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And, of course, if you need help more urgently or privately, I’m available for edits and consultations!
Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I’ll present the query without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.
Random numbers were generated, and thanks to muse_clio, whose query is below:
When war threatened their city, Briseis’ father sent her inland to safety, to an arranged marriage. Briseis had never wanted to be a queen, and the betrothal was her idea of hell. When the invading army sacked her adoptive city, her wish to escape her wedding day came true, but in the worst way. So now she sits, trussed up like a deer for the spit, in a tent on a beach, a war prize, no better than a slave. Her father is dead and her betrothed was cut down with his city; no one is coming to rescue her. Expected to amuse the man she fears above all others, she wants nothing but to be free again.
Prince Achilles has been trained since birth to be the greatest warrior his world has ever known. All he wants is to be remembered, and he’ll take it anyway the gods see fit. Ten years ago, he left home to find honor and eternal glory on the battlefield at Troy; instead he has seen only death and dishonor. But now there’s a kidnapped princess glaring at him from within his tent. She’s dirty; she’s been beaten and she hates him, and, though he can’t explain why, he likes her.
BRISEIS is YA Historical fiction/Mythical retelling, complete at 40,500 words.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
The writing in this query letter is perfectly fine. There are some good turns of phrase that tells me that muse_clio is a strong writer (“trussed up like a deer for the spit,” “sees only death and dishonor”), and I like the idea of a YA retelling of Achilles and Briseis.
But I’m afraid I feel like this query letter lacks a certain “zing.” It feels like there is an X factor that’s missing.
When a query letter lacks zing there are usually two culprits:
- The query isn’t specific enough about key details
- The “spine” of the plot isn’t coming through in a clear way
When we don’t have enough key details or when events are described in a very general way, the query ends up lacking personality.
And when the main plot isn’t really coming through, it’s hard for an agent to know how to evaluate the project. They don’t exactly know what they’re getting.
In this case, there are a few missed opportunities to add more flavor to this world, and I worry that one of the most important elements of the query template isn’t present and accounted for: what’s the plot? We know Briseis wants her freedom, but what’s she going to do about it? What exactly does Achilles want?
Ultimately, we have the setup but not the plot. We don’t have this element from the query letter template: [protagonist] has to [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s quest].
Here’s my redline:
When war threatened their city [What war? What city? Missed opportunity to orient the reader and add flavor], Briseis’ father sent her inland to safety, to an arranged marriage [To whom? Be more specific]. Briseis
hadnever wanted to be a queen, and the betrothal was her idea of hell. When the invading army [Which army?] sacked her adoptive city [Which city?], her wish to escape her wedding day came true, but in the worst way. So now she sits, trussed up like a deer for the spit, in a tent on a beach, a war prize, no better than a slave [Better]. Her father is dead and her betrothed was cut down with his city; no one is coming to rescue her. Expected to amuse [Be more specific] the man she fears above all others [Who is that?], she wants nothing but to be free again. [Be more specific. What’s her plan? What is she hoping to do?]
Prince Achilles has been trained since birth to be the greatest warrior his world [Which world?] has ever known. All he wants is to be remembered [Be more specific and try to add more flavor/personality. Wanting glory is a bit general], and he’ll take it anyway the gods see fit. Ten years ago, he left home to find honor and eternal glory on the battlefield at Troy; instead he has seen only death and dishonor. But now there’s a kidnapped princess glaring at him from within his tent. She’s dirty, she’s been beaten and she hates him, and, though he can’t explain why, he likes her. [Something missing here. What does he want to do? What’s his plot?]
BRISEIS is YA Historical fiction/Mythical retelling, complete at 40,500 words. [This is phrased a bit awkwardly, I would suggest: BRISEIS is a young adult retelling of the Briseis and Achilles myth, complete at 40,500 words.]
Thank you for your time and consideration.
As I mentioned, I really like the central idea and there are some flashes of personality here, but more clarity and more concreteness about the plot will go along way toward making the story truly come alive.
Thanks again to muse_clio!
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Art: Achilles discovers Briseis with the body of Patroclus in his tent by Julien Michel Gue
Hello, muse_clio, I really enjoyed reading your query for Briseis. I thought that I’d quite fancy a read of this one. You obviously have the writing chops, and I felt in safe hands that this novel wouldn’t disappoint. So many interesting facets were mentioned in the query; particularly, the spirited and brave princess and the dynamite Achilles of whom it is hinted will have a future.
After reading Nathan’s read line, I could see that his suggestions would certainly add flavour and individuality to the re-telling of this great myth. The myths are amongst the grandest of tales, but sometimes – for me -they lack a certain moral truth. I’d love to see see a story that focused not just on romance and action but on deeper values which you’ve already touched on in your mention of ‘honour’. I think a character who sought not honour for himself but of giving honour to others in the form of an awareness of the needs of others – and serving others would make for an unforgettable character. Scripture back this up with the line, ‘The greatest of all is the servant of all.’ Of course, Achilles wouldn’t start out with this realisation, but how inspiring and thrilling would it be if he ended up with this life-changing awareness. For a YA novel, it would certainly inspire the younger reader with something to aim for in their own lives.
Did you know that bestselling author Pat Barker has earlier this year published a novel based on the same Briseis/Achilles situation? Might make yours a tougher sell.
Nathan Bransford says
FWIW I don’t know that that would really be a problem for three reasons: 1) Assuming the author queried now it would be a while before this book came out, 2) The adult and children’s publishing world are pretty separate (if anything, success in the adult world can help serve as a proof of concept in the children’s world and there’s a bit of a trickle down effect), and 3) Books with similar premises are published fairly regularly.