QueryDice #41: Conflict and Voice in YA

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,

Sometimes you have to freeze everyone out. . . to avoid getting burned. This’ll make an agent think too much. And since they’ve got thousands of queries to get through, they won’t gift you their extra time to figure out what you meant. Instead, they’ll skim the rest of your query in search of something that stands out clearly. As writers, it is sometimes tempting to be poetic–after all, writers have a “way with words.” It’s something that comes naturally…but resist the urge. This sentence won’t get you a rejection on its own, but it is a waste of space and it doesn’t leave the impression on an agent you think it will. No one will know what this means until AFTER they’ve read your query…and don’t expect a person who has very little time to backtrack.

Sydney’s had seven foster families in seven years. <— far better.

It’s not like they were all her fault—well maybe a few. Now she is moving on to her next family, the Claytons. She knows immediately that she won’t fit in with their extravagant life and their spoiled daughter Brooke.

Sydney refuses to get close to anybody. She resents the snobby kids, especially Brooke’s boyfriend Corbin, who flirts with Sydney. Corbin is just like all the other overprivileged kids; but he’s hot and Sydney can’t help being attracted to him, even as she hates him.

When she discovers Brooke and Corbin’s relationship is a sham, Sydney begins to learn that the perfect kids are not so perfect. Corbin is pretending to be Brooke’s boyfriend and in return, she is helping him learn to read and write. Corbin likes Sydney, but Brooke refuses to let him go. She’s terrified that everyone will discover that she’s gay.

But even if Brooke breaks up with Corbin, Sydney doubts it will ever work with him. He’s the popular, rich kid and she’s the daughter of a crack whore. And really… if her own mom had given up on life… had given up on Sydney, how could anyone else ever truly love her?

[redacted] is contemporary young adult novel, complete at 64,000 words. Thank you for your consideration. <–Where is your goodbye?

This query was so-so. It, on its own, would not have gotten a rejection from me, but nevertheless, this would be a rejection for me. I liked  the idea of this story and many of its elements were appealing to me. The gay foster sister, Sydney’s questioning how anyone could love her if even her mother and slew of foster families presumably didn’t, the poor vs. rich theme. All of that worked for me. But that’s it. There is no overarching conflict. Boiled down, this is just the story of a girl who wants a guy and how her backstory interferes with her ability to reach out and take him. Who hasn’t been there, regardless of the particulars? That works for romance, basically, but I don’t think this is romance because the story is really not about their relationship, exactly, but rather Sydney’s development of her self-esteem and identity. I agree with the author that this is straight YA, but I would need something more, something that affects other people. I need the stakes to be higher so that not only Sydney comes out of the story differently, but others as well. For example, in Harry Potter, he has sort of a development of the self as well, but there is so much more at stake for Hogwarts, for the magical community, etc. This story is good, but if you want it to be so good that editors and agents pick yours over thousands of others, it needs to be better. Keeping it contemporary, and without adding a paranormal element, can you add something that affects the community? 

Lastly, I could have used more teenage voice in the query.

What say you, readers? Does this story need a boost?



Posted on August 23, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think my biggest issue was that the query lacked voice. Sure, there’s not a “big” story here, but the concept is enough that I don’t think I’d feel turned off. The stakes even felt high enough for me–Brooke and Corbin have life-altering secrets, and Sydney is finally getting invested in a family and friends. I suppose I may have read more into the stakes than there were–that all the main characters are being changed by these relationships, so it could certainly be clearer. But it just read so blah–and I’d be forced to assume that the book was blah, too.

    Maybe this was why the first line felt so out of place–it’s probably the only really writerly spot in the query, and while I actually don’t mind the line itself very much (I kind of liked the freezing/burning play on words), it also wasn’t a very original idea and didn’t capture much of what the rest of the query was getting at. That’s the trouble with tag lines IMO–when they work, they’re great, but people shouldn’t feel compelled to have one at all costs. Spend more time crafting the rest of the query, and worry less about a catchy tag line 🙂

  2. “And really… if her own mom had given up on life… had given up on Sydney, how could anyone else ever truly love her?”

    Since you’re writing in present tense, the above needs to be present perfect, not past perfect. Use “has” instead of “had”. Otherwise, the effect is of something speculative, and appears to mean “If her own mom had given up on life, which she hasn’t”.

    This is the second query I’ve seen on the internet recently in which foster kids are placed in wealthy families. This one seems more realistic than the other, but I have to wonder: do wealthy families in fact take in foster children? I have never seen an instance of this. I suppose it’s possible, and I imagine it makes sense in the story, but try to make it make sense in the query as well.

    To give this a little more oomph, perhaps tell us what it is about your protag that makes her go through so many foster families (those that *are* her fault). Also, I think the difficulty a kid from a very rough background would have fitting in with a wealthy set is more dramatic and fraught than you are making it seem in this query.

    • I agree with the other Ella about the situation seeming a little out of the norm. I’ve never heard of a wealthy family taking in a foster (though admittedly, I’m far from an expert). As long as it’s dealt with in the story, I’m okay with it.

      I have more of an issue with the lack of voice and the lack of plot. I really like the setup, but don’t see the story. Story involves choice- a choice the main character needs to make, an external conflict as well as an internal one.

      I also don’t get any of Sydney’s personality, which is key in YA. The reader needs to feel the protagonist’s voice and love her enough to go along the ride with her.

      The writing could do with a little bit of polishing, but I think that’s just editing. The word choice needs more punch, too. Make me want to read your story. Make it so exciting and compelling that I have no choice. Because I REALLY like your setup, but when I read a query that’s written so straight, and semi flat, and doesn’t show a lot of plot, I get worried that there won’t be any there THERE. No matter how good the writing is, or how true the emotions are, I need to get a sense of the story.

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