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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 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 #40: YA or MG

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.

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,

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.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

Overall, very good start!

LR

 

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