Query Doctor: THE STORY OF THE STORY OF THE EGG

| Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It's been a really long time since I've done a query critique, but Mr. Kurt Hartwig is planning on querying soon and asked if I could look over his letter. So the Query Doctor has returned! Let's do this.

First, here's the original query:

Like most young stories his age, all Fin wants to be when he grows up is an Epic. Epics are cool – they’re famous, they have the best houses of anyone, plus they’re all about heroes. What’s not to like? That dream ends the day he and his older sister Torus are accosted by Monkey King, the only Trickster Epic in existence. He says that Fin is a “paradox,” and a paradox is what Monkey King wants. He’ll be coming for Fin.

That threat is only the beginning of Fin's troubles. Being a “paradox” gets worse during puberty, the thirteen-year old story learns. Great. Torus starts sneaking away and stops hanging out with him. Worst of all, his little sister refuses to hatch from her egg and Fin has to carry her around when he babysits. Mortifying!

Then the earthquakes begin and someone egg-naps the baby. Turns out Fin's not the only special story in his family. His little sister is a palimpsest, a one in a billion child, the kind of story that can be written and then re-written and re-written again. If they’re lucky, she’ll only forget her whole family. If not, she’ll be dead.

Monkey King’s devious plot to get at Fin runs right through the Egg. Fin has to figure out what it is – and where he stands in it – in order to get the Egg back home safe and sound. And the only thing he knows about being a paradox is everything is more complicated than it should be.

The Story of the Story of the Egg is a 51,000-word upper middle grade novel that takes place in the Stacks and the Walled Garden of Story City, where all stories come from and where they meet their authors. I’ve aspired for a mix of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m not claiming equality with either, but a guy’s gotta reach for the stars.

In addition to prose, I sometimes write plays, one of which won an award at the 2009 Prague Fringe Festival. Without question, writing fiction is the best thing I have done with the skills I learned getting my degree in Folklore (which yes, you can still get.)

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Healthy Bits: The general plot is on point! I see inciting incident and stakes. Important characters are introduced. The prose is, overall, fairly strong, and all the important query elements are there. Sounds like an intriguing concept!

Under The Weather: My diagnosis is that this query is suffering from a bit of info-stuffing and meanderitis. It needs some tightening up, cutting of unnecessary details, and more clarity. The extra info and structure leave this doctor feeling a little lost.

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Line By Line

Like most young stories his age, all Fin wants to be when he grows up is an Epic.

This opening caught me off guard. It’s difficult for me to visualize a personified “story.” Is Fin a boy? Is he… an anthropomorphic book? I feel like you could go with a better opening, but I’m having trouble thinking of one when I’m not completely sure who/what I’m dealing with. It definitely caught my attention, (young story?), but I’m not sure it’s in the right way. It’s a little more confusing than intriguing for me.

Epics are cool – they’re famous, they have the best houses of anyone, plus they’re all about heroes. What’s not to like?

Again, feeling like I’m not quite getting it. Epics are entities that can own homes, but they can also figuratively be “about heroes.” Are we dealing with people? If they’re people, how does this work, exactly?

That dream ends the day he and his older sister Torus are accosted by Monkey King, the only Trickster Epic in existence.

I feel like this is probably a really cool concept, but this query letter is making it difficult for me to wrap my brain around. There can be subsections of “Epics?” I thought Epic was its own classification, since Fin wants to be one? Is a Trickster something you can be separately from an Epic, or are they only Epics? If so, they have a special name even though there’s only one?

I’m also a little thrown by the name “Monkey King.” Fin and Torus seem to have typical names, but Monkey King implies that he’s… well, a king of monkeys. But he’s a “story?” Is that actually the title of his “story?” (I may be thinking about this way too hard!)

He says that Fin is a “paradox,” and a paradox is what Monkey King wants. He’ll be coming for Fin.

Interesting, though it doesn’t give me much context. Why is being a “paradox” a big deal? Is it rare?

That threat is only the beginning of Fin's troubles. Being a “paradox” gets worse during puberty, the thirteen-year-old story learns. Great.

Stories can go through puberty? I like the little bit of voice from “Great,” though it’s sort of standard “sarcastic teen.” Lastly, the time jump surprised me. Saying the Monkey King was coming for Fin built a sense of urgency, but then he… went away until Fin hit puberty? Why? Or has Fin always been thirteen and we’re just finding out now? The way this is phrased sounds like he hits puberty later in the story. I’m still not sure what being a “paradox” means and why it’s important.

Torus starts sneaking away and stops hanging out with him. Worst of all, his little sister refuses to hatch from her egg and Fin has to carry her around when he babysits. Mortifying!

A little more voice here, which is good. Still feeling confused about what exactly we’re dealing with. Stories hatch from eggs? And they can choose when to hatch?

Then the earthquakes begin and someone egg-naps the baby. Turns out Fin's not the only special story in his family. His little sister is a “palimpsest,” a one-in-a-billion child, the kind of story that can be written and then re-written and re-written again. If they’re lucky, she’ll only forget her whole family. If not, she’ll be dead.

… so, what about Fin being a “paradox?” Is that still relevant? I like that you explained what a “palimpsest” is, though I’m not sure I understand why someone wanted to egg-nap her. Who is doing this? Monkey King? Why?

Monkey King’s devious plot to get at Fin runs right through the Egg. Fin has to figure out what it is – and where he stands in it – in order to get the Egg back home safe and sound. And the only thing he knows about being a paradox is everything is more complicated than it should be.

It’s okay if Fin doesn’t know what a paradox is yet, but your query should explain. I think it’d go a long way toward clearing up the confusion.

The Story of the Story of the Egg is a 51,000-word upper middle grade novel that takes place in the Stacks and the Walled Garden of Story City, where all stories come from and where they meet their authors.

This information should come WAY earlier in your query. Not the bit about title/word length/genre, that’s fine, but the info about Story City. I feel like this might have helped my confusion a little bit if I’d read it earlier, and keep in mind agents and editors are only reading the first few lines before they decide they’re hooked or not. Important story info always goes toward the beginning.

I’ve aspired for a mix of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m not claiming equality with either, but a guy’s gotta reach for the stars.

I like your spunk and personality here, but it’s typically better to leave this portion more on the safe/professional side. Avoid statements like “I’ve aspired for…” and be declarative, but not cocky. Say, “This novel will appeal to fans of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.” Leave it at that and let the agent decide if you captured that tone appropriately. It’s okay to be confident and not undersell yourself! Just don’t, y’know, act like you think you’re the next coming :) Let your voice shine through in the story meat of the query.

In addition to prose, I sometimes write plays, one of which won an award at the 2009 Prague Fringe Festival. Without question, writing fiction is the best thing I have done with the skills I learned getting my degree in Folklore (which yes, you can still get.)

I like this and think the voice here works. It ends on a little bit of personality and pertains to your actual relevant skills, so the flip comment reads more naturally and less like you’re trying to sound impressive but not full of yourself, which the other bit did.

Closing Thoughts

As you can tell, this query raised A LOT of questions for me and left me feeling confused. This is one of those situations where I feel like a lot of information has been crammed in, but bits were distracting and made me feel even more lost. For instance, why is Torus mentioned? She doesn’t seem to play much of a key role in this query.

I genuinely love the idea of a quirky, weird, fantastical story along the lines of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I just can’t visualize the world you’ve built at all from this query, and that’s an issue. Fin is this kind of nebulous blob in my head, since I don’t even know if he looks human.

The inciting incident and stakes are there, but I didn’t feel much about why this is Fin’s story. Why does it have to be him?

For comparison, let’s actually look at the blurb for The Phantom Tollbooth.

For Milo, everything's a bore - until he drives through a mysterious tollbooth in his room. He visits the island of Conclusions by jumping, learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and embarks on a rescue of Rhyme and Reason. Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes life is exciting beyond his wildest dreams.

It’s concise, shows the fantastical nature of the story, has some stakes (rescue mission!), and still manages to show Milo’s character growth (he goes from a bored kid to realizing life’s actually pretty amazing). It even illustrates the quirkiness and humor of the novel (you get to the island of Conclusions by jumping… ha ha ha!).

Personally, I would start from scratch. First: where does Fin start? Where does he end? What sparks that journey? What propels him at the midpoint? Why is he special? You touched on all of these elements, but got lost in the details. Set up your world as briefly as possible, as early as possible. Remind the reader every step of the way why this is HIS story and why it needs to be told.

Just as an example, I’m going to make up something off the cuff. This obviously probably isn’t going to match up to your actual story AT ALL, but hopefully it helps give you some ideas!

In Story City, everybody gets their story told, and thirteen-year-old Fin really hopes his is Epic. Epic stories get fame, fortune, and heroics. Unfortunately, he’s about to find out that his story is actually a Paradox, and Paradoxes bring trouble. Big trouble.

While he’s waiting to meet his Author, he’s stuck with babysitting duty. His kid sister just won’t hatch, and it’s getting embarrassing. One day, he’s too busy daydreaming about adventure to catch tricky Monkey King before he egg-naps little sis. Turns out her story is a Palimpsest, the rarest of all, and Monkey King won’t stop until he’s rewritten her for good.

Now it’s up to Fin to write his own story. Monkey King knows the true power of a Paradox and has grand plans for Fin. Looks like the Egg is the least of Fin’s problems. He’s got to find the flaw in this tale’s weave before his sister loses herself forever.

My goal here is to maintain the feel of your world and story without the confusing details. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention that Fin is a “story” at all, I just left it implied. The little fantastical bits are there (his sister being an egg), but I aimed to keep it in the flow of the story so it didn’t sound quite so out of place. I’m showing Fin’s character growth: he starts out daydreaming of greatness while he waits for his Author, but ends up realizing he has to be in control of his own story. The great concept is there, it just needs polish!

I hope this gives you some good food for thought and is helpful!

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