Thread: The Infamous Query Letter
November 5th, 2007, 09:55 AM #136
Nice suggestions, Brian. Thanks alot for the additional ideas.
November 5th, 2007, 10:39 AM #137
Well, Ranke, I'm delighted to get much more background info about your novel and to learn about the knight character, who you've only briefly mentioned before. But this description then is saying the novel is about the knight, not the boy. Is that the case?
Actually, I think I may have an idea here. I think you may need to start with the underworld land, and then describe how the characters fit in it and come to it. But it's still a little hard to advise you because the descriptions of the novel, its plot and characters, are like an advent calendar. I open a box and get one thing; I open another box and get a different thing, but then all the other boxes are still a secret.
November 5th, 2007, 10:41 AM #138The Succession Wars that swept through Laonic in the wake of royal assassination left the land of Cadous a barren waste, and the few survivors desperate. Yet, reduced to grubbing for insects and the banditry of the infrequent traveler, Daniel has still not abandoned the gods. When a merchant named Callen begs Daniel's mercy, claiming that a debt-collector named Huo Ping rides on his heels and has threatened unjustly to kill Callenís family, Daniel releases him and promises to waylay his pursuer. The mercenary falls into Daniel's ambush. But Huo Ping does not retaliate. He instead offers to meet Danielís demands so long as he be freed to pursue his quarry, explaining that he is sworn to prevent death, and that Callen is no merchant but really the Assassin who caused the Succession Wars and the destruction of Daniel's home....
November 5th, 2007, 06:27 PM #139Ranke LidyekGuest
Thanks for your input. Good point. I'd like more specific information on Daniel's lost home and possible bitterness or loss of faith. Now he's a hardened criminal, but he was once something more. Focus it a bit more on Daniel, his personal quest. Then get to the "when" sentence to show that this is the event that incites everything to follow. Also, I'm not a fan of "yet" in the second sentence.
I think you have room to give us who Daniel is, inconsistencies and all. That will hook us as readers when we see he needs to act.
Hope this helps and thanks!
November 5th, 2007, 06:46 PM #140Ranke LidyekGuest
Mungomry is a second main character and the two are very interwoven. While Walter is 1A, Munny is 1B. I went with this approach because Munny (because of his age) has a richer past to draw from and a larger perspective of the world and it allows me to reference Walter's story as well. Harder to pull in Munny's inclusion through Walter's more limited (child's) perspective. Walter's story is more intimate, whereas Munny's is more traditionally epic (though still very personal).
You're box metaphor is perfect. I think of them as doorways to deeper elements and a larger, hidden plot throughout (which astute readers will notice and enjoy--I hope). The corruption underneath the epic fantasy elements twists this into something else entirely. This is very much a tale about how passions can make creatures of men; of how there are certain acts that can damn us irreparably, and how the sins of fathers often are suffered by sons. I'll sit down and draw up some more attempts and see if I can get closer. Though I want to maintain the character-related approach. Temeres (the lost world) represents the "adult" world, those passions. It is purposefully more complex than the innocent land of Walter's youth. People change irrevocably when they go there.
Your idea is a good one. Though I worry with my attempt it will read like a list rather than a story. Still, it's another angle to consider. One that might give a fuller picture of a subversively complex story. Reading this book is like walking down a tunnel. Step by step you find yourself more immersed until you turn back and see that the light is very far away, further than you'd thought, further than comfortable. It's why it might be difficult to sell in that it is an uneasy read. It seems like a simple fairy tale fantasy at first; then it starts changing.
Thanks again! I appreciate your advice!
November 6th, 2007, 09:50 AM #141
Well what I mean by boxes is that you keep hiding the good stuff and the idea of the query letter is that you are telling them the good stuff. Because otherwise how do they know that you have it? I've been asking you repeatedly to elaborate on the knight and other side creatures, and I'm delighted to finally make the knight's acquaintance, as I said, and to hear of his role in the story. It does help confirm that it's an adult fantasy story, etc.
It is very difficult for authors to boil down what they've created to their key elements -- we were talking about this at WFC. The author sees all the layers and doesn't know how to put them in. And they're worried it won't sound like much when they do. Which is why when I help out on these query letters, I have to ask numerous questions, because the writer's instinct is to hide it away, to let me gradually open the boxes and see the surprise. But what the agents and editors need is for all the boxes to be open and everything out on the table. They aren't readers; they're investors.
It is easier for others to summarize things than for the author, as with Brian rewriting for Rob's novel. But to do so, you have to provide us with all the info. It might be a help to you if you stopped working on the query letter for a bit and instead worked on a 2 page plot synopsis.
Also, I would suggest that you stop thinking of your story as being difficult to understand. About 2/3rds of dark fantasy are fairy tales that go horribly dark and twisted. The loss of innocence is a common theme, etc. That's not to say that you aren't bringing something interesting to the party, but that publishing folk may not be as clueless about it as you seem to think they are. So relax about that and concentrate on what are the central facets and how do they relate to each other in terms of emotion and theme.
I think you're going in the right direction by presenting info about the knight. So the next challenge is to integrate it with the info about the boy rescuing the girl, the queen who eats children, and the structure of the fantasy land and its effects on the real world. I know that sounds like a lot, but it's really not. All we need are the details and voila, Brian summarizes 100 pages of text in a paragraph and makes it sound really interesting.
I can tell you that it gets easier with practice. Already your presentation of the knight was more deft than your early descriptions of the story.
November 6th, 2007, 01:20 PM #142Ranke LidyekGuest
The adult element was the main reason I decided to try the Mungomry angle. I'm not sure how much more I can fit in at this juncture, but you're right in that we as writers tend to want people to uncover the surprises for themselves. That said, I've had many read the novel (experienced writers and fantasy readers) and all of them have said this book is indeed something different from anything they've read. I had initially thought this was a "simple" fairy tale (my intention), but I was wrong. I found I was in a bit of denial about this because I wanted it to be simple and easy to categorize; just a cool read. So, for me to admit that this is a bit of a weird novel, concerning fantasy conventions, is a big step. I don't say that because of the "darkness" of any one element or at the cost of great novels I respect and admire. I merely trust the many, many reviewers who've helped me along they way. They know the genre even more than I (and I'm pretty well versed). Still, I'm at a loss as to exactly why this keeps striking people this way; it's a culmination of approach and many factors, I think. Perhaps it is the complexity and oddity of the magical system, or perhaps it is because it requires more of a SF eye from the reader, and there is a bit of Gene Wolfe in that the story is larger than the limited perspective of its characters. Many small hints throughout suggest a different depth to the world--and very firm rules. Things aren't easy and each fight sequence is more like a moving game of chess as a result.
One reviewer had this to say (though I think he's a bit unfair to the genre, he's a writer as well, so it's his opinion. Others who read fantasy, solely, echo his thoughts):
"First off, I generally don’t like high fantasy. It’s too magical, generally populated by stock characters taken out of Lord of the Rings and has the usual the Lord of the Ring’s type storyline of good versus evil without Tolkien’s storytelling ability. Attempts to vary the characters and make them different fail to get through the stereotypical traits that mark high fantasy. Magic is also generally of the school of ‘look how powerful these witches and warlocks are’ variety. On the site I try to steer clear of these types of stories and I generally do so by plaguing the authors with incessant questions about the legitimacy of their magic, the stereotypes of their characters and the monotony of their plots and plot devices.
Then in comes Her Dress is Darkness, breaking all the rules and giving high fantasy gothic undertones laced with modern day dysfunctional relationships. All my preconceived remarks don’t apply, and I have to address a real manuscript with characters that step out of a lost generation novel – complicated, introspective – but with a twist of conscience that demands they fix themselves. They are actually interesting. And there is an unusual magic system that also makes it hard to criticize with the usual snide remarks."
(and so on...)
I'm on record as disagreeing that other novels lack these strengths. I think there are many fantasy novels that are wholly comprised worlds with interesting things to say; books I love. Some of the best writers working today are in this field, I feel.
So, maybe the key IS to reveal a bit more of the magical elements and the oddities. But doing that makes me fear I'll lose the character approach and I'll end up with exposition. I trust that publishers aren't "clueless" at all. What I worry about is MY failure to convey the essence of my novel as it stands. Any misunderstandings are faults of mine, not those who read a query. And I do wonder how much you can really pack in to a paragraph. Too much information is often worse than none at all, I'm told. In truth, I think I'm too close to the book to fully understand the scope or effect it has on others. What I think is "normal" simply isn't. When a published author told me this was "literary" I had a hard time dealing with it (and still do, apparently). Sometimes I wish I COULD write something along standard genre lines. The damn things turn on me.
So there it is. I confess to it. This has nothing to do with other people or publishers. Any fault is at my feet and I know it.
November 7th, 2007, 11:59 AM #143
Yes, but you're not writing "high fantasy" -- or to be more specific, pre-industrial imaginary realm fantasy. You're writing dark fantasy -- Stephen King, Tanith Lee, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Graham Joyce, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Moorcock sort of neighborhood and if it's Gene Wolfe-ian, so much the better. You're writing a nightmare version of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen," a twisted take on "The Nutcracker." The definition of dark fantasy used to be "the Goth stuff," and still pretty much is. You have the horror aspect of the real world and the nightmare world and the connections between them that effect both (welcome to the world of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, or if you like, the classic novel, "The Goblin Princess.") You have the fairy tale aspect of the boy rescuing his friend (Snow Queen, Pullman,) and the decrepit but valiant knight who must find new purpose, the odd creatures who are allies, the demon Queen who eats children, the sleeping gods (Gaiman again, borrowing from mythology, also Lovecraft,) and so on.
This is not to say that your story is cliched and copying in any way, just that it's not the alien being off in a holding pen that you seem to think it must be. There is a firm fan base for this type of work that crosses fantasy and horror audiences, and a long tradition of it in the fantasy field. Plus, it seems to be considered a hot sub-field at the moment.
But be that as it may, plot synopsis and query letter descriptions are about plot and what that plot means emotionally. So what do we know so far (Brian, pay attention here):
1) We've got a boy in the real world or a version of the real world. His father is the King, though he doesn't know this, and his father goes missing?
2) The boy has a friend, a girl, and the girl gets snatched by the Demon Queen or her henchmen. The boy goes after her into the nightmare world, because he promised.
3) There's a knight, the last of his kind, who will end up helping the boy. There are others who help the boy -- details on them might be nice.
4) There are sleeping gods in the grove of the nightmare world, who stir because of the actions of the Demon Queen? or because of the arrival of the boy? and their arousal effects the real world the boy left in some sort of way.
5) There are dire consequences of some sort if the Demon Queen isn't thwarted and the gods get loose? Plus, the girl will get eaten.
And we've got a lot of questions about what actually happens in the story. Now, you might not want to cough up all the details on this thread. I never know how far to bug people because they may not want to advertise. But I will tell you that an agent does want to know all the juicy details, so again, working on a plot synopsis, where you feel slightly less constricted, might help. Write it long first, and then cut it down. You have a poetic bent, which speaks well for your writing, but first you have to be clear about what the key plot details are. You may not provide them with every detail, but the important ones, the attractive ones, need to be there.
So, though the cast of the story with the knight is great, the story isn't about the knight. So he needs to be there in a sentence or two, but so does your boy. As long as you're using the terms dark fantasy and horror, that it's adult will probably be clear.
November 7th, 2007, 11:26 PM #144
I'm short on time, so I didn't read the posts following Ranke's query letter about "Her Dress is Darkness." But here's my reaction:
When Mungomry Caldus, an old, half-blind knight, discovers the heir to his missing king, he must return to the lost world of his youth to save a stubborn boy who searches for a missing friend.
This is a lot to digest. It opens too many questions at once. As it's your first sentence, could you slim it down?
Mungomry's journey will take him to a place where the greatest knights have fallen: the Nyghtmear in the lands far north. For there, a cursed queen devours children in service of dead gods from the Groves of the Deep, and there he will confront an immortal knight, a legend from his youth; the very warrior who inspired him to forsake his family and take his Vow.
Since I don't know what the Groves of the Deep are, I don't get the significance, or your reason for mentioning it. And why is he confronting the knight who inspired him? It could be that his childhood idol turns out to be an asshole, or it could be that his childhood idol was forced to the dark side, etc. I think this should be clarified, so I know what kind of story I'm in store for.
Mungomry will need more than his wits and blade to succeed. He will need to accept the truth of Making and magic, a truth which threatens the world of light, a truth he has denied since his brother knights fell in battle centuries ago.
Again, I don't know the significance of this magic system, or what role it will play on the story and with Mungomry. I think you need to explain this to make this have an emotional hook, to rouse my interest. Why does he need to accept this truth? Is this book going to turn into some kind of religious sermon? You need to assure me that it won't.
Haunted, Mungomry will learn why he has survived, and why the boy he seeks may be the key to finding Mungomry's lost king, his destiny, and his absolution.
Why he has survived what? Some nebulous battle? And now that I read more closely, I see that you imply that he's immortal ... I think this is important to the character and something that should be mentioned up front. Is this a world full of immortal people? Did he become immortal for some reason, and if so, why? Do only knights become immortal?
If he's seeking the boy, doesn't he already know why he's seeking him? This paragraph makes it sound as if he has no idea why he's seeking this boy, or at least not a full idea. If that's the case, then what inspired him to seek the boy? I think this is important to mention in the query letter, because otherwise it sounds as if he's just randomly seeking some boy for some vague reason (maybe following a generic prophecy), and that can be boring.
But first, he will need a second soul.
There's a lot of things mentioned in your query letter that make no sense to a reader unfamiliar with your work, such as myself. You just threw this second soul thing in at the last minute ... but it means nothing to me, because I don't know why your character would seek or need another soul. I don't know what a second soul means in your universe. Is Mongomry going to have another person inside his head, a la Rand al'Thor in the Wheel of Time series? Is Mongomry going to sign a pact with the devil and become evil? This soul thing could mean all kinds of very different sorts of books. I want to know which one.
Right now, this query letter doesn't pique my interest, because it's all too vague. This might be an interesting book, or it might be a very boring book using every old trope of dark fantasy. Your query letter doesn't tell me which it is.
I don't mean to sound harsh; I just figure honesty is the best policy when it comes to the query letter.
November 8th, 2007, 12:07 AM #145Ranke LidyekGuest
[QUOTE=KatG;424968]Yes, but you're not writing "high fantasy" -- or to be more specific, pre-industrial imaginary realm fantasy. You're writing dark fantasy -- Stephen King, Tanith Lee, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Graham Joyce, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Moorcock sort of neighborhood and if it's Gene Wolfe-ian, so much the better. You're writing a nightmare version of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen," a twisted take on "The Nutcracker." The definition of dark fantasy used to be "the Goth stuff," and still pretty much is. You have the horror aspect of the real world and the nightmare world and the connections between them that effect both (welcome to the world of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, or if you like, the classic novel, "The Goblin Princess.") You have the fairy tale aspect of the boy rescuing his friend (Snow Queen, Pullman,) and the decrepit but valiant knight who must find new purpose, the odd creatures who are allies, the demon Queen who eats children, the sleeping gods (Gaiman again, borrowing from mythology, also Lovecraft,) and so on.
I agree, for the most part. The hardest thing is for an author to convey the atmosphere of his/her novel. I think the best writing is hermetically sealed and no description is going to fully represent what makes it special--high concept stuff aside. Yes, there are only so many plots, but a good book is greater than the sum of its parts. I think we have trouble when trying to get that across in a two paragraph blurb. And it's harder for the author to distinguish what exactly separates his/her writing, because it is not only close to them; it IS them in some respect. Someone like George R. R. Martin (if an unknown) would have zero chance of getting anyone to read his work regardless of the quality of his query. Many plots sound silly distanced from the work itself (Dune comes to mind). So, where does this leave us?
I'm not sure.
I've read some very good work here--better than a slew of published novels, and I wonder why we do this to begin with (masochism?). In the end, I think we have to do it for the story itself; because we MUST.
As far as the authors listed above, I don't think I'm very close to any of them. Though I'd have to consider the Stephen King reference because I picked up Firestarter recently and was surprised at little Charlie's voice, which felt very much like my young character, Lydia's voice. I'm not a huge fan of Gaiman for a number of reasons. Yes, there are parallels in any work, but I think they come from the exploration of the primordial mind, something that does present a synchronicity of sorts as we all have hard-wired fears and responses. One of my favorite writers is Roger Zelazney, yet I never get those comparisons (and justly, because even if I'd love to write like him, I simply don't. Instead, I hear Poe and P.K. Dick comparisons aplenty--neither of which I consider influences (I dislike Dick's writing, overall)). The Northern Lights or Golden Compass is the one book where I think I could say there is a kinship, even if the stories differ in fundamental ways (and outlooks). Mine is more of a tragedy, but the similarity exists: the illustration of the how the adult world corrupts the innocent and often cannot be trusted. When I read the book, I enjoyed that Pullman was willing to come out swinging in parts, where many authors pull away.
Mungomry's story is still key. If I write further novels, a big arc is the father/son dynamic that develops (one that Mungomry is not very suited for--as Her Dress is Darkness reveals). I also wanted to show the stages of an abused mind and the growth and recovery necessary in each--of course, reflected within the mythic setting. I think an alternative is to show Mungomry's tale (as done with perhaps more detail). Then, use another paragraph with Walter's query. Between the two there may be more dimension. The Crafted characters may be difficult to introduce because they'll beg more questions. I've written detailed synopses, but to go into the nitty-gritty of Making and Craft would involve including Forolyn (a dead Maker) and extensive backstory. Plus, there are more revelations to come. There is more involved than children being "eaten", but I think leaving it there suggests enough--even if the truth is worse by far.
I'm beginning to think that the problem is the limitation of the query format itself. How can I answer these questions in a paragraph? The whole thing feels like a sham; an easy road to dismissal. But I'll keep trying.
November 8th, 2007, 12:17 AM #146
Ah, if only the publishers could read every manuscript front to back...
Then they'd know its good stuff!
November 8th, 2007, 12:37 AM #147Ranke LidyekGuest
Fair enough. However, if I answer these questions (and I'm not careful) I'll end up with a synopsis, not a query. In general, a query uses archetypes--starting with a ground state then showing the inciting event. Then, they reveal the dilemma at hand and what that character must face. Unless an ending involves a high concept "twist", it's best not to give out that information. A query is a hook, not an explanation. And most novels have very similar blurbs on book jackets--all of which beg questions, are often very vague, and have few answers. They operate on the basis of doubt; doubt for the outcome concerning the characters involved.
Now, your questions are useful because they show me some windows I haven't opened fully (a problem because while "I" know the story, I need to realize that others do not). The knight he faces is Unborn; a slave to his Vow to his queen (who was tricked centuries ago by servants of the dead gods). He is a man cursed by his love for his Queen, a love that blinded him long ago. (and this, of course, will incite more questions....)
And no, there is no religious sermon involved. I believe in the Socratic method: presenting questions. Truth simply "is". People must make their own judgments. I'm not sure I want to divulge the full details of the plot here. The magical system is complex. The key to it is the soul, I'll say. And there is a reason why Makers have two. The Pale Queen does not use magic; she uses the reverse of it (this would take a while to explain).
The full reason the boy is important (and also, why the boy's father was hunted) is not revealed in the book--though there are hints of the larger plot. Mungomry knows only that his Vow is to his king, and thus, the heir. And he's a man who forsook his own family for that Vow; he won't abandon it now, certainly.
I don't know if any of this helps or if I make it even more confusing. But I appreciate your honesty and your questions. They will definitely aid me as I rewrite this yet again....
November 8th, 2007, 12:39 AM #148Ranke LidyekGuest
November 8th, 2007, 03:11 PM #149
The query letter is a sales pitch. It's meant to entice the agent into giving your first chapter or three a try.
I agree that you shouldn't give them a synopsis or reveal the ending. The query letter should be 100% focused on selling the novel, which is why you should hammer in the coolest aspects of it. Show the agent why your protagonist is awesome. Show them why your antagonist is horrific. Show them why your novel is original and better than other stuff out there. I don't need every idea in your novel, and I don't want to read the ending in your query letter ... I just want to know why I should bother asking for the first three chapters. There are a LOT of dark fantasy novels out there begging for my attention.
Granted, I'm not an agent. I'm just another unpublished novelist (as yet), so you can take my advice for what it's worth.
P.S. -- I totally agree that query letters are frustrating and a needless requirement of the industry. I would much prefer that agents simply agree to read the first page of your first chapter, and then the second page if they like it, and then the third page, and so forth. They aren't obligated to read the entire thing. But yeah, query letters are pretty much the standard.
November 8th, 2007, 03:43 PM #150Ranke LidyekGuest
Good post. I think all we ask is to be judged by our actual writing. A page is fair followed by a synopsis if they are interested. There are other ways possible of filtering submissions today, though I won't discuss them in this thread, as it is reserved for queries.
They say practice makes perfect; I've certainly had some practice. Thanks to this group I think I've moved from pathetic up to bland. Each time out I do think it's incrementally better. So, at least my feet are on the path.
Thanks to all yet again!