QueryDice #8

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours!

Dear Ms. Ruth,

[redacted], is a 55,000 words YA novel with a dark new twist to urban fantasy.

Re-reading this query, I do not see a dark, new twist to urban fantasy.

The quiet town of Rosewood, Michigan has a disturbing history. For a century and a half, young women have vanished. Locals whisper of monsters residing in the old theater house and in the woods surrounding Rosewood, but no one has ever seen one.

Until sixteen-year-old, Delilah Drislore moves to town.

I think it is best, since Delilah is the main focus of this query, to mention her before Rosewood. This query would be less disjointed if you began with the following paragraphs and worked the first paragraph into them.

Ten months ago, Delilah died for five minutes. Revived, she expects to see paramedics, but instead she stares up into the eyes of a savage little monster wearing eighteenth-century clothing and a skeleton mask. The doctor fears her five minutes of death left her with brain damage, so he condemns her to a psychiatric hospital for hallucinations and paranoia.

That seems a bit harsh. Wouldn’t the doctor just chalk it up to hallucinations? Brain damage and psychosis seem like a bit of a long shot.

Strong-willed and in complete denial about her “disability,” Delilah intends to live a normal life when she moves to Rosewood. There, she finds new friends and even starts dating the handsome Jerald Jenkins. Unfortunately, she cannot avoid the monsters forever, so when a strange man – who claims to be the King of the Rosewood monsters – develops a romantic interest in Delilah, her control over her “disability” starts to unravel. She delves into the town’s folklore and realizes she is caught in a century and a half old feud between a demon – who holds a strange resemblance to her boyfriend – and the mysterious king.

How is Delilah caught in the feud, exactly? What specific danger does she face? I think this is actually the biggest problem in this query: the conflict is not fleshed out enough. I need to know what she’s up against and how she overcomes it.

One of them is responsible for the young women who vanished, one of them keeps bringing her back from her suicide attempts, but they both have plans for Delilah. Absorbing the danger of her reality, Delilah wonders if those five minutes cost (you mean caused) her to lose – not only her parents – but her cousins, friends, boyfriend, sanity – everything.

Wait. Why did Delilah lose her parents and her cousins? Why did she lose her friends and her boyfriend? What are the plans for Delilah? The suicide attempts are thrown in very casually and I don’t know if it is realistic for a “strong willed” young woman who denies there’s anything wrong with her to be emotionally desperate enough to attempt suicide. Because all of this information, previously unknown to the reader, is piled up in this two-sentence paragraph, I’m confused and searching for answers.

I would reject this because there is information thrown down that is not explained. I have no choice but to believe this continues in the full manuscript. Remember an agent’s only impression of you and your writing is this one-page query. Whatever you do here, I’ll assume you do always.


THE CURSE OF ROSEWOOD will appeal to readers of Carrie Jones’ NEED and Clare B. Dunkle’s THE HOLLOW KINGDOM.

I always advise authors not to list the works of other authors. Here, you’re spot-on: this story is very much like NEED and THE HOLLOW KINGDOM. But this is not a good thing. Your plot seems almost exactly like that of THE HOLLOW KINGDOM: a town has mysterious folklore and women have vanished, a situation that is spun-up by the arrival of a newly arrived teenager (or teenagers), there is a king involved who seems to be the mastermind behind everything and who has devious plans for the new teenager.

I have been a member of Verla Kay’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s message board for five years and have taken two college English courses to enhance my writing.

Others might disagree with me, but I’ll advise against listing credentials unless a.) you finalized in or won a contest or been given formal accolades on your writing b.) you’ve had something published, even a short story c.) you have work experience that is very relevant to the material in your query d.) You have an MFA in creative writing.  Otherwise, it’s like putting the fact that you graduated high school on your resume: you’re only highlighting your lack of higher credentials.

The good news is, you don’t have to have credentials to become a published author. For fiction, no agent is going to reject you solely because you’ve never been published or won a contest. But, if the agent is on the fence about requesting more, your credentials might be the tipping point. For this reason, I’d rather see either big credentials or no credentials at all. Let your writing speak for itself and focus on the strengths of the book you’re querying.

I would be happy to provide the complete manuscript for further review. <— The agent already knows this. This sentence does not hurt your query, but it is unnecessary.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

[redacted]

Posted on August 25, 2011, in Advice, book publishing, publishing, queries, Query Dice, slush pile, submissions and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. A bit late for chiming in here, but I thought I would just say the line, “Ten months ago, Delilah died for five minutes.” That’s a line that grabs my attention. I’d definitely start from there and work out. I would however consider paring down the plot of your query. Try to keep it as tight as possible. A good rule of thumb is try for seven sentences. No more! If you can nail your plot in seven sentences, it’s a good bet you’re pretty close to only including the set up and characterization, inciting incident, major obstacles keeping the character from getting what she/he wants and the resolution. Just a thought.

  2. Firstly, I’m a novice author too, and I’m glad to know that someone out there is going through some form of the same learning process. Congrats on putting yourself out there!

    I’m not a fan of sci-fi/fantasy novels, with the exception of the Potter series. Were I a literary agent, though, I might be inclined to ask for a sample here- again, fantasy is not my thing, though the subject-matter is dark enough (and I love dark) to get my attention. Even though certain aspects seem to, at first glance, border on cliche, I’d want to see how much substance the full story has and how the plot holds up. There are umpteen fantasy novels out there- what makes yours different?

    Good luck!

    L.V.B.

  3. Sarah, I must apologize for my reaction, namely “eww”. It was very unprofessional of me and in no way shape or form could have been useful to you or your work. I think you are brave for putting yourself out there for others to criticize and guide you and my reaction wasn’t constructive. I think you are headed in the right direction by asking advice and that is the point of this discussion. I am snarky, terse, curt and opinionated because I believe that makes or breaks people. The weak will fold, and the strong will rise to the challenge and prove me wrong. I will continue to be that way, but in my comments to you, I hurt you, and that is just wrong. I am sorry. I wish you the best of luck, and look forward to your progress.
    -Joey

  4. Sarah, I love your second query. Being an unknown author myself, I only hope to learn from you and any one else who puts there query on here for discussion. It is a brave thing to do with so many know it all’s out there. Take the comments and learn from them. Don’t take the criticism to heart. Hopefully these are only people trying to help you in the only way they know how. The goal I think of this is to help you get your manuscript noticed and possible an agent will call you and you will get your book out there. What an accomplishment.

  5. Yes, Jerald is the demon. I know “Hob” is a very generic name, but I personally like the name, which is why I chose it. Sorry it disgusted you, Joey. Like I said, I know this new query I started it not perfect by any means, I just wanted to know if I was going in the right direction. I can see that maybe submitting my query was a mistake. I like good constructive criticism, but I don’t appreciate the snarky comments. Please keep it civil.

    • Sarah, if you want to be a professional author, you have to learn to handle criticism in all its forms.

      In response to the revised query in the comments:

      I know you’re trying to establish a ticking clock element with the November 1st thing, but if you don’t explain why that day is significant, it raises questions. Either explain it or leave it out.

      The commas around Delilah Drislore are unnecessary.

      I’ve seen countless queries begin with X-year-old YZ yearns for a normal life. In a cold opening, we have no idea what the context around normal is (What’s normal in YA dystopian is different from YA contemporary). It’s also vague. If your going to lead with her goal, have it be something specific that preferably ties into the fabric of the story.

      I understand that the revised query is something you whipped up, but, just in case, I’ll say that it reads bland. Try and make it match the tone and voice of your story.

  6. Eww. “Hob” the goblin? Weak name. Is Jerald the demon? I’m not sure there will be enough answers to the questions a reader might have here. What is so significant about November 1st? Day of the Dead? All Saints’ Day? I don’t like the ambiguity and I’m now certain that 55,000 words will not ‘flesh out’ the story. I fear the author will tell too much and show too little with this.

  7. Sarah, I’m confused. Does Jerald resemble the demon or is he the demon? Your revised query seems to indicate both, so that will need to be clarified.

  8. I’m the author. Well I can see this query is not working. I read that writing a query similar to a book jacket was the way to go, but this hurt me instead, so I’ll have to rewrite. I’m pasting on a sample of a new query, which I know isn’t perfect by any means, but I’d like to know if I’m going in the right direction.

    High school student, Delilah Drislore, yearns for a normal life. But normal is hard to obtain when she moves to Rosewood, a town hidden in the Manistee National Forest, and can suddenly see goblins lurking in the woods surrounding Rosewood. Delilah would like nothing more than to leave the town, but the King of the Goblins, Hob, won’t let her go – neither will the handsome town hunk, Jerald.
    Delilah delves into Rosewood’s folklore and realizes she is caught in a century and a half old feud between the goblins and a demon, who holds a strange resemblance to Jerald. But Delilah soon realizes everyone is cursed. Jerald cannot leave Rosewood, Hob cannot leave the forest, people who move to Rosewood are turned into slaves for Jerald, and Delilah’s family is next on the list. To break the curse of Rosewood, Delilah must dissect the secret whereabouts of Hob’s stolen magic from Jerald, and return it to Hob before November 1st. If she fails, her life, along with her family, will be at the mercy of the demon. If she does succeed, Hob will be powerful enough to break the curse that keeps him trapped in the forest, but he wants Delilah to become a goblin. Cans she sacrifice her humanity and her dreams of a normal life for the slight chance of saving her family?

    Thanks for the comments!

    • Sarah:

      I’m not over-the-moon about the name Hob, but honestly it doesn’t really matter. No agent worth her salt will reject your query or your manuscript because she didn’t like the name of your goblin.

      In the larger scope of things, your second query was a big improvement. You’re definitely moving in the right direction, which is the point of this exercise. I truly wish you the best of luck.

  9. I was turned off by this one. I see no “dark, new twist…” In fact, I see the same formulated cliche of most YA fiction. New kid in town. Different in some way. Hero/Heroine journey battling evil. Haunted theater, school, park or other urban dwelling. Strong formula if it is written well, but this query shows me that it is not. I also cringed at the mention of two college English courses. Really? Well I play a lot of Scrabble with my girlfriend, maybe I can be the editor of the New York Times. Hmm.

    Next query.

  10. @Lanette: They would indeed need a court order if the heroine were an adult. As a minor, though, all the institution needs is a parental signature. I don’t know how it goes in Michigan, but in the states I’ve lived, in teens end up in the psychiatric ward for all kinds of things, often put there by school administration or law enforcement for relatively minor infractions (usually drug related, but sometimes just for acting up). “Delilah” wouldn’t be “condemned” to an institution by a doctor, but if the doctor recommended it to a hand-wringing mother who saw her daughter talking to invisible eighteenth-century spirits, I think it’s plausible that she could end up there.

    As for the query itself, I would move the third paragraph (“Ten months ago…”) to the top, for starters. That’s a better hook than “the quiet town of Rosewood,” which could be the nondescript setting for a million different stories. You can describe Rosewood when Delilah moves there, e.g. “Delilah intends to live a normal life when she moves to Rosewood, Michigan. But she soon learns that the seemingly quiet town has a disturbing history: for a century and a half, young women have vanished. Locals whisper of monsters residing in the old theater house and in the woods surrounding Rosewood, but no one has ever seen one.”

    I agree wholeheartedly about removing the credentials at the bottom. Lurking on writing forums and taking the occasional writing class are a matter of course, not a distinction. You might as well say you ‘Liked’ a certain author in Facebook and one afternoon you read The Elements of Style.

  11. I have been a nurse for over 15 years, and part of that time I worked in psychiatric research. It’s not unusual for people to have been clinically dead for a few minutes to have hallucinations. Any doctor knows this and would think nothing of it unless it continues. Even then, in our current times, hallucinations are not enough to obtain a court order to have someone committed. Yes, that’s what’s needed for a committment — a court order. The MC would have to be actively trying to kill herself or someone else based on hallucinations or delusions in order to be forcibly committed. The only way around this, if you’re set on that particular plot device, is to have it set pre-1980. I don’t know the whole history of psychiatric hospitalizations, so you’ll have to do your research.

  12. Oh, forgot to add, I actually would request pages because I’d want to see the set up and I think there is a story here.

  13. Hmm. I definitely think there’s something here. I love the idea of a story with a heroine who was instituionalized for her gifts but finds a way to break free and later learns to embrace them. That could be what this story is truly about; however, that’s not what I read. I think this is a lot like throwing in the kitchen sink into a query and that the author would do much better with this by focusing on just a few pieces – clearing up conflict and expanding on characters. I’m guilty of the kitchen sink approach too because we have these neat elements in our story and we want the agent/editor to know about them when the focus of our query should be narrower. IMO of course. :)

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