Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Face-Lift 852

Guess the Plot

Outcast War

1. The Addams family versus the Beverly Hillbillies, using every sort of weapon imaginable. Also, goats.

2. Fat girls versus guys with acne, using hand signals and cell phone texts. Also, basketball benchwarmers.

3. North Korea versus Iran, using bombs that emit millions of crazy-talk pamphlets. Also, radioactive dust.

4. Nashaarians versus Ashai using magic and weapons of average destruction. Also, a dead woman who is alive but not a zombie.

5. The studious loners versus the 98-pound weaklings using hardback editions of obscure Greek philosophy. Also, an outdated atlas.

6. The Geeks versus the Goths for control of the high school, using Blackberries and black mascara. Also, a teacher who wears a kilt.

Original Version

Dear [Insert Agent Name Here]

David is a young man living [in] the northern part of the Nashaarian Empire. He aspires to attend the local university and become a scholar, but all of this is derailed when his best friend Cora is chosen to suffer a special and terrible fate at the hands of Valdrick, a man who works at the university and whom David considered a friend. [It's not clear to me why David's aspirations are derailed. Postponed maybe. Is the whole university corrupt?] [You'd have to be incredibly naive to think any good could come from a friendship with a guy named Valdrick. I'd sooner be friends with a guy named Borgo the Disemboweler than Valdrick.] As he plans to help Cora escape, David learns that Valdrick is actually a member of a race of magic users called the Ashai, who are hated and persecuted for past misdeeds against mortals. [I don't need all of the info in this paragraph. I don't need to know which part of the empire David lives in, I don't need both "attend the university" and 'become a scholar." Instead of telling us Valdrick works at the university and David considered him a friend, you might just cut to the part about him being an Ashai magic user.]

When he fails to get Cora away, David is forced to watch as Valdrick uses her body for possession by his dead Ashai lover. After a narrow escape, he is horrified to discover that he, too, is one of the hated Ashai and that because of this he can never go back to his old life or aspirations; finding a way to save Cora from her fate is all he has left. [If he's Ashai, are his parents also Ashai? Why can't he go back to them?]

So David follows Valdrick back to the heart of the war-torn Nashaarian Empire. Along the way he discovers the persecution of the Ashai is not really as justified as he once thought while he struggles with his own identity. As he learns that Valdrick's plan is to destroy the empire through civil war and make a better world for the Ashai, [The empire is already war-torn. Is Valdrick's civil war underway, or is there another war that's going on or that just ended?] David finds he must choose between helping a man he hates change the world, and supporting a group of mortals striving to restore the heir to the Nashaarian throne in order to save the empire and restore Nashaar to its former greatness. [It was stated that all David had left was saving Cora. Yet she doesn't seem to figure into this choice at all.]

/Outcast War/ is a 91,158 word fantasy novel and the first part of an (already completed) duology, which is itself the beginning of a [trilogy which could be expanded into a] possible series [which could be adapted into a major motion picture which I could write a novelization of].

I have included a short synopsis along with the first five pages of my manuscript. I will happily send more sample chapters or the complete manuscript along if you are interested. Thank you so much for taking the time to consider me.

[Author's end note, not part of the query letter: I just wanted to throw this out there – I don't like my title much at all. In fact I am struggling to come up with a really good, eye-catching title and so far I've been unable to do so. Suggestions welcome, of course. And thanks for all the feedback!]


David was an Ashai before he knew he was an Ashai, so why can't he go back to his aspirations now that he has discovered the truth? It's okay to aspire to be a scholar if you don't know you're Ashai, but not okay if you do know? It's okay for Valdrick, who is Ashai, to work for the university, but not okay for David to attend?

Does David have any idea how to use magic? Does magic ability make one Ashai? Or is it that anyone can use magic, but the Ashai actually do, while others have agreed not to?

Why are some people referred to as mortals? Are the Ashai immortal?

David does a lot of learning and discovering. He learns that Valdrick is a villain, that Valdrick is Ashai, that he is Ashai, that Val plans to destroy the empire. All we see him do is follow Valdrick to the heart of the empire. If we shorten the setup we'll have room to include what David's plan is, and how he goes about it.


Anonymous said...

Gave me a headache. Reminds me those proofs we had to write in geometry class. But kind of a mess. What's his big problem in your ultimate reality??? Maybe you should start with that. Because every time a statement seems to be about Problem #1 and what dude is going to do about it, that whole [sub]plot turns out to be a mere blip in some illusory reality discarded in the next problem statement. Which worries me about the flow of your narrative, and whether this complicated system of rules for the nested unrealities works in the book.

arhooley said...

Wait, wait wait. Why does David follow Valdrick back to the heart of the war-torn Nashaarian Empire? Did you mean stalk? David isn't a "follower" at this point, is he?

And whenever I see "he struggles with his own identity," I imagine some overwrought inner conflict. I'd ditch that phrase and simply state that David has to choose between Valdrick's and the mortals' plans for the Nashaarian empire.

And yes, it seems that Cora is merely the catalyst for this whole venture, forgotten once David discovers he's an Ashai, the Ashai are actually not so bad, Valdrick wants etc etc. Was that your intention re Cora?

no-bull-steve said...

Author, there's no easy or nice way to say this; you might need to join a writing group and work on your writing before going out on submissions. Weak writing will turn any agent off to your story. It's sometimes better not to submit queries than to move forward before you're ready. At the very least check out Phoenix's site for more detailed work on this query.

EE has a lot of red words which serve as example of your tendency to over-word things. Others include:

"the northern part of the Nashaarian Empire"
-- is it vital to the query that we know it's the north? You need to see that words need to be chosen extremely valuable. That's at least 4 words not needed.

He aspires to attend the local university and become a scholar, but all of this is derailed
-- all of what? it's better to just say "his plans are derailed" -- Unfortunately this begins a series of ____ happens causing ____ in your query that don't seem to be connected to someone unfamiliar with your story.

"After a narrow escape, he is horrified to discover that he, too, is one of the hated Ashai and that because of this he can never go back to his old life or aspirations"
-- that's a lot of telling without really showing us any valuable or exciting action. Worse, at face value it doesn't make sense.

"So David follows Valdrick back to the heart of the war-torn Nashaarian Empire."
--best not to use "so" in queries. Focus on the action.

"Along the way he discovers the persecution of the Ashai is not really as justified as he once thought while he struggles with his own identity."
--Along the way is rather weak writing. "Discovering" isn't action.

Read book jackets, movie descriptions, and good queries on this site and learn the tricks for describing what you want to say in fewer and more interesting words.

Good luck!

no-bull-steve said...

PS - As much as I sometimes rail on people here for weak titles, I dont' have a problem with Outcast War. Kinda catchy IMO.

Sylvia said...

This reads like mine did - too close and trying to explain it all. For me, the answer was to find a single thread and focus on outer conflicts that until people began to understand the snippets of the greater plot. It's a bit heartbreaking though. I recently saw a query turned around nicely by the author focusing on a single theme and showing the specific aspects of the plot that dealt with that.

At the moment, it's clear to you but a muddle coming in new.

I'm terrible with titles but maybe turn it around - War of the Outcasts?

Holly said...

Hallo, I am the author.

Wow, so many questions >_< Either the rules of my world, which are important to my plot, are too complicated to explain in 250 words, or I just really suck at it >< I suspect the latter.

It seems everyone has tons and tons of questions about how my race of magic users work and I can't possibly answer them all in this query. However, I suspect if I'd mentioned they were immortal (why didn't I do that? *whacks self*), it might've prevented some conclusion.

To try and answer some of your questions:
The reason why David's aspirations are detailed is because he's an Ashai and he's gonna like a 20-something year old for the rest of his life and someone would notice. Even leaving that aside, there's laws in his country against the Ashai, so he certainly wouldn't be able to teach at the university or hold a job there.

And no, David does not know magic. All mortals have the capacity to learn magic, but it's not something everyone does because there's a stigma surrounding it since my world's two major religions consider magic to be an evil thing due how it relates to the Ashai and how the Ashai can use it, plus it's blamed for some other bad things that happened in history. I didn't mention this because I thought it was too much information.

Yes, David's parents would've been Ashai. But David and Cora are both orphans who were adopted by a librarian at the university when they were like... 5 or 6 years old. Who David's actual parents were never comes up, apart from the obvious recognition that they were Ashai. The stepfather and all that are left out of the query because I figured I was getting too detailed by including it.

Yes, Cora is kind of a catalyst, but she's not forgotten about by any means. David's primary motivation throughout both books is to try and find a way to get her back. I probably should've mentioned that Valdrick even offers to return her if David joins up with him, but David doesn't really trust him.

I dunno, I didn't think my plot was all that complicated >< The choice faced by the hero is which side to fight for, and that and his desire to help Cora are his two primary problems.

Would it be better if I left out even more details? Or just tried to briefly explain some things?


alaskaravenclaw said...

Holly, here's the problem. You spent over 400 words answering the questions raised by the query. Editors and agents won't ask the questions, though. They'll just hit "reject." You need to rewrite your query so that it doesn't raise questions it can't answer. In other words, if something raises a question and you don't have time to answer the question, leave it out.

The best thing to do at this point would be to try, for your own benefit, to summarize your story in a single sentence no more than 20 words long. That will tell you what the major focus of the story is, and what needs to go in the query.

If you have trouble coming up with the sentence, you need to rewrite the novel.

I have to disagree with the advice to study book jacket blurbs as examples. Jacket blurbs try to entice by concealing; a query needs to entice by revealing.

Evil Editor said...

The reason why David's aspirations are detailed is because he's an Ashai and he's gonna like a 20-something year old for the rest of his life and someone would notice.

So how come Valdrick is able to work at the university without anyone noticing he never ages?

there's laws in his country against the Ashai, so he certainly wouldn't be able to teach at the university or hold a job there.

So how come Valdrick is able to hold a job there?

If the answer is that no one knows Valdrick is Ashai, well, no one knows David is, either. Heck, David didn't even know.

David's primary motivation throughout both books is to try and find a way to get Cora back.

Yet he balks at joining with Valdrick even when offered her freedom? In any case, if that's is primary motivation, focus the query entirely on that. Of course it does imply that his choice of which faction to support is based entirely on which choice will lead to Cora's freedom.

Chicory said...

I still don't get why David is best friends with the kind of guy who does terrible rituals, and then he's shocked when Valdrick decides to do one on his best friend? Would David be okay with what Valdrick's doing if the victim was a stranger?

I'm guessing David had no more idea that Valdrick was into these rituals than he did that Valdrick (or he himself) was part of the magic race, but that didn't really come across in the query.

Also, if David is an Ashai does he have to also practice horrifying rituals? I am a bit confused.

Anonymous said...

It is not helpful to explain complicated rules for the world. Working them out is important author's homework, but they do not belong in the query. Readers will not begin by learning a system of rules in a preface.

Ideally the basic arc of your story = introduce a character with some challenging issue, show how he deals with this issue and the ensuing complications, and end with the final outcome of his efforts.

Your query needs to describe this arc in a succinct and gripping way. What you did was present a series of issues that never get resolved because a bigger and more exotic problem always comes along. For instance, if the book is ultimately about the dude's efforts to fulfill his aspiration to go to college, how is dealing with the undead girlfriend etc. supposed to achieve that? Apparently it isn't, because as we read on, we find his real problem is to save the world. The school / girlfriend etc. are just backstory.

So dude must save the world -- that's your challenging issue. Your query needs a gripping statement about how he attempts to do this, why it's so difficult, and what sort of complications ensue.

Holly said...

EE, Valdrick doesn't so much hold a job there as he works with David's step-father. Also, even if he did hold a job there, he wouldn't have been there for very long to begin with so no one would've noticed. And yeah, of course no one knows who he really is.

As I revise my book (for hopefully the final time), I will probably put something in there about David's plans for the future after he becomes an Ashai, whilst also taking any of that out of the query because it's clearly raised too many questions.

And David doesn't immediately take Valdrick's offer cos he doesn't trust Valdrick and is also uncomfortable with the knowledge that if Cora is set free, some other innocent girl will just replace her and get possessed.

alaskaravenclaw, I could probably sum up the most important part of the story in a sentence that short, although it would come across as vague. I wrote a summary sentence ages ago that's about 42 words long and that sums up what the story is about without really giving any details about the races and the rules.

But isn't a query supposed to provide some of that stuff? Isn't the point of a query to provide, in some detail, what the plot of the book is and primarily highlight who the hero is and what choice he/she faces? Because I could throw my 42 word sentence into a query, but I don't think that's what is desired, is it?

Every time I've seen a query, it's always just been a semi-detailed description of the start of the book that answers the important questions listed above about the hero and his/her choice. It's difficult for me to do that here without having to explain some things... and apparently doing so just raises more questions that I don't want being raised.

I'm still not even sure what, apart from a few unneeded details, is wrong with it. It's like we're reading two completely different things. And therefore I don't know how to fix it. Either that or my idea of what a query is, which I got primarily from Query Shark, is wrong.

I am so very confused >_<

Holly said...

Chicory, no, no terrifying rituals (unless he wants to). And no, David doesn't know who Valdrick is, hell Valdrick is calling himself by a different name at the start of the book, but that's an unneeded detail that doesn't belong in the query.

Anyway, thanks, guys! After talking to my friend I was able to make better sense of your feedback and am hopefully on my way to fixing my issues with the query.

And sorry if I seemed rude before, my confusion kind of frustrated me. Not your fault ^_^

Jeb said...

What I get from simmering this until the excess verbiage has boiled away is:

"Discovering that his university mentor Valdrick is not human but Ashai, a despised race of immortals, is bad enough. Then David's best friend Cora is possessed by the spirit of Valdrick's dead lover. When Valdrick offers to release Cora if David joins his quest to overthrow the Empire, David must choose between his best friend and the only life he has ever known."

Still a bit wordy but those are the essential ideas. Now you have a couple of paragraphs free to explain how David following Valdrick across the Empire plays into his (cunning/hopeless/misguided) effort to save Cora and come to terms with his true self.

Dave F. said...

One of the big lessons I learned from my days writing scientific papers and standing up before groups and reading technical papers or sending articles to journals was to take a step back away from the bad review and take a deep breath. A big deep breath and let the fire and heat subside. It hurts. Scream at the TV if that helps. Beat up a bed pillow.

Then ask yourself, what did that reviewer see that I DON'T see? In technical papers it is simpler because you always have a coauthor (or four or five coauthors) and they likely did not write the part you wrote. So you can ask them and they are dispassionate. But in fiction and prose and it is very hard.

A complete stranger sees only your words and not the meaning behind them other than what is inside his mental dictionary. I had a criticism of a short story that said "I love the ending but the middle doesn't work." I replaced four characters with one character and rewrote the story to keep the moral and the emotion in my head. It did work better. I rewrote the story (also cut 5000) and now everyone likes it and it will be published.

Don't be afraid of a comment. Don't think the reviewer is wrong, try to determine why the reviewer is right. It is your choice to change anything. I have received reviews and changed nothing (because the reviewer didn't understand the story as it was written or disagreed with the premise behind the story). However, that is rare and most times, a reviewer is giving good advice.

Another point to consider: When you have to devote 400 plus words explaining your 250 words, that means that you are way to close to the story. You are in the weedy details of the scrub brush and the reader is on the top of the hillside looking down at the grain field. You see the meaning in the details because you remember the entire novel. The reviewer has seen only the 250 words. If you confused them, you didn't do a good job. In all of the facelifts I've ever seen, only one or two out of EE's 852 have hit the money on the first try. These queries are beastly. And I've seen a whole bunch more on other sites.

Think about Romeo and Juliet. Just the title brings up the story of tragic love and loss. But if I dared to start a query for R&J with: "Romeo goes to his father's enemies ball and when he dances with the man's daughter, he falls in love and sneaks back into the house for the night and then the day after fights with her brother because of the family feud and kills the brother..." That's 46 words that lead me nowhere. How about: "Romeo and Juliet, teen lovers from rival houses, try to marry but their efforts go awry in a sad and tragic way." That's half the words and I am sure that if I worked hard, I could use a few less words and have more emotional impact.

The first is too close to the story. The second is a summary. That's what you have to do with your novel.
Step back and ask yourself, who succeeds in this novel and what do they succeed at?
Also ask yourself who you want the reader to care about in the story?

I suspect your query is more like: "In the magic kingdom of Nashar, David has to work with his arch rival in order save Cora his eternal love."

AA said...

I did a cut-and-paste of information you've posted so far in an effort to get down to what I see as the salient points.

This is not a query, just some info that might help you focus down on this and what the reader needs to know. It isn't meant to be comprehensive.

David considered Valdrick a friend. That is, until Valdrick used his best friend's body for possession by his dead Ashai lover. Turns out, Valdrick is a member of the Ashai race, immortal magic users who are hated and persecuted for past misdeeds against mortals.

Valdrick offers to return Cora if David joins his fight. Valdrick's plan is to destroy the empire through civil war and make a better world for the Ashai. But
David doesn't trust him. After a narrow escape, David is horrified to learn that he, too, is one of the hated Ashai. David never knew his ancestry, since he and Cora are both orphans who were adopted when they were young. David follows Valdrick back to the heart of the now war-torn Nashaarian Empire in an attempt to find a real way to save Cora from her fate. Along the way he discovers the persecution of the Ashai is not really as justified as he once thought.

David is forced to choose between helping a man he hates change the world for their own people, and supporting a group of mortals striving to place their heir on the Nashaarian throne in order to restore the Nashaar Empire.

That's mostly the storyline. If that doesn't seem correct, think what might make it more correct.

batgirl said...

Hi Holly - I went through much of the same grief writing my query. Too much detail, oddly enough, ends up raising more questions than it answers. Frustrating! But it can be fixed.
My thought would be to explain as little of the world as you can get away with, and keep to David's quest - that he loses Cora and what he does to get her back. Along the way he discovers things, like that he's an immortal Ashai, and that what he knew about the Ashai is wrong, but the main thread is what he does to recover Cora.
Minor point - round your wordcount up to the nearest hundred. Exact wordcounts are a mark of the amateur. (also bound to be incorrect, since each program counts differently)

Tracey Neithercott said...

This is confusing to me, so I found myself skimming. I'd agree with others and say there's just too much information here. Plus, I don't get a feel for the characters.

I'd stick with one plot line, the most important. It may help to ask one of your readers to verbally say back to you what they think happens.

And I don't think the title is bad at all.

BuffySquirrel said...

This won't be the final time you revise the book unless you intend to trunk it.

batgirl said...

The squirrel speaks with wisdom.

I revised mine 3 times at my agent's direction. If it sells, I expect a minimum of one more revision under editorial direction.

Heh, word ver is colump - what the minions get in their stockings Christmas morning?