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Query Saturday: Nightmares Become Her

Welcome to Query Saturday. Individual authors anonymously send a query to be read and critiqued by the Dear Author community of authors, readers and industry others. Anyone is welcome to comment. Published authors may do so under their own name or anonymously. Readers, though, the way that I look at it is this: If the hook were on the back of a book, would you buy it? If you would, what interests you? If not, what would make you pick it up?

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Dear Mr. XXXX,

I read on www.agentquery.com that you are interested in publishing fantasy fiction. I think that Cursed, the first novel in my Nikolai family series, might interest you.

Have you ever had a nightmare so vivid that if haunted you wherever you go? What if you discovered that the people in the nightmare were real and had died in the manner you dreamt the night before? Would you be able to brush it off as coincidence or would you dig deeper?

These are the questions the Professor Emerald Nikolai must resolve in my novel. Last night Emerald had a nightmare of a local woman being killed. It was so vivid she woke up with the woman’s pleas following her into the day. This is not the first time this has happened. In an attempt to brush it off as a coincidence she is thrown into the middle of game without understanding why. As piece by piece of the puzzle comes through Emerald is discovering that the recent nightmares and killings might all be tied together. As her two sisters rush in to help the game heats up as one of them is targeted next. When the puzzle becomes complete it might be closer to home then she imaged.

Cursed is my first novel. The completed manuscript is available upon request. I have enclosed the first 50 pages and a SASE for your convenience. Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Cordially,

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

16 Comments

  1. Erastes
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 05:24:52

    A good start, and the first two paragraphs are excellent

    In an attempt to brush it off as a coincidence she is thrown into the middle of game without understanding why

    This doesn’t really make any sense, and doesn’t add anything to the query, I’d leave that out, also “two” before sisters; it’s irrelevant.

    I would also state the word count. But all in all a good query imo.

  2. Anion
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 06:47:37

    1. Agents don’t publish anything. They represent work, not publish it.

    2. Typo in first line of hook–you have “if” not “it”. Also you don’t need the word “that” in that sentence.

    3. A lot of agents have said the “opening with questions” is hackneyed and turns them off. It doesn’t bother me, but I think the second question is a little clunkily phrased.

    4. You switch tenses in the second paragraph (“Last night/This is not the first time”).

    5. Sentences feel disjointed and choppy, like phrases broken up into sentences. Also you start two sentences in a row with “As”.

    6. How can the puzzle be closer to home than she imagined when her two sisters are already targeted? Also the sentence “As her two sisters rush in to help the game heats up as one of them is targeted” is clunky. As/as/as. How many things are happening at once here? Try “Her sisters attempt to help, making themselves targets” or something similar.

    7. She’s just discovering the nightmares and killings may be tied together? Isn’t that obvious from the first time she wakes up, having seen a murder in her sleep, and flips on the news to realize she witnessed an actual killing?

    8. As piece by piece of the puzzle comes through where? Do you mean come together? What are they coming through? I know this seems like I’m being unecessarily picky, but it’s an awkward phrase, and awkward phrases in a query really stick in the readers’ head.

    9. No word count.

  3. ChopTLiverz
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 07:04:52

    The query is riddled with punctuation errors. Introductory dependent clauses and long prepositional phrases should be segregated by commas. In its current state, the query is virtually unreadable.

    There are sentence structure issues. “As her two sisters rush in to help the game heats up as one of them is targeted next.” This sentence starts and ends with as, and its punctuation is atrocious.

    Or:

    “Have you ever had a nightmare so vivid that if haunted you wherever you go?” It haunted, not if. And your tenses are out of whack.

    The plot seems tired. I’ve seen it before.

    References are made to the game without explanation of what the game is. Is this an actual game? Or are you shooting for a clever turn of phrase?

    Look, this is a business proposal. You are trying to present yourself as a writer. It’s like a business card. And your business card has poor grammar, bad punctuation, and is a bit incoherent. I can tell from your query that your prose also has grammar and punctuation issues. I strongly advise against further attempts at marketing your novel until it’s grammatically correct.

    http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_commaproof.html

  4. SpeshulWalrus
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 08:29:17

    Agreed – there are many things wrong with this. It should not be ‘the Professor Emerald Nikolai’ but just ‘Professor Emerald Nikolai’. You begin two sentences in a row with ‘As’. I didn’t care for the statement “This happens in my novel” as that’s kind of a ‘duh’ for me.

    Your book should be CURSED or ‘Cursed’ but not just Cursed.

    Plus, really really hate the “launch with questions” schtick, and from following a bunch of other agent blogs, so do they. Strike that paragraph entirely.

    I would also not mention it is my first novel. Unless you are already published (which you should mention), agents will assume this is a given. Don’t thank for their ‘generous’ time, just thank for their time. Only enclose 50 pages if they ask for it.

    Having done my share of queries, I can’t really comment on the story because I got soooo sidetracked on all the things you did wrong. Which I could look past if your story paragraph was full of punch and zing – but it was not, hence I derailed.

  5. Keishon
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 09:14:35

    This is not the first time this has happened. In an attempt to brush it off as a coincidence she is thrown into the middle of game without understanding why. As piece by piece of the puzzle comes through Emerald is discovering that the recent nightmares and killings might all be tied together. As her two sisters rush in to help the game heats up as one of them is targeted next. When the puzzle becomes complete it might be closer to home then she imaged.

    From a reader’s standpoint, this sounds vague and uninteresting. Also, the plot for this book sounds unoriginal and there’s nothing from what I’ve read that makes this book stand out or make this worth buying. Pass. And there would be nothing the author could add to make me pick this up. Just not interested in these types of novels.

  6. Jia
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 09:41:36

    Since previous comments have addressed the technical issues, I’ll move on to the actual content. I agree with Keishon. This reads very general and unoriginal. What are the details that set this apart from other books like it? There’s a lot of stuff said in the third paragraph but it actually tells me nothing specific or different.

    As a reader, I wouldn’t pick this book up based on that summary. Maybe if the story summary were reworked to include something original and distinct.

  7. Gail Faulkner
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 10:47:13

    I appreciate the guts it took to submit a query letter. Getting it torn apart might seem harsh, but you are actually freakin lucky to receive the benefit of seasoned professionals for free. Every word above is golden.

  8. CC
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 10:53:00

    I am also going to skip the technical issues since they have been covered better than I ever could and my grammar is lousy.

    Professor of what? If what she teaches is relevant to the story state it, if not you’re wasting space.

    I understand you don’t want to give away “who done it” or “why the bad guy is bad” but sometimes a little more information can be intriguing. How did the sisters not realize it was their mother doing the killings? How did Emerald not realize she is a sleep walking murderer? How is it that a respected professor of fashion design didn’t realize her co-worker was taking the phrase “fashion police” literally and being judge, jury and executioner? Okay, so these are a bit far-fetched but they tell me more about a story and are more intriguing, make me want to find out how someone was so blind, more than “it might be closer to home then she imaged”

    I like a good mystery and can appreciate a good series, but what is it that makes this a series? Is it a compelling character that gets into scrapes? Is it a murderer that escapes? Is it a maniacal master-mind who is creating other murderers so when this one is caught there are more out there? Is it top-secret use of alien technology that gets out of hand?

    I’m not sure how much of this is mystery and how much is para-normal based on the write up. There is death and dreams and a puzzle but are they connected through an ancient curse, modern technology, or geography?

  9. Barbara B.
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 11:37:46

    “When the puzzle becomes complete it might be closer to home *then* she *imaged*.”

    Learning the difference between *then* and *than* might be a good idea. I have to say that I’m not at all intrigued or impressed. The story sounds very familiar and your prose is rudimentary at best. Very unpolished.

  10. Ann Bruce
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 11:39:03

    Another technical error that really irks me: the title of the novel should be italicized. If it’s a short story, put quotation marks around it. When I mention titles of published works on the internet, I’m too lazy to italicize so I put it in caps. In a letter, writers should follow a proper style manual, like the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE.

    I quickly browsed the internet and found this page that might help.

  11. riley
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 11:57:27

    Poster #7 is correct in that it took guts to post this. Ripping it apart seems harsh, but somehow this reaction doesn’t surprise me. My opinion is that the plot seems rough and that I would have to read more to form an opinion. Keep working on it. good luck.

  12. Ros
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 12:23:37

    I’d get rid of the whole of the second paragraph and the first sentence of the third. The agent is not a bored teenager. Just tell them what the story is and don’t be afraid to give away the ending. They’re interested in the whole book, not just the set up.

  13. Leah
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 15:30:06

    Even though the dream thing has been done before, great characters and a fast-moving plot can make it exciting again. As a reader (not a seasoned professional), though, the aspect of the book that did not appeal to me was the fact that one of the sisters “is targeted next.” I guess this is just my own pet peeve, but so many suspense novels put a family member in jeopardy to up the stakes, but it often comes across to me as unrealistic. Can’t the protagonist just want to solve the puzzle or catch the bad guy, and not have to rescue the friend/child/distant relative as well? Of course, since so many novels use this, I am probably in the minority!

    btw, from all that I’ve read and heard, queries are really challenging to do well–they always take a lot of polishing. Thanks for posting yours. Oh, and if you look on a site like pub rants, you can find examples of successful queries. I read a few last night–good learning experience, bad for the ego!

    Best wishes,

  14. Keilexandra
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 18:06:56

    - Don’t mention that it’s a series; a first novel should be able to stand on its own.
    – Fix the grammar errors.
    – Word count?
    – Plot sounds unoriginal. Why is your version unique and different?
    – “Emerald Nikolai” immediately makes me wince. It’s a classic amateur fantasy name.
    – Not 100% about this, but I’ve heard that agents don’t really respect agentquery.com. If so, mentioning it can only hurt.

  15. Marianne McA
    Feb 09, 2008 @ 19:55:05

    I know the point was made last week that these are queries, not blurbs. I am looking at it just as a reader. If the hook was written as a blurb, I might buy it.

    Just as it is, I don’t have enough to care. The three bits of the name – Professor, Emerald, Nikolai don’t form a picture in my head – I’d like more description of the character. I don’t instinctively sympathise with someone who would dismiss two or more visionary nightmares as co-incidence, so I’d need that explained. I think I’d want to know who or what is cursed, if it’s not a spoiler for the book.
    And again, while I know this is a query and I shouldn’t read it as a blurb, ‘middle of the game’ and ‘the game heats up’ seem odd phrases in this context. And, in a way, the same goes for the repeated use of the word ‘puzzle’. Games and puzzles are nice things – I would be expecting words that evoked terror and urgency. To buy this sort of book, I’d need to feel the dilemma facing the Professor, and wonder how she could possibly solve it.

  16. Rebecca Goings
    Feb 10, 2008 @ 03:48:41

    I’d ditch the first paragraph all together. Jump right into the action of the blurb for your book. I highly suggest writing a real blurb for the query. The questions at the beginning, while antiquated, sound much better blurb-wise than your entire third paragraph.

    These are the questions the Professor Emerald Nikolai must resolve in my novel.

    Don’t pull the agent out of the “plot” of the book. You do so when you say, “These are the questions…” No, keep it going. “Professor Emerald Nikolai’s nightmares are getting worse. Every night she dreams of a murder, and every day, she awakes to find they’ve all come true…”

    Last night Emerald had a nightmare of a local woman being killed.

    How does she know it was a local woman?

    It was so vivid she woke up with the woman's pleas following her into the day. This is not the first time this has happened. In an attempt to brush it off as a coincidence she is thrown into the middle of game without understanding why.

    Having multiple dreams of murders that have come TRUE cannot be brushed off as coincidence. Especially if she does a little digging to see HOW these murders were committed. If they happened like her dreams, then she’s not too bright to keep thinking they’re coincidence. And what is this “game” she’s thrown into? Is the villain/murderer toying with her magically somehow? Play that up!

    As piece by piece of the puzzle comes through

    Clunky. “The pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place…”

    Emerald is discovering that the recent nightmares and killings might all be tied together.

    ‘Bout time!

    As her two sisters rush in to help the game heats up as one of them is targeted next. When the puzzle becomes complete it might be closer to home then she imaged.

    Your description of your plot isn’t “punchy” enough. We need stronger words than “game” and “puzzle”. Are her dreams clues? Does she see more and more of the murderer with each dream? Is she scared for her own safety? We need urgency, desperation. The way I read your plot summary, it sounded as if the “close to home” comment meant not that her sister(s) was/were being targeted but that the villain was either a friend or family member–or herself.

    I also did a double take at the name “Emerald”, and found myself wondering if this is the first in a series of the Nikolai family, then we haven’t heard the last from these “sisters”. I also couldn’t help but wonder if their names were “Pearl” and “Ruby”. Considering the first sister is “Emerald”, a VERY unusual name, that got me to thinking perhaps the sisters are actually “Diamond” and “Sapphire”. Please tell me this is NOT the case. The last thing you want to do is have an agent/editor thinking the same thing and roll their eyes. The names of your heroes and heroines are almost as important as your plotline. They can actually turn people off from reading your book, so you’ll want to be careful in that regard.

    You also give no indication as to why the book is entitled CURSED. It doesn’t seem to fit with the plot summary you’ve given. IS Emerald cursed? If she is, might want to bring that up.

    You mention the agent in question is interested in fantasy fiction. When I hear fantasy, I think unicorns, dragons, castles, fairies, magic, & wizards. I think Terry Brooks & David Eddings. Your book sounds more like a paranormal novel, so be careful not to blur the lines between paranormal, fantasy, and urban fantasy. It doesn’t even seem to fall under urban fantasy, at least not from what I’ve read of the genre. I think of something like The Dresden Files for urban fantasy.

    But if your book IS like The Dresden Files, then honey, you gotta sell it like that. Do magic and curses abound in your book? Then make that agent excited to read about it.

    Also, the spelling, punctuation and grammar weren’t up to par, as others have pointed out. Always proofread, always spell check, and always have your word processor program check for grammatical errors. If you don’t know how, then you’ve got to get well aquainted with Word, or whatever program you use. If your query is full of errors, 9 times out of 10, so will your manuscript. Agents and editors can chuck a query based on that alone, even if the premise is exciting and fresh. If the author doesn’t have the chops to correctly spell or place a comma, then who’s going to want to read and edit that?

    Good luck to you. Despite these critiques of your letter, they all serve to teach you about writing a proper query and writing in general. You should never stop learning and you should never assume you know it all. Keep writing, keep studying and don’t give up!

    ~~Becka

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