QueryDice Hijack #3: Middle-grade

The QueryDice has been HIJACKED by soon-to-be published author, Sage Blackwood! 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 re-post the Dice with my own thoughts in purple. To apply to be a Hijacker, please contact me using the contact tab above. Sage, take it away! (Sage’s comments in green.)

Dear Ms. Ruth,

The last person Ricky Wilson expected to meet in the boys’ bathroom at Bramlet Junior High was Dolly, the ghost of an eighteenth century British noblewoman. I wouldn’t start with a logline. Loglines knock the story out of order and can be confusing. Instead, start around here:

I respectfully disagree with Sage. I like the line above. It drew me in. I was intrigued by the ghost of a girl in the boys’ bathroom of a junior high school. There’s something kind of wacky about it and I definitely wanted to keep reading.

But ever since waking from a bone-chilling nightmare about an ax-wielding logger, Ricky’s life has been full of unexpected (and mostly unwanted) surprises.  <–This sentence feels like it runs off course a bit. I would like to see a connector just before the sentence. Something like, “But Ricky isn’t that surprised. His life has been full of unexpected (and mostly unwanted) surprises…like waking up from a bone-chilling nightmare about an ax-wielding logger.” Of course then you’d need to modify the following sentence a bit.

One such surprise is the ghostly occupant of the family’s newly purchased vacation house, a spirit called Red, who is the very logger from Ricky’s dream!  Bound to the house, but determined to wreak vengeance, Red conjures up a second ghost to haunt Ricky wherever he goes, the beautiful and unpredictable Dolly. This is a good set-up. I’m hooked; sounds like an interesting story. I agree. I’m interested.

As Ricky struggles to navigate the rough seas of junior high and home life, Red threatens to capsize him. Can you be more specific? Yup. My thought exactly. What struggles? Struggles happen to be the heart of middle-grade, and if they’re not bad enough (like poor Harry Potter and the powers he has but doesn’t understand amidst his little identity crisis) the story won’t work the way you want it to. And how and why would Red threaten to capsize him? Instead, Dolly leads Ricky on an unforgettable journey that will bring him a new understanding of friendship and family, and reveal some astonishing truths about himself. Again, be more specific. What’s the journey? What challenge does Ricky face and how does he rise to the occasion? We expect the character will grow in some way, but it’s generally a better idea to focus on character and plot rather than on themes or morals. Remember, your main job here is to make the query-reader eager to read the story. I’ll agree and somewhat disagree. I think themes and morals are way, way, way more important in middle-grade than they are in some other genres or age-groups. So I do want to know exactly what themes or morals are discussed, but I agree with Sage when she calls for specificity. We need to know the conflict too. What does Ricky want, what’s in his way, how does he overcome it and why does he need help from Dolly. This conflict should have larger consequences for the world around him and more personal consequences for Ricky.

[redacted] the first of a three book, middle grade series.  In today’s middle grade market, you’re best off calling it a stand-alone with series potential. Sage is right. Unless you have all three books finished and polished to your satisfaction (and be honest with yourself) then “stand-alone with series potential” is not only best for you, but let’s face it…it’s accurate. Unlike the pure fantasy and alternate reality books flooding today’s Middle Grade and YA markets, (Oops—that sounds negative. I’m sure you don’t mean it that way, but it’s not really necessary that you compare your book to those already on the market, anyway) (Again, I agree with Sage. It is highly likely that you’ll be querying the agents who have sold some of the books you’re talking about, which means they’ll have an emotional attachment to them…making yourself out to be “above” that will not work in your favor) the main character in this series is grounded in the real world, facing the same problems as many readers.  The appearance of a ghost and the plausibility of reincarnation challenge him, (I thought you said he was grounded in the real world, facing the same problems as readers. I wouldn’t imagine readers grapple with ghost appearances and the plausibility of reincarnation, as a rule. You’ve probably juxtaposed these things against real-world problems, but the placement of these sentences puts them in conflict.) as well as the reader, to question the boundaries of what is possible.  I’d leave this out. You don’t need to tell us what the book will do for the reader. We assume reading in general does this for children. Great point, Sage! Each book of the series will introduce a new ghost as well as reveal clues about Red’s past and how Ricky is linked to him.  The ghosts are based on actual reported sightings which are discussed in an Afterword. That’s an interesting idea. Yeah, that is interesting…and fun.

Growing up in California, I would rouse my younger sister out of bed to conduct midnight seances.  Having never successfully summoned an actual spirit, the ghosts in my stories are based solely on the reports of others and my own invention.  After graduating college, I moved to Seattle, Washington to design and test airplanes for the Boeing Company.  While living in the Northwest, I learned to bungee jump and play the marimba.  I left Boeing to pursue the arts of child raising and writing.  I’ve had articles published in local newspapers and school newsletters and am a member of SCBWI Western Washington.  [redacted] is my first novel. I’d generally omit a bio unless a specific agent’s submission guidelines ask for one. Or unless you’ve got paid publishing credits you want to mention, eg previously published books. It’s also not necessary to say this is your first novel. Since that won’t help, leave it out. Would you care to know about the childhood of someone you don’t know, and who happens to be just one person in a long line of other people you have to read that day? Nope. And neither do agents. They want to know about your book, and about your professional credits. That’s all. And I too would have left out the mention that it is a first novel. Sometimes I think authors put that in as a pride-mention, but it has the potential to work against you. Leave it out, since it is unnecessary.

The completed manuscript of [redacted] is available upon request. Give a word-count here, rounded to the nearest thousand. Say something like “[Redacted] is complete at 45,000 words.” Agreed.

Thank you for your consideration! That’s good; thanking people is always good.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

Author, it sounds like you’ve got an interesting story here, but we’re not hearing enough about it. Your query runs 380 words, which is about 100 words long. On the revision, take out the bio and any reference to what you hope the book will do for the reader. In my experience, some parents like useful lessons in children’s books. But editors, agents, writers, booksellers, and the kids themselves do not.

So just emphasize the story. Tell us more about the challenges Ricky faces—be specific—and how he overcomes them through his own resourcefulness. I’m not sure you should spend time talking about future books. At this point you really want to interest the agent in just this one book. “Stand alone with series potential” –and leave it at that—is the current parlance. Best-case scenario is when the agent or editor says “Have you got more?”

Hope this helps you with revising your query. Good luck!

Sage Blackwood’s middle-grade fantasy JINX, the first of a trilogy, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in January 2013.

Find Sage Blackwood on GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13643494-jinx

Thanks, Sage!

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Posted on September 19, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Anita Sheridan Price

    Wow! Thanks so much for the helpful comments!! And I get two for the (already low) price of one. Much appreciated! This query has gone through many alterations since I sent this to QueryDice, but you have given me some fresh insights.

  2. TOE: thanks! You’re right…it’s #3. =)
    Great point about Ricky solving his own problems…I would need that to be clear.

    Scribble, that’s absolutely right. junior high could potentially be YA…if the character were 14 or so and the themes were edgier. It’s always a danger for me that the author might write a story that could fit anywhere and then place little details making it MG. That’s not MG. For me, MG is about finding out who you are and having fun while you’re discovering. Great point!

  3. TOE (formerly the other Ella)

    Yeah, agree… also, in the part about Red and Dolly, it would be good to make the challenge clear and then also make it clear that Ricky solves the problem himself, rather than the ghosts doing it. Right now it sounds a little bit like Dolly solves the problem.

    About the genre… I think it’s middle grade. Kids like to read about kids a little older than themselves, so junior high (now usually called middle school) is a good setting.

    Lauren, I think this is hijack #3…?

  4. Like Sage, I found the idea intriguing but would have liked to know more specific details. Also, what is it about this story that puts it in the middle grade category (apart from word length)? On the one hand, junior high and personal discovery (‘astonishing truths’) could also be YA?

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