Query Workshop R-8: TERRA INCOGNITA

Second-to-last day for this! Time’s running out the crit and learn and love with the query workshop! And don’t forget to check out the queries on the blogs of Brenda, Marieke and Sarah!

On with the show!

Full Query:

Dear Agent:

In TERRA INCOGNITA, Haylee Wells wakes to a post-apocalyptic future and discovers the Pale Ones – creatures that can kill with a single touch – have propelled her through time to claim a power she didn’t even know she had. As she learns to survive in this unknown world, she finds love, friendship, and a fate greater than she could ever believe possible.

An online search resulted in my finding your agency and researching your name. After reading a few interviews, I thought you might be interested in TERRA INCOGNITA, the first book of the Terra Trilogy. I would be delighted if you would consider my novel.

Seventeen-year old Haylee thinks she lives in an ordinary world. But just out of sight, something not so ordinary lurks. Hidden in the shadows of city streets and forests – just like the one in her backyard – the Pale Ones plan their coming out.

In the future, the cities are gone and the land barren. Humans, fearing the deadly touch of the Pale Ones, know better than to venture into dark places. Haylee awakens to this world, where the supernatural is common: inanimate objects become poisonous organisms, humans survive – and fight back – with powers of their own, and Seers discern what secrets lie within the confines of your mind and heart.

The Pale Ones know great power dwells within Haylee and have resorted to time travel to claim it. She understands she should return home. But between her growing affections for her new friends – particularly Derik, the duty-bound protector of the group – and her newfound purpose in life, she is no longer sure in which time home resides.

TERRA INCOGNITA is a young adult post-apocalyptic love story with paranormal elements. Complete at 104,000 words, this story will introduce readers to a new supernatural creature and immerse them in another world in a manner reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

My fascination with storytelling began as a child, when my cousins and I gathered in a darkened hallway and listened to the eldest tell ghost stories. I wrote my first YA paranormal – a ghost story – at age fifteen but never finished it. While attending college, I began writing TERRA INCOGNITA, which was inspired by a dream, and finished it in grad school, writing between and (I’ll admit it) during classes.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Once More with Comments:

Dear Agent:

In TERRA INCOGNITA, Haylee Wells wakes to a post-apocalyptic future and discovers the Pale Ones – creatures that can kill with a single touch – have propelled her through time to claim a power she didn’t even know she had. As she learns to survive in this unknown world, she finds love, friendship, and a fate greater than she could ever believe possible.

An online search resulted in my finding your agency and researching your name. After reading a few interviews, I thought you might be interested in TERRA INCOGNITA, the first book of the Terra Trilogy. I would be delighted if you would consider my novel. (These first two paragraphs read more like closing paragraphs that you would put toward the end of the query letter. I think you need to take a few key pieces of information out of that first paragraph, work it in below and cut the rest. They’re just making the letter unnecessarily long.)

Seventeen-year old Haylee thinks she lives in an ordinary world. (This is a very common query opening in the vein of, “Celeste Evertruekiss thought she was so utterly normal.” I’d say skip this bit and start with her waking up in the future.) But just out of sight, something not so ordinary lurks. Hidden in the shadows of city streets and forests – just like the one in her backyard – the Pale Ones plan their coming out. (I like these sentences fine, but if we start with Haylee waking in the future, they become unnecessary.)

In the future, the cities are gone and the land barren. Humans, fearing the deadly touch of the Pale Ones, know better than to venture into dark places. Haylee awakens to this world, where the supernatural is common: inanimate objects become poisonous organisms, humans survive – and fight back – with powers of their own, and Seers discern what secrets lie within the confines of your mind and heart. (I like this part – it provides some good details about the world.)

The Pale Ones know great power dwells within Haylee and have resorted to time travel to claim it. She understands she should return home. But between her growing affections for her new friends – particularly Derik, the duty-bound protector of the group – (Wait – what? What friends? Use some of the space you’re making cutting the above to talk about the friends. If they’re important enough to tempt Haylee to stay, they deserve more than just a passing mention.) and her newfound purpose in life, she is no longer sure in which time home resides. (What newfound purpose? At this point we know a lot about the world and not a lot about Haylee or why she’s important.)

TERRA INCOGNITA is a young adult post-apocalyptic love story with paranormal elements. (If it’s primarily a love story, then we need to hear a LOT more about Derik. Nothing about the query made me think that the romance was a major component.) Complete at 104,000 words, (That’s a little on the high end for YA. Not necessarily a deal breaker, but just something to be aware of.) this story will introduce readers to a new supernatural creature (Hopefully more than one creature based off the premise, but I don’t know that this is really necessary to mention.) and immerse them in another world in a manner reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. (Classic tales are tricky as comparisons unless you’re doing a redux or some sort of spin-off. Contemporary comparisons can let agents know that you’re familiar with the marketplace and your audience; classic comparisons just set the bar high. I’m not saying don’t use them – I’m just saying proceed with caution.)

My fascination with storytelling began as a child, when my cousins and I gathered in a darkened hallway and listened to the eldest tell ghost stories. I wrote my first YA paranormal – a ghost story – at age fifteen but never finished it. While attending college, I began writing TERRA INCOGNITA, which was inspired by a dream, and finished it in grad school, writing between and (I’ll admit it) during classes. (I am of the opinion that a query letter is a business letter, and you don’t put fluff in business letters. This paragraph strikes me as a bit fluffy. An agent is going to care about the book – what’s it about, how well is it written, do I love it, can I sell it. At the query letter stage, they aren’t really going to care about any previously half-written stories or anything of that nature.)

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Overall: The premise has a lot of possibility, but the query to me right now feels a little overworked. Too much broad stuff about the world and the ideas it’s about and not enough grounding in your main character, who she is, what she wants and what her obstacles are. Treat it like the back of a book cover. If I pick this up and flip it around to see what it’s about, how would you sell the plot and heroine of your book to me so I don’t put it back on the shelf?

Okay, people, take it to the comments! Do you agree with me? Disagree? Want to punch me in the face? Now’s your chance!

Remember: Every critique you do gets you an entry into a first chapter critique from Brenda!

7 thoughts on “Query Workshop R-8: TERRA INCOGNITA

  1. I have to agree with Becks on this one. The story is definitely interesting, but the query is too full of extra stuff that I found myself skipping. Definitely needs some rearranging (particularly the first 2 paragraphs).

    I don’t have any other suggestions beyond what Becks said. Definitely a good starting point. Focus more on the MC and less on the world. The character is the center of the book, the world is her playground. It is important to mention the world, but don’t focus so much on it.

  2. The query feels scattered. One paragraph is about the story, the next about why you’re querying the agent, then back to the story only repeating a lot of information you started with, I say take out evrythng that isn’t about the story and fill in the details about Haley’s new friends and what the newfound purpose is. And nothing about what you’ve described in the query makes me think of Oz or Wonderland. If the only similarities are a girl who winds up in a new world then the comparison is too broad and lofty.

  3. I agree with the other comments. I would start with the 4th paragraph and then focus on her journey. You can cover the other details in the synopsis. I agree with Becca on trimming the information about previously unpublished writing projects. The agent or editor is only interested in the story you are querying.

  4. I feel like you have two queries here. Personally, I like your first paragraph, but feel it’s more of an ending paragraph. So I’d structure it like this:

    Open with paragraph 3 followed by paragraph four and end with paragraph one. This will require some editing, of course, but I think you’d have a stronger query that way.

    I’ve also been told not to mention how you find the person or that you might have a series; query only the first book and see what happens.

  5. Cool world, and very intriguing premise!

    I would get rid of the first two paragraphs and start with, “Seventeen-year old Haylee thinks she lives in an ordinary world…” I also want to know more about what power she has that makes her worth so much. This, to me, is the hook. This, and the uniqueness of her gift, would draw me in.

    Also, when you tell us this, “she finds love, friendship, and a fate greater than she could ever believe possible,” I’d rather you go into more detail about one or all of those things rather than tell us that’s what she finds. I feel we are missing a character- either a friend or a love interest.

    Good job!

  6. Thank you so much, everyone! I’ve written and rewritten my query so many times, I’d kind of lost my way…. You’ve put me back on the right track. Keep it simple and to the story, more MC, less world, rearrange, more friends/love interest – got it!

    Thanks again! You guys are wonderful!

  7. Writing queries are the hardest part of writing! But keep working at it! I’ve heard from most editors that you want to tell us about your story in one to two paragraphs. So locate the most driving and important underlying message and tell us about it.

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