The Query Letter that Landed a Dream Agent & Big 5 Book Deal : A Book Review of Cinder for Writers

This review is for writers and contains huge spoilers. You’ve been warned!

Marissa Meyer achieved the goal all traditional-bound writers pine for. She wrote her book, agonized over her query letter, submitted to her dream agents, and landed a Big 5 book deal on her first agent.

More on Marissa’s Query and publication history at the end of the AJ review of her debut book.

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5-second summary: Cinder is a fairy tale retelling of Cinderella, where Cinder is a cyborg, also an alien princess, and must escape her dreary servitude as a slave to her evil earthen stepmother.

Fairy tale retellings are all the rage. Although, it’s hard to do retellings well. I’m not sure how I feel about Cinder as a quality retelling of Cinderella. It has very loose elements from Cinderella. I’m sure there are more, but the major ones I’ve noted are below:

  • Lost Slipper
    • The story begins with showing us that Cinder is a cyborg, in part because she finally has upgraded her robotic foot. Her evil stepmother eventually takes it, and Cinder is forced to use an old prosthetic for the ball, which of course she loses on the steps.
  • Evil stepmother and stepsisters
    • It’s interesting how Meyer chose to validate the villain qualities in the family members. The step mother isn’t too terrible at first, and while her and the step sisters are kind of mean, things don’t really become horrible until the one nice sister dies from the plague. Meyer uses the death of one of the sisters as a trigger to make everyone blame Cinder and it brings out the worst in them. I don’t know how believable the scenario is, but I do like that Meyer tries to actually justify why the family is so cruel to Cinder. 1) She’s a cyborg which are viewed as property in this society, although it’s not really explained “why” and 2) They blame her for the death of a family member
  • There’s a Prince … That’s about it
    • So there’s a prince, but he’s not looking for a bride. In fact it’s quite obvious he’s spoken for by the evil Lunar Queen who kind of reminds me of the Queen of Hearts from Alice and Wonderland. She just needs to be fat and start screaming OFF WITH THEIR HEADS and we’ll be good to go.
    • Also, the prince doesn’t try to fit the cyborg foot onto different cyborgs to find Cinder. In fact, he didn’t know she was a cyborg at all until she loses her foot. I was sad that this element wasn’t included, but then again, the cyborg foot didn’t fit her to begin with because she outgrew it, so I guess that wouldn’t have worked out too well.
  • There’s not a fairy godmother … I think
    • So I didn’t notice any obvious fairy godmothers. There are two characters who “could” be deemed to fill this role.
      • There’s the creepy palace researcher who’s also secretly an alien, but basically hides all his findings from the Prince. He provides Cinder with a few boons as the story goes on.
      • There’s also a robot that provides some lighthearted banter throughout the story and is one of the only nice characters to Cinder, other than the Prince. While she doesn’t outright provide many benefits to Cinder, she does give some much-needed morale.
      • A third option is an abstract theory. Part of Cinder’s alien heritage is a weird plague brought by her people to earth. This plague is what reveals her to the Prince, what brings her to the palace in the first place and allows her true origin as the Lunar Princess to be revealed. The plague also kills her stepsister, providing her with a ballgown to wear when she wouldn’t otherwise have one. While morbid, I do think this could be a dark allusion to a fairy godmother. Careful what you wish for… eh?

Alright, what can we learn from this book?

What I didn’t like from this story (i.e. what not to do)

  1. SECRET STORY REVEALS THAT ARE NOT SECRET

This annoyed me SOOOO much. You have no idea. The BIG OMG-NO-WAY reveal at the end of the book was that Cinder is not only cyborg, but the Lunar Princess (gasp). This is OBVIOUS FROM EARLY IN THE STORY.

When we find out that Cinder is immune to the plague, it’s a no-brainer to assume that she’s Lunar. And when there’s mention of a mysterious missing Lunar Princess, it’s pretty safe to assume that the missing princess miiiiight juuuust beeee … Cinder.

I was highly frustrated that Meyer waited until the last few pages to reveal Cinder is the Lunar Princess. I didn’t see the need to wait. Maybe it was important for Cinder’s character development that she felt herself insignificant and made her growth more genuine, and her self-sacrifice, by not knowing she was anything but a useless cyborg. But if Meyer wanted to keep that reveal to the end, she should have been better about hiding it. There just wasn’t any other reason for that information to have been revealed so early on.

I think that the important lesson we can learn from this is don’t assume your audience is dense. They can read in-between the lines better than you think, and if you give them less credit than they deserve, it’ll irritate your readers. I personally think it’s better not to aim for big shocking reveals unless you are talented at making it a surprise. More often than not in fantasy, readers aren’t looking to be shocked by new information. They just want a gripping story. No need to hide things if you can’t do it well.

2. Romance was irritating

This was one of the first YA books I’ve read in a while where the romance fell flat. I think it was mainly because Cinder keeps pushing the prince away, even at the end. The narration explains Cinder is afraid the Prince won’t like her when he finds out she’s a cyborg, much less a Lunar, but Cinder’s actions show that she really doesn’t feel she has time for the Prince. She just wants to escape her stepmother and get out of the city altogether, which I found bland and annoying.

The Prince is likewise flat in his romance. He’s fascinated with Cinder, but it’s not explained where his attraction comes from. There are many scenes that elaborately explain Cinder’s unattractive qualities. She’s always covered in dirt and oil, grouchy around the Prince, and pretty cold to him too. Even when we’re in the Prince’s point of view, I was hoping for some insight of how he saw Cinder, but there just wasn’t anything. Meyer simply expects the reader to accept that the Prince is attracted to Cinder–but not enough to choose her over the Queen or make any sweeping attempts to understand her life or improve it. He outright forgets that her sister was dying of the plague. I know he has a lot on his plate being royalty and all, but still, if he was really in love with Cinder he should have behaved differently. To me, it seemed like an infatuation. Perhaps that’s all Meyer meant it to be, but it’s not what I would expect going into a Cinderella retelling. And I don’t mean “unexpected in a good way.”

What I feel writers can learn from this story:

  1. Fairy Tale Retellings don’t need to be copy and paste

I think it’s good that Meyer took only some loose strands from Cinderella to make her story. It’s its own world with its own voice and is effective at standing on its own.

2. Take world-building notes from this story–it’s done well

I really loved the world-building in Cinder. There’s a scene where we are in the Prince’s point of view and get to sit in on a council meeting. I was surprised, because a council meeting sounds epically boring, but it actually shed a lot of light on the world and the Prince’s character. I got to see what kind of responsibilities he was having to take on and a glimpse into the scope of the world. I suggest taking a read and seeing how Meyer put it all together. It was well done.

All that said, I want to remind you that this is a Big 5 published book. So all my opinions basically mean squat. (Not really. It just means that the pitch, good qualities, and marketability of this book was strong enough to overcome any negative qualities that might have existed.)

  • Publisher: Macmillan, Feiwel & Friends (January 3, 2012)

If you’re curious to know more about the Big 5, I’ve written a post about them here.

Meyer’s Query Experience Takeaways

I like to think that authors don’t sell to the Big 5, their agents do. So it was Meyer’s job to land her dream agent to make that happen. She was kind enough to share her query letter, and I think it’s a prime example of how to do a query letter well.

In her post, Meyer explains that she first polished her manuscript as best as she could. By her tone, it’s clear that she felt she could have worked on it more, if not forever. Every writer needs to realize that you must polish your book, but you must also consider when it’s done. Don’t keep perfecting it forever.

Also, Meyer makes another great point that she spent a lot of time on her pitch. She doesn’t use the word “pitch,” but that’s essentially what she was doing. She played with ideas and wrote many letters, got suggestions from her blog and friends, and took only the best phrases and descriptions to form her letter. It’s incredibly concise for a book packed with so much lore. It’s easy to understand and leaves you wanting more, a perfect example of what a query letter should be.

All in all, I hope you learned something from Meyer’s Cinder. I know I have! And in spite of my dislikes of this novel, there was enough to keep me engaged and I can see why it landed such a coveted book deal, so I’ll be checking out book 2 to see what happens next!

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