Query Critique 7: Soul Sifter

8 Feb

Dear Agent,

When a girl appears and claims he “created” her, London Howell – a seventeen-year-old boy who brandishes humor and harmless lies to keep the peace – doesn’t know whether he should call for a police officer or a psychiatrist. London just wants a quiet summer with his dad, even if the man barely recognizes his own son most days, and the last thing he needs is a crazed girl. He decides to dump her off with the police, but his plan gets derailed when he’s confronted by the House of Dering.

The House of Dering, the city’s ruling family, maintains the order and secrecy of the city’s magi. With the ripples of London’s magic gathering attention and raising questions, the Derings want him to find a sieve to siphon his magic and tell him what he is. Seeing as the family’s got enough secrets to fill the Thames, London’s pretty sure their intentions are less than benevolent–especially once his dad goes missing.

The measure of a magus’s power lies in his soul, which can be ripped free and exploited, and the Derings aren’t the only ones who think London’s got one hell of a repository. Now, he must fend off increasing attacks and deal with his growing attraction to the Dering princess, Abby, an exasperating and irreverent seeker with a penchant for kicking him.

With demons whispering in his ears, nightwalkers dropping him into shadows and the House of Dering offering answers to newly raised questions about himself and his family, London has no idea whom to trust. To save his dad, he will make or break whatever alliances necessary, but it might just cost him his soul.

SOUL SIFTER is an 88,000 YA urban fantasy set in modern-day England. My short fiction has been published in Daily Science Fiction, and I have a degree in Creative Writing. I currently work as a web technician for a major newspaper company, and live in Wisconsin with my 8-year-old daughter, two puppies, and a husband who believes he’s the second coming of the Dog Whisperer.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Mai Lee
[contact info]
www.lorimlee.com

~~~

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

Dear Agent,

When a girl appears and claims he “created” her, London Howell – a seventeen-year-old boy who brandishes humor and harmless lies to keep the peace This is the kind of detail that, while important to the construction of the character in the story, doesn’t translate into a query. It tells instead of shows. What that means for me as a reader is that, using this information, I can’t actually put together a picture of how London talks or what kind of person he is. – doesn’t know whether he should call for a police officer or a psychiatrist. London just wants a quiet summer with his dad, even if the man barely recognizes his own son most days, and the last thing he needs is a crazed girl. He decides to dump her off with the police, but his plan gets derailed when he’s confronted by the House of Dering. These last two sentences can be cleaned up and clarified a bit. First off, London’s dad–does he actually not recognize his own son most days? Or do you mean that they’ve spent more time apart than together and barely know each other? If you mean the former, we need a few more words that draw attention to whatever is happening to his dad’s mind. If you mean the latter, we should more clearly define that relationship so that there’s no confusion. In either case, we can get a little room to play with word count by cutting the phrase “and the last thing he needs is a crazed girl.” I think the last thing any of us needs is a crazed girl 🙂

For the last sentence…this is where things get intriguing. You set this up really nicely, but it could pack even more of a punch. Right now, the individual actions (dumping her off at the police station, plans being derailed, being confronted) are working against each other instead of with each other. This is an easy fix. The House of Dering should be the focus of the sentence, and to do that, we need to give it the *one* action in the sentence. This means saying something like, “But before he can get her to the police station, his plans are derailed by the House of Dering.” We still get that London is trying to do something to get this girl out of his hair, and that things are about to take an unexpected, complicated turn, but we keep the action more focused. It draws our attention more naturally to the House of Dering.

The House of Dering, the city’s ruling family, maintains the order and secrecy of the city’s magi. Great sentence. I know who these people are immediately, and I’m intrigued. With the ripples of London’s magic gathering attention and raising questions, the Derings want him to find a sieve to siphon his magic and tell him what he is. Seeing as the family’s got enough secrets to fill the Thames, London’s pretty sure their intentions are less than benevolent–especially once his dad goes missing. These next two are a little more confusing. We learn here that London has magic, a fact I assume London himself didn’t know, and that it’s causing problems. I assume London doesn’t know he has magic because of what you’ve already told me about him, but we need that spelled out clearly. Additionally, we learn that the House of Dering wants him to find “a sieve to siphon his magic.” I don’t know what this means, which means instead of reading on, I stop and go, “Huh?” Additionally, in the last sentence, we find out that the Dering family has a lot of secrets. How does London know this? Secrets are generally…well, secret. Since I’m assuming that London didn’t know about magic or the House of Dering before, I’m going to go ahead and assume here that London gets involved with this family, and starts piecing together some darker truths than the ones they’re sharing with him. But again, that needs to be clearly stated.

So. Knowing those are the things we’re learning in this paragraph, the next step is figuring out a way to get all that information across clearly. I think the most natural way to lead us into all of these is by connecting this paragraph more strongly with the last one. Namely, through the mysterious girl. She doesn’t show up again in the query, and since she originally claimed London “made” her, I’m going to assume his magic had something to do with her appearance, and in turn, with the problems that cause the Dering family to interfere with his life. But again…I’m assuming. There needs to be a logical train of events to follow here. London finds a mysterious girl on his doorstep; while trying to get rid of her, the Dering family finds London; London finds out from them that he’s harboring some powerful magic, and that it’s causing problems, one of which is this girl who’s appeared; the Dering family tells him what he needs to do to get his magic under control, but the more time he spends with them, the more he learns they are not what they seem.

Er…I’m not sure this is actually what happens in the story, but this is way I’ve pieced it together. That was more just an example of how you can string a chain of events together in a way where they all connect and lead into each other naturally.

The measure of a magus’s power lies in his soul, which can be ripped free and exploited, and the Derings aren’t the only ones who think London’s got one hell of a repository Great! We’re really getting into the heart of the conflict now. What we need to do again is connect this first sentence and what we learn in it to what we’ve already learned. Is this one of the secrets he’s pieced together after spending time with the Dering family? What have they told him, and what has he figured out on his own? By separating those things out, we get a clear idea of both what the Derings want to keep secret from London, and also what could happen now that the secret is out. My next question then is, who is the antagonist in this book? Is it the Derings, as London seems to suspect, or is it one of the other people who want to get a hold of him? Or does London himself not know? I get the impression that London really doesn’t know who his enemies are and who his allies are in the next paragraph, but that needs to be set up here. Now, he must fend off increasing attacks and deal with his growing attraction to the Dering princess, Abby, an exasperating and irreverent seeker with a penchant for kicking him And here we have the love interest. Sounds like a good one! All we need clarified here is what a seeker is. There may be a better place to introduce this word than in the middle of this sentence (which could end up looking clunky), or we not actually need that word here at all. If you can’t find a natural way to work that information in, I’d cut it.

With demons whispering in his ears, nightwalkers dropping him into shadows and the House of Dering offering answers to newly raised questions about himself and his family, London has no idea whom to trust. This is all interesting, but it raises a lot of questions right at the end of the query, and I’m not sure that’s what you need to do to entice an agent to read. By setting up the conflict of London not knowing who to trust in the previous paragraph, and limiting this sentence to “London has no idea whom to trust,” you’ll have a strong conflict, and THAT’S the best way to get an agent to want to read. Show that you can set all that up clearly. With the characters you mention, with the love story, and with the explanation of what everyone wants with London, I get that you have a rich world here. You don’t need to tell me these few details to show me that. To save his dad, he will make or break whatever alliances necessary, but it might just cost him his soul.

SOUL SIFTER is an 88,000 YA urban fantasy set in modern-day England. My short fiction has been published in Daily Science Fiction, and I have a degree in Creative Writing. I currently work as a web technician for a major newspaper company, and live in Wisconsin with my 8-year-old daughter, two puppies, and a husband who believes he’s the second coming of the Dog Whisperer.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

I think there’s a good story in this query; it’s just not coming out quite right yet. I hope the amount of commentary here didn’t scare you off! I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think there was something here. All this really needs is some clarity and reorganization. Get some fresh eyes on this once you’ve reworked it, and make sure that reader can tell you what the story is about after he/she has finished reading this. If something is way off in their explanation, ask where that impression came from, and then go back and clean it up. I think you’ll have a fantastic query at the end of this!

~~~

Wow!  Sara did such a thorough critique, I’ll have a hard time coming up with anything to add!  As such, I’ll just go through as if I hadn’t seen her comments already!

🙂

Overall, this sounds like an exciting story, and I love your voice!  The biggest “problem” is that I have no idea what the story is!  I can get a general idea, but it’s getting so smothered with side details, that I’m not sure I’ve actually interpreted the plot correctly.

I think you’re best bet would be to lay out in a few sentences the MAIN STUFF.  What’s the inciting incident?  Why does London start out on his journey and what’s in his way (e.g. goal, motivation, conflict)?  And what will happen if London fails to achieve his goal (e.g. what is at stake?)?  Once you’ve got that laid out in very clear terms, then you can start layering in your voice, details, and a subplot (such as the princess).

I hope my critique helps, and good luck!  I’ve pasted the pitch of the query below with my comments in green.

When a girl appears and claims he “created” her, London Howell – a seventeen-year-old boy who brandishes humor and harmless lies to keep the peace [keep the peace with whom?]- doesn’t know whether he should call for a police officer or a psychiatrist. London just wants a quiet summer with his dad, even if the man barely recognizes his own son most days, and the last thing he [“he” being London?  be sure your pronouns and antecedents are clear!] needs is a crazed girl. He decides to dump her off with the police, but his plan gets derailed when he’s confronted by the House of Dering. [This sentence seems convoluted to me — is there same way you can tighten this for more “oopmh”?  That said, it’s an intriguing sentence and instantly made me want to read on!]

The House of Dering, the city’s ruling family, maintains the order and secrecy of the city’s magi. [Wait, hold up!  I didn’t realize this was a fantasy with magic — it sounded like a contemporary setting.  I feel like we need to have this set up sooner.  I want to know from the get-go that we’re working in a magical world, so if there’s some way you can refer to London’s magic at he start or the “magi”, I think that would help keep people from getting surprised here..] With the ripples of London’s magic gathering attention and raising questions, the Derings want him to find a sieve to siphon his magic and tell him what he is. Seeing as the family’s got enough secrets to fill the Thames, London’s pretty sure their intentions are less than benevolent–especially once his dad goes missing. [Okay, now I’m kinda lost.  Does London actually live in London?  That’s…confusing…  Also, the story elements have me scratching my head.  What is a a sieve and how does he siphon magic — more importantly, how does that tell someone what he is?  ‘And do you mean London’s family has lots of secrets? If so, what does that have to do with the House being malevolent?

I think you need to sit back and make sure each sentence goes in a logical sequence and that you’re only focusing on the MAIN EXTERNAL plot.  If there’s a clear connection from one sentence to the next (e.g. cause/effect, decision/consequence with NO extra details), then the reader won’t be stuck saying, “Huh?” but rather “What happens next?”]

The measure of a magus’s power lies in his soul, which can be ripped free and exploited, and the Derings aren’t the only ones who think London’s got one hell of a repository. Now, he must fend off increasing attacks and deal with his growing attraction to the Dering princess, Abby, an exasperating and irreverent seeker with a penchant for kicking him.

[Again, I’m just lost…  Are the first two sentences saying the Dering’s want London’s magic?  And, who is attacking him and why?  Is it the Dering House?  And…the Derings are royalty?  Is this a fantasy world or a real (pseudo-real) world?]

With demons whispering in his ears [why are demons whispering in his ears?  Is this a CRITICAL detail for the query?  Remember, stick to the MAIN external plot only], nightwalkers [what are nightwalkers?] dropping him into shadows and the House of Dering offering answers to newly raised questions about himself and his family [why are they offering answers?  I thought they wanted to steal his magic and attack him?], London has no idea whom to trust. To save his dad [save his dad from whom? You mentioned Dad had gone missing, but you didn’t say why or how.], he will make or break whatever alliances necessary [alliances with whom?] but it might just cost him his soul [why will it cost him his soul?].

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6 Responses to “Query Critique 7: Soul Sifter”

  1. Mai February 8, 2011 at 11:54 AM #

    This is fantastic feedback *_* Thank you so much!

    • SKendall February 8, 2011 at 5:07 PM #

      I’m so glad it was helpful! It really does sound like you’ve got a good story there. Good luck with revisions!!

      And thanks for having me, LTWF. You guys are awesome.

  2. Girl Friday February 8, 2011 at 3:19 PM #

    Despite the query being a bit tangled and overlong, I think this sounds like such a fun book – good luck, I hope I get to read it soon!

    Also, did I see the first page of this on MSFV? if not, ignore me, but if I did could I add a tiny piece of advice? I remember it being funny – but that doesn’t come across in the query, so perhaps you could inject a bit of London’s voice into it? Just a thought 🙂

    • Mai February 9, 2011 at 12:17 PM #

      You’re right, the opening was on MSFV. I have to agree that the query needs more voice lol.

      Also! Unless you’re a different Girl_Friday, I saw you won the contest at Jodi Meadow’s blog. Congrats!

      • Girl Friday February 13, 2011 at 2:08 PM #

        Yes that was me, thank you!

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