For the past month and a half I’ve been putting long hours and copious amounts of caffeine into my middle grade fantasy manuscript. This book started as a tiny idea last July, and was drafted as a NaNoWriMo project in November 2015. Since then, most sections have been rewritten, sometimes twice, and the entire thing has changed dramatically. I learned more about the craft and structure of writing a novel in the past eight or so months of revision than I have in the past ten years I’ve been writing drafts.
I’m convinced, now, that the magic of writing happens during the revision process. That revelation takes a lot of pressure out of drafting, because now I know that I’ll just change everything when I revise anyway. Before this past year, I’d written a pile of drafts but never seriously revised them. But drafting, I realize now, isn’t even the hard part! Which makes me excited to draft my next project, because it’s truly just tossing around sand in the sandbox.
One of the exercises that revealed problems within my novel was writing the query letter. I’ve known since last year that I wanted to enter PitchWars, so the query letter wasn’t for actual querying but rather for the contest. Still, it follows the same conventions and can easily be used for either.
There’s a super secret potential mentee group on Facebook, and for the past few months we’ve been sharing query letters back and forth. I have to say, the feedback I’ve gotten from that group has been the BEST feedback I’ve ever gotten. The helpful potential mentees, plus the wonderful archives of the QueryShark blog, transformed my query letter from a blob of mush to something actually interesting.
More importantly, writing the query letter revealed problems with character motivation in my novel. Queries are all about character–what does your character want, what’s in their way, and what are the stakes. It sounds simple, but drawing out that thread from my 60,000 word novel was not easy. I kept getting bogged down by worldbuilding and other characters, and I realized that my main character’s motivation to simply “get home” was not enough.
I wanted to share a “before” and “after” of my query letter to show how much peer review helped me. I’m sure most others entering Pitch Wars this year have similar experiences; even if you’re not entering, this speaks to the value of having another set (or several other sets) of eyes looking over your work.
The First Draft:
When 12 year-old Gracia finds a dead man in her backyard, it’s up to her and Zoe — the dead man’s cyborg daughter — to find his killer before the killer finds them.
The duo find themselves stuck in the city of Splint, a mishmash of times and cultures that exists separate from the linear time stream. Everyone in Splint has a Kytherian Device — an amulet that works as a sort of magical multi-tool, allowing the user to pick locks, light fires, freeze enemies, travel time, and more. But the Department of Temporal Transactions has a lockdown on time travel functionality, preventing anyone from traveling unless they have authorization. Gracia and Zoe have to find the Key that will let them time travel freely — a Key that will get Gracia home to her own time, and give Zoe the freedom from Splint she’s always wanted. If they don’t find the Key before the killer does, time will be unlocked forever, an event that would wreak havoc on the time stream. But with a secret society out to stop them, an evil bureaucratic government agency out to kill them, and traitors among their friends, freedom seems a long way off.
SPLINT is a middle grade fantasy adventure complete at around 60,000 words. Think S.E. Grove’s THE GLASS SENTENCE meets Neil Gaiman’s INTERWORLD, with a little bit of DOCTOR WHO and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST thrown in.
This was my first ever attempt at a query letter. I tried to just sum up my novel, but as you can see, I’m throwing around way too many aspects of the world that aren’t necessary. Also, Gracia’s motivation is dodgy–things are happening to her, but she’s not really driving any of the action herself.
I decided to make a big revision. Rather than get dragged along on Zoe’s adventure, I needed to give my main character, Gracia, a reason to want to go on the adventure. Even if she ends up regretting it, or things don’t go the way she expected. I needed to give her more agency, even if she is shy and awkward. I also needed to give her a reason to want it. And so, I re-purposed a throwaway character into a best friend she wants to make amends with. Going on the quest would give her a way to make up with her best friend. And this simple change (really, I only had to tweak a few scenes here and there) breathed new life into my manuscript.
My query is still nowhere near perfect, but I definitely think it’s much stronger than the original draft. Here’s the current version:
The day twelve-year-old Gracia gets slapped by her supposed-best-friend is the same day she finds a dead man in her backyard.
It isn’t the first time she’s been hit — or spit on, or shoved, or mocked for her vitiligo by the mean kids at school. But now even her best friend hates her, and Gracia would do anything to get her back.
The dead man changes everything. When his cyborg daughter, Zoe, shows up demanding answers, Gracia agrees to help her solve her father’s murder. In exchange, Zoe agrees to teach Gracia how to use a powerful amulet called a Kytherian Device. If Gracia can impress her best friend with the Device, then surely she’ll win her back — but things don’t go exactly as planned. If Gracia knew she’d be breaking into a police station, locked in an outhouse, and stuck in an extratemporal city, she never would’ve agreed to help.
Now Gracia’s trapped in Splint, a city outside of time where the line between science and magic is blurred. With a secret society out to get them, and an evil bureaucratic government with aggressive thugs at every turn, solving a murder is easier said than done. If she doesn’t find the killer soon, the time stream will be damaged forever. She’ll never get home to make amends with her best friend, and she’ll never prove to herself that strength is more than just skin-deep.
SPLINT is a middle grade fantasy novel complete at 60,000 words. It is a standalone novel with series potential.
Good luck to everyone who’s entering Pitch Wars!