Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Saturday Slash

So, I opened up myself to critiquing queries, and quite a few of you said - "Yes! Me! I love it when other people jam their grimy fingers into my carefully polished words!

OK - my hands aren't actually grimy, but I don't make any promises about the cleanliness of my editing tool. Meet the BBC Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email. And a little bit of BBC literary info.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox. Also, at the end, I'm going to tell you what I think your story is about, based on your query. I know how hard it is to get your ideas across succinctly, and how easy it is for your author's brain to fill in the blanks and not see the gaping holes that the average reader may very well fall into.

Also, for my brave Saturday Slash volunteers I will gladly do follow-up slashes (each more kindly than the next) on your query if you post them on the Query Critique board over on AgentQuery Connect. You'll get advice from me, and also people who are smarter than me. If you do post on AQ, be sure to follow the guidelines and let me know you posted so that I can follow up!

And now for our next brave soul. For clarity, my comments are in purple.

At nineteen, Boyd Sopal has the family farm in his blood, but poachers are setting traps in the creek bed, and low-flying planes are dropping orange dust on their fields. His father’s relationship with the neighbor who cuts fences and takes potshots at the no toxic spraying signs on Sopal’s side of the road has turned ugly, and Boyd is rethinking his chosen line of work. This is grabbing, but I don't think it's the focal point of your book - in fact, I think the very last line of your query is actually your hook! I read these things through all the way once before starting to comment, and when I read this first para I thought we were looking at a rural-based story about a neighborly dispute that goes bad.

Then Maggie, the Spanish/Indian girl with blue eyes, comes across the road for help, and he is drawn into the conflicted world of the migrant worker. I like this, and it definitely sounds like the crux of your story is in their relationship, so bang on that pot hard. By the end of the summer, there is nothing he won’t do for her. He confronts her father who has a perverted view of parenthood and befriends the brother who will kill to protect her. Soon Boyd has a gun to dispose of as well as a body. In a race against time, he has to find the drugs that have been planted in his car by the vengeful neighbor, as he and his friends plot to squirrel away a vulnerable buddy caught between Boyd’s struggle with the police and aggressive Army recruiters. Meanwhile, Maggie deals with a personal problem in the only way available to her, using the ancient herbal wisdom passed down from the women on her mother’s side of the family and suppressed in the modern world. This entire para feels very much like a synopsis rather than a query, and it makes for a very blithe, bloodless, reiteration of what sounds like some major plot twists - family issues (hinted at sexual abuse, maybe?), Boyd killed somebody but I don't know who, a drug frame-job, and the moral issues of draft dodging and abortion. I'm not saying it's not possible to address all of these well within the context of the novel, but it definitely does not work in the confines of a query.

From Boyd’s getaway to the Upper Peninsula with friends in tow, to Maggie’s flight into Ontario with shorn hair and boy’s clothing to escape his mother’s wrath and join her uncle’s guided hunt, they both try to escape Black River. When he returns to find her gone, he follows her through the Algonquin National Park and across weak ice in a warming world as he tries to hold onto his own. Again, it's reading like a synopsis (and not a badly written synopsis, so congratulations on that, you've got the bone of your synop here, so that should make you feel good).

BLACK RIVER is a 105,000-word contemporary drama with cautionary environmental undertones and a romantic edge. It bridges the divide between commercial and literary fiction and navigates the barriers between the landed son of a fourth-generation farmer and the daughter of an itinerant migrant worker with a troubled past. I think this is a fantastic way to describe your book (as I understand it) - and boom! I see a hook. Usually I prefer not to have title, word count and genre info at the beginning of a query, but I like the way this para is written and I would've mess with it. Move it to the top! It's your hook! :)

I think BLACK RIVER itself sounds like a fantastic book with a Romeo&Juliet love story at the heart, but surrounded with the dark intrigue of murder and other less than attractive human elements. I think what you need to do is boil down here what the focal point is (looks like the relationship) and hint at the other plot strings involved. But only hint - I feel like the major issue here is that you're trying to cram too much into the query and bogging it down.

What do my followers think?

4 comments:

L.H. Thomson said...

I wouldn't just say that's the hook, I'd say that's the query. If we can sum up a book in two paragraphs, we should sum it up in two paragraphs.

You could take the hook graf,

"BLACK RIVER is a ....."

and combine it with the graf "From Boyd's getaway..."

and with a little tightening that would do it.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Mindy,
Thank you so much! What keen insight you have. A couple of my other readers have just told me that my query reads more like a synopsis, that I should delete that middle section and save it under Synopsis! I might try moving the last paragraph to the top as you suggest and make a couple of other small changes. And I will definitely post it over at AQ. Thanks again for boiling this down for me. You hit the proverbial nail on the head in your final summary.

Yvonne Osborne said...

L.H.
Thank you so much for weighing in. I have a lot of tightening to do, but at least now I know how to go about it.

Mindy McGinnis said...

LH - Thanks for chiming in, I'm glad you did!

Yvonne - Me and nails, we get along :)