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 greeting card world was in crisis. Hook Up cards were outselling Engagement cards, Divorce cards were more popular than Wedding Cards and Valentine’s Day looked like it was on the chopping block.
Amanda Downing is about to change all that. Of course she hadn’t planned on writing greeting cards, she really wanted to be writing best selling books about love. And she definitely hadn’t planned on falling in love with the man who specialized in Divorce cards, but I don’t really need the information that comes before my words here, the tenses are mixed and I’m a little confused…begin your query here —> when her graduate school plans fell through, twenty two year old Amanda finds herself accepting a temporary job at Sunshine Greeting Card Company.
However, Sunshine Greeting isn’t an average place. The company was founded on love letters and
it’s its owner has extremely eccentric hiring practices. As Amanda moves from Humorous Birthday with Kathy (I don’t really need her name), the vegan (is Vegan an adjective used to describe a person?), depressed, Slam Poet, to the Infertility Department where she works with an ex convict and a rapper (this is funny!), she learns enough about love to fill a book. Her book. But does she know enough about love to rescue Valentine’s Day (the holiday or the department?) from a cynical, heartbroken man? It’s worth a try.
It sounds to me like the conflict here is not that Amanda started working at a greeting card manufacturer, but rather that someone there has decided to cut Valentines Day out. I need to know why this is important to Amanda, how she sets about fixing the situation, and what sort of relationship she has with the antagonist. This query was very short, but if you cut out the beginning and focus on the conflict, it’ll be leagues better than the one I’ve just read. That being said, stick with it, author! This story sounds like so much fun. Good luck!
Sunshine Greeting is a completed 84,000 word women’s fiction novel. As a physician and a mother, I have found that humor is often the best way to get someone’s attention. And I want their attention. This novel is fun and over the top, but, at it’s core, [redacted] uses greeting cards to show how devalued love has become in our bad news obsessed society. Thank you for your time.
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].
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
There is no greeting in this query. This won’t get you an immediate rejection, but agents would rather you address them personally, otherwise, they’ll feel like you’ve just dropped something in their lap and walked away.
It’s the question that women in every century, in every part of the world have asked.
It’s the question that I asked myself four years ago, before a frantic trip to Rite-Aid during my senior year of college.
Am I pregnant?
The above is a great way to turn the oft-scorned hypothetical or rhetorical question into a definitive statement. This author could have written, “What would you do if you found out you were pregnant when you were in college?” That question, even if it is a compelling one, would have had me rolling my eyes. Who cares? Tell me about your book instead of asking me useless questions. Great job, there.
For me, and the one-million college-aged women in the U.S. who face unplanned pregnancy, two tiny blue lines announced one life lost, one life just beginning.
I’m not sure how I feel about the word “lost” in the above sentence. Remember that anyone reading your query brings his or her own baggage to it, and that baggage is going to color it. I happen to be a mother, and I happen to have found out I was pregnant as a very young wife on my college campus, and I happen to have thought my life was totally done-for. I cried all the way home on the A-train, like one of New York’s numerous psychos. There is a Duane Reade I cannot pass without thinking of that page of my life. Turns out, being a mom is not the death sentence I thought it was, but something entirely different and awesome. So the words “one life lost” are offensive to me. I suspect that what you meant to get across is that college girls who find out they’re pregnant invariably feel like they’re losing their life. But don’t leave the impact of your words up to the reader’s ability (or lack thereof) to infer and be reasonable.
Struggling with the difficult emotions, stigmas, and decisions surrounding an unplanned pregnancy, I searched for an inspirational and practical book directed towards women like me, but found nothing. Non-fiction books in the market focused on older mothers as well as teenage mothers, with a noticeable absence on the college-aged mother.
After I successfully navigated college as a pregnant student, found the resources and help I needed, and joyfully (albeit painfully) delivered my daughter sans-epidural one week after graduation, [redacted] was born. [redacted] is the non-fiction book I sought while pregnant; A slightly irreverent, hopeful and humorous, yet realistic and down-to-earth account of my story and the stories of other women, in dealing with pregnancy, classes and a newborn, telling the parents, and defying societal stereotypes.
I would rather know, right off the bat, about your book, rather than about your personal story. Very often, authors use a query letter to tell the reader how they came to write the book, but this information is not very important. What is important, is the book’s ability to sell. An agent is thinking, who would buy this? Is there a place for this on bookstore shelves? Use the words you have to tell us what the book offers to college-age moms and to the scared crying-on-the-A-train girl. The following sentence is the tip of the iceberg I want to see.
College-aged mothers are not “Teen Mom” material, nor are they ready for the soccer-mom and mini-van crowd; [redacted] reaches this new generation of mothers under the veil of what they really are–smart, successful, and driven individuals searching for a way to be accepted as mothers.
As the former College Outreach Program Coordinator for the pro-woman organization Feminists for Life, I have helped hundreds of student activists bring pregnant and parenting resources to their campuses. Continuing now as a professional speaker for Feminists for Life, I deliver lectures and workshops on Capitol Hill and across the country. My work with Feminists for Life has been featured in national publications, such as The Boston Pilot, and on Catholic TV.
Currently, I work as a labor and delivery nurse, continuing a passion for caring and advocating for women and their children. Now married and the mother of two daughters, I am pursuing a life-long dream of writing, with work published on Yahoo Shine, Babble, Scrubs, and in online health publications
The last two paragraphs, while they can be boiled down a bit, are great and they are the most important part of your query. When I was an agent–and I know I wasn’t alone–I would read the bio paragraph of a nonfiction query before reading the synopsis portion. Why? Because if the author has no platform or means by which to market herself and her book, there’s no point reading further.
[redacted] is the first book of its kind to reach out specifically to the one-million college-aged woman who have unplanned pregnancies each year in the United States. This is a book that will change the face of young motherhood.
A completed book proposal is available at your request. I look forward to hearing from you and I thank you for your time.
Warmest regards, <–There’s something really nice and comforting about this send-off.
This query needs some work, but as an agent, I probably would have wanted to see a proposal. My last suggestion has more to do with your book than your query: expand this to reach the largest possible audience while still focusing on the niche audience you’ve already targeted. Publishers (and agents) will want to know how to get the highest sales numbers for your book and that means they will wonder how many people are going to buy this…how many college-age moms are really out there? I advise against using the word “college” anywhere near the title, and overusing it in your query, proposal and manuscript. Make this a guide for women between the ages of 18 and, let’s say, 25. Then, in your query, tell us about what you’re offering to those women. Insight? Comfort? Know-how? Do you touch on money? Social services programs for young moms? What will it be like to juggle motherhood, maybe school, a job, dating if that’s the case, the naked ring-finger but big belly embarrassment? Lastly, you have not given us a word-count.
Good luck. I would have liked (and bought) a book like this back when I was the girl on the A-train.
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. Heidi, take it away! (Heidi’s comments in green.)
This is hard, because I am querying right now myself, and I know how difficult it is. As a peer, I want to congratulate you on your bravery. I hope my notes will be helpful. Good luck.
Dear Ms. Ruth:
How do you choose between hell and, well, hell?
From what I’ve read and seen, starting with a question is not usually the best tactic for a query. In addition, the question that you posed is really unanswerable. I’d leave it off.
Start here instead: In the novel [redacted] Neely Jane Richter, a neurotic and endearing (I’d leave off the endearing part. Show me, don’t tell me. Can you give me a glimpse into what makes her endearing?) young poet, is at her own personal crossroads: continue life in the clutches of OCD or battle the disorder head-on with a hard-ass therapist who doesn’t find Neely amusing in the least.
I’m intrigued. This could be interesting. I’m not getting a real sense of the conflict yet, but I’m interested enough to read on.
It’s a choice that will force her to embrace uncertainty—in her writing, in her spirituality, and in her relationships both with Matt Coty, the man she loves, and Gabe Reed, her attractive but wayward new friend who wants to take Matt’s place. I have an idea that the relationship issue is the central conflict, what is at stake, but I’m not entirely sure. Help me be sure. At her end of her strength, Neely—supported by quirky friends and neighbors—clumsily tackles life, love, and healing.
The words “quirky” and “clumsily” sound to me like this may be humorous but your query is not showing me that. I’d love to have more of a sense of Neely’s character and voice.
This could be a fun, Diary of a Mad Fat Girl – type romp. Or it could be a serious journey through a young woman’s struggle with mental illness. Either one might be a good read; I’d like to have a better sense of which this is.
[Redacted], a [insert genre here] is complete at approximately 110,000 words.
I received my bachelor’s degree in English at Northwestern College in Minnesota, where I was regularly published in the school’s literary magazine; I also author a blog about obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve drawn heavily on my own twenty-year struggle with OCD in the writing of [redacted]. Your bio is interesting and shows that you know what you are talking about. The novel is complete at approximately 110,000 words.
Please let me know if you would be interested in reading part or all of [redacted]. Thank you for your time and consideration. and I look forward to hearing from you.
Heidi Schulz is an aspiring author, currently querying for the first time. She is a fan of the serial coma, green smoothies, puppies, and books of all sizes, shapes, and varieties. Sometimes she goes into a bookstore just to smell it. She writes, reads, folds laundry, homeschools, and cooks dinner in Salem, Oregon, though generally not all on the same day.
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?
Announcement: SlushPileTales will have a new feature called Hijack a QueryDice, in which one QueryDice commenter gets to take the reigns and Dice a query. Other commenters can comment on either the original query or the Hijacker’s Dice (or both). I will provide feedback in the comments section. Peer review is an important part of honing skill as a writer, and there is nothing quite like examining the work of someone else to improve upon your own self-editing skills. If you’re up to the challenge of hijacking, please contact me at laurenruth2 [at] gmail [dot] com.
Dear Ms. Ruth,
I am currently seeking representation for my 71,000-word YA fantasy novel, [redacted]. Since I see you are interested in young adult stories, I hope my book will intrigue you.
For me, this first sentence is all wrong. First, I know you’re seeking representation. You do not need to state the obvious. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with telling me the obvious, it is a waste of precious real estate. Then, don’t tell me you hope your book will intrigue me. It shows you’re self-conscious. Without actually coming out and saying “You will like this book,” that needs to be your attitude.
Thirteen-year-old Cory MacGullin would have preferred a nice piece of birthday cake, some ice cream, and a candy-filled piñata to smack around. Instead, he’s just learned there’s a family monster named Snitch living in the attic, his parents are from a magical world hidden behind the local Renaissance Faire they attend every summer, and that he’s wanted by Mister-A, the Magical Realm Authorities.
Great. I do happen to be intrigued.
Well, he can’t complain he wasn’t surprised this year. But like birthday socks that try to bite off your feet, the surprises are just beginning.
The construction of this sentence is confusing. The way you’ve written it, it sounds like you’re trying to tell me that both surprises and feet-munching birthday socks are just beginning. What you really meant to say was: “Well, he can’t complain he wasn’t surprised this year. But the surprises are just beginning…like birthday socks that try to bite off your feet.”
When Cory’s parents thrust him into their magical world to save him from a band of mercenary Banglewooks, (what’s a Banglewook?) he soon learns some shocking news–he’s adopted. Even worse, his deceased birth parents, the Murdochs, were the most despised monster hunters in the magical realm. (Why would monster hunters be despised? That sounds like a good thing to have around, and if it isn’t, your world-building is lacking). To complicate matters, Mister-A has imprisoned the MacGullins for harboring him as a fugitive, and a necromancer named Zanderlin Hellian will do anything to acquire Cory’s unique ability to steal a monster’s magical energy. If Cory ever wants to see the only parents he’s ever known alive again, he’s going to have to learn to use his newfound power before Mister-A or Hellian catch up to him.
But Cory isn’t without allies. Super. I was just going to say, “Yeah, but where are his sidekicks for comic relief and world-building dialog?”
Snitch is sworn to protect Cory at all costs and spirits him away to Dragon’s Maw, a living castle where Cory will learn to become a monster hunter. But Cory must be wary. Taking power from monsters is a risky business, especially for a Murdoch. Can Cory defeat Hellian and rescue his parents or will he fall victim to the Murdochs’dark legacy…and become the most feared monster in the magical realm himself?
Why would he become a monster himself? If his parents turned into actual monsters at some point, something should be added two paragraphs ago when you introduced us to the Murdochs. If you just meant that people will despise him, then this is unclear.
I think Cory needs more than just Snitch for an ally. He needs another kid, preferably one with a very, very colorful personality.
This query isn’t half-bad, but I think it sounds more middle-grade than it does YA, and I don’t believe in that cross-over crap. There is no love interest, so I hesitate to call this YA. Teens are always concerned with love interests because this is a new arena for them. Even if the love interest doesn’t really come to the forefront, I think it is almost necessary to have some sort of girl around who catches Cory’s eye. In addition, this feels too fun and magical to be YA. YA, for me, is edgy and cool with some sort of taboo subject touched upon, be it drugs, sex, violence, shady politics, whatever…
Middle-grade, on the other hand, should have a dual conflict: one that can potentially affect the whole world (an external conflict), and another that affects only the protagonist’s life (an internal conflict). Those two conflicts should be born of the same situation. This story has that, it has a MG voice in my opinion, and it has fun and adventure. My advice, aside from just pruning your query around the edges a bit, is to make your character 11 or 12 and call this MG. Readers, what do you think? YA or MG?
The complete manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. I may be reached via e-mail at [redacted]. (I know you can be reached by email…you just emailed me. Don’t waste your words.
Overall, very good start!
Mia Tanaka made the decision to attend Vega Preparatory Academy so that she could write her own future; little did she know Vega specialized in rewriting the past.
Hmm. I wonder what this means…
Mia Tanaka was forgettable. You could have sat next to her in class, done a project with her, or been in the same club, yet when you saw her in the hallways, her name was just out of grasp. Although she was a smart and talented girl, she had never risked enough to fail. Consequently, she’d never really experienced success, either. (Getting into Vega Preparatory Acadamy isn’t a success?) A hapa (half-Japanese, half-Caucasian) girl living in Idaho, Mia secretly dreamed of being significant and memorable, a feat that seemed impossible to accomplish unless something changed drastically.
Being half-Japanese in Idaho seems memorable, even if just a little. The way you’ve constructed this sentence tells me you mean her status as a hapa to be unmemorable and insignificant, but I’m not so sure it is.
The opportunity to make that change was presented to Mia when she attended her high school’s annual college fair and was introduced to Vega Preparatory Academy by two incredibly good-looking boys, Rhys and Jesse. Mia’s first reaction was to forget about it. She was already following in her mom’s footsteps to the local state college, the safe and predictable path. But when Rhys approached Mia again to let her know that she was precisely what Vega was looking for, Mia received the confidence boost she needed to remember that she wanted more out of life than just safe and predictable. Vega Prep was a school that was shrouded in mystery and potential adventure, and deep down, that was exactly what Mia craved.
The above paragraph is entirely unnecessary in a query. While this information would be necessary in your book, we don’t need to know every breath or step Mia takes. We need to know larger threads, and those words are just taking up valuable real estate.
When she reached Vega, she found out that it was not just a school for the best and the brightest; it was the training ground for Vega Corporation (she or her parents wouldn’t have put two-and-two together?), a company that was dedicated to time travel.
The moment Mia heard about the opportunity to travel through time, (Get ready for it…here comes number one) she realized this was what she was meant to do. (And here’s number two, close on its heels). She finally felt like her life had purpose. (And third time’s not a charm…) Mia wanted nothing more than to be the school’s sole female time traveler, but was thwarted in her attempts by the “mean girl”, Angelica, who seemed to have a vendetta against her, by Sophia, the beautiful but evil woman who felt that she was robbed of the job in the past, and most of all, by herself.
In the past three sentences, we’re told three times that Mia is excited about the prospect of time travel. Once is plenty.
Sophia and Angelica don’t feel like real threats to me because I don’t understand what they’ve done to keep Mia from getting what she wants. What does Angelica do to deliberately get in Mia’s way? Who exactly is Sophia, and why is she present at a school? Is she a teacher? I assume this is the book’s major conflict (since its the only conflict I can see) but it’s not thorny enough. Or, rather, it might be…but you haven’t shown it to us.
I thought the time-travel concept was interesting in a YA environment (even though that makes it science-fictiony, which could make it a rough sell) but I was concerned that there’s no teen voice to this query. It sounds like a grown woman speaking about a teen girl, which it is. A query, while it should be written in third person, should also give us a taste of the protagonist’s personality. If I had to judge Mia’s personality from this query, I’d say she acts like she’s thirty, which is not good in YA.
I’d love to see some sentences revamped by SlushPileTales readers in the comments section. Winner gets–drum roll–mention as THE WINNER OF QUERYDICE 39 on Twitter! =)
Lastly, you mention in your opening sentence that Vega specializes in rewriting the past, but you don’t mention their motive for traveling through time to do that. It’s dramatic that you open with that, but then it fizzles when you never mention it again.
Being a hapa kid myself, growing up on the sunny shores of Kailua, Hawaii, I read voraciously, and I dreamed of traveling to long lost times and being a part of different worlds. As I grew up, I realized that dream was impossible. [redacted] is, in a way, my rebellion. After gaining my bachelor’s degree in history from Utah Valley University and learning even more about the times I yearned to be a part of, I decided that if I wanted a world in which I could time travel to exist, I needed to create it.
None of this is important. The bio portion of your letter should include information on your past writing and anything relevant to your career as an author. If you have enough words left over after giving us that information, feel free to include a few tidbits of your journey to the book.
[redacted] is a YA fantasy novel complete at 100,000 words.
Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.