QueryDice #27

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.

Ms. Ruth,

All Zach wants to do lately is fight. It doesn’t matter with whom or what.

He’s always had a problem with his temper, but never like this. Never to the point that he gets into fights and can’t remember why. Ever since he and his mom up and left their home in Florida for Dave-her new husband, he’s gone into uncontrollable rages. Zach knows there’s a trigger since he isn’t always mad, but needs helping figuring out what it is.

It is not believable to me that Zach’s rage started right after he and his mom moved in with Dave and Zach has no idea what’s causing his anger.

His latest psychiatrist thinks there’s something going on at home that’s triggering these rages. And she’s right, there is. That sonofabitch Dave is what’s going on at home. He prefers leaving Zach bruised and sore to spending time together as father/son, not to mention the black rings around his mom’s eyes that are becoming a regular occurrence.

For Zach, thanks to three fights in the last three weeks, any chance of a future hinges on learning to control his anger. He hopes his psychologist and her assistant, the girl he loves, can help with this. He wants to go to college, he wants to date, and he wants to survive Dave.

There is nothing specifically wrong with this query. I don’t think the conflict is complicated enough, though. We’ve already heard the story of the boy whose step-dad abuses him and his mother. What makes yours markedly different from those? While I agree that this is a theme welcomed and sought by YA readers, I think there needs to be something else, something big, specific and external, at stake.If there isn’t, then I can easily predict the outcome of this story: Zach figures it out. Who would write or read a story about an abused boy who has uncontrollable rages at the end of which the boy still has uncontrollable rages and is still abused? That’s why there needs to be a complication to the conflict here, or an added conflict.

This has more to do with the manuscript than it does with this query, though. The query was well-written. I know what the conflict is, who stands to benefit or lose-out, and what the challenges to solving it are.

ZACH’S FIGHT is my contemporary young adult novel and is complete at 60,000 words. I am a member of SCWBI and RWA.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

As always, please remember to say goodbye! A simple “sincerely, so and so” suffices.

Best of luck, LR


Posted on March 29, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. This might be weird, but the part the bugged me most was the psychiatrist/psychologist mix-up. They are different professions (psychiatrists can prescribe meds while psychologists can’t) and makes me wonder if these would get mixed up in the MS, and how much research about counseling the author has done.

  2. If the second sentence has a basic problem with something as simple as who/whom, I worry how much editing this manuscript will need in terms of basic sentence-level issues, let alone the editing that needs to be done with plot and character.

  3. “Zach knows there’s a trigger since he isn’t always mad, but needs helping figuring out what it is.”
    Is it just me, or does anyone else see any issues with this sentence? I hate to pick on ONE sentence, but to me this actually proves the opposite of what everyone else has said. The query may be concise, but I don’t necessarily consider that good writing. What do you think, Lauren? I may be way off base and too picky, but I assure you that is not my intention.

    • It’s not the strongest sentence in the world, and you’re right: since there are so few sentences in a query, you need to make each one shine.

  4. I think there’s two issues here. Firstly, the query itself. To me, that had a lot of strengths. It was clear, concise and I knew exactly what the story was about. That’s a huge plus in query writing. Unfortunately there wasn’t conflict/anything mentioned to make this story different. This leads to the second point- the actual MS, which is what a query is ultimately fronting. I suspect this author can write well, given the skill in the query letter. But from (a lot) of contest judging, I so often see good writing, but with a story that has no conflict. Such stories are very often closer to non-fiction than fiction. I don’t mean for a second to imply that domestic abuse doesn’t involve conflict or that somehow it isn’t interesting enough. I mean conflict in the context of writing fiction. An example is Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracey Beaker novels which are hugely popular with MG readers in the UK. Tracey’s a child in the care system, which should be grim reading. But Wilson takes that situation and transforms it, while keeping the underlying issues firmly in her story. Maybe I’m completely wronging this author and the MS has all this. If it does, then work up the query to reflect it. Thanks for sharing.

    • This is a good point. Having my writing recently judged in a contest was beneficial, and i made the same mistake: I wrote about a topic with huge conflict but didn’t craft the story enough around that conflict. Abuse is technically confict but it doesn’t mean the story has a central plot where the character confronts or overcomes obstacles.

      Beyond writing is the skill of storytelling, which I personally have a lot of room for improvment. So, hopefull to the author of this query, some adjustments can be made to the overall plot to build more of a story within the abusive setting, if that is what’s lacking here.

      Great blog – I’m enjoying catching up on the posts.

  5. How does Zach solve this Dave problem? Does he kill him? Does the mom and him leave the guy? Does he find out he has magical powers and can turn into Hulk when angry? This just sounds like a realy depressing book. We need something to keep us rooting for Zach. What makes him special?

  6. I think ella’s correct. It sounds as if Zach’s anger issue could easily be resolved by dealing with the Dave issue. This is an interesting example of a query whose biggest flaw is that it’s just not overly compelling. And, as Lauren said, I don’t think the fault is with the query–it’s the story. As I read the query, I thought, “Okay, this is a story about a kid and his mom being abused by the step-father. Sad, and it happens… but what is there about this story that would make me buy it over countless other stories of abuse?”

    Perhaps the writer should consider how this story would compete against real-life stories of celebrities in abusive relationships, or with abusive step-parents. With those, the celebrity angle gives the story added interest. And that’s what this story needs: added interest. Is there something in Dave’s story that gives a twist to this situation? Or maybe something about Zach? Make me want to buy this novel. Elevate it above what we see in the news all too regularly.

    I hope that helps.

  7. ” For Zach, thanks to three fights in the last three weeks, any chance of a future hinges on learning to control his anger. ” This line bothered me, coming as it did right after the explanation of the abuse. If Zach and his mom are being abused, then that’s the central conflict, rather than Zach learning to control his anger.

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