QueryDice #21

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:

Allie and Orson are in the wilds of southern Colorado hiking with their father, when a tragic misstep leaves them alone at the top of the mountain. Two days away from help, they descend to the bottom of the mountain valley in search of their father, Trey. All the while, a black bear watches.

Trey decides to take his 8 and 9 year old on a four-day backpacking trip through southern Colorado. It’s the type of vacation he took with his father when he was their age. The excursion is the beginning of his new life as a full-time dad, and a way to start the kids’ childhood anew.

The kids have shuffled between dilapidated apartments, slept on mattresses strewn on food-stained carpets, been baby-sat at their roach-infested Granny’s house, and have bruises on their backs reflecting the braided belt their mother’s live-in boyfriend used to beat them. When their mother loses custody, they are shuttled off to their weekend Dad.

Trey struggles with his new role, and feels the distance between himself and his children grow every time he raises his voice. Allie feels a sneaking resentment as she increasingly blames her brother for the troubles of their past. Orson sinks under the weight of his insecurities, and in his dreams, relives the savage nighttime battles at his mother’s apartment.

Despite an auspicious beginning, the trip deteriorates on the second day when Orson has a late night accident, and their delayed morning start sends them rushing down the trail to find camp before dusk. The steep grade sends Orson careening down the path out of control, and Trey stops his son’s tumble only to disappear over the mountainside.  

Now, Allie and Orson have to find a way to cope with the cold nights and their dwindling supplies. They have to go off the trail, and into the endless forest. All the while, a black bear is coming.

[redacted] (92,000 words) is literary fiction, and combines the realism of Into the Wild with the epic style of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I am a working writer and educator with an MA in Studies in Literature. [redacted] is informed by some of my experiences working with young victims of physical abuse and neglect, in education and at home.

Thank you for your consideration.




The biggest accomplishment of your query is that it hints to me the author has talent. Talent’s never enough, though, so I would have been on the fence about requesting more material. On the one hand, I’m curious to see what the author’s prose is like, and whether or not it can make me care about these kids and their dad and, perhaps most importantly, if it can do both of the following:


  1. Float the emotional, situational and familial issues to the forefront in a graceful way so that avoiding the bear doesn’t become the focal point of this novel, which would pop it out of literary fiction.
  2. Make it believable and authentic. The kids need to seem real, especially, which is no easy undertaking. Dialog, tendencies and the mechanics of their minds are limited, and because of that, so is the author.


 On the other hand, I might reject this because it didn’t excite me enough. In the first 19 days of this year alone, I have received over 300 queries. Because of this flood—which is, by the way, typical of agents—I have to be meticulously choosey. I’ll reject things that are basically quite good just because I was not as excited as I could have been. Sometimes I suspect that the manuscript is better than the query—as is the case here—but I’ve got tons of other manuscripts to evaluate that I know beyond the shadow of a doubt are good.

What this means for this query, is that it would depend entirely upon my mood at the time whether or not I would request a proposal. Don’t let that happen! You want agents to request more material regardless of mood. You want me to request this even if my boyfriend just dumped me for a supermodel, I suddenly discovered I gained 50 pounds and my kitten just died—right after I realized my kid has chicken pox. In other words, let your story’s clarity define it rather than letting it teeter on the fence.


For this agent at least, here’s what would make that happen:


This was too synopsis-heavy for me. I do not need paragraphs 2 and 5, for example. All I really need to know are the largest threads: after having his kids dropped into his life full-time, a weekend-dad takes them on a let’s-reconnect nature trip, only to be separated from them by a tragic misstep. The kids are suffering from heavy emotional issues stemming from their mother’s abuse and neglect and are now all alone in the forest trying to find their dad…all the while, a black bear is too close for comfort.


Those are the bare bones of your story. Puff them up to about 250 words, focus heavily on the emotions involved and the dangers present, and I would have definitely requested this. Also, I liked your paragraph about yourself. As you suspected, I do, in fact, need to know how your story of abuse and neglect is informed. I was wondering how you expected to make that authentic. That being said, please send me the first three chapters and a detailed synopsis. =)



Posted on January 19, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. For me this query lacks focus and suggests that the author has trouble making choices and committing to them. I’d reject it out of concern that the manuscript would need lots of work to be publishable. But I agree that the story seems to have the potential to be interesting, if told well, and I absolutely get your point that how you respond to a query like this is going to depend on your mood when you read it. I think it’s cool that you asked for 3 chapters. I hope you’ll be able to comment here on whether they were good or not, and if not was it for reasons that the query letter hinted at (such as lack of focus.)

    I just discovered your blog and am looking forward to looking around here some more.

  2. I’ve learned so much from this blog, thanks, Lauren! I agree about this example being disorganized and tmi at times, but I was still intrigued by all that was going on (though I’m a sucker for family stories). I really liked how you cut the query down to the bare bones, then asked the author to “puff it up” and this time, work on the elements that will hook the reader. I’m taking that advice to heart. Thanks again!

    PS, keep us posted on this one?

  3. I think Lauren’s summary and the author’s story make a very good combination.

    “After having his kids dropped into his life full-time, a weekend-dad takes them on a let’s-reconnect nature trip, only to be separated from them by a tragic misstep. The kids are suffering from heavy emotional issues stemming from their mother’s abuse and neglect and are now all alone in the forest trying to find their dad…all the while, a black bear is too close for comfort.”

  4. I also think the writer shows talent. But the query is confusing. The first paragraph is told from Allie and Orson’s POV, and their dad goes over the cliff. At this point, as far as we know, Allie and Orson are adults.

    The next paragraph switches POV– now it’s Trey’s POV, and I had to check back to make sure he was the dad who had gone over the cliff. (Or whatever happened to him.)

    Even if the story’s in multiple viewpoints, stick to just one in the query. Even if time jumps around in the story, go chronological in the query.

    The black bear threw me. Is it a symbol? As a threat, it’s not really threatening…. Except in built-up areas or parks where they’ve become accustomed to human food, black bears give humans a wide berth. I’ve read about black bears tracking and attacking humans in urban or resort areas, but never in the wilderness.

    I’ve spent literally weeks in the back country without ever once encountering a black bear. All the black bears I’ve seen have been in camping areas, small towns, or in rivers or woods close to the road.

    Grizzlies are a different story. If you want a threat, grizzly is the way to go. Or better yet, a polar bear.

  5. I have to say the original query didn’t work for me at all. It read almost as two separate stories: road trip gone wrong (with the bear) vs heavyweight fiction with some challenging emotional issues. Maybe it’s possible to do both, but they would usually present as diferent genres. I think it’s also as other posters have commented, that there was too much detail in the query and some repetition. Lauren’s shortened version sold it much better. Always much easier to see the faults in others’ work of course. Thanks to the author for their generosity in sharing and best of luck to them in their career.

  6. I like the storyline. Not many stories like this. A father connecting again with his young kids and both him and the kids have to deal with being together again. And the danger of the bear watching them brings more tension. Not many people, definitely not me, can write about the relationship between these two kids and their father, so hopefully the experience of the author with social working and psychology shines through the novel. The storyline is good, and hopefully the writing in the first three chapters is good as well. Good luck!

  7. I’m really bad at reading queries (and have a tendency to stop in the middle of the first paragraph), so I think it’s a good sign that I read the entire first paragraph and skimmed the rest. I agree that the query hints at talent and if I were an agent (it’s a good thing I’m not, since I can’t get through most queries) there’s probably a 50/50 chance I’d request a full. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, by the way. I’m really grateful to have such valuable information available since I’m going to be writing my first queries soon 🙂

  8. The structure of this query threw me a bit. The writer gives a three line overview in the first paragraph, which s/he then expands upon in the subsequent paragraphs. What I expected was two or three logically sequential paragraphs that gave me an idea of the story in such a way that I would be enticed to read more. There was too much story-telling in the main body of the query for me. However, you were able to see through the query’s problems and get a glimpse of the author’s potential. Congrats to the author! I hope your instincts prove correct on this, Lauren.

  9. I’m intrigued to see the pov for this – it sounded like a MG thriller but is called literary fiction so it could be really unique. I think I’d have liked the first 5 pages pasted below just to be sure on the original query but with your suggestions it would have been a yes from me too. I hope you enjoy reading it!

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