Workshop Wednesday

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 16 2011

By repeated request we’ve started Workshop Wednesday. It will definitely play out through 2011, and beyond that we’ll just have to see. We’ve received well over 200 queries at this point, but we are choosing at random, so don’t be afraid to participate as per the guidelines in our original post.

For anyone wanting to comment, we ask that you comment in a polite and respectful manner, and we ask that you be as constructive as possible. If you can be useful to the brave souls who submitted their query and comment on the query, that’s great. Please keep any anonymous tirades on publishing or other snarky comments to yourself. This is and should remain an open and safe forum for people to put themselves and their queries out there so that everyone can learn. I’m leaving comments open and open to anonymous posters, as I always have; don’t make me feel the need to change that policy.

And for those who have never “met” Query Shark, get over there and do that. She’s the originator of the query critique, the queen, if you will.

Dear Bookends,

Always address your query to a specific agent, not just the agency’s name. Queries that aren’t aimed at a specific agent will most likely be read by an intern first, or will be passed over quickly because the agent will perceive you as someone who didn’t do their homework. And, at any rate, it should be spelled “BookEnds.”

I am writing you in regards to my first novel. I am a 23 year old aspiring author. I currently work as a stonemason.

Honestly, I wouldn’t divulge any of this information to an agent or editor. Don’t tell me it’s your first novel. That makes the agent immediately think that you’re sending the first writing project to ever come out of your printer — whether that’s the case or not. Writing generally gets better with practice, just like anything else. Perhaps you’re the exception and have penned a classic the first time you sat down to write. It doesn’t matter, because agents and editors have preconceived notions. And you don’t need to give up that information anyway.

I also don’t need to know your age and occupation. When you’re coming to me with a book project, you’re a writer first. Unless your occupation plays into the credibility of the story you’ve written, it’s not relevant to the letter. Especially in fiction. If your protagonist was a stonemason and that played heavily into the story, then it would be worth mentioning.

Ben awakes from deep freeze, but not in the utopia he’d been promised; in fact it’s quite the opposite. He’s been shipwrecked on some undiscovered backwater planet. He thought his prospects were bad on earth. His job had been taken over by droid workers, the girl he loved left him and his last living family member just died. Now, however, this may be worse. There is no food, no shelter and his only companion is a shirtless old man who constantly rummages through the landscape for edible plants. Ben decides to preserve his own sanity by finding other survivors.

This setup is a little wordy, but intriguing. I think it would capture the reader’s interest even more, however, if I understood what world and what circumstances Ben was coming from. What caused the deep freeze? And why did he think he’d wake up in utopia?

Ben and Leon rescue others from starvation and begin to establish a small society. One day they discover a crashed military vessel. Could it be a rescue crew? The only passenger is an unconscious young man. When he wakes he is barely coherent, but in a rage tries to kill Ben, claiming Ben murdered his father. Ben left earth before this kid was even born and he certainly never murdered anyone. It’s assumed the young man is just some escaped lunatic – until they find Ben’s mug shot tattooed on the young man’s chest.

A flashback to earth presents the alternate reality that climaxes in a life and death scenario – not only for Ben, but for all of mankind as well.

Okay. Now the plot is starting to sound a bit convoluted, and I believe that’s largely due to the fact that I don’t have a frame of reference for this story. Is Earth still in existence? If so, why did Ben leave? If Ben left Earth before this young man was born, does that mean he’s been on this other planet for 20 years or more before the man shows up? If not, where was he in the interim?

Also, with that setup paragraph it really seemed like this book was going to be about starting a new society on this planet. Instead it sounds like the focus of the book is this mystery that actually took place on Earth. If that’s the case you need to focus much less on Leon and this survival story and more on the context of this world and the arrival of the young man and the mystery he carries with him.

START ANEW is a 45,000 word science fiction. It is my debut novel and the first in a potential series.

45,000 words is very short. Adult science fiction with a scope as large as the one you’ve described should be about twice as long. You should probably research the market a bit more and get a better grasp of what’s out there.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


14 responses to “Workshop Wednesday”

  1. Avatar Lynn(e) says:

    …I've read on other places, and spoke with other agents who say "If this is your first novel, we want to know"

    Why do you guys prefer not to know this?

    Thanks for the helpful insight!

  2. Avatar S.P. Bowers says:

    What I read of the story sounds really interesting but I'm confused in spots. In addition to BookEnds' comments I'm not sure what the focus of the story is. And what was that flashback to earth? Is the story divided into two parts?

    The main concern is the length. It sounds like it could be a very involved plot. Especially if you're telling the story on two planets. As you research the craft of writing and keep working on your story to keep it understandable and focused I think you'll be able to fill it out to full length.

    Good luck, I hope you keep working on it because it sounds interesting.

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    START ANEW is a 45,000 word science fiction.

    Here is where you do want to say "novel" after fiction.

  4. Avatar Rosemary says:

    I think this writer is at the beginning of his/her process, but definitely shows some promise.

    And I'm intrigued by the stonemason thing! I think the writer should incorporate that into the project in some way.

  5. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "Always address your query to a specific agent, not just the agency’s name."

    I haven't queried in a while, but I remember when I was querying this could be confusing. Some agencies don't allow authors to query specific agents. All queries go to assistants and interns. And those that do, almost seem to take it personally when authors greet with the name of the agency instead of a specific agent.

    So authors really need to pay attention to the guidelines and specific directions on agency web sites when it comes to this. And (smile) agencies need to overlook this one unless they are all one the same page.

  6. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Thanks for offering your query for critique.

    My main questions are about the time sequences. Was Ben frozen in time? If so, for how long? And what and how did he reawaken? And was this entire planet frozen? The landscape described didn't hint at that.

    Did he escape earth in search of Utopia? And what happened on earth? Also there is mention that his last family member just died. Then the male he discovers was born before Ben left earth. How does Ben know he has been gone for that long?

    I think if the author can tighten up the time issues, there is the promise of something interesting in this story.

  7. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:

    Hi Lynne —

    Generally, I think that agents want to know if you've ever been published before or not. But unless an agent asks, I wouldn't reveal that this is the first manuscript you've ever written. They don't need to know that one way or the other. If someone's written 15 books and is still looking for representation, I wouldn't recommend you say that either.

    The point is that an agent might have preconceived notions about either answer and your objective is to let them focus on the book and not let any such distractions get in the way of your pitch.

    I guess the meaning wasn't clear in this query. If the author meant this was their "first novel" in that they hadn't been previously published, it would be fine.

  8. The premise of this story sounds very interesting, although as others have said, some of the timeline needs to be cleared up in the query and the novel lengthened. It sounds like there is a lot of room for that, though, with all the details you've given. Get in there and explore the characters, the world, etc. some more.

    As for the query itself, if the story's focus is really on the mystery of your MC being wanted for a murder he couldn't have committed, concentrate on that. Expand that part out and give less attention to the shirtless old man and the establishment of the community.

  9. Avatar sarah says:

    I think this story sounds intriguing, with the exception of the flashback. The flashback may work in the book, but in this concentrated query snippet it's confusing and maybe should be omitted. The writing could use another pass for clarity, too. For example, who is Leon, mentioned in the second paragraph? I'm assuming he's the shirtless old man, but it's not clear.

    And I could be wrong, but I believe the deep freeze mentioned is in regard to Ben being frozen on his ship because space travel takes such a long time — think Alien movies.

  10. Avatar Nicole says:

    Interestingly enough, I think I already know what Ben's deal is. And I'm onboard with Sarah. The deep freeze to a "utopia" sound pretty typical of an SF story in which everyone is frozen until they reach their destination (otherwise you'd live to old age and die before ever getting there).

    I also agree it needs to be longer, though I believe that with some sprucing of the query letter to clear things up, it could reveal itself to be an interesting story.

  11. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Ah, thanks to the author/readers of Sci Fi, I'm getting a clearer picture now. I rarely read or watch Sci Fi movies, so this is helpful.

  12. Avatar Stephsco says:

    I think it can be difficult to summarize a complex story like this for a query. I agree with the noted suggestions to work on a little focus, and explain what is going on over on Earth for some context. It's definitely a balance between telling too much and having the details muddle up the query, and not saying enough.

    Also agree that 45,000 is a good rough draft length. Your next go-through can focus on adding depth to characters, taking more time with crucial scenes, etc. Spend some more time writing the characters you like, and then you can go back and edit what doesn't work. (all just my personal advice at what has worked for me!)

  13. Avatar Lynn(e) says:

    Thank you for the clarification. Started having a baby panic attack 🙂

  14. Avatar Start Anew Author says:

    Thanks for the tips – I guess I still have a lot of work to do! There's going to be more world building and character development for sure.

    @ nicole – I'm curious, what do you think Ben's deal is? I myself hate predictable fiction so I'm eager to know if you guessed at it.