Query Workshop – Critiquing My Old Query Letters

I’m going to share three older versions of my query and explain why each fails. I will be brutal with my old self. Spoiler Alert! – I survive this process and emerge stronger.

QUERY # 1:

Scottish teenager Alanna O’Connor would be thrilled that her favorite mythological characters were coming to life . . . if they weren’t trying so hard to kill her. Alanna teams up with the newly arrived (and completely baffled) King Arthur to stop the nightmarish invasion, but what they find along their journey will challenge everything they believe about the world and themselves.

The story spins familiar archetypes into an unexpected adventure, challenging Alanna and Arthur in ways neither would have thought possible. Their worlds fall apart as Alanna discovers that she has a mysterious connection to the appearing legends and that she had somehow caused their arrival. Meanwhile, Arthur realizes he retains the collective memories of all the legends told about him—a fact suggesting that he isn’t a man at all, but rather a fiction made flesh. Although both struggle with an identity crisis, Alanna and Arthur must work together, battling increasingly dangerous monsters, while trying to stop the mastermind behind this mythical siege.

The first line is good (and the rest of my queries all have some variation of it) but “mythological characters” is vague. Which characters? Humans? Beasts? Greeks? Egyptians? This needs to be more specific. The details sell.

The bit about “what they find along the way . . .” is both cliché and vague. The sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything about the plot. We don’t know what they found, what their “journey” is (journey is vague anyway), what they believed first, how or why it gets challenged, how or why the world changes, how they change, etc. It is a horrible sentence.

In paragraph 2, the first sentence is just as bad as the one before it and for the same reasons: vague + cliché. More clichés arrive in the next sentence with “Their worlds far apart.” What does that mean? What worlds? How unoriginal can I be? We also find out that there is a “mysterious connection” but this is not explained, so again, it is vague. The bit about Arthur isn’t too bad, though. At least it is fairly specific—even if we don’t understand what it means or why it is important to Alanna and the overall plot.

Then I dive right back into clichés: “struggle with an identity crisis,” “must work together,” “increasingly dangerous monsters” (like what? Need the details!), an unknown mastermind, and whatever the heck a mythical siege is (I do know, of course, and maybe you can imagine it is a bunch of mythical characters invading Alanna’s hometown, but we still don’t know what kind of characters/creatures, so this is hard to picture).

In short, I would not request this book and I wrote it! Just for fun, I may challenge myself to write a query with MORE clichés than this one, though that may be impossible.

QUERY # 2

Teenager Alanna O’Connor’s world is shattered when her dreams for adventure come true . . . and come to life. Alanna teams up with newly arrived (and totally baffled) King Arthur to discover how these legends are breaking into our reality and to stop the myth invasion before these monsters lay siege to Alanna’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Their quest calls into question everything they have ever believed about themselves and their world. Nothing is as it appears . . . and Alanna discovers that she is ultimately responsible for the tragedy threatening her home.

The first sentence is different from Query # 1 but still works.

The 2nd sentence starts off strong but then falls into trouble with “these legends” because we don’t have the details of which legends/characters are invading. While it isn’t clear how they are “breaking into our reality” or even what that means, that bit might be okay. Yes, it is vague, but the full explanation is complicated and I don’t want to get bogged down with that in my query, so I might let it slide. It can be better, so I should work on it.

Lastly, the end bit in this paragraph where I tag on that the story is in Edinburgh is clunky (though the detail of where the story is set is nice and was missing from Query # 1).

The entire 2nd paragraph is vague. It tells us nothing. Scrap it and start over.

I should also point out that Query # 2 is very short. It clocks in at about 90 words and the query should be 200 – 250 words.

QUERY # 3

When sixteen-year-old fantasy fiction fan Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures step from a void into her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her. All her drama—being stood up on her birthday, designing a new tattoo, even the rush from meeting an interesting and potentially decent teenage boy—falls aside as she fights for her life and sanity. Terrified and plagued by the thought that she had somehow caused this myth invasion, she teams up with the one person she hopes she can trust: the newly arrived (and completely baffled) King Arthur. While battling warriors and beasts, they develop a friendship and make some important discoveries: Arthur has fractured memories and is a fictional version of himself and Alanna was born in the mysterious Otherworld that is home to the attackers, her parentage a mystery. Rattled by these bombshells, Alanna and Arthur confront their fears, defeat the legion of monsters and the evil wizard, and step into an enigmatic future.

Query # 3 is nearly identical to the one I first entered in the GUTGAA online workshop in September 2012. The feedback I received was that it was pretty good, but could be improved in several ways (you’ll notice I followed this advice if you check out my current query).

Everyone agreed that my opening line/Hook was a winner except for the “void” part, which isn’t clear (as voids often are not). The sentence tells you about the main character, includes some details about who/what was arriving, provides the setting, lets you know her attitude, and then ends with a punch in the gut that sets up the conflict. The only criticism I got was that “fantasy fiction fanatic” is a bit of a mouthful. I agreed (plus I didn’t really like the alliteration) so I made a minor change.

I was also told to break up the query into a few short paragraphs, as one block paragraph doesn’t look very inviting. Easily fixed.

The sentence beginning with “All of her drama” is good because it gives context and provides some character details. One judge mentioned that saying “potentially decent teenage boy” seemed odd because we don’t know how she can make that judgment if she just met him, so on her advice, I simply edited the “decent” bit from that sentence. Once it was gone, I didn’t miss it.

The next sentence needs to explain why she thinks she caused the mess, but people liked the baffled King Arthur, as that sounds humorous.

The fourth sentence is overloaded with plot and has several problems. There is a lot there and not much explanation. It also does not flow and sounds forced. I considered naming a few of the warriors and beasts. One author mentioned that “her parentage a mystery” was a cliché (true) so I deleted that part, but I really needed to re-write the entire sentence. I decided to go with EITHER the bit about Arthur being a fictional version of himself OR Alanna actually being from the Otherworld. Even though Alanna is the protagonist, I decided to go with the King Arthur info because it is more interesting. Besides that, the main character usually discovers that he/she is an integral part of the plot . . . that’s why the author chose that character as his/her protagonist. Since Alanna discovering that she is important to the story is really a “normal” story element, I decided not to mention it here.

The last sentence doesn’t end with enough punch. I needed to come up with something that would really make an agent say, “I have to read more!” and this just wasn’t doing it.  The “enigmatic future” sounds nice but doesn’t actually mean anything. Additionally, it probably isn’t a good idea to disclose so much of the ending and throwing in an “evil wizard” at the end seems like a curve ball. So this sentence needed major work or just an all out re-write.

And so, without further ado, my new query:

When sixteen-year-old fantasy enthusiast Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures appear in her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her.

At that moment, she no longer cares about her cancelled birthday plans, her latest tattoo, or even the charming teenage boy she met earlier. All her drama is cast aside as she fights for her life and sanity.

Alanna realizes that when she climbed the legendary mountaintop called Arthur’s Seat, she unwittingly helped open the doorway to Otherworld and unleashed the rampaging monsters. Terrified and plagued by guilt over the ensuing slaughter, she teams up with the one person she knows she can trust: the newly arrived (and completely baffled) King Arthur.

As they battle centaurs, goblins, and a dragon from Loch Ness, Alanna confronts the truth about what happened to King Arthur and the other characters while they were in Otherworld. Arthur has splintered memories from his legendary life that do not fit together into a single lifetime. He is a fictional version of himself and is as lost as anyone—a fractured myth who needs Alanna’s guidance as much as she needs his expertise. Alanna must put the pieces together and close the passageway between worlds before it is made permanent and Alanna’s city—if not all reality—is fractured beyond repair.

I apologize if this post was rambling. My hope was that if you understood my thought process and all the things I considered, I might help you make some of your own decisions. If so, I’m happy. I wish you all the best.

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