genesis of a query

I know I said we wouldn’t be talking about query letters this year, but I’ve been hearing negative remarks about working with editors here and there. I wanted to show you what a good editor can do if you work with her.

As some of my constant readers know, I’ve been obsessing over putting my novel into a two paragraph query for the last year. I did everything one is supposed to do when working on a query letter: I read every agent’s web site on blurbs, log lines, and how-to until my eyes were bleeding. Given all the excellent advice out there, I still had one jumbled up mess.

In a paroxysm of despair, I went to Backspace: The Writer’s Place and joined the discussion groups there. I found some super writers at Backspace, who are as free with their advice and time as anyone could desire. I will mention some of them to you later in this blog.

However, I still felt my query was missing something important, and even with all this great advice rolling around, I was still clueless. One day when I went to the Backspace home page, I saw an ad for Kristen Weber Editorial Services.* Hmm. I followed the link to her web site.

I first went to her testimonials and while all the testimonials spoke very highly of her skills, it was Jessica Faust’s (Bookends, LLC) testimonial that won me over. Don’t ask me why, but I just had a gut feeling that this might be the editor to help me with my query.

Here’s how it works: I submitted my query to Kristen through her web site (payment is via PayPal), she edited the original and offered to brainstorm it with me. Due to my hearing impairment, I don’t use the phone very often, but Kristen worked with me via e-mail. She looked at my second version and offered comments on that. That ended the first $25 session. I used two $25 sessions with Kristen before I was happy with my query.

Here is the original I sent Kristen along with her comments in red:

THE ORIGINAL:

Mistakes are unforgiven on Woerld (I think we need more of an introduction to what Woerld is) where treachery can damn body and soul. No one knows this better than Lucian Negru, an exiled warrior-prophet, who betrayed the woman he loved to save his twin sister Catarina’s soul from a devil. But Catarina never desired redemption. She bartered her soul for power and included Lucian in the pact, because he holds the coveted ability to open the Hell Gates. Without her twin, Catarina cannot fulfill her agreement with the Fallen Angels to open the Hell Gates so they can conquer Woerld.

Lucian escapes his sister to find Rachael, the lover he deceived, and save her from the demon he unleashed on her soul. On the run from his sister’s guards, he discovers a twenty-first century girl from Earth who has accidentally passed into Hell. The girl is a foundling, Woerld’s next generation of warrior. As he keeps her safe and teaches her to use her new powers, he learns the selflessness required to defy his sister and win back Rachael’s trust. – I think you really need to work on these descriptive paragraphs. It boils down to a fairly simple story (a brother betraying his love for his sister – and trying to win her back while protecting someone else) so what you really need to sell to us on is the world you’ve created and the characters and rules within it. I’d focus more on that and then weave the plot details around that. You can run another draft of it by me if you’d like – and I’m happy to talk in more detail to brainstorm and help you figure out exactly what I mean.

AN AUTUMN TALE is a dark fantasy novel for adults and is approximately 87,000 words. Based on Christian and Jewish mythologies, the theme is of redemption and forgiveness while the tone is reminiscent of autumn, dark and reflective (While I love the idea of autumn, I’d instead compare it to books that are similar to yours – it’s hard to get a sense of what your book really is. Maybe in the first sentence you can actually say for adults in the vein of…. and just run your comparison titles by me so I can tell you in they’re ok to use).

You can see she didn’t have a lot to work with on this first version. Here I was trying to cover too many points using very few words. Instead of a clear progression from one point to another, I had several isolated plot issues cobbled together.

On my end, I was frustrated, because after reading and trying to adhere to all the advice on the Internet, I still had a mess. I threw out every piece of advice and started from scratch.

VERSION 2: The next version looked like this (again with Kristen’s comments in red):

Inspired by Dante’s Inferno (I don’t think mentioning Inferno works because it transcends being just a book at this point – is there something more contemporary you can compare it to?) and similar to God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe (I think this is a good comparison though – more realistic although still well known), AN AUTUMN TALE is dark fantasy for adults. Unlike Barlowe’s novel, which dealt with a fallen angel’s insurgency in Hell – but I don’t think I’d even say this. Instead of starting with the comparison titles, you want to pull us right into your book. I’d start with a bang – describing your book – and include the comparison titles in the paragraph with the word count, when you tell us more about what kind of shape the book actually takes), AN AUTUMN TALE is about I wouldn’t even introduce it. Maybe start with something like an alternative dimension called Woerld, which exists as the frontline of Heaven’s defense between Earth and Hell. The Fallen Angels seek to secure their rule in Woerld so their hordes may overrun Earth, their last obstacle before reaching Heaven’s Gates. now this is key – think about how to introduce Woerld to us in a really big way. Maybe something like -The frontline of Heaven’s defense between Earth and Hell is Woerld (and maybe add a few words of description after that). And now it’s become the battleground for The Fallen Angels seeking to secure their rule in Woerld so their hordes may overrun Earth, their last obstacle before reaching Heaven’s Gates.

Lucian Negru is an exorcist and an exiled member of the Citadel, Woerld’s Christian bastion against Hell’s Legions – is there any way to make this a bit more lyrical? I stumbled a bit over the sentence. In his youth, Lucian made a ruinous (disastrous? It helps if you read aloud for flow and I think that might flow better?) decision to sacrifice his lover in order to redeem his sister, Catarina, from her pact with a Fallen Angel. Now he wants nothing more than to find Rachael, the lover he betrayed, and rescue her from the demon he unleashed on her soul.

Lucian escapes his sister’s city (why just the city? unclear?), but Catarina can’t let him go. She bartered her soul for power and included Lucian in the pact, because he holds the coveted ability to open the Hell Gates. Without her brother, Catarina cannot fulfill her agreement with the Fallen Angels to open the Hell Gates so they can conquer Woerld – I don’t think you need this part. We get it from what you said earlier). She will stop at nothing to bring him back.

On the run from his sister’s guards, Lucian discovers a twenty-first century girl from Earth. The girl is a foundling, Woerld’s next generation of warrior. As he keeps her safe and teaches her to use her new powers, he learns the selflessness required to win back Rachael’s trust. and maybe just end on a stronger note? is there a big conflict?

Ah! The big conflict! All that verbiage and where, oh where, was the conflict? I knew it was there, but Kristen wasn’t seeing it. Of course, this meant an agent wouldn’t see it either, so I had a huge problem.

I e-mailed Kristen and told her I was going to work on the query with her suggestions in mind, then re-submit it through her web site.

THEN CAME THE HOLIDAYS . . .

And my life shut down for a month, but I didn’t give up. I kept re-working those sentences until I had a new version, which I ran by the folks at Backspace: The Writer’s Place. Frustrated once more by my inability to persuade complete strangers that my book was worth reading, I wailed aloud and calm writers responded.

Suggestions came from several writers, but it was the rational Sara J. Henry, who told me to relax. Sara said that I should just tell her what my book was about as if we were having coffee together.

Oh, okay.

Once more – with feeling . . .

I went through another version that I felt was strong enough to send to Kelly Bryson, who has seen almost every version of this query (weep for her, it’s true!). Not all. I like to keep my friends, so when I have mental images of them closing their laptops and walking away when they see an e-mail from me with “Query” in the subject line, it’s time to give them a break. I will say Kelly did suffer through at least twelve versions of my queries, and she wasn’t getting paid. (Thanks, Kelly!)

VERSION 3: Kelly came through with some nice suggestions and here is what I sent to Kristen the second time (Kristen’s edits in red):

How about: Exiled exorcist Lucian Negru, an exiled exorcist (and then delete this one), deserted his lover in Hell so he could save (or in exchanged for saving?) his sister Catarina’s soul, but Catarina doesn’t want salvation. She wants Lucian to (or help her fulfill?) fulfill her dark covenant with the Fallen by using his power to open the Hell Gates. When Lucian refuses, Catarina imprisons and cripples him, and Lucian learns that mistakes are unforgiven on Woerld (I have trouble with this line because we don’t know that this is where they are yet – so maybe something like their birthplace and Heaven’s…), Heaven’s frontline of defense between Earth and Hell.

Determined to find Rachael, the lover he betrayed, and rescue her from the demon he unleashed on her soul (In this 1st paragraph we learned he just left her in Hell – so I feel like the demon he unleashed on her soul doesn’t quite translate. Is there something else that just reinterprets what we learned above?), Lucian flees his sister, but Catarina’s wrath follows him. In the end, she will force him once more to decide between losing Rachael or opening the Hell Gates so the Fallen’s hordes may overrun Earth, their last obstacle before reaching Heaven’s Gates.

** And while I really think the copy is much stronger, I think we just need somewhere 1-2 sentences about your world and the year it is set in. Setting is such a big part of the genre and – while you give us hints about it in the copy – it isn’t quite as specific as it could be.

Similar to (or inspired by?) God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe and based on Christian and Jewish mythologies, AN AUTUMN TALE is an adult fantasy at approximately 87,000 words. It stands alone, but I do have four novels planned for this series and each book corresponds to a different character and season.

So that we now have the final cut:

VERSION 4: [Please note there is no red writing on this one for a reason]:

Exiled exorcist Lucian Negru deserted his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his sister Catarina’s soul, but Catarina doesn’t want salvation. She wants Lucian to help her fulfill her dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by using his power to open the Hell Gates. Catarina intends to lead the Fallen’s hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven’s frontline of defense between Earth and Hell.

When Lucian refuses to help his sister, she imprisons and cripples him, but Lucian learns that Rachael, the lover he betrayed, is dying from a demonic possession she has endured since he abandoned her in Hell. Determined to rescue Rachael from the demon he unleashed on her soul, Lucian flees his sister, but Catarina’s wrath follows him. In the end, she will force him once more to decide between losing Rachael or opening the Hell Gates so the Fallen’s hordes may overrun Earth, their last obstacle before reaching Heaven’s Gates.

Inspired by God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe and based on Christian and Jewish mythologies, AN AUTUMN TALE is an adult fantasy at approximately 87,000 words. It stands alone, but I do have four novels planned for this series and each book corresponds to a different character and season.

We were both happy with this version. I think Kristen would have liked to have seen more detail about Woerld, but I didn’t want my world building to overshadow my character’s story.

These aren’t the only three paragraphs Kristen edited, either. She also edited my opening and closing paragraphs. I just didn’t include those here due to the length of the post.

Nowhere did Kristen change the “voice” of my query, in fact, she helped me focus on ways to strengthen my voice. Now my query moves smoothly from one major plot point to the next without losing the reader. I don’t think I could have arrived at this version so quickly without some editorial guidance.

What about you? Have you ever used a professional editor’s services with your query letter or synopsis? With your novel?

*A disclaimer: Kristen Weber and I met during a business transaction. I am receiving no compensation from Kristen for this post.

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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17 Responses to genesis of a query

  1. Wow, excellent post. I love your final version. It not only sounds exciting, but is so very professional.

    I do believe Catarina has unleashed the Fallen on my own query. Thanks to your post, I am even more determined to rescue it from the demons of writer’s hell before it is too late.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Melanie, I’m so glad you liked the post. I never could have taken the query to the limits that I did without Kristen’s help. Her comments really heped me get my focus on the parts that mattered, then (and to me the most important part) helped me to construct the query so it flowed naturally.

      Good luck with yours!

  2. Kelly Bryson says:

    Hey there Teresa- Does this mean I can stop worrying about over-emailing you? As far as I can tell, we’re even. Great post.

  3. kat magendie says:

    I have never used an editing service before, but I did attend a writer’s conference, where we had these small classes – I was in the “advanced class” (that made me feel good) and the instructor said, “what are you doing here? your novel doesn’t need my help” – well that made me feel REALLY good – but then I showed her my query and she laughed and said, “this may be the worst query I’ve ever seen – how can someone write such beautiful prose and have such a horrible query?”

    So, we worked on my query instead of my manuscript. I came out with something that was better, but probably not as good as it could or should be-however, with that query, I found Bellebooks, so … 🙂

    I do love the end result of your query – it makes me interested in the book even though I normally do not read that kind of book! So that did its job.

    I was a member of Backspace and let my membership lapse – I should renew it and you’ve reminded me of that.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Kat! I’ve had the same problem, everyone has loved the writing in the novel, but I couldn’t translate that skill into something so simple as a query letter. I know I got so bogged down with all the different advice out there, I completely lost my way. Kristen really helped me pinpoint what the book was about and what I should focus on in my query.

      If you found Bellebooks with that query, then it was successful! 😉

      I’ve got to log in to Backspace more often so I can give back a little of the good they’ve done me.

  4. Kelly Bryson says:

    It was late last night so my comment was brief, but this is really helpful. I think I haven’t read a lot of queries where world building is required. I see now what you mean about saying more about the Home might help my query. Thanks again for posting all of this. And thanks to the editor, who I assume agreed to let you publish her comments. I’ve thought about having some editing done, but am scared that I wouldn’t get a good fit. Maybe I’ll look this lady up. 25$ is not a bad price.

    And I would have sworn that I haven’t looked at your query more than 8 or 9 times, haha.

    • Teresa says:

      I wrote Kristen before I did the post to make sure it was all right with her to post her work product, and she was fine with the idea. $25 is not a bad price at all, and I certainly felt like I got my money’s worth!

      I think a lot of it also depends on how much work the individual is willing to do on their query. For me, the query is my resume, and I want it to shine as brightly as the writing in my novel. The only way I can do that is by putting the same amount of energy into writing my query as I do my novel.

  5. Kelly Bryson says:

    And don’t hate me, but I think you could delete ‘the demon he unleashed on her soul’. The previous sentence establishes that he left her in Hell and that she picked up a demon while there.

    • Teresa says:

      And don’t hate me, but I think you could delete ‘the demon he unleashed on her soul’. I’m going to slap your hands if you don’t stop! 😉

  6. Thanks for posting the versions of your letter. It is very helpful to see the comments and how you worked to distill the story. I’ve only toyed with a synopsis a few times. It gets better each time, but it seems like you can always add a little bit more. I didn’t even have any characters in my first one! Appreciate the post!

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Jonathan, I like your word “distill,” because that’s exactly what it felt like! Everytime I shifted it through the strainer, I found more I could delete. Good luck with yours! 😉

  7. Kate Jonez says:

    I never even thought of hiring an editor for a query. Thank you for letting us see the process. Your book sounds interesting. Good luck when you send out the query.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Kate, thanks for stopping by! I had never thought of doing it either, but when I found Kristen edited queries, I thought I’d give it a try. I’d failed so miserably on my own, I had nothing to lose.

      There are other editors out there who do edit queries and will also help you edit your synopsis. I think hiring an editor is like finding an agent. You’ve got to get someone who can work with your style of writing and help you enhance it.

  8. SM Blooding says:

    Excellent post! This was a great way for people to really see how a pitch can change and how by finding the true focus of the book, you can really pin down the pitch for your query. Awesome job and thanks for sharing!

    Frankie

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Frankie, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I think getting the query right was more difficult than writing the book! 😉

      Thank you for your kind words.

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