Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bad Beginnings: The Query Letter Edition

Another photo of my nephew watching the gorilla at the zoo.
This one more heavily features Monsieur Gorilla.
Look at that elegant (yet powerful) pose!
Monsieur Gorilla clearly works out.

Alright, so upon further consideration, I did not feel that putting every single iteration of my query letter until it evolved into this masterpiece would necessarily interest my readers (whoever they may be). I mean, it's hard to tell for sure, but it would be a bit much for the people I know in real life who read my blog.

So instead of weekly iterations of my query letter as I whittled it down to its masterful end product, I'm just going to share the starting place with you, give you some of the criticism that Naomi gave me, and mention a few of the things I did to transform my query into the letter you saw, er, two weeks ago.

Original Query Letter:

Eric Ortega has an irritating older sister, an overworked mom, the best guild on his Hooves and Halflings server, and one of the most powerful auras Nikias has ever seen.
Taking over a twelve-year-old’s body isn’t ideal, but Nikias will not allow a child to squander such a luminous, unprotected aura. With Eric's aura powering his abilities, Nikias can finally move to destroy the Sentinels who hunt him.
The winged Sentinels watch over all the world’s non-humans, and discretely dispose of those who cause a threat to their people. The Sentinels owe Eric’s sister a favor, so they free Eric, even though it means letting Nikias escape. The conditions of their help are steep: Eric's memories are erased, and he must stay locked away in their secret hideaway until they trust him. Sentinels are wary of human boys who know too much about their hidden world.
Eric wakes up missing half his memories and stranded in a secret mountain lair. He’s not okay with that. Glimpses of half-remembered memories are like accidentally biting down on tin foil: unexpected shooting pain. So what if he doesn’t remember his home or his family? He’s going to find them no matter what these freakish "Sentinel" people say.
Nikias cannot have some child triumphing over him - not now he's had a taste of that aura. And Nikias knows precisely how to motivate Eric: his family.
While Eric searches for a way home, Nikias is searching for Eric. 
Complete at 66,000 words, ERIC ORTEGA AND THE DEMON WIND is an upper MG fantasy. The story is primarily told from Eric’s POV, but approximately one-fifth of the chapters are from the point of view of Nikias and his new, scheming host – until the characters all come together. This book will appeal to fans of the Underland Chronicles. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Sarah Hipple

A Demon Wind
Photo by Kelly DeLay

Big Picture Problems (the gist I got from Naomi Hughes):

Note: I am far less polite about my own work than Naomi was. She was nothing but positive and helpful.
  • Angels and demons vibe made the book feel paranormal to Naomi. Since this isn't a paranormal, I knew I needed to build on the fantasy feel of the world.
  • Need to make Eric likable.
  • Lack of clarity about where the book's story starts. What's Eric's goals and journey?
  • First paragraph: Beginning with a list is boring, and lists get skimmed rather than read.
  • Second paragraph: Who? What? What happened to that Eric kid?
  • Fourth paragraph: not bad.
  • Last paragraph: not bad.
  • Every other paragraph - confusing, burying the story, giving the reader "reader whiplash" jumping from one group of people to another.

My Revision Strategy:

I basically kept the fourth and last paragraphs and nixed everything else. Naomi kept me on track. She pointed out "fluff" phrases that were generic and could be eliminated. She helped me restructure my paragraphs at one point.

Basically, when it's my own story, it is incredibly hard to pick out the elements that I need. I am SOOO much better at doing that for my critique partners than I am at doing it for myself. And, as awesome as my CPs are, they've typically read the story before reading the query letter, which makes it harder to realize what you'd think of my book from the query letter alone.

Naomi has worked with agents and was able to give me a completely unbiased view of my letter, and I knew that's what I needed.

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