Query Critique 4: Anastasia

3 Feb

Welcome to Query Week! Every day, this week and next, we’ll be publicly critiquing the queries you guys were awesome enough to send us last week. If we don’t publicly post yours, don’t worry, we’ll still email you our thoughts 🙂

See the bottom of our posts for great resources about queries, and use the tag ‘query week’ to see Query Weeks of the past.

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Dear Agent:

It has come to my attention that you have an interest in the epic fantasy genre and young adult fiction, particularly featuring strong heroines. As such, I would like to propose my 86,000 YA novel, ANASTASIA.

It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it. When the capital city’s palace is attacked by stone behemoths aflame the night of her Seventeen Ball, Princess Anya Bourdon is forced to flee for her life as her home burns to ashes, clinging to her father’s cryptic last words and the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage.

The empty throne draws the eyes of neighboring monarchs: Sir Orlando de Luc and Lady Victoria Sol, both of whom are eager to make their countries the new ruling force of the kingdom. But Lord Fallon, king of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court, is not to be ignored, and his eyes may rest on things far more important than seats of power…

Now, armed with nothing more than a mysterious and powerful dagger of unknown origin, and accompanied only by her silver steed Starlight and a curious wanderer determined to see her story through to the end, Anya must travel the far-reaching lands of a kingdom she’s never seen for herself; search for Dulcina, the nymph wood where the answers to her questions lie; and navigate through the magic and intrigue of three courts nearing war—all while attempting to discover the destiny that she was always meant for.

In the past, I have won county awards for my short stories and poetry, in addition to having been published in my school magazine. I am currently a student at Columbia University, majoring in Biology with a concentration in Creative Writing.

My novel is available in full upon request, and I have pasted a partial in the body of the email as per your submission guidelines.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope to soon hear of a response.

Sincerely,

Schneider Rancy

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Today we have a special guest critique from Joanna Volpe, an agent with Nancy Coffey Literary and Media! (Her comments are in red!)

Dear Agent:

It has come to my attention that you have an interest in the epic fantasy genre and young adult fiction, particularly featuring strong heroines. As such, I would like to propose my 86,000 YA novel, ANASTASIA. To be honest, this title is misleading. Because of the Romanovs, unfortunately the name Anastasia is automatically equated with them and that specific time period. So if you’re going to name your book ANASTASIA, you’re either going to turn certain literary agents away who aren’t looking for that type of book, or disappoint other literary agents who are and think this is about that. I would consider changing the title, to avoid any issue with that.

It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it. What was her destiny? If you start off with a line like that, you better explain yourself rather quickly. In reading the rest of the query, I notice that you don’t ever explain what her destiny is, so this just comes off as more confusing than anything.

When the capital city’s palace is attacked by stone behemoths aflame (are the stone creatures actually on fire? Confusing way to say it.) the night of her Seventeen Ball, Princess Anya Bourdon is forced to flee for her life as her home burns to ashes, clinging to her father’s cryptic last words and the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage. Is she actually clinging to the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage? This sentence is very long. I had to reread it a few times and I’m still not sure I have it right. You’re throwing a lot of information at us all at once—too much. You need to break this up into 2-3 sentences and clarify yourself.

The empty throne draws the eyes of neighboring monarchs: Sir Orlando de Luc and Lady Victoria Sol, both of whom are eager to make their countries the new ruling force of the kingdom. But the king of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court, is not to be ignored, and his eyes may rest on things far more important than seats of power…Again, since you’re throwing so many names at us, I cut Lord Fallon’s name here since “the kind of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court” is intriguing enough. When pitch high fantasy, try to simplify when you can. A lot of these characters will come alive when we actually read about them, but before then you need to get us interested, and it’s difficult when it feels like so many things are going on that we don’t understand.

Now, armed with nothing more than a mysterious and powerful dagger of unknown origin, and accompanied only by her silver steed (same reason as above—don’t need the horse’s name here, it will make it less confusing) and a curious wanderer determined to see her story through to the end, Anya must travel the far-reaching lands of a kingdom she’s never seen for herself; search for (same reason as above) the nymph wood where the answers to her questions lie; and navigate through the magic and intrigue of three courts nearing war—all while attempting to discover the destiny that she was always meant for. OK. The sentence is a little long, but not too hard to follow. I like how you raise the stakes and lay out her quest.

I am currently a student at Columbia University, majoring in Biology with a concentration in Creative Writing.

ANASTASIA is my first novel and is available in full upon request. I have pasted the first __ pages below as per your submission guidelines.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. You want to avoid ending with lines like that—some agents can get a little prickly about you coming off too anxious. I think it’s safe to just always end with a “Thank you” and leave it at that.

Great query overall, though!

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I really like the concept for this story. I’m a big fan of the Anastasia legend and I like how you included so many fantasy elements of it. Also, Carrion Court? Omg that sounds so badass. So, overall, if I were an agent I would request to read this story. However, I do feel there are a few things you could improve on.

First sentence: “It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it.” You never specifically say exactly what was her destiny, which means that I’m confused from the very beginning. Not so great. In your second sentence I’m not sure if you mean ‘aflame’ as a verb or an adjective, so you might want to clear that up.

At the end of the first paragraph, you’ve used the verb ‘cling to’ to describe not only her fathers last words, but her mother’s mysterious death and lineage. You can’t cling to a mysterious death and lineage. Maybe you could say she clings to the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage?

Are Sir Orlando and Lady Victoria in the same kingdom or different ones? I would like to hear more about Lord Fallon and why he can’t be ignored. Also if you could find a way to explain the Carrion Court that would be great.

Okay, personal preference but… is there any possible way you could name the horse something other than Starlight? I just feel it’s been done before (this coming from a girl who actually had a horse named Starlight once, lol).

Clear up those questions and you’ll be golden! Final notes: I wouldn’t mention your school magazine.

Hope to see your book in print one day!

-Savannah J. Foley

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Hi, I agree with Sav that this is a really interesting concept! I’ve written my comments below in blue.

Dear Agent:

It has come to my attention that you have an interest in the epic fantasy genre and young adult fiction, particularly featuring strong heroines. As such, I would like to propose my 86,000 YA novel, ANASTASIA.

It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it. This is a decent hook, but while it’s worded in a way that’s supposed to be intriguing, it’s too vague to pique the interest of the reader. In fact, it’s kind of confusing.
When the capital city’s palace is attacked by stone behemoths aflame the night of her Seventeen Ball, Princess Anya Bourdon is forced to flee for her life as her home burns to ashes, clinging to her father’s cryptic last words and the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage. This is a really cool idea, and very intriguing! But this sentence reads as a bit too long and I got lost in it.  Perhaps you could break this down into two more effective sentences?

The empty throne draws the eyes of neighboring monarchs This is also really interesting, but I was a bit thrown here, because this didn’t follow the conflict you’d set up in the first paragraph regarding Anya. It makes the query seem disjointed, as there’s no real segue into this part.: Sir Orlando de Luc and Lady Victoria Sol, both of whom are eager to make their countries the new ruling force of the kingdom. But Lord Fallon, king of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court, is not to be ignored, and his eyes may rest on things far more important than seats of power…You have all these really interesting elements (the Carrion Court sounds super creepy, but awesome!), but I just feel like you’re not pulling them together quite right, yet. Your query needs to flow, and the sentences in this paragraph are both reading a little bit disjointedly, to me. Perhaps you could tie the second sentence into the first by beginning “But Sir Orlando and Lady Victoria will have to vie with Lord Fallon….” (although I’m not quite sure exactly what you’re saying about Fallon? What more important things are his eyes resting upon? It’s vague enough to be confusing.

Now, armed with nothing more You can’t say ‘nothing more’ and then tell me the dagger’s both mysterious and powerful! That sounds like some awesome weaponry to me 🙂 than a mysterious and powerful dagger of unknown origin ‘of unknown origin’ is kind of saying a similar thing to mysterious, and I’m wondering whether you should cut it to streamline. and accompanied only by her silver steed Starlight a curious wanderer  determined to see her story through to the end, Anya must travel the far-reaching lands of a kingdom she’s never seen for herself; search for Dulcina, the nymph wood where the answers to her questions lie This is quite confusing, because you haven’t yet set Anya up as having any questions; and navigate through the magic and intrigue of three courts nearing war —all while attempting to discover the destiny that she was always meant for.

In the past, I have won county awards for my short stories and poetry, in addition to having been published in my school magazine You should probably not mention the school magazine –I think I was tempted to put that into one of my first queries, too . I am currently a student at Columbia University, majoring in Biology with a concentration in Creative Writing.

My novel is available in full upon request, and I have pasted a partial in the body of the email as per your submission guidelines.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope to soon hear of a response.

Sincerely,

Schneider Rancy

Overall, I think you have some really intriguing elements here. But your query doesn’t have enough direction. In your first para, you do a fairly good job of setting up the catalyst for your protagonist’s quest, after that, I kind of lost the plot. I think you can cut your second paragraph without losing too much at the moment (it’s really cool, and I can see some parallels to the real Anastasia story,  but it seems more like subplot material).  Replace that second para with one telling us what Anya wants, following her parent’s death (and preferably a vague idea about where she flees to, at least). ) Once you’ve set up her motivation, get into the conflict – what’s stopping her from getting what she wants?

Your final paragraph should let the reader of your query know what the stakes are. What happens if Anya can’t overcome the problems presented by the conflict? What does she, and possibly this entire world, have to lose? I’d also like to see more of your character’s actions.

This novel sounds like a really cool dark adventure story. Best of luck with it!

– Vahini Naidoo

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I, too, am really intrigued by your story! Anastasia is one of my favorite animated movies, and my childhood was spent obsessing over books about her and the Romanovs. I like that you took a well known story and gave it a fantastical twist. But as Savannah and Vee both mentioned, there are a few things you could do to make sure even non-Anastasia-loving agents pick up your book!

I mentioned this with one of the previous queries, but I would move that first paragraph about why you’re querying a particular agent to the end. There’s no hard or fast rule about where to put it, but I feel like it always does the query a disservice when you could otherwise jump right into the story, hooking the reader immediately. Personal preference, so feel free to ignore! Oh! And you forgot ‘word’ after you give the word count. Easy fix!

That being said, I think your query is too vague. As the others mentioned, we need to know what Anastasia’s destiny is so we realize she’s actually invested in something. Knowing what that is would help round out the plot line you’ve provided. You could easily trim the overall plot down to a paragraph or two, then have a third that covers more of Anastasia’s motivations and the journey she’s about to go through. Vee also mentioned that you want to cover more of your characters’ actions, and I agree. Try to fit that into the plot paragraphs and you’ll be golden.

Also agreeing with the other ladies: take out the part about being published in your high school magazine. Having short stories and poems published sounds more credible, as well as the creative writing concentration. Maybe it’s just me, but your opening and closing sound almost too formal (ie: ‘It has come to my attention’ and ‘I hope to soon hear of a response’). It’s always nice to thank the agent for taking the time to read your query, however, so nice job there.

Overall, I think you just need to clear up some of the vagueness and you’ll be good to go. Good luck!

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Helpful Links

Queries and Cover Letters, from the Elaine P. English literary agency blog

Query Letter Mad Lib, from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog

How to Format a Query Letter, also from Nathan Bransford’s blog

Query Shark, where literary agent Janet Reid tears apart your queries and puts them back together

AgentQuery gives their advice on what makes up a good query letter

A Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, a good article from Science Fiction Writers of America

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11 Responses to “Query Critique 4: Anastasia”

  1. Aurora Blackguard February 3, 2011 at 4:57 AM #

    This sounds so great! Wishing you the best of luck! 🙂

  2. Julie Eshbaugh February 3, 2011 at 10:57 AM #

    Thanks for contributing the guest critique, Joanna!

    • JoSVolpe February 3, 2011 at 12:31 PM #

      Is this actually about Anastasia Romanov and I just missed that connection? I feel so silly! I could certainly see the correlation in the stories, but that actually wasn’t clear to me.

      Please clarify, Schneider!

      And this is actually a good point to make–if you are writing something as a retelling or about a historical figure, but with a fantastical twist, definitely say so in the query! We read hundreds of queries a week, and very quickly, so we might miss that. I know I did.

      • sdennard February 3, 2011 at 7:28 PM #

        Don’t feel silly Jo! And thank you SO much for critiquing this for us!

  3. Schneider February 3, 2011 at 12:51 PM #

    Ah, thanks so much for the critique, ladies, it’s more than appreciated–I’ll get started on the suggestions as soon as possible!

    @Joanna: As a matter of fact, it isn’t. The concept was loosely drawn from the 20th Century Fox animated film ANASTASIA, but there are no true similarities between the two other than the works’ titles and the main characters’ names. And thanks again for your help! 😀

    • sdennard February 3, 2011 at 7:27 PM #

      OMGosh!! I LOVEThe Anastasia movie. Like, it’s my all-time favorite cartoon.

      Thanks for sharing your query with us!

      • Schneider February 5, 2011 at 2:30 PM #

        Haha my pleasure!

  4. Kathryn Leigh February 3, 2011 at 2:17 PM #

    I really liked how the critiques matched so perfectly. It gives me hope that the system isn’t completely arbitrary 🙂

    • sdennard February 3, 2011 at 7:27 PM #

      Hahaha, I know what you mean, Kathryn! It’s *not* arbitrary–good to know. 😉

  5. kaemccrae February 4, 2011 at 2:23 PM #

    The only thing that confused me was that I, being obsessively compulsively involved with my animated musical collection, automatically made the movie connection – but in the movie, Anastasia and Anya refer to two ‘different’ people, with-memory Anastasia and without-memory Anastasia (I’m assuming the similarities between the names ‘Anya’ and ‘Anna’ weren’t even remotely a coincidence), so I was just a little lost as to whether it was a nickname or if your character, too, had the with/without memory identities or if Anastasia and Anya were even the same person (since you only refer to your character as ‘Anya’ in the query). I had to look up and check that, yes, Anya is a legit nickname for Anastasia, so they’re probably just interchangeable.

    Mind, this is a pretty selective reading of it, though. So I don’t know if it’s a problem so much as a personal confused moment. : 3 Just thought I’d mention it.

    And also: Carrion Court, yes, total win. 8DDDD

    • Schneider February 5, 2011 at 2:35 PM #

      Hmm, that’s a very good point.

      Well, the character’s name is undoubtedly Anya, and Anya alone; Anastasia refers to something other in the novel, something magical, and there is a reason for it. Still, I’m wondering now if a change is necessary, what with all the confusion it’s causing haha.

      And thank you, glad you like the Carrion Court. 😀

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