Sunday, January 30, 2011

query letter

A Query is the Rock Breaking the Surface
It's been an interesting month of working on a YA novel, "The General's Daughter," which has evolved into "The Brigadier's Daughter."  Someone in an online writer's group pointed out that there was a 1996 movie with the first title, based on a novel of the same name.  Presumably, titles are not copyrighted, but it's no big problem to change it.  The mom is still a one-star general, which works out to be a Brigadier General.  Writer's groups, or writer's workshops, can be tough with critiques of a Work-in-Progress (WIP), but generally no one is shooting to kill, and if the author can just adjust to the flak he might better advance across the beachhead and come out with a better book at the end. 

The last blog talked a little about how the first 5 pages need to 'hook' the reader; they need to compel him to want to read further.  There's an even tighter window of opportunity to grab the attention of an agent or editor to want to read an offered manuscript.  It's one thing to write, say, a 50,000 words YA manuscript, and quite another to write that dreaded one-page query, which somehow has to distill all that material into, at most, about 300 words.  Helpfully, there is an online forum of writers accessible at, where a writer may post a draft query and invite critiques.  Of course there is an art to critiquing material, and not everyone is so artful, but generally a lot can be learned by careful attention to the sum total of all the critiques. 

The opening lines of a fiction query letter always contain introductory details of how the writer chose to contact this particular agent/editor, the title of the completed work, and the genre.  Some include the number of words here, and some insist it belongs at the very end of the query.  Probably the agent/editor would prefer it up here, so that they can decide whether to read further about any work that has an unsuitable number of words for the genre.  Gordon Lish may have been willing to edit down Raymond Carver, but it may be presumptuous of lesser writers to expect such willingness by the editor.

The next part of the query is the 'hook,' two or three lines giving the color of the story and a compelling element of tension about where the story is going.  Here was the first attempt for 'General..'

A prepping journey undertaken by teenagers to signal an independence from parents is difficult. If the parents divorce first, prepping is maybe half over. But when the remaining parent is a dominating, all consuming disciplinarian, an Afghan immigrant mother, who also happens to be a one-star general in the US Army, prepping takes on epic proportions. 

Most of the critiques commented that the voice wasn't appropriate for YA; too 'preachy;' or too academic.  Generally, sitting back and looking at it again, they're right.  That's how it's going to come across to the query reader.  The actual story doesn't have such academic overtones.  It's just the result of laboring to get a whole lot of ideas on the table in a couple of sentences, and using big words to do the job.  Here's a later version after the critiques and a couple of revisions:

When her Army Brigadier General mom is deployed to the war in Afghanistan, 17-yr. old Caitlin is anxious to toss all that horrible top-down discipline she'd grown up with, and make her own decisions. It's her chance to become her own person, but will it take an epic karate battle to discover just who that person is?

It's probably not there yet, but seems a lot better.

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