hides that he ever existed.  This is a fantastic hook.

However, I don't think you're communicating it quite as efficiently as you could.  So, first off, kill the second paragraph as is-- you're giving away your big reveal a bit too soon-- and break the third into two.  The first paragraph should hit the set-up points: Strange attacks, fragments of memory, discovery of the "missing" room and Grim.  The second paragraph should be the reveal: Elizabeth going to Edge, hinting at her power and her legend... and that the tyrant she must defeat is the brother she can't remember.

Here's the things to keep in mind: "Portals happen", as I once heard an agent put quite succinctly.  So you don't have to overexplain it, as your target audience (an agent who reps fantasy) knows the tropes.  You can presume a certain degree of genre-savvy, and you don't have to front-load your query letter to pre-explain it.  I think this is the same sort of problem genre writers have in their opening chapters-- they approach their audience like an overcautious tour guide, making sure that everyone is clear about what's happening and what the rules are, rather than jumping in an trusting that your audience knows the sort of thing they are in for.  They know, and they (hopefully) want to see how you're going to play with it. 

Detail points:
  • I'm not too keen on the repeated use of "her world" here.  It's a bit too twee for my taste. It's her memory and life, keep it more focused on how the removal of her brother affects her.
  • Why is a "summer" storm relevant? It's not necessarily a bad detail, but you tell us that before you tell us Elizabeth's name, it gives that point heavy importance.  Something to think about.
  • "Eliza of Edge is the story of a girl who..."  We already know it's a story about something.  Get rid of the extra couching terms, and tell it directly.  "Elizabeth is forced to confront..."
Final Paragraph: Succinct, no problems in how you wrote it.  Something that might concern you, though: 132,000 is, from what I understand, too long for Young Adult, by a large margin.  You might be getting passed over by agents who see that number and immediately reject.  Someone with more direct knowledge can correct me, but my understanding that the YA target length is 70-90K. I'm not sure how you'll want to address that.

Thanks for sharing, Matt!

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