QueryDice Hijack #2: YA, Adult or Crossover?

The QueryDice has been HIJACKED! The following is a query critique performed by a reader of SlushPileTales. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. The Hijacker can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours. After all comments are in, I will post my own thoughts in the comments section. To apply to be a Hijacker, please contact me using the contact tab above. Shelver, take it away! (Shelver’s comments in green.)

Dear Ms. Ruth,

[redacted] is a 95,000-word horror novel about a girl haunted by premonitory visions, and a decades-old curse she uncovers. Okay, one sentence in and you already have me wrinkling my nose. Don’t tell me what a story is about. Show me. (I checked the rest of your query. You don’t show me.) I would suggest cutting the entire bit from “about a girl…” onward and moving the rest of the sentence to the end of the query. All of that is business and belongs with the rest of the business (bio, etc.). You only get one first impression, so don’t waste it.

Dawn McKenzie moves to rural Ohio to start a new life, but the death of a visiting couple has put the entire town on edge. I fail to see how these two parts connect. There are other ways to mention (if necessary) that Dawn is new to town, and there are certainly smoother ways to bring in the deaths. Langston, the town’s aging sheriff, believes they were victims of a werewolf attack.What? Someone dies (you don’t even say they were murdered or mauled – you say they died) and the sheriff thinks “By Jove, it must be a mythical creature!”? Now he must walk a line: on one side is the town he swore to protect; on the other is a dark path of murder and conspiracy. Hold up. Who’s the protagonist, Dawn or the sheriff? This query is your protagonist’s chance to shine. Don’t give up the spotlight. Also “walking a line” usually implies balancing between two choices. Unless Langston is being pulled to commit murder, he’s not walking any line. Across town, Dawn’s visions of a dead friend–someone she calls The Boy in Black–beckon her to uncover a truth she would rather not know: that the werewolf may be real, and one of her new friends may be more than what she seems.

I feel like there are so many gaps in the paragraph above, which makes me worry about your world-building. Why would anyone bother to suspect werewolves? Are Dawn’s visions of a dead friend new? If he’s a friend, why does she call him by a title rather than his actual name? I think calling him “The Boy in Black” is supposed to add a spooky feel to the tale, but it doesn’t make any sense. I know you may not feel like you have enough room in a query, but you should be able to clearly and succinctly let the agent get a feel for your story and the world that it inhabits. He or she certainly shouldn’t spend most of the time feeling confused.

More than anything, I’m not sure why I should care about Dawn or her story. Two people died, but there’s no mention of any further danger. There may or may not be one werewolf somewhere in the world. Also, Dawn has a friend who may be “more than what she seems,” which could mean she’s secretly a world-renowned tap dancer. How does any of this affect Dawn? What makes any of this her problem? And once it’s her problem to handle, why should I as a reader care?  

The novel is aimed at adults and young adults. Wait, so would this be shelved in with adult fiction or YA lit? Crossover appeal happens, but you as the author need to write with the primary audience in mind.with an eye for small-town drama, women’s issues and horror that gets under your skin.I’ve seen none of this in your query. If you have to resort to telling me these elements are in your story rather than being able to show me, there’s a problem. The protagonist in [redacted] is a young girl starting college in a small town. Being a college freshman likely makes her too old for most YA lit publishers, but describing her as a “young girl” will hardly recommend her to adult readers. Either way, this sentence is unnecessary, but I added the critique to give you something to think about for your story. 

The jump into adulthood can be frightening, and I want this novel to be a companion to that while still holding the attention of older readers. Another sentence that makes my nose wrinkle. In addition to repeating sentiments regarding your proposed dual audience, you’re also perilously close to outright calling this novel New Adult, which makes it a very tough sell.

I have written two novels and over thirty published stories, one of which appeared in the horror anthology What Fears Become (italicize the title) alongside author Ramsey Campbell. Good information to know. Very nice. I have a B.A. in Cinema and Cultural Studies, a division of Comparative Literature. I would leave the college major part of the bio out. (Feel free to correct me in the comments, guys.) I would love to send the completed manuscript upon request. Of course you would. Anyone would. Don’t waste time on the obvious.

Thank you for your time[,] and I look forward to your reply. Classy touch.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

Shelver506 is an anonymous, bespectacled bookshelver (“bookstore associate”) working at a national bookstore chain. She loves peanut butter and Oxford commas. She despises Shakespeare and James Joyce, despite graduating with a degree in English literature. At the moment, she is content to shelve books and rag on poor Shakespeare, but hopes to one day become a literary agent.

Shelver runs her own blog, Bookshelvers Anonymous, where she talks about being a bookshelver and squeals over well-crafted books. You can connect with her at her blog, on Twitter, or on Goodreads. (See? Oxford commas are beautiful.)

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Posted on September 13, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. TOE (formerly the other Ella)

    Like Katie, I also found this hijack a little bit of a rough ride.

  2. Thanks for all your comments, readers! And thanks to Shelver and the author for contributing.

    The first sentence did not bother me. While reading queries, I would have appreciated that one sentence tip-off to what the book was about so that if it wasn’t my thing, I could automatically reject it.

    I also did not see the connection between Dawn wanting to begin a new life and the town being on edge. You might consider something like, “…start a new life, but it is not as serene as she’d hoped…”

    I completely agree with Shelver that the werewolf part was unexpected. WHY did the sheriff believe the deaths were the result of werewolf attacks? I assume you were trying to keep your word-count down, which is advisable, but this is something we really need to know so that we can trust you to tell us a good story with no holes.

    Most importantly, choose whether your novel is for young adults, or for adults. This is crucial. As an agent reading this, I would have rejected it based solely upon your indecision, or perhaps just rookie ignorance. The other commenters and Shelver were absolutely right: if your book can’t be placed squarely in one section of the bookstore–without a doubt–then agents, editors and publishers will balk. If your book can be placed in two different sections, choose the best one, because publishers translate the word “crossover” in a query to “one potential audience of this book will be alienated, and bookstores might get confused about shelving and it won’t sell the way we want it to. I consider the word “crossover” to be a term applied to things that have already been published. In a query, it makes me nervous.

  3. Hi, I think the hijacking is a neat idea, but I do think this one is a bit harsh and maybe slightly too attacking? The opinions are great and make sense of course, this was a short query and lacking some key information, however, the tone I got from the critiquer was kind of a “i cant wait to find whats wrong with this” which was a little off-putting, but at least its blunt and the author can clearly see the flaws.

  4. Thanks for having me, Lauren. I had so much fun! And Ella, I think it’s such a shame that the ejaculation “By Jove!” went out of fashion. We should bring it back.

  5. I would say pick one protagonist and make the query just about him or her– even if there’s more than one POV in the book.

    And call the book YA (if it is). Agents and editors think about where a book would be shelved, so genre-crossing is always tricky.

  6. In a weird twist on the usual query problem of too lengthy, I think this one may well be too short. After cutting the first (not very useful) sentence, you have four (count ’em, four) sentences describing your book. Each sentence could do more in fewer words, and the whole paragraph could be less confusing, but I would revise, add in what you feel you need, and then worry about making it more concise (if that makes sense). Explain the bits that Shelver noted were problematic (werewolves!? Where did that come from?!?).

    I agree that you need to decide genre and pitch it as such–an agent may be able to tell from a well-written query that a project might have crossover appeal, but don’t sell it as such.

  7. I thought this was an excellent Hijack! “By Jove, it must be a mythical creature!” made me snort out loud, and the advice was truly excellent. I agree with all the holes of logic that Shelver506 pointed out.

    But the core problem with this query is that I don’t get a sense of the main character or her personal journey at all. I don’t truly see the stakes, or any of the choices Dawn herself will be making. If you stick to Dawn, you can’t go wrong. She’s your main character. And if you can’t succinctly describe the main personal problem she faces, then the story itself needs work.

    P.S. I’d love to do one of these! How do we get this honor bestowed on us?

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