Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Query Question: how much plot to put in the query?

  My YA novel is a story about how the 14 year old narrator along with her mother, escapes from her abusive father. The father tracks them down and eventually kills the mother and rapes the narrator leaving her for dead. The story is really about how she recovers from this violence. My question: how much of this do I mention in the query. Is giving away the entire plot a bad idea?  

Giving away the entire plot is a terrible idea.
The purpose of a query letter is to entice an agent to read more, not tell the entire story. If you tell the entire plot, I have no incentive to to read more.

And, I must caution you that your email reveals a bigger problem than how much plot to reveal. You need to be very very careful how you couch the backstory.

When I read your question for this blog post, I felt like I'd been smacked in the face by the violence.

And while violence IS a part of YA books, and certainly a part of the books on my list, it's violence in context.  You've given me no context here. Of course, that wasn't your purpose, your question is about how much plot to reveal.

BUT if you start your query with how you started this email, it will be a problem. Remember, YA is in many ways about the feelings and emotions of the characters, not what happens.  You don't have any of that in the email.

There's a brilliant piece in Issue 59 of Tin House magazine** called The Soundproof Room by Lacy M. Johnson. Read that to see how she brings the reader in, beguiles the reader into caring very deeply about what happens.  This is a heart wrenching excerpt of a memoir. If you'd queried me to read it in bald-faced terms, I would have said no, but once I started, there was simply no putting it down.

**If you don't subscribe, your library probably does.


Kitty said...

I'll admit I'm of another generation, one in which I don't recall a single YA book concerning rape and sex. Those subjects were strictly for adults. I grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries. It's not that such things didn't happen back then. A sixth grade classmate fainted one day and it was whispered that she was pregnant -- by a family member. I'm glad we live in a time when victims of violence are encouraged to come forward. But I can't help but feel sad that those Nancy Drew days are no longer.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Query technique aside,I'm with Kitty on this.
With so much violence thrown in our faces daily via media why would anyone want to pay for more, especially YA.
I know we can never go back, and I know by personal experience it wasn't all roses back then, and I know things like this happen but really. The only thing worse than the horror some people experience is having an emotional investment (written or real)in the people it happens too.

french sojourn said...

I have to agree with the two ladies above...
After I read the book description, I was thrown back into the least favorite paragraph I've ever read.
It reminded me of a certain chapter from "City of Thieves".
Although I absolutely loved the Odyssey-ian adaptation of WW-2 torn Russia, I wouldn't rate it Y.A.

More like WTF...but that's just me, add a soundtrack that's snappy and I'm sure Disney would pick it up...they love dysfunctional family yarns.

lena said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Terri Lynn Coop said...

On the question, what to reveal in the query, I can only share my own funny story.

In a bar at a writers' conference in Houston, I pulled out my sample query (you know, "Be Prepared,") and two agents looked it over and both reached for a red pen and crossed out the exact same paragraph, the one with the reveal of the primary story arc. Too much, too soon.

I took that as a consensus. Back to Query Shark with me. In fact QS might be a good place to test drive this query for both style and reaction to the substance.


John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

I recall being about 14 and asking my mother about a word I'd just read in a magazine article, "rape." She seemed shocked and wanted to know where I'd heard that. I don't think I ever did get an answer from her.

For me, if the story focused on the girl's recovery without focusing on the violence, that could work. But the way it's tossed in here, wow, way too matter of fact for me.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I'm with the others. I just think this story is too dark for YA. Young psyches aren't yet sufficiently prepared to handle too much real-life horror. It undermines things in their foundations that they still need. Whether they want to admit/realise it or not, they're still kids.

BTW, I couldn't find The Soundproof Room from that Tin House link, so resorted to google, which took me here:

Expand the third sub-heading ("Features")

Then click on Lacy Johnson's name, which will bring up the text.

Janet Reid said...

YA gets very dark these days, and I'm ok with that. Really.

Kids today face a level of violence that was unknown to most (unless you were black/gay/Native/Other) in their personal lives and we all face visual violence in the media that was unknown to people before 1968. (Remember "bringing the war into America's living room")

Violence has a legitimate place in YA. I believe that.

How to write about--that's the question.

LynnRodz said...

I think the author has to remember kids read up. If the MC is 14 years old, the kids reading those YA books are very often younger. Do 12 or 13 year olds have to read about rape and incest? I don't think so. There's more than enough violence in the world today just watching the evening news. Young people are exposed to it everywhere they look: the internet, television, music videos, films, etc. Yes, kids are wiser today than I was back in the day, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps the author should make the MC somewhat older.

Lance said...

I was agreeing with the comments that said this sounded too violent for YA, but then I read Armageddon by Leon Uris in eighth grade. I think they do read up. The violence in that book didn't affect me none.

"Yes, it did!"

"Shut up. I told you I would do the talking."

"You always say that."

Terri Lynn Coop said...

How can I not love someone who reads Leon Uris?

I read Gone With the Wind in 6th grade, it had some graphic passages to be sure. Hunger Games is hardly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms.

Presentation is key and how to make it enticing to an agent to read on. She has a horrific past, but what is her conflict and the stakes now?


Kevin Lee Swaim said...

For some reason, maybe because I'm weird, I was reminded of Peter Dinklage's character in Elf... "No tomatoes. Too vulnerable. Kids, they're already vulnerable."

The Writer Librarian said...

205 libraries to be exact, most in CA. :)

And thank you for saying, "YA is in many ways about the feelings and emotions of the characters, not what happens." Will be tacking this to my forehead from now on.

Wendy Qualls said...

I think it's entirely doable to reference this violence in a YA query, IF you focus on your character and not the plot. By which I mean something like "Jane Doe is [doing X, Y, and Z] but feels like a fake, because she's not yet over [incident of violence]. She does A, B, and C and has [internal/external conflict], but [emotional crap happens to her]." So use the violence to inform the present character, don't focus on the violent scenes AS the present.

(Disclaimer: I'm a junkie for query advice but I haven't hooked an agent yet, so grain of salt and all!)

Eileen said...

A book to check out would be Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl to see how that author tackled a similar difficult topic. It's extremely well done.

Elissa M said...

If the story isn't about murder and rape, the query shouldn't be, either. Wendy Qualls' template above looks like a good one to me.

But the Author's question leaves me hazy on just what this story is. It starts out, "My YA novel is a story about..." (murder and rape) and then goes on to say, "The story is really about..." (victim recovery). This leaves me guessing. What IS the story?

Readers don't have to see violence in all its gory details to follow and understand the victim's recovery. In some cases, it might even be best if they didn't.

Laura said...

If the story is really about the MC's recovery from violence, then mentioning this event is not giving away the entire plot. However, because it's not the story itself, it need only be hinted at or described in a single sentence. "Shattered by family violence, Susie struggles to tie her shoes in the morning."

Ordinary People may be a good template for a light touch. It is a YA coming-of-age classic that deals with the recovery of a boy and his family from his brother's death and the boy's suicide attempt. The story starts months after these events, and they are only faintly whispered about until one is deep in the book and you care about the MC.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Janet, I just can’t go to bed tonight and not make a more in-depth comment about this post.
It is so sad that violent entertainment for young people today is acceptable, especially if it is packaged in words which allow it to be considered art, instead of what it really is - horror. Some commenters said what your writer wrote was shocking and they, and you, were turned off by the abject bluntness of the query writer.

“The father tracks them down and eventually kills the mother and rapes the narrator leaving her for dead.”

Think about that Janet...stop for a minute...think about what the writer wrote, bare and to the point... a child was raped by her father, her mother was killed by the father...she is left for dead by her father. No matter how you wrap literature around the vile acts against the mother and the child, it is still a child being violated, a woman being murdered and the child left for dead by a parent. And this is okay to be read by children? My God Janet, by children?

I’m not a head in the sand kind of person, I did not shelter my two daughters from the truth of how horrible, “man’s inhumanity to man” can be, but I didn’t buy it for them. And if they read it, or watched it, or heard about it, we talked and talked and talked until they understood that evil has a boundary, love does not. What’s next, a Golden Book about Sandy Hook, or a story about young lovers who hold hands and leap from a blown out window of North Tower, 1-WTC.

I’m not naive. As a young girl I wept when my neighbor talked about the after-effects of the holocaust on the few family members of hers that survived. I watched Dan Rather report from the front lines in Vietnam as we ate our dinner at the coffee table in front of the only TV we had. Body counts, body bags, friends and family watching for glimpses of their sons and brothers on the news just to know they were still alive, or god-forbid, dead on the evening news. We could have turned it off, but we were watching for my brother.

Black men and women being fire-hosed, because they wanted to register to vote or eat at a lunch counter in Selma, little girls being murdered in church, I said to my mother:
“Has the world gone crazy?” And she answered it has always been crazy. The only difference, now it joins us for dinner.

Three generations of women in my family were, (and how do I best package my words so as to move the heart and not punch the gut), actually I don’t have to; your mind is already right there and yes my friends it was horrific. Real is bad enough, we don’t need fiction to tell us that.

“YA gets very dark these days, and I'm okay with that. Really.” Really Janet, really?

If it’s okay to read, is it okay to do? No of course not. Do children know the difference? Some do, some don’t. This is not a criticism of viewpoint, or maybe it actually is.
Janet, I so respect what you do and how you do it. It’s just so God-damned sad that we as a society accept that children are allowed, encouraged even, to read about the cruelest and darkest side of the human soul before many are even old enough to bleed.

Egads, I better stop now or I’ll be up all night. I’m going to read some Bombeck now or Sedaris. Where the hell is my copy of Holidays on Ice?

LynnRodz said...

Well said, Carolynn, well said!!!

Unknown said...

I'm sure we would all like to that the world is rose colored and all kids and teens skip through flower fields all day long. The field of YA had greatly changed since the 1950s. Have you read Ellen Hopkins? This was not my whole query letter it was a simple question. And yes children and teens experience this abuse and horror in their real lives and it helps them to read about it.

french sojourn said...

Verna; be fair Carolynnwith 2ns was commenting on the Mature Content.
(Skipping through flower fields does bring thoughts about the Von Trapps in that cute musical that was skirting around the Nazi's)
Music with vulgar lyrics have MA stickers on the cd case...yes?

YA might want to have likewise if the subject is a father stalking his wife then raping his daughter and leaving her for dead.

I'm hardly a religious zealot, if you've read some of my sometimes tasteless Flash Fiction entries, I'm sure you could deduce that I like to stretch the envelope ....hell more like demo the post office.

This is not a generational thing as the generation before mine dealt with the horror's of WW-2 that would make your query seem like a fairy tale...grimm?

The field of YA has changed since the 1950's...but the world as a whole sure the hell hasn't. You're not breaking new ground,, just selling it to a younger audience.

Cheers Hank.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

"Just selling it to a younger audience"... yes, exactly. I can only echo what Lynn said above: Kids. Read. Up. If you're a reader, you read.

By the time I was 9 or 10 - like a great many others, including my friends - I was reading plenty of "older" and even adult fiction (and non-fiction). And some of it really didn't do me any good at all. OK, I learned stuff. But what I learned has permanently weakened my faith in some areas, and I regret that. Maybe if it had been allowed to gain a stronger foothold? Who knows.

But I think children need to be shielded against the worst things in life, even though they happen every day. There'll be time enough to discover the horrors. Wait till their minds have developed enough strength to handle it. I'm not talking about the kids who have suffered violence first-hand - neither they nor we had any choice in the matter. But where we can protect them, we should.

Susan Bonifant said...

I've known plenty of teenagers and have been the parent of four. MA labels not only fail as deterrents, they help ensure that a kid will be even more intrigued by material that is beyond their psychological comprehension. After a point, we can't control the exposure, but we can always, always initiate discussion about what they see or hear.

Janet Reid said...

I wrote a blog post a while back on YA and violent, difficult subjects.

I believed that then, I believe it now.

Kat Waclawik said...

I read a lot of adult books as a kid (I first read Jurassic Park when I was 7). Never had a problem with them. I loved Robin McKinley's books and eagerly picked up Deerskin. By a few chapters in, I remember thinking for the first time in my life, "I am too young to read this book." I finished it, but my feelings about it were generally negative.

A few years later, something horrible happened to my friend. I kept thinking about Deerskin, and I finally pulled it out and read it again. And went, "Oh." I'm grateful for that book. I didn't need its lessons when I first read it, but it provided powerful healing when I did.

Until we fix all the problems in the world, I am glad there are authors willing to write on tough subjects to help people deal with their inevitable tragedies. And that applies to every age group.

LynnRodz said...

Verna, when you said, "...children and teens experience this abuse and horror in their real lives and it helps them to read about it." I think you're wrong. It helps them to TALK about it, to work through their trauma by expressing what they may have kept hidden and/or are unable to express. Group therapy helps because others who have gone through a similar trauma understand what they went through and they talk it out together. Reading about a trauma similar to their own - I'm not so sure.

Kat, something happening to a friend is very different than something happening to you. I think we can continue to polemicize about this subject all we want, but someone in the field of psychiatry would be the person who could best comment on this discussion.

Janet, I did go back and read your post from 2010 and I can see where you are coming from. But. I think most of the comments here haven't been about kids who have gone through a similar traumatic experience.... We're talking about kids who know nothing about the horrors in this world. I see nothing positive about learning these facts of life for the first time through a book at an age where they don't need to know. In this world, that time will come soon enough!

Stacy said...

If you don't want your kid to learn about these things, that's your business. But there ARE abused kids--plenty of them--whose sole outlet for learning they're not alone is through fiction. To suggest we should limit the subjects YA fiction discusses because some people find it uncomfortable to explain to their kids seems a little cruel to me.

LynnRodz said...

Stacy, this will be my last comment on the subject because I don't think I'm getting through! Perhaps I'm not expressing myself well enough. I'm NOT talking about banning these subjects, nor am I talking about not letting children who are or have been abused from reading these books. I'm talking about introducing these topics to children who have NEVER been abused and know NOTHING about these issues and are still too immature to deal with them. Enough said.

Stacy said...

LynnRodz, my comment was not directed to you personally--although I have plenty of bones to pick with your assertions. Several commenters expressed a discomfort with the tone of YA in general. My point isn't that I think you want to control what gets published (although I think you and several commenters have decided for everyone what should).

My point is that there seems to be this expectation that every experience mirrors yours and your kids. Hence your focus on the kids who are "too immature" to deal with dark themes. (Not sure how that would be decided.) I'm just saying those aren't the only kids relevant to the discussion.

Darcy said...

I teach girls and women about self defense. Specifically about defending against rape. If I get women I can guarantee that several in each class will have already been assaulted in their teens. If I can get them in their very early teens I *might* get them before they either know someone who has been assaulted or been assaulted themselves. Not publishing violent material doesn't shield them from reality. The girl who chooses a book like that can handle the topic. We lighten our classes with humor and hope. If a book deals with recovery and survival it's a good thing.

french sojourn said...

Stacy..." (although I think you and several commenters have decided for everyone what should)."

I've only been following this specific blog for three years. It has taught me so much about the craft of writing. My comments were never implying that this should not be allowed to be written. I think the tangent this has gone off on is unfortunate.

I bet if the author asked for any help on her work every single commentor here would do what ever possible to help one of our kinds..writers.

I was raised with five sisters and a brother by a single mother, I am the father of a single child, my daughter. She has had any subject matter available to her with my blessing. My belief was that the description of the query was a little...alot...graphic and worrisome as a YA theme.

My thought; upon reflection is the basis for this whole discussion..
This graphic description is a back story and is what some one is dealing with. Are the hints sprinkled through out the story so that as her journey progresses, it is a horror uncovered. Then I would go with a reader. It lends itself as a shared experience to a greater amount of victims who have experienced a tragedy.
I know I initially reacted as though this was going to be the primary legs to the story. The horrific nature of the young lady's experience is so unsettling that most reactions were probably like having young adults watch Clockwork Orange.

Verna...if you really feel this story has to be written...I guarantee everyone here will offer their honest advice. To think anyone on the forum would want to stop you from telling a story is false.

Good luck with the m/s.

Cheers Hank

Stacy said...

Again, not directed to you personally, french sojourn. Several commenters did lament on the state of YA fiction. You can take away from that what you see and I'll take away from that what I see.

Adib Khorram said...

I was glad to see this question asked. I myself have been afraid of lying by omission in a query - after all, you don't want to come across as deceptive.

Her Sharkiness frequently exhorts us that the point of a query is to get the reader want to read the book. It seems to me it's okay to leave out details, especially the harsher ones that can't be contextualized in 250 words. As others have said, it's all in how you frame it.

As to the state of Young Adult fiction, I actually feel very strongly about this issue. I rarely comment on blogs, but I feel compelled to wade into the waters.

Consider the original question, reframed:

My YA novel is a story about how the 11 year old narrator escapes his parents' brutal murder and then gets raised by his abusive aunt and uncle. They belittle him, starve him, and lock him up at night. The story is really about him finding out he is a wizard.

Or how about this?

My YA novel is a story about how the 14 year old narrator, along with her mother, father, and relatives, are forced from their home into hiding. They eventually take refuge with a friend who shelters them, but eventually they are betrayed and apprehended and relocated to Bergen-Belsen. The story is really about a young girl finding her own voice, even in the darkest times.

Please forgive the oversimplification, but so much YA deals with things so horrific, like murder and genocide, and yet these books are embraced because of what they can teach us about our own humanity. But domestic violence and rape are somehow "too dark" for the YA audience. Writing about them risks exposing our children to things before they are mature enough to handle them.

Not to trivialize rape, or diminish its victims in any way, but seriously? The systematic slaughter of millions during the Holocaust is okay as YA, but you'd better stay away from the topic of rape? You can start a book off with the murder of the narrator's mother and father, but don't ever show a girl getting abused by her father?

I would argue that sexual assault is something that must be addressed in YA fiction, because so many more young people are at risk of encountering it in their lives.

Tell a good story, and tell it well. That's all your YA book truly needs.