Earlier this month, I posted about giving a few critiques away in exchange for donations to charity. All three slots for this round have been taken, but you can follow me or Sounding Sea on Twitter to be the first to find out when I do another round! You can also sign up to get email alerts via Sounding Sea here (don’t worry, they’re infrequent!). Last week, I gave feedback on Carly Heath’s query and first page.
My line notes are in bold and brackets, and I have overall thoughts below.
A princess controlled by an evil shadow and the thief she sentenced to death become unlikely allies when they try to uncover the truth about one murder and prevent another.
I am seeking representation for my young adult fantasy novel, CURSED STARS, complete at 101,000 words. [I love this query format, which lets us know what to expect in the rest! 101,000 words is at the upper limit for YA fantasy, but not a red flag. The title seems a tad familiar (star-crossed lovers?). A more specific title could be better, but it also sounds intriguing, so I’m ambivalent about it without knowing more about the book.]
When a letter comes condemning [This could be simply: “when a letter condemns”—and maybe indicate who the letter is from, if you can do so briefly?] Talin’s sister [At first I wondered if Talin was the princess, since it’s a name without gender connotations (actually, I know a female Talynn!)—you may want to make the order of the query paragraphs match the order in the logline. You could also simply say “condemning teen thief Talin’s…” so we know that he’s the thief.] to a life in the mines, he thinks he [Consider cutting “he thinks” or swapping with “he promises to do” to tighten this up.] will do anything to save her. But when Volun [Who’s Volun? I’d suggest using something to identify Volun rather than his name—is he a criminal overlord? Noble?] offers Talin her freedom, in exchange for stealing a piece of someone’s soul, but he can’t go through with it [Is this something Talin does on the regular? Are there a few words you can use to hint at this power or show us a little more about the world earlier to set this up?]. Angered at his failure, Volun frames Talin and ensures he is sentenced to death. [Is he framed for the murder they try to solve in the logline? You might be able to help readers make this connection simply by saying “frames Talin for murder.”]
Jezzabelle [I love the feminist history of this name!] becomes the heir to the throne of Nisentha following the mysterious murder of her older sister. [Is this the murder Talin is framed for or a different one?] In the wake of tragedy [Is the tragedy the murder or a different tragedy?], and the absence of the king, [Why is the King absent?] Jezzabelle is possessed by an unknown evil that forces her to rule with an iron fist, committing unforgivable atrocities. [I think we need to know a little more about this possession and how she can run away from it—is this something that is known to happen in this world?] When a chance to run away arises, Jezzabelle seizes it, not only [I’d cut the “not only” “but also” structure in favour of “to escape […] and pursue” to tighten this up.] to escape from what she has done, but also to pursue her sister’s killer.
Talin and Jezzabelle become unwilling travel companions while Talin searches for a way to save his sister [Wait, I thought Talin was sentenced to death for murder? You may need to clarify the timeline here, which could be done by putting Jezzabelle’s POV first.] and Jezzabelle struggles to untangle the mystery of her sister’s death. The road is anything but easy as they are constantly dogged by guards, smugglers, and betrayal. Will their newfound friendship survive uncovering all the secrets and lies? [I’d see if you can get this out of question format and cut “the road” clause, as that technique and clause are overused. Something like the following (but better/more specific!) could work: Jezzabelle and Talin fight guards, smugglers—and their own secrets and lies—to save their friendship, and their lives.]
I am currently a history student at UCLA [Is this undergrad? I would specify. It’s great, if so, that you’ve got a novel ready to query at such a young age and this is something an agent could use as a marketing hook], and I have had two poems published in the Young Poet’s Anthology in the UK. I was also a finalist in the 2016 Pitch to Publication competition with this manuscript.
I appreciate your time and hope to hear back from you soon.
Your basic structure here works well–your logline intrigued me right away! It seems like you could have an interesting enemies-to-friends (or lovers? If so, tell us more!) trope going on here, and Talin, in particular, has a lot at stake. I would look closely at clarifying the timeline, and including more specifics about the world so readers aren’t confused. I marked some places where you can tighten the language to give you more real estate to do that.
Chapter One – Jezzabelle
Jezzabelle was bored. Riding had long since lost its interest, and after nearly a day in the saddle she wanted nothing more than a warm bed and sleep. [These first two sentences are repetitive, and tell us how Jezzabell is feeling rather than showing it. What if you showed her yawning?] The scenery was just as dull, bare moors and pale mountains as far as the eye could see. They had been skirting the Foothills for the best part of three days, and Jezzabelle was fed up of [This should be “fed up with,” but I would recommend searching for more active phrasing. How can you cut out the word “was,” or let us into Jezzabelle’s head? Does she wish she were looking at a sandy beach instead? Imagine taking her sword and lopping off the white at the top of the peaks?] the cold white peaks.
The company was hardly any more interesting. [I’d cut this first sentence here and tell us a little more about who Riam is to her—like “her guard, Riam.”] Riam spent hours commenting on the unique nature of the weeds that grew in mountain country, or expounding endlessly [I’d cut “endlessly” since you’ve already got “spent hours.”] on the peculiar shape of the clouds that day [I’d cut “that day” and “on top of that” to tighten.]. On top of that, he was really too old and frail to be riding with them, making the pace slower than ever. [Maybe show us how he made the pace slow? Do they have to stop so he could dismount and stretch his legs? Slow to a walk because he complains when they trot?]
At least they were not far now from the next stop on their journey, though they would likely not make it before nightfall. [I like this hint of their goals here! Maybe we can get this a little earlier so we know what’s at stake for Jezzabelle beyond entertainment?] Darkness was rolling in quickly, [Again, cutting the word “was” will tighten your prose and liven up the voice. Maybe show us how the darkness is changing the scenery? Long shadows?] and Jezzabelle’s hands were already beginning to go numb [Simplify with “going numb”] on the reigns. [Watch the spelling of “reigns”—it’s “reins.” These are so common to flip around! I’d suggest doing a control F of your manuscript for both spellings to make sure you’ve got it right, since spellcheck won’t help you here.]
Though she welcomed the rest, [Does she welcome the rest? It seems like she’s ready for adventure!] she hated stopping in these towns. Especially this close to the Miranthian Mountains, it was never a pleasant experience.
Lit dimly by the setting sun, Jezzabelle could see the village ahead of them [Is Jezzabelle lit dimly or the town? Watch the dangling modifier here.], nestled in the crook of one of the smaller peaks. From this distance, it seemed almost peaceful. [Oooh, I love the subtle hint of conflict here! Actually, I think these two could be great opening lines for the page, if the village is going to play a big role in the following events.]
“A few more miles, Princess.” Riam said cheerfully. [How can you show the cheer rather than rely on the adverb? Was his voice high, upbeat? Did he yell even though he’s nearby?] How he could still be so upbeat after hours of travelling Jezzabelle had no idea. “Then we can stop for the night. And onto Larikos in the morning. I am excited to see the Consulate building. Did you know, Larikos was one of the first settlements? Built entirely on…” [This dialogue seems a little info-dumpy—he’s telling her things she already knows. Perhaps you can focus on his excitement about seeing the Consulate building, and put the other details in the narration rather than in dialogue?]
Jezzabelle let him drone on, his words washing over her as she kept her eyes on the horizon. Though the temptation to tell him to be quiet was strong, she knew Riam would take great offense and it would not be worth the days of complaining that would follow. [This sentence could be stronger—“If she told him to be quiet, he would take great offense, and the temporary silence would not be worth…”]
This is a great setting, and we are deeply immersed into the physical world. With Jezzabelle’s snark here, I’m imagining “Pretty Little Liars” forming the Fellowship of the Ring, haha. However, we don’t know enough as readers yet to agree with Jezzabelle that the ride is boring. In fact, it sounds pretty enchanting to me! Consider giving us a few hints about her goals so that we know more about why she feels this way. I was intrigued by what was going to happen at the village, but I wanted more of a reason to root for Jezzabelle.
Feel free to comment if you have additional ideas. And thanks to Ally for your donation and willingness to let me post your critique!