Thursday, February 9, 2017

Chris Eboch on The Painful Process of Crafting a Query

I've been working on a query (the horror! the horror!) and I decided to track the process for my critique group, since most members there haven't done a lot of queries. They found it helpful so maybe you will as well. Sometimes it's so hard to see how a novel can be condensed. Whether or not this final result is ideal, I hope it shows some of the questions and issues that come up.

Starts Someplace

I wrote this part not as a query, but as an introduction to the samples I was posting at an online site. I used it as my starting point for the query:

Circa 1350 BC: the era of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and a young King Tut. The great pyramid of Giza is already more than 1000 years old. Akhenaten has declared himself the conduit to Aten, the one God, taking power and money from the priests of Amun-Re.

Fifteen-year-old Meret trained as a temple dancer, a position that requires strength, discipline, and acrobatic ability. She was ejected from the temple when her father switched his allegiance to Aten. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die. Determined to fight against the loss of everything she holds dear, Meret seeks help, guided by a mysterious young man from a dream. When she visits the abandoned temple of the Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, what she finds will change her view of the world… and her future.

What Does a Query Need

Now I'm working to revise it as a query. First step, jump into the plot instead of spending several sentences on background:

Egypt, 1350 BC. Fifteen-year-old Meret trained as a temple dancer, a position she lost when her father switched his allegiance to Aten. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die.

[Wait, “allegiance to Aten” doesn’t make sense without explanation… Better to cut that. Too much background ways down a query.]

Egypt, 1350 BC. Fifteen-year-old Meret has grown up with a combination of wealthy luxury and athletic discipline. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die. Determined to fight against the loss of everything she holds dear, Meret follows the advice of a mysterious young man in a dream. He promises she will find help at the abandoned mortuary temple of the Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut. She finds three girls, outcasts from society, who claim to be The Guardians of Truth. Each brings a special skill. But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and the deadly enemy pulling strings from behind the scenes?

[Clichés in that last sentence fragment. Reword. Try to get to the plot faster.]

Egypt, 1350 BC. Fifteen-year-old Meret was an acrobatic temple dancer until her father’s politics got her kicked out. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die. To save her family and her future, Meret must …

[Too confusing without understanding the politics. I also need to include magic to show it’s paranormal. Other than the dream, nothing indicates that so far.]

Getting There
Fifteen-year-old Meret is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt. Her life is one of wealth and privilege, until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. To save her family and her future, Meret must unravel the plot against him. Guided by a vision, she searches the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. The girls living there, outcasts from society, claim to be The Guardians of Truth. Each brings a special skill: Saroy is a warrior, Hattie is a seer, and Neith is a thief. But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine? Even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father.

The Guardians of Truth is a 34,000-word paranormal novel, suitable for ages 12 and up. It is set in the tumultuous days of ancient Egypt under the Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, when politics and religion threaten to tear the country apart. This novel stands alone, with the potential for sequels featuring the strong young women who fight to make their world a better place as The Guardians of Truth.

[Okay, this has a lot of the main elements without a huge word count. But it also includes a lot of names which could be confusing. At this point I checked it on Facebook for feedback. Someone suggested bringing the sentence about “what can four girls do” up to the top. Let’s see if it works.]

Crowd Sourcing Feedback

What can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and the secret enemy trying to destroy an innocent man?

Fifteen-year-old Meret is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt. Her life is one of wealth and privilege, until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. To save her family and her future, Meret must unravel the plot against him. Guided by a vision, she searches the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. The girls living there, outcasts from society, claim to be The Guardians of Truth. Each brings a special skill: Saroy is a warrior, Hattie is a seer, and Neith is a thief. But even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father and protect Meret from the man who wants to make her his concubine.

[Hmm. I'm wondering about that first sentence. When it was later in the main paragraph, I had "and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine" but that's too confusing when you don't yet know who Meret is. What about "and a secret enemy who pretends to be a friend" or "and a secret enemy with his own agenda"? Those seem cliché. It's hard to be specific without the background. How about simply “What can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy?" Is that enough? Or too vague?]

[Author Molly Blaisdell AKA Cece Barlow wrote: I would do this: Fifteen-year-old Meret is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. (you show us that she has a life of wealth and privilege by her actions after her father is accused) Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and future. (i'd flip the next line. You say Guided by a vision, could you be more specific. A vision of what? A ghost? A view of the future, a talking cat? I'm a little confused how following this vision is going to help her father.]

[Now I'm getting back to how I had arranged it the first time, but at least it's tighter.]

Fifteen-year-old Meret is an elite temple dancer in ancient Egypt until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and her future. In a vision, a strange man – or possibly a god – claims she will find help at the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. There she joins the Guardians of Truth: Saroy the warrior, Hattie the seer, and Neith the thief. But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine? Even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father and her future.

Feedback from Alex Lidell

I sent the query to my friend Alex Lidell, a young adult fantasy author, who had this to say:

I found myself needed to re-read the first paragraph a few times.  Consider spiting it into two paragraphs and streamlining some of the language?  For example, this is really clear:

<Fifteen-year-old Meret is an elite temple dancer in ancient Egypt until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and her future.>>
But then things start getting a bit dense.  Do you need all the names in here?  Could this be simplified?

<<in a vision, a strange man – or possibly a god – claims she will find help at the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. There she joins the Guardians of Truth: Saroy the warrior, Hattie the seer, and Neith the thief.

re <<But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine?>>   
This is brand new info - so far Meret's problem is getting dad out of jail. How do the priests figure in?  Did THEY get dad into prison?  Consider streamlining the cause and effect a bit.

Final (Maybe) Version:

[Here's where I am now, trying to answer a few more questions but not include too many details. And of course I need to name the title and genre, and include my bio paragraph.]

Fifteen-year-old Meret, an elite temple dancer in ancient Egypt, simply wants  a secure and useful place in the world. Then her father is accused of treason, imprisoned in the temple of Amun-Re, and sentenced to die. Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and regain the life she knows. A vision leads her to the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. There she joins three young women calling themselves the Guardians of Truth: a warrior, a seer, and a thief. But what can they do against the priests of Amun-Re, the soldiers guarding her father, and more enemies they do not even suspect? Even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father and her future.

The Guardians of Truth is a 35,000-word paranormal novel for upper middle grade readers. It is set in the tumultuous days of ancient Egypt under the Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, when politics and religion threaten to tear the country apart.

I am the author of over 40 books for children, including fiction and nonfiction, early reader through teen. My novels for ages nine and up include The Well of Sacrifice (Clarion), a Mayan drama used in many schools, and the Haunted series (Aladdin), three books about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com. I also write romantic suspense novels for adults under the name Kris Bock.

Conclusions

I hope you'll have found your own lessons in this. My quick conclusions would be:

1) Queries are hard. (No surprise there.)
2) Feedback can help but it can also contradict other feedback. (AKA you can't please everyone.)
3) Keep trying to improve your query, but it will never be "perfect, so at some point you have to hope that your concept will be enough to grab an editor’s or agent’s attention. You are not selling the novel based on your query anyway – the goal is to get some pages read.

More Help with Queries

Nathan Bransford’s Query Letter Mad Libs (and links to more help)

A great post on writing query letters from Wordy Birdie

Lots of examples with analysis from Query Shark

Chuck Sambuchino at Writer Unboxed offers Query Letter FAQs

Four Key Elements Every Pitch Needs, from Romance University

Elle Strauss on Writing a Selling Query or Pitch in Four Easy Steps

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

2 comments:

  1. This is great, Chris. Sharing. And good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great info. I've never met anyone who has said, "I'm great at writing queries." Everyone is intimidated by them. Any advice an author can get is golden.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for adding to the mayhem!