Thursday, January 27, 2011

Query Clinic: The Amaranth Guardian

I started querying about a month ago and I've gotten seven rejections so far. I've only been querying agents who I thought suited the genre, but I feel discouraged now that only one agent was willing to request sample pages. Before I send out any more queries, I was hoping you could dissect my letter, publicly and harshly if you so wish. I wonder if agents are discouraged by my saying it's the first of a series....

Dear X,
Kai Kirin is just like any other student at the Academy, a school from a parallel universe that trains lost and abandoned children in the ancient art of cylo. Like the others, Kai has been sheltered from the tribal warfare that has devastated his world since the fall of the last Demon Empress, Ubella. But unlike the others, Kai has been sent on an unusual assignment that will bring him to our world to find Kanna Burke, a young girl who possesses the legendary power to undo all of Ubella's black magic. Kai must retrieve Kanna and her family, to protect them from those who would use Kanna as a weapon. However, Kai will soon find that Kanna Burke is very reluctant to come under his protection.
Ok. So this is what people are talking about when they use "fantasy" like it's a bad word. Some fantasies do the hard word of world-building in a way that invites the reader in and gives them action and character development to keep them interested while the many ways in which this world is different are revealed, gradually, at a pace that makes sense to the reader.

And other fantasies drop a half-ton of unfamiliar details on the reader like a piano onto a cartoon coyote. I have a suspicion this may be one of those fantasies.

Also, I would ask you to consider whether it's really, truly important that the main character come from another dimension. Because if she could just come from another area of that dimension, you wouldn't need the idea of parallel dimensions in a story that's already heavy on unfamiliar ideas.
For her own good, Kai forces the obstinate girl back across the portal into his world along with her father and stepbrother. But when the remote to bring him home snaps in half, he finds himself not at the Academy, but in a dangerous territory far to the south. The small group of unhappy travelers must make their way north through warring states and cursed territories, avoiding dangerous militias, assassins, and the dreaded creatures known as Changelings. The long journey back to the Academy will soon change everything he believes.
Amaranth Guardian is a character-driven fantasy adventure novel centered on a group of teenagers who must put aside their differences and collaborate in order to survive in a world of chaos. Each character is an unlikely hero, full of fear and cockiness but also full of power that they don't yet understand. Kai, in particular, lives with the knowledge that he himself may be part Demon.
a. "Fantasy adventure novel" is about two words too long.
b. You know there was a recent YA fantasy published called The Amaranth Enchantment, right?
c. Move or cut that last sentence.
The story does not talk down to teens, but rather reflects their unique experiences: the feeling of suspended identity, the fear of responsibility, and the exciting sense of discovery that are central to the transition to adulthood.
Amaranth Guardian is complete at 142,700 words and I am now seeking representation for it. It is the first in a series and I am currently in the process of writing its sequel, Amaranth Prison. In addition to the above synopsis, I have included the first two chapters of my manuscript in the body of this e-mail. If you would like to request further materials, please e-mail me back. Thank you for your time!
This query is giving the impression that your manuscript may be overly dense and difficult to follow, and written with a great deal more tell than show. If you know how to fix that in the query, then your manuscript is probably ok.

If you're not sure how your query is giving those impressions, though, I would recommend taking a hard look at your manuscript for revisions, too.


Josin L. McQuein said...

There's a ton of information here that's not needed or that can be condensed. (Also, I don't think two MC's with names starting with "Ka" is doing the author any favors.)

You don't need bits about what ancient art the Academy teaches. In fact, you could shorten that whole first section into a couple of sentences.

Kai, a refugee student of "The Academy", must travel to another world in search of a weapon: a girl named Kanna. Too bad for him, Kanna has no intention of being retrieved.

Not perfect, but you get the MC's covered. You know he's a refugee, so that implies war. You get the academy mentioned along with his mission. And, you get that she's not a willing participant in his assignment. Most of the rest is unnecessary world-building for a query.

Adam Heine said...

First off, good show coming for help after only 7 rejections. It took me about 10 times before I sought serious advice.

There are lots of places online to get query critiques and (more importantly) to give critiques. I recently linked to a bunch here. Seriously, reading lots of other query letters, along with the expert feedback from some of these sites, will help you begin to see what works and what doesn't.

Hope that gives you a good start. Good luck in your writing!

Deirdre Mundy said...

I'd also cut the "This story does not talk down to teens" bit. Because good novels NEVER talk down to their audiences, so emphasizing that bit makes it sound like you're unfamiliar with the genre.

For instance, can you imagine someone ending a query with "This novel does not talk down to Romance Fans, but presents them with a sweeping drama about how to very different people can learn to put aside their differences and make mad passionate love?"

Also-- agents assume the book is complete. If it wasn't, you wouldn't be querying, right?

You also might want to put the title, genre and word count info closer to the top, to make it easier for an agent to figure out the query before you start writing.

Also (and this is a huge mistake that I always want to make too!)... cut the "Just like any other." He's NOT just like any other kid. He has a history, hobbies, and interests. And you don't need to mention the other kids so much, since they seem to be completely univolved in the plot.

Try something like:
"Since his birth, Kai has been sheltered from the tribal warfare that has devastated his world.... "

Hope this helps!

Meg said...

I completely agree. "And other fantasies drop a half-ton of unfamiliar details on the reader like a piano onto a cartoon coyote."

It does come off a bit like an overwrought fanfic, especially in the first two sentences: parallel universe, cylo (?!), tribal warfare, Demon Empress. I do think it gets a little better later on, when it becomes clear that it's a quest story.

Just a small note--you mention a "remote" that brings them between the parallel worlds. That sounds sci-fi/techie rather than fantasy/magical.

The Writing Goddess said...

I love fantasy adventure, but I agree with EA that the query felt too dense. My understanding is that a query should be like an appetizer - just enough to whet the appetite for more, not try to cram too much about the story and characters into one page.

I would say though, one agent wanting to read more - out of eight submissions - is a pretty high ratio of SUCCESS, not failure. So, don't be too discouraged.

Anonymous said...

Yes, cut, cut, cut. (Do you use Twitter? Having to confine myself to 140 characters has taught me so much about my usual tendency to say things in a way that's at least three times as long as it needs to be. Or in other words: "Twitter can help you practice brevity.")

Also, (as a complete novice who reads a lot of agent blogs, so sprinkle this liberally with salt) I'm pretty sure that, unlike a book blurb, a query should give at least some idea of how the book ends or about its climax. I think we also need ("we" meaning readers, agents, and editors) a hook that's more specific than "his adventures make him question everything he believed," or "he will face all kinds of obstacles." What did he used to believe, and what will he now believe instead, and is it something we can all relate to?

Since I'm pretending to myself that I have nothing else urgent to do right now, I hope you'll forgive me for trying a rewrite:

Until now, being at the Academy has sheltered Kai Kirin from the tribal warfare that's devastating his world. Now he must cross dimensions to bring Kanna Burke and her family to his world from ours. Kanna's powers could help save Kai's world--but Kanna doesn't want to come.

On the trip back, the unlucky travelers find themselves stranded far from their destination. Kai, Kanna, and Kanna's father and stepbrother must face militias, assassins, and Changelings as they make their way back to the Academy. And Kai now fears he may be part Demon himself.


A couple other notes: I think it's a little weird for a father and stepbrother to come on a fantasy journey, but even if they're integral to the story, they might not need a specific mention in a query. (You don't want what Janet Reid calls "character soup.") And as I said before, you'll need a more specific conflict than a perilous journey for a reader to care whether the protagonists triumph. Also, for me the word "remote" made me think first of an adjective rather than a noun, so you might want to say remote controller or just controller, or something else. And since fantasy's already full of changelings, you might want to indicate how yours are different and interesting, or give them a different name. Or even just don't capitalize Changeling, since most fantasy readers will already have some idea of what a changeling is.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I always forget that on this blog zero comments just means the comments haven't been approved yet . . . so I don't realize I'm probably repeating what all the other thus-far-unapproved comments have said.

Liesl Shurtliff said...

The story itself sounds intriguing, even if the word count is a little high and the pitch is bogged down with unnecessary details. Pitching fantasy can be so hard.

Where I really cringed was when the author chipped in their own descriptions and praise of the book. No, no! Don't you read Query Shark? If you haven't go read now.

Saying that the book is "character driven," and it "doesn't talk down to teens," is setting yourself up for the agent to say that the characters are flat and that it actually does talk down to teens. Let your writing speak for itself. If it doesn't stand on its own, speaking up for it will only weaken your chances. Less is more.

Good luck!

scott neumyer said...

Yeah, I couldn't get through more than a few sentences before my eyes were popping out of my head in confusion. Simplify, right? :)

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Anyone who knows better please feel free to correct me, but I believe that 140K is a daunting length, even for a fantasy manuscript, which tends to be longer than average. I believe it's supposed to top out around 125K, so that may be what's daunting your editors. And if, as it sounds, this is a YA or teen manuscript, it's supposed to be even slightly shorter. I know, I know, a novel is supposed to be as long as it has to be, but since you asked what may be daunting your agents, word count is a definite possibility. Could the manuscript benefit from clipping a bit?

Anonymous said...

Things that occurred to me as I read:

What is cylo? And since it's never mentioned again in the query, do we need to hear about it now?

Why are we being told Kai is taking Kanna "for her own good" when it's clear that her abilities will benefit his community? And even if others want to use her as a weapon, why can't she protect herself, especially if she has "legendary power"?

The query says character-driven, but the synopsis sounds plot-driven.

If Ubella has already fallen, why does anyone have to undo her magic?
If her magic is still oppressing them, then why is that not the focus of the conflict? Instead we get a wrong turn that takes them through a different territory to deal with different sources of conflict, and we never seem to get back to the original problem. Can this book stand alone? (Even a series book should have some sort of book arc and resolution.)

143K also sounds a little long to me. Not impossible, but perhaps some cutting is in order?

Good luck with it! I know it can be very hard to distill an entire book into a couple of paragraphs! so

jjdebenedictis said...

I just started a query critique blog called The Query Goblin; feel free to drop by and workshop this!

Adam Heine said...

Ugh, I meant to say "it took me 10 times THAT before I came for help". Seventy rejections, not ten.

And the Writing Goddess is absolutely right: one request out of 8 is not a failure!

Christine Tyler said...

While looking for the "meat" of what you want to say (as several commenters have noted we have a great amount of fat to trim), I'd imagine yourself at a Writer's Convention, and your favorite agent has just said, "Oh really? What is your book about?"

You should be able to finish your query in that amount of time. Without them looking at their watch.

Anonymous said...

I definitely suggest cutting your query-- and one more thing! Instead of saying it's a series you want to be able to say (AND MEAN) that it is a "standalone with series potential." Trust me on this -- I got an agent for a book that was a standalone with series potential but in the end my agent decided it wasn't standalone enough. I tried rewriting it and then it still didn't work. I finally have set that book (that I worked on for 8 years!) aside and produced something new for my agent so I can figure out how to end my novel as succinctly as the first books in Hunger Games, Matched, Across the Universe, Delirium, etc. Those are all books that are the first in a series that can stand alone. I suggest trying to read as many stand alones/first in a series to get a good idea of how you should end the first book.

Also, if you want to check the length of other novels, I use this resource: You can type in the name of a book and get the word count if it is out. For example, GRACELING is 116,000 words, and MATCHED is 89,000. Look for titles that are in the same sort of market you want to break into and use that as a guideline, because then it will show that you are savvy in your own market.

Anonymous said...

You can also read a bunch of query critiques and submit your own to Query Shark. I do love that site.

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