This is the last post in Episode 1 of Larry’s queries. I thought it would be useful to look at the original query (the before picture) and then right after that take a look at the improved query (the after picture). I’ll also include a few comments about what’s good or bad in both.
So here goes….
Larry initially created the query below to describe his story about a ten year old girl and her magic stuffed unicorn that “save the universe”.
Before: This is the original version of the query.
Alexus LeGrand loves her stuffed unicorn, Pom Pom more than anything (1). Then one day Pom-Pom magically comes to life and tells Alexus about all the other magical creatures that exist all around them. Pom-Pom has revealed himself to Alexus because he needs her help to save the world (2).
Alexus goes with Pom-pom to meet his friends: Bombo the stuffed bear and Tinsley the plastic soldier. Together they travel through a dangerous swamp called the Fire Swamp and are chased by evil monkey-like creatures called OctoMonks, which have the bodies of monkeys but eight arms like an octopus. The Octomonks work for an evil wraith known as the Gordian-wraith (3).
There is a door called the Infinity Door that provides all the time to the universe. The Gordian-Wraith tied the door shut with a knot that no one can untie. But Alexus has a special talent that lets her untie any knot and that’s why Pom-pom came to life to get her help. (4)
Together, the friends work as a team to get through the swamp and avoid the Octomonks. Finally they reach the Infinity Door and the Gordian knot. Alexus is about to untie the knot, but then the Gordian-wraith has an Octomonk, named Badger, capture Pom-pom. Even worse, he ties the unicorn to the knot on the Infinity Door. Now if Alexus unties the knot on the door, then Pom-pom will disappear forever. (5)
Things take an even bigger turn for the worse when Alexus finds out the Gordian Wraith knows something about a secret in her past she doesn’t want to talk about. The wraith uses this as blackmail to make sure that she doesn’t help her friend Pom-pom. Will Alexus be able to figure out a way to save the universe and save her friend? (6)
So what’s not to like? Well…as it turns out…a lot. I’m not trying to make Larry feel bad here, in fact Larry isn’t even a real person. I made him up, so don’t worry, he won’t get upset. But this query has some real problems.
(1) To begin with, the beginning is kind of “meh.” The first sentence is the first thing the agent is going to read, so you want to try to hit them with something eye-catching or unique. Saying that a little girl loves her stuffed unicorn isn’t exactly breaking news. It’s maybe cute and cuddly, but it’s not catchy.
(2) There’s no indication why Alexus has to be “The chosen one.” It just says the unicorn comes to life and says you have to be the one to help. Why is that? Why couldn’t it be some other little girl or boy? There needs to be something special about Alexus that makes her uniquely qualified to fix this problem. In this case that turns out to be knot untying ability (but that wasn’t mentioned in the initial draft of the query).
(3) Holy alphabet soup and way too many details, Batman!! So there are a lot of character names thrown in this paragraph and a lot of irrelevant details. Remember, the goal of the query is to entice the agent to request more pages. It’s not to provide every character name and plot twist in the whole story. Throwing in all of these names and details is just going to be confusing to the agent. The agent hasn’t spent the last 6 months (or 6 years) writing this story, so they don’t know all these characters by heart. Very easy to confuse them. Besides, this is taking up valuable query space that could be used for good stuff…like developing voice and clarifying stakes.
(4) This is where the stakes start to come into play and we learn that Alexus has a special talent. This is good because it explains why she is the “the chosen one”, however it is too late in the query. The stakes should be moved up earlier, because that will help explain all that comes after it. The stakes are the motivation that drive the rest of the story, so get them out there front and center.
(5) More details cluttering things up. Too many names and descriptions. Clear away the clutter.
(6) The final paragraph is supposed to be the big payoff. And it is…sort of. But the red flag here is ending the query with a question mark. It’s ok to leave a question in the agent’s mind, but it’s generally not a good idea to outright state a question. Why? Well, because the agent knows your story is almost certainly going to end with a happy ending. So when the query says something like “Will the universe end?” the agent automatically shrugs and says “Of course not.” So putting that question in there is not really helping your story. That doesn’t mean you can’t create a question in the agent’s mind. But do it more subtlety. For example “Alexus has to decide what is more important – her friendship with her unicorn or telling the truth.” Now it’s a little more of a gray area. Hopefully there is a way for Alexus to do both…but to find out the agent will need to request those pages
After: Here is the re-written version of the query.
In the history of useless talents, ten-year old Alexus LeGrand swears untying impossibly difficult knots has to be the lamest thing ever – that is until she gets roped into helping save the universe. (1) Her stuffed unicorn, Pom-Pom, comes to life and insists Alexus is the only one skilled enough to unravel a magical knot the evil Gordian-wraith has tied around the Infinity Door (the source of all time in the universe). Unless they can get the door open soon, time will run out – literally. (2)
No worries though. Alexus can beat any knot and she challenges the wraith to come up with his best half-halter hitch. She’ll crack it and still be back in time for lunch. But Alexus is hiding a secret past – she accidently taught the Gordian-wraith how to tie knots in the first place. The Gordian-wraith has learned new tricks too and uses magic to tie Pom-pom’s fate to the same knot holding the door shut. If the Gordian’s knot is undone, then so is Pom-pom’s magical life. (3)
Alexus faces a choice between saving time itself and saving her new friend. To fix this tangled mess, she’ll have to figure out the only knot she’s ever been afraid to take on – the one she tied around her own past. (4)
(1) This opening line is much stronger. There’s a hook and a bit of voice as well. The hook is figuring out how untying knots is a talent worthy of saving the universe. To find out the agent will need to keep reading.
(2) Stakes are brought up early (in the first paragraph). The agent knows what Alexus is up against and why she is “the chosen one.”
(3) This is a good example of raising the stakes. The original problem was saving the universe, but now it also includes saving her unicorn friend. It may not seem intuitive that saving a single unicorn can raise the stakes when the whole universe is in trouble, but by making this personal to Alexus it does raise the stakes. Saving the universe is a very abstract goal. It’s hard for a reader to identify with saving the whole universe. But everyone can relate to wanting to save a friend or a family member. So make the stakes personal and the ante goes up.
(4).The ending leaves a strong question in the agent’s mind. Alexus has to choose between saving the universe and saving her friend. That’s a tough one for a ten year old. Now since this is a middle grade story, the agent knows there has to be a happy ending. The best friend unicorn can’t die and the universe certainly isn’t going to end. So the agent is wondering how this story can end without either of those bad things happening. Only one way to find out….you guessed it. The agent will need to request those pages.
Overall, the rewritten query has fewer confusing details, and a lot more voice. There are phrases like “…roped into saving the universe” and “No worries though.” These phrases help to give a little more oomph to the query. Hopefully that voice is carried through in the manuscript.
Well that’s it for this episode of Larry’s queries. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it. For convenience, links to all the posts in this episode are below.
Links related to this Episode:
- E1 Part 1: Working on the first sentence
- E1 Part 2: Working on the last sentence
- E1 Part 3: Clearer stakes
- E1 Part 4: Getting rid of details by using specifics
- E1 Final: The original query and the final rewritten version
If you care to comment on this episode I would love to hear it. If you have a suggestion to improve Larry’s query I would love to hear that too. Heck you can even rewrite the whole thing if you’re feeling ambitions.
All the best,