Category Archives: publishing

QueryDice #53: The Bio Paragraph

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,

     With an eternally seventeen-year old body and supernatural powers to defend an ancient covenant that keeps hitting the snooze button on the world’s Armageddon alarm clock, Jayke Wolff has a big responsibility on his shoulders.  <– what? This seems like too much. I had to read the sentence twice to get a firmer handle on it.

Because he doesn’t remember anything about his life before coming out of a coma seven years ago, he’s not too stressed about it.  Unfortunately for him, the world-conquering cult, the Aduro, has a longer memory.  They’ve dispatched their most seductive and dangerous emissaries to either move Jayke to their side of the game board or knock him off it completely.
     With the fall dance, geometry class, and the girl in his business class with the devastatingly long legs competing for his attention, Jayke isn’t getting any closer to learning about his past with so much looming in his future.  Jayke has to either take control of his own life, give himself over to a secret society vying for world domination, or just let an ancient prophesy decide his fate for him.  Where does a guy find the time to save the world?  You are only young once, even if it is forever.
     Thank you for considering my 98,000 word YA, fantasy manuscript [redacted].  TeensReadToo.com said Jayke’s “humor and insight made me laugh.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read a story with such life-like characters that I actually cared about”.  Flamingnet Young Adult’s reviewer said she “could not put it down until (she) discovered how Jayke’s story turned out” and awarded the book a Top Choice Award from the site.  This manuscript is currently being considered at Curtis Brown and Nancy Coffey.

This query is not perfect. I would like to see a more vivid character, maybe a friend or two, and some personal ambition. But I would have requested it anyway, because it was pretty good, and more importantly, it has been read and lauded before and two other agents–respected agents at that–have seen a glimmer of hope. Also the quote from teensreadtoo.com addresses the issue I had: characterization. Maybe this author has great characters in the manuscript, but a flat character in the query…which wouldn’t be a first. The take-away: the bio paragraph of your query letter is extremely important. Many authors tack it on the end without much thought, but it could be key!

LR

Sincerely,

[redacted]

 

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QueryDice #52: Attack of the Cliche

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,

For sixteen-year-old Brynn Hartwel prophetic dreams are like living in Cloverdale, painful, annoying and there is no way to get around it. <– This is a personal preference, but this first sentence is a huge turn-off for me. It’s not that the content of the sentence is problematic–because it’s actually interesting–but rather the technical errors tell me this manuscript must be a complete mess if even 250 of this author’s words can’t step in line.

They started when she was six, got worse after her father’s death and became a secret when her mother forced a psychiatrist on her. Now with Junior year on the horizon Brynn knows she is two years closer to escaping Cloverdale and hopefully leaving all traces of her dreams behind. <–why would leaving Cloverdale put an end to the dreams? Leaving out important bits of information like this just make me think the manuscript has plot holes.

Then all hell breaks loose. <–this is a cliche. For the record, I would stop reading right around here. I was already on the fence with the missing commas, but this pushed me over. 

Her ex-best friend is found murdered and due to another one of her prophetic dreams, Brynn knows she’s next. At this point, I’m wondering what is special about this story. We’ve all heard the story of the teenager with paranormal abilities whose friend got murdered and now she’s next…what makes your story better than all the other stories just like it? But the killer isn’t your average, small town sociopath. He’s part of an ancient society of demigods, has gone rogue and is wickedly determined on seeing Brynn dead. Okay. As if on cue, you answer my question: a wicked demigod. That’s kind of cool, except you left out some really important bits of information: why would he want Brynn dead, and why has he waited so long?

But he isn’t her biggest problem. Griffin is. With his pouty lips and devilish charm, Brynn is suddenly fates fiercest opponent and will do anything to stay alive. Wait, wait. Are you telling me a love interest is more problematic for Brynn than a sociopathic demigod whose only goal (that we know of) is to kill her? I don’t buy it, and now I don’t like your main character because she seems to have her priorities in a woeful mess. Lucky for her Griffin has a secret of his own and everything from Brynn’s dreams to her father’s death is connected to Griffin and The Society of The Devine. A society created of demigods, a society created to rule man in secrecy and a society in which Brynn had been purposely hidden from till now. The staccato-style of these sentences is dramatic, but what they contain is anticlimactic for me. Since I don’t know anything about Brynn that is very specific to her and is rooted in my own world, and because of the aforementioned priority crisis, I don’t like her one bit. The world in this query is not unique enough to make me sit up straighter. This needs some salt.

Brynn was born a Devine oracle just like her father. But he refused to have her torn from her family to live a life dedicated to The Society so he made a deal with The Devine to hide her true identity.

All of the information in the last two paragraphs except for Griffin’s name, his status as a love interest and his pouty lips and devilish charm is unnecessary and confuses the plot. 

But nothing stays hidden forever. A rival group of demigods is after her and she must put her faith in three young Devine warriors sent to protect her.

As the secrets, lies and betrayals pile up no one is safe and not even a Devine oracle could predict that the true threat to The Society is the one person they are trying to protect, Brynn.

The last few sentences here are very confusing. I would reject this query letter on that alone. Author, the best thing you can do for this query letter is to start over: tell us the following things:

1. Who is your character? What makes her different from everybody else in the world, aside from her paranormal ability.

2. What does she want? If she wants nothing and life is grand for her, what throws a wrench in that?

3. What is in her way?

4. How does she set about circumventing that?

5. What is the single element of your book’s world that makes it different from Earth?

And tell it to us in fewer than 250 words. 

[redacted] is a young adult, paranormal romance novel complete at 100,000 words.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
[redacted]

While this query letter needs some serious work, don’t get discouraged. We all have to start somewhere, and this is yours. Save it. Because when you write something better, the improvement you see will be your reward for your hard work. Best of luck, author, and if you re-write, let us see! 

 LR

QueryDice #51: Awesome YA Query

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,

When sixteen-year-old (If this is YA, then I’m pleased you’ve told me that up-front. If it’s not I’m pissed off that you’ve tricked me into thinking it was.) Emma Hawthorne finds the body of her best friend, Lily, floating in the river, (you have my attention. Let’s see if you hang on to it) her hard-fought control of her empathic ability crumbles. Capable of picking up emotions from other people like a radio signal, she is too damaged to tune out the constant static. Emma wants to move beyond her grief and be free from what everyone else is feeling.

Then an encounter with a stranger’s violent emotions triggers a vision of Lily’s tortured soul and Emma is faced with a terrifying sense that the drowning wasn’t an accident – and that Lily isn’t resting in peace. Her search for answers attracts unwanted attention from Patrick, a man without emotions. Simultaneously repulsed and intrigued, she allows him into her life. And when he offers to take away her ability, along with the pain it causes, she is ready to accept.

But Lily is trying to warn Emma from beyond the grave. Patrick’s offer isn’t without a price – a price that cost Lily more than her life. As Emma unravels the twisted threads connecting Patrick to Lily, she discovers he’s more dangerous than she ever thought possible. Emma must find the strength to fight the growing supernatural hold Patrick has on her – not only to give Lily the peace she deserves, but to save her sanity and possibly her soul as well.

[redacted] is a 64,000 word YA urban fantasy with romantic elements.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

There is nothing wrong with this query. It was stellar! I know what the conflict is, that conflict has intrigued me and it has enough punch for YA. The way you divulged your book’s particulars flowed nicely and I wasn’t left needing information. I would even like to read this! My only criticisms are that I didn’t feel enough of Emma’s personality–what makes her unique–and also the only thing that made this YA was the character’s age. There is no mention of school, or typical internal conflict teenagers face.

Author, we’d love to hear the story of your query…was it rejected? How many requests did you receive? Most of all: did you get an agent?!

LR

 

QueryDice #50: Middle-Grade and Conflict

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,

1952 San Angelo is a boy’s paradise providing ten-year-old Allan with endless adventure. But when his mother becomes ill, Allan discovers it’s not excitement he longs for, but the comfort of family and the gift of friendship. <—Nice. Great beginning. One of the most important elements in a middle-grade story is internal conflict. Kids in this age-group relate more strongly to internal conflict. Even if they see an external conflict (like war, for example, or the illness of a parent) they are not completely feeling the external conflict–they are feeling what effect that has on them. Additionally, the setting is a strong point for this query, because librarians, parents and teachers will be attracted to a historical setting (kids can learn history through reading.) Now, what I’m looking for is a strong external conflict that has big stakes for more people than just Allan and his mom…that would get a yes from me. Let’s read on…

Allan spends most of his days riding on his best friend’s handlebars while looking for escapades like hunting blood-spitting horny toads, riding a bucking bronco, and winning the best Concho River storytelling contest. <–cute. I can see the book’s personality, which makes me think the author might have a great voice.

For three years, Allan watches the construction of the town’s 128 foot dam and all he can think about is riding down its long slope. Nitpick: you should change this sentence to, “For the past three years, Allan has been watching…” because otherwise it sounds just a tiny bit like we experience these three years in your book!

He just has to convince Raymond (is Raymond the best friend?) to take the ride with him. When Raymond finally agrees, Allan hesitates. His mother’s illness—knots in her lady parts is how the doctor puts it—causes Allan to feel something he’s never felt before—fear.

He remembers his mother’s words and discovers the courage he needs to conquer the adventure of a lifetime. He begins to understand what his mother has tried to teach him about the give and take of life and the importance of family, friends, and a special little town. <–hmm. I think there is more to this story that you’re not telling us…

[redacted] is a humorous, yet tender, coming-of-age MG novel complete at 40,000 words. I have extensive experience with middle grade readers and their triumphs and challenges.  I have been an elementary school counselor for nine years and a university school counselor educator for thirteen years. Currently, I am a school counselor in a 6th-12th grade school in the largest school system in the Southeast.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
[redacted]

Technically, this query is fine. I know what the conflict is, I can see at least a little of the main character’s personality. I even like the premise. But I would reject it, and here’s why: remember at the beginning of this Dice, when I said I was looking for a big external conflict? I don’t see one here. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, of course. Maybe there is. But a kid worrying about his mother’s illness and endeavoring to ride down the slope of a 128-foot dam just doesn’t have the zing I was hoping for. Something in this story needs to involve the entire town while also being an internal conflict for Allan. For example, if he instead endeavored to save the town from something and his mother’s illness tied into that, and his riding down the dam was somehow part of everything, I’d bite.

Best of luck, author!

LR

**Success story: The author of this query now has an agent! The author hopes her query will encourage writers. Of her success, she says, “Even if the query letter isn’t perfect, your manuscript can still find its way to the perfect (for you) agent! Congratulations, author!

QueryDice #49: World-Building in a Query Letter

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,

The only thing worse than finding out you’re part of a secret magic species is finding out you’re a necromancer, and not a very good one. Aisling gets waves of nausea and cold chills around the dead, and can’t even stomach the reanimation of corpses. In what world would she need to be able to stomach this? Your use of the word “even” leads me to believe that this is something that is expected of her, but it’s a detail that comes too early and without satisfactory explanation. This query letter is a bit short (at 188 words), so I would suggest using this first paragraph to introduce us to both Aisling and her world. 

Then she meets a haunted young man named Kenneth. Death has touched him, and together they can help each other deal with this world. What world? I do not have a firm grasp of this world. Which creatures live in it? What is the one thing about this world that sets it apart most from the world we know? Additionally, what do you mean by “deal”? What’s so bad about the world? And how can they help each other? What I’m getting at with these questions is this: I don’t know enough.

When Aisling feels like she may just fit in with the others a female student turns up dead. <— What does the first part of this sentence have to do with the end of it? Suspecting eyes fall upon Aisling and soon the female body count increases. She must learn to master her abilities to uncover the truth to find the killer, before her she or her friends are next. Aisling wants to point the finger at her friend’s new boyfriend, but the clues point in one path while her heart points in another. Her heart? Like, love? Or did you mean she has a hunch that is unsupported by evidence? Being the only one equipped with the magic for the task, Aisling knows failure is no option, even at the risk of her personal safety, and against her parent’s wishes. <–Do her parents know that she is a necromancer? Do they know her world exists?

With academy halls filled with teenagers learning dangerous new powers, everyone’s a suspect. Oh, so she goes to a school for the magically gifted? Setting is important in YA, and we should know this early on because otherwise this reads like a query for fantasy with a YA-aged protagonist, which is not the same thing as YA.

[redacted] is a young adult fantasy with mystery elements completed at 72,00 words; a stand-alone with sequel potential.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kind Regards,

[redacted]

Look, I get it. It is SO tough to try to boil down a never-before-seen world into a query letter while still boiling down plot structure. Fantasy is the toughest genre for which to write query letters. That is exactly why this query has failed. There are too few details where we need them, and too many details in the wrong places at the wrong times. I think you’ve got an interesting and cute story here, but it just needs to be presented in the right way. I would suggest making a list of the elements of your world that your readers MUST know about in order to appreciate your story. Limit yourself to fewer than six. Then cut out anything outside of those and re-write your query letter accordingly. 

Lastly, the main character seems to have no personality. I’d like to see some of her quirks, and if you can, a piece of her voice here in the query letter. That will be the difference between a ho-hum query, and one that gets attention. 

Good luck! 

LR

QueryDice #48: 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.

To Lauren Ruth,

Hope Murdoch was born dead.

Great first line. I’m hooked.

She took breath a minute later and despite her that quick trip through the veil sixteen years ago, she’s an almost-normal teen. She has an impossible crush on the boy next door, she struggles to pay attention in class, and she’s adopted. All of this–even the adopted part–makes the normal list. The not-so-normal list is short. In fact, there’s only one thing on it. Hope can read minds.

I made the word change in the first sentence to affirm to the reader that “the veil” refers to her being dead and then alive when she was born. Also, if this is something unique to this story, I’d recommend capitalizing The Veil.

I don’t think being adopted is something I would put on a list of normal things. It does not belong in the most-normal category of high-school crushes and waning attention in class. I wonder if you might consider rewording this paragraph. Something to the effect of, “…thought being adopted was the most abnormal thing about her, until…”

Lance Hampton used to be normal until a car accident killed his parents and, temporarily, him. How about adding, “On that night” here —> Paramedics brought him back to a life he doesn’t want: orphaned, uprooted and living with his uncle, and cursed with the ability to see how people die. At his new school, he hides behind his attitude (what kind of attitude?) and overgrown, unkempt hair. He knows it’s better if he doesn’t make any attachments. Seeing how complete strangers die is hard enough, let alone friends. Wow. Yeah, that would be problematic. This has my interest.

Hope and Lance are barely aware of one another until she accidentally slips inside his mind and witnesses a vision of murder . . . her own. She can’t see it clearly and only knows it happens in the dark. She needs Lance’s help, but he won’t face death again (what do you mean by “face death again”?) for just anyone. Hope will have to become more than a stranger, even more than a friend. After that, it’s simply a matter of tracking down a murderer before he kills. A murderer who could be anywhere. Anyone.

Even psychics have trouble seeing in the dark. <—well, why wouldn’t they have trouble seeing in the dark? Night-vision isn’t their power. I see that you were trying to be witty here, but it falls flat for me.

[redacted] is an 85,000-word young adult novel, the first of a trilogy. <–you do not add what genre your book is.

There was no salutation to this query. A simple “Sincerely, soandsso” can’t fail. Regardless of that and the other kinks in this query I think need to be ironed out, I’m sure this author has received requests for more material. The conflict is clearly outlined, as are the stakes, and the paranormal elements are clear. Most importantly, the author appears to have done a great job of leaving out what is extraneous information, and what we need to know. The only thing I think could make this query better in a major way is characterization. I have no idea what Hope’s personality is like…is she clumsy? Sophisticated? Introverted? Who knows? The same goes for Lance, to a slightly lesser degree. The voice in the paragraph about Lance should change to reflect his personality. If you’ve like to know more about voice in your writing, please see my earlier post, If You Build it, They Will Come…

Best of luck to you, author!

LR

Final comments: QueryDice Hijack #5: Memoir

The QueryDice has been HIJACKED by aspiring author, Gillian! 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. Gillian, take it away! (Gillian’s comments in green.)

Dear Ms. Ruth,

My 8th-grade social life is totally lame—my friends do nothing but collect lip gloss and decorate study guides for fun. You want the first line of your query to grab the reader. This is not particularly enticing or unique, though it’s not completely horrible. I was thrown by the first person, until I read to the bottom and realized this was a memoir and not fiction. I am not a big an of first-person queries from the protagonist’s point-of-view. I also did not know this was a memoir until I read to the bottom, and so for most of this query I assumed you were trying to be cute or unique by having your protagonist speak to me. I also agree with Gillian that the first line of the query was not as compelling as you might think it is.

I wake up from a long depression (this worries me, since depressed characters are not always easy to connect to) the spring before high school, take one look at these shiny-lipped losers (this I like– it shows your voice), and decide I am destined for greater things. I like the voice here too, but I’m still not hooked. I agree with Gillian that depressed characters, unless there is a humorous or satirical spin on them, are never very likable or interesting.

I want passion and adventure, and I want it in the form of romance. Nevermind (it should be “Never mind”, two words– and yes, I am that picky) that I never talk to boys (except to bribe them to eat pencil lead) (this completely threw me. You do WHAT? I think I get what you’re saying– fourteen-year-olds are not so smooth in the romance department– but this comes off very strangely) (I agree. This was really strange and not very funny.) or that my ultra-conservative parents have strictly forbidden me from dating until I am thirty-five (this doesn’t feel unique) (Yeah, not at all…that’s most young women). I am ready for love. Big love. The kind that inspires movies like Clueless and songs by *NSYNC (this threw me until I realized your memoir set in the 90’s. Then I felt nothing but pure nostalgia). Or that will at least give me a reason to stay up late on school nights chatting on AIM.I would have stopped reading here. The most interesting thing about this query is that it is told from the point-of-view of a teen in the nineties. Having been a teen in the nineties, I’m unimpressed. So the readers in our age-bracket will be bored with their own story (which is exactly what this memoir is), older age-brackets won’t necessarily understand the references or their importance, and younger age-brackets won’t care at all. That’s an issue with your book, not your query though.

The problem so far is that my interest isn’t piqued. The writing is pretty solid, there’s a fair amount of voice, but your stakes are non-existent. A teenage girl wants love. Which teenage girl doesn’t? What’s special about this story? Where’s the real conflict? What choice are you going to make that gets the story rolling?

But instead I find Nick. When he physically attacks me the night of our freshman band concert (this is where you should start. This is the inciting incident) (agreed), I know that I’ll be leaving my first relationship with more questions about love than answers (too vague. I want to know the specifics of your situation. This is the heart of your book, after all) I completely agree with Gillian, here. This is entirely too vague…did he think you were a prowler under the bleachers and accidentally beat you up? Did he viciously rape you? The weight of this, for your book, is huge. I don’t yet know that each new relationship will just bring more questions than the last (Again, too vague, and too philosophical for me. A freshman in  high school wouldn’t immediately leap to thoughts like this. I’m not sure I even leap to thoughts like this, particularly after something traumatic).

[redacted]: A Memoir of Young Love is the story of my high school quest for love [when I read this, I automatically think, so what? We all have high school quests for love. Why does YOURS deserve to be told? What’s special and compelling about it that would make people who don’t know you want to read it? Also, I’m not sure why, the phrase “young love” strikes me as sickly sweet and a bit too nostalgic. Teenagers don’t think their love is young. They just think it’s love (says the very wise and elderly twenty-one-year-old)] and all the things I find instead. It is complete at 73,000 words.

I studied creative writing at Indiana University, where I wrote weekly columns for the Indiana Daily Student and won 2nd place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ student columnist contest judged by Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe. I also have a short story published in the North Central Review. I currently work as a therapist, and I keep a popular blog. I would include the blog link, but I’m not an expert on what agents like in a bio. I defer to Ms. Ruth and the comments here. I’d include the link in your signature. That way, you’re not being so presumptuous as to assume the agent cares to look at your web presence, but if they really wanted to (which isn’t far-fetched) they could. My impression is that in memoir and non-fiction, platform is uber important, and the agent would want to know what kind of readership your blog gets. Yes, agents want to know everything about how you can market yourself as an author…including a built-in readership by way of a blog.

Thank you for your time. I am ready to send any or all of the manuscript and can be reached at [redacted] or at [redacted].

Best wishes,

[redacted]

There could be a story here. I’m just not certain what it is. Is it solely about your younger self being disappointed in love and boys? Is it about you healing from a sexual assault? I want to know. And I want to know why this book is different from the myriad other books dealing with the same subject matter. You can clearly write and I like your voice. This query could do with spicing up, stronger word choice, clearer conflict. I want to be so hooked that I can’t wait to read pages.

Gillian is a full-time student and aspiring author, because that’s the only thing she can think of doing with her English degree. She is a crazed bibliophile who scares people sometimes with the depths of her geekiness and uncanny ability to make pop culture references at any moment. She loves her rescue dog beyond the realms of sanity.

Gillian has just started foisting her ideas on the internet with her own blog, Writer of Wrongs, where she rambles on about the trials of writing, publishing, living in Los Angeles, and baking the perfect apple cinnamon cake.

Thanks, Gillian!

QueryDice Hijack #4: Women’s Fiction

The QueryDice has been HIJACKED by avid reader, Scribble Orca! 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. Scribble, take it away! (Scribble’s comments in green.)

Dear Ms. Ruth, Excellent – addressing the agent!

When Emily Matthews returns to the small Oklahoma town she ran away from as a teenager, she’s the last person in her family to arrive.

This sentence works because we know 1) our MC’s name; 2) setting = a small Oklahoma town (although I would add in the name of the town before “..a small..” to be specific); I don’t mind the omission of the name of the town. This is a matter of personal taste, really. 3) Emily is no longer a teenager (so this is not YA) and she was a runaway; and These are extremely important things to know, so I also give the author kudos on that first sentence. 4) she’s still a black sheep because she’s the last person to arrive.  I’m not so sure Emily’s lateness necessarily means that she is a black sheep. It could mean other things as well. This is why it is important to be clear in your query letter; don’t leave too much up to interpretation. Even though this sentence is unclear, it is obvious that the effect is intentional and like Scribble, I think the sentence works. What’s missing in this sentence is “…at her estranged grandmother’s deathbed.”  I would suggest scrapping all of the next sentence except for that piece of information. I’ll respectfully disagree with Scribble, here. I like the mysterious leaving-out of important details here because I can tell it is intentional. There is a big difference between an author lazily or ineptly leaving information out and an author skillfully knowing when to leave things unsaid…for now.

I’m also being nit-picky here: I prefer “…from which she ran away as…” rather than “…ran away from as..”.  If you had written “She ran away from the town as…” that would be fine.  However, I don’t think this would mean the agent would decline to read further, if you chose not to insert “from which”. Like Scribble, I have trouble with dangling prepositions. It grates on me. I actually winced. That being said, this particular mistake has been made so often that it has become familiar to most people. I don’t think the error is so glaring that I would stop reading. I’d keep going. 

As a first sentence goes, I think it is terrific.  I’m really keen to keep reading. Agreed.

Everyone else is already there holding vigil around her estranged grandmother’s deathbed. Call her old fashioned, but she thinks you should wait for the person to die before you hold the viewing.

Here is where I stumble, because I don’t think ‘holding vigil’ equals ‘a viewing (of a casket)’, or being ‘old-fashioned’.  In fact, most families gather around the death bed of an aged relative who is dying.  What is it you want me to know here?  That Emily is, despite her history, conventional?  Has morals?  We know that she’s willing to put her own feelings aside because she has come to see her ‘estranged’ grandmother in a place that’s obviously uncomfortable for her – “the town from which she ran away”.  What else do you want to add to this picture of Emily that contrasts her with her family and specifically, her grandmother?

I also had trouble understanding what it was you were trying to tell us with this sentence. A query letter should be restricted to only the barest bones of information, and since this one detail doesn’t seem to be central to the plot, I wonder why a a whopping two whole sentences have been wasted on it. Above, I liked the mystery of the first sentence, but even so, I’d rather you simply (as Scribble suggested) add “at her grandmother’s deathbed.” However, I’d leave out the word “estranged” because it implies that the grandmother has been alienated, which is not the case. Emily is the one who is estranged from the family, not her grandmother whose whole family has gathered around her.

After a suspicious fire destroys her car, she reluctantly accepts help from Miller, the boyfriend she left behind when she ran.

I would avoid ‘suspicious’ fire, because the fire isn’t suspicious – the circumstances are.  So I suggest being direct here without saying arson – “After a deliberately-lit fire destroys her car…” or “After her car is deliberately destroyed by fire….” depending on your preference for passive or active voice.  That was a great catch, Scribble, but your fix then sets us up to ask more questions. Author, can you find a way to tell us concisely that a fire destroyed Emily’s car and she thinks this was foul play? The next part of the sentence is fine, however the last part is using up your hectic agent’s limited attention on redundant words.  You’ve told us Emily ran away, so that means she left everyone behind.  What would you like to tell us here?  That she and Miller were still girlfriend and boyfriend when Emily left?  Perhaps you could reword the sentence as “…she reluctantly accepts help from Miller, the boyfriend she deserted when she left.”  If I’m wrong about thefeeling you want to evoke in your reader here, you can use a different verb.  Bear in mind that the choice of verb has to go some way to explaining why Emily is reluctant to accept help from Miller. I agree with Scribble about the redundancy, but I acknowledge how difficult it is not to be here. How about this fix: “…destroys her car, she accepts help from her old high-school sweetheart, Miller, even though she feels [describe her feelings in line with her personality–this is a great way to build character in the query] about accepting help from some one she deserted so long ago.”

It doesn’t take long for old feelings to reignite. But then she discovers evidence that her grandmother has spent the last seventeen years lying to Miller to manipulate him into covering up one of the family’s darkest secrets

Your first sentence in this paragraph brings me to a halt – I’m guessing the feelings are on Emily’s side – but also Miller’s?  You also start the next sentence with “But…”.  That means that what follows ‘but’ will contrast with the first sentence.  It doesn’t – your second sentence goes into information-dump territory and tells me nothing about the romance between Emily and Miller.  

I disagree with Scribble, here. I assumed the feelings were mutual, and I thought the sentences separated by the word “but” did in fact contrast: Emily is beginning a new romance with Miller, but something complicates that.

It also hints at a link between Miller and Emily’s grandmother but doesn’t give me any background to this and I’m asking ‘But why would Emily’s grandmother have the opportunity to be lying to Miller – how have they been connected in Emily’s absence?’  Agreed. This is a big problem. Because it is unexplained, and even seems a little unlikely, I have no choice but to think it’s not well-developed in your manuscript. Also,  “evidence” and “cover up” might give your query an unwanted police-procedural feel.  I don’t mind that so much. I could take it or leave it. My rewrite suggestion would be:

“But as Emily’s feelings for Miller re-ignite, she discovers that her grandmother has used her [something about grandma’s relationship or position with Miller – so we know how she has the chance to manipulate him] to manipulate Miller into concealing one of the family’s darkest secrets.” Great suggestion.

The key pieces of information for me are that Emily’s old feelings are aroused, after seventeen years.  So Emily is in her early to mid thirties and must be single – otherwise she wouldn’t have old feelings for Miller to arouse.  I assumed she was single as well. If she is, it is fine for the author not to have mentioned her status, but if she is NOT single, that’s huge and we need to know how that complicates things. Miller has been manipulated by Emily’s grandmother to hide a dark family secret – so now I want to know what it is.  But that isn’t what I find out in the next sentence.

Emily realizes that when she left, he became easy prey to her horrible family.

What does Emily realise that has made Miller fall easy prey to her family – and what has her family done that is horrible?  My best re-write suggestion here is: “Since Emily left, Miller has succumbed to the influence of Emily’s family.”  And if you look at my re-write, it’s  rather poor, because it’s still not telling us new, important information – because we already know that Miller is under the influence of Emily’s family since he’s also hiding their secret.  Do you see why this sentence doesn’t work as it is? I think it’s interesting that he became easy prey to her horrible family, but this comes out of left field and we wonder why and how and is that why she left, and my brain is so busy asking questions that it’s not paying attention anymore.

The guilt she feels is enough to make her want to run again. But she can’t. Someone has gone to great lengths to make sure she stays in town.

Why does Emily feel guilty – because she left Miller, because Miller has been duped? And why does she only feel guilty now and not before she came back?  She feels guilty for something, so she wants to run away, despite her feelings for Miller being re-aroused.  I’m wondering the same things. Sadly, it isn’t Emily’s depth of feeling that prevents her running away, it’s because someone has done something to make her stay in town.  Yikes. I’d missed that, but now that Scribble brings it up, how are we supposed to like Emily and sympathize with her character if she’s such a coward that she would desert Miller a second time? What is the something and is it valid to stop her from leaving – how can it provide more reason than her feelings for Miller?  As a teenager running away is fine, but she’s in her thirties [exactly] – how deep are these feelings now if it’s something else that’s keeping her in town?

Emily has a choice to make: Tell Miller the truth about her grandmother, which would expose the family secret she ran away from years ago, or let him go on believing that he’s based his entire life upon a bad promise from a good liar.

Based on the preceding information, I don’t see that Emily has a choice to make.  She feels guilty, wants to leave town, someone else is forcing her to stay, and not her feelings for Miller.  So why expose a family secret (and we don’t know how terrible it is)?  I’m confused by the next sentence as well.  Emily wants to stop Miller believing his life is based on a bad promise – does this mean Miller already knows the promise is bad and that Emily’s grandmother is a good liar – so when Emily tells Miller about the family secret Miller will stop believing his life is based on a bad promise?  Or do you mean that Emily is considering letting Miller know that he’s based his life on a promise which is a lie and he doesn’t yet know the promise is a lie?  Do you see why it’s not clear for me, your *ahem* agent? I agree with Scribble. I’m thinking, “Okay, so expose a secret that her family has kept (so what? She doesn’t even talk to them and she deserted them) or hurt Miller who’s been nothing but helpful. That seems like a no-brainer. But there are too many questions to ask here, so I’m having trouble really getting a handle on what happens in the book. 

That being said, I have an inkling that there is a great story here and the query just didn’t do its job. 

[redacted], a work of women’s fiction, is complete at 97,000 words. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas, and I’m a member of RWA and its North Texas branch.

Thank you for your time, 

[redacted]

I was absolutely certain I’d request my first Dice…but I’m not sure whether this is actually meant to be a romance (unless women’s fiction means romance) or something else [it’s definitely women’s fiction, which differs from romance mostly in its focus on a larger issue than just a romantic relationship between two people], and I’m not sure what the real conflict is [me neither].  The hints aren’t enough to make me say “yes, I’d like to know more.”  If those missing gaps in the story were instead filled in and the query was stronger, and if I were an agent who knew the market for your kind of women’s fiction very well, then I could imagine requesting at least a partial to look at your writing style.  But at the moment, there’s a sneaking suspicion that the choice of words you’ve used in your query might reflect an imprecision in your manuscript, and I really don’t know enough about your story to be hooked.

What does everyone else think?

Thank you for having me as your QueryDice Hijacker and I’m looking forward to Lauren’s, the querier’s and everyone else’s comments.

Good luck! 🙂

Scribble Orca is based in Singapore and loves to read, discuss books and anything book related, and write.

She has lived and worked on every continent in the world, with the exception of the polar caps, doing everything from washing cars to advising government ministers, helping refugees to fleeing from pirates, interviewing terrorists to almost dying from malaria.   In her own words: I fixate a lot, procrastinate some, and I lucked out in the patience stakes.

 

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!

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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