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:
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.
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.