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Query Critique 10: Mark of Thorn

11 Feb

Dear Agent,

What if the daughter of prominent officials was a changeling? In my  young adult fantasy novel, MARK OF THORN, Willow Coulter fears her special ability—one she’s been keeping secret—will be discovered. The strange mark on her arm tells her nothing of her true origin. Her parents are Hunters, those who murder suspected sorcerers for a living. She escapes the world of the wealthy and petty to face the identity she’s been suppressing for the sixteen years of her life.

Crippled by her ability to see the past and the future, Willow encounters a gang of runaway sorcerers, teenagers with abilities like her, who aim to start a rebellion. One of the members doesn’t trust her, a boy who her feelings are growing for. As the revolution unravels, Willow must rescue her birth mother from Thanatos, the lands of imprisonment, before all of her memories are wiped. Torn between her upbringing and the insurgent sorcerers, she embarks on a journey that opens her eyes to the role she plays in the Queen’s scheme for supremacy. Three rivaling countries compete in a battle for domination, one she must stop.

MARK OF THORN is a 59,000-word gripping novel that alludes to the tale of Hades and Persephone, apocalyptic myths, and Western European folklore. My completed manuscript is available at your request.

[Credentials]

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Summer Wayland

~~~

Today we have a special guest post by CA Marshall!

Dear Agent,

What if the daughter of prominent officials was a changeling? [Nix hypothetical questions.] In my young adult fantasy novel, MARK OF THORN, Willow Coulter fears her special ability—one she’s been keeping secret—will be discovered. [Why not tell us here that she can see the future? Why wait until the next paragraph? Waiting makes this sentence vague] The strange mark on her arm tells her nothing of her true origin.[What does this sentence have to do with anything? It feels out of place] Her parents are Hunters, those who murder suspected sorcerers for a living. [So? Does being able to see the future make her a sorcerer, then? Do her parents know about her ability? If not, how has she hidden it for so long? Make this clearer.] She escapes [Is she being held against her will?] the world of the wealthy and petty [Nix the "and petty"] to face the identity she’s been suppressing for the sixteen years of her life. [Does she know she's different? If she doesn't know her "true origin" how could she have suppressed it? Also, the last half of the sentence reads awkward. Try moving the age to a different place, like the beginning.]

Crippled [why is it crippling?]by her ability to see the past and the future, Willow encounters [Does she run away? Do the sorcerer's find her?] a gang of runaway sorcerers, teenagers with abilities like her, who aim to start a rebellion.[Awkward phrasing] One of the members doesn’t trust her, a boy who her feelings are growing for.[Cliche. If there's a romance here, play it up. Smexyiness sells]

[Insert paragraph break]As the revolution unravels[Does it fall apart? What causes its downfall?], Willow must rescue her birth mother from Thanatos, the lands of imprisonment, before all of her [Willow's or her mom's?]memories are wiped. Torn [Why is she torn? The phrase is cliche, too]between her upbringing [What does he upbringing matter?]and the insurgent sorcerers, she embarks on a journey[To where?] that opens her eyes [cliche]to the role she plays[What role?] in the Queen’s [Who is the queen?]scheme for supremacy. Three rivaling countries [Which countries?]compete in a battle for domination, one she must stop. [Why must she be the one to stop it? What happens if she doesn't? What are the stakes?]

MARK OF THORN is a 59,000-word gripping[Nix "gripping"] novel that alludes to the tale of Hades and Persephone, apocalyptic myths, and Western European folklore. My completed manuscript is available at your request.

[Credentials]

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Summer Wayland

General notes: Watch for vague and/or cliche phrases. Agents want to know what they’re getting into, don’t hide info. Make sure your plot is clear and to the point. If you allude to something, the agent/intern reading quickly may miss it and your query will seem confusing, which could count against you. Where’s the voice in this? I don’t get a sense of who Willow is, what kind of a person she is, or what she thinks about all of this happening to her. You have to do just as much world building in your query as you do in your book, so be sure to explain things clearly. You may know the details of your world, but we don’t.
All the best,

Cassandra
camarshall.com

~~~

I like this concept, but I also feel somewhat lost. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the query that I figured out that Willow is probably a sorcerer, though in the middle you played her up to be a psychic. In the beginning you said she had abilities but didn’t mention specifically what they were at all.

Rivaling countries and political battles need to come up earlier, I feel, for this query to have more of an impact. It’s a really great idea: An adopted sorcerer growing up in a family that kills sorcerers, hiding her abilities from everyone, at times even herself. Love it. You just need to let it shine though.

I’ve heard that lots of agents are sick of queries opening with ‘what if?’ You might consider changing your opening.

I’m also verrrrryy interested in Thonatos, and would like to hear more about that.

Best of luck!

-Savannah J. Foley

 

My comments are below in blue!

Dear Agent,

What if the daughter of prominent officials was a changeling? There’s a lot of advice against starting with rhetorical questions. It seems to be a turn off for some agents, so I’m not sure about opening like this. In my young adult fantasy novel, MARK OF THORN, Willow Coulter fears her special ability What special ability? I’m in agreement with Sav that your query, while composed of interesting elements, left me feeling confused. I think you need to be up front about this ability, otherwise the query loses the added tension it could receive. If we don’t know what it is, here (although you explain it later), you can’t explain to us why she fears it being discovered,—one she’s been keeping secret—will be discovered. The strange mark on her arm tells her nothing of her true origin. Her parents are Hunters, those who murder suspected sorcerers for a living.   She escapes the world of the wealthy and petty to face the identity she’s been suppressing for the sixteen years of her life.

Crippled by her ability to see the past and the future, Willow encounters a gang of runaway sorcerers, teenagers with abilities like her, who aim to start a rebellion I don’t understand why they’re rebelling, or what they’re rebelling against. When this query first started, I was leaning towards a more urban kind of fantasy. I think you need to work in some world building from the start (not much, just a sentence or two and then head into the plot. Perhaps give Willow’s motivations – ie the problems with the government, the three rival nations – for getting away from her parents, and then tellus what happens after that). One of the members doesn’t trust her, a boy who her feelings are growing for Make it more personal! This is all really interesting, but it feels kind of bland. I want to know this guy’s name, at the very least, and what sparks her feelings for him would be good, too. Basically, I’d like to get a sense of his character.. As the revolution unravels You haven’t set up the revolution actually happening, yet, so this threw me for a second, Willow must rescue her birth mother from Thanatos, the lands of imprisonment this plot thread comes from out of nowhere and it feels like it might be the main conflict. Could you maybe hint at her mother being imprisoned earlier? Lands of imprisonment sounds great, though. Is that where the Hades and Persephone bit comes in? Is this like the Underworld? Sounds fantastic!., before all of her memories are wiped. Torn between her upbringing and the insurgent sorcerers, she embarks on a journey that opens her eyes to the role she plays in the Queen’s scheme for supremacy We also haven’t heard anything about a Queen. This all sounds super interesting, but perhaps  give us more, and earlier so that we really understand the context and significance of it. Three rivaling countries which countries. I feel like these conflicts need to be established better compete in a battle for domination, one she must stop. Or else what….The stakes could be a little bit more tense if you added that detail.

MARK OF THORN is a 59,000-word gripping don’t call your own novel gripping, it can sometimes appear as bragging. Instead, make the query so gripping that everyone just assumes your novel is equally so :) novel that alludes to the tale of Hades and Persephone, apocalyptic myths, and Western European folklore All these things are awesome and I think it’s wonderful that you incorporated them in your story. My completed manuscript is available at your request.

Overall, I just wasn’t getting a clear sense of what the central conflict was, here. Was it the rebellion, or the quest to get her mother, or the three nations battling for domination. Which of these is the focus for your novel, and which are the backdrop elements? You just need to establish that, and clarify all areas of your query.

In addition, I’d really like to see more of what your protagonist actually does, the way that she operates within and effects the plot.For instance, you tell us that she escapes from her wealthy life, but how does she escape? What does she do to rescue her mother? How, exactly, does she have to oppose the principles instilled in her during her childhood? (I like your internal conflict, by the way. It seems really great).

This is a great concept! Best of luck :)

-Vahini Naidoo

~~~

Query Critique 9: Vestige

10 Feb

Dear Dream Agent,

(Paragraph about why I am contacting this particular agent eg blog, interview, etc)

Tess Garibaldi is a flight attendant turned Indiana Jones in high heels. Her past collides with the present when she discovers she’s a Vestige–a reincarnated soul sent to protect civilizations. Haunted by the failure in a past life to save her Incan soul mate and his people, Tess sets out to destroy the Trinity Necklace, an Incan artifact that causes death by incurable disease.

To end the destructive powers of the relic forever, Tess must find and stop the enemy from her past and present lives and reunite with her reincarnated Incan lover. With a handsome anthropologist and dodgy ex-husband as the only candidates for mate or foe, Tess must choose wisely. Given her history of disastrous relationship decisions, choosing between the men she loves won’t be easy. But if she doesn’t get it right, Tess will not only lose her soul mate forever, the wrong choice could set off a chain of destruction.

VESTIGE is an 83,000 word romantic adventure manuscript with mythical elements as evoked by Jessica Andersen’s Final Prophecy series, and ancient historical romance reminiscent of Michelle Moran.

I have worked as a mountain guide in Argentina and tour leader in Peru, specializing in Incan history. I am a member of RWA, Australian Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime. I am on the committee organizing the 2011 RWA Australia conference and I write a regular blog on the Novel Adventurers. Currently I am working on a novel set in Argentina.

As per the guidelines of your agency, I have (attached or pasted, whatever the agency guidelines are). Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Alli Sinclair

~~~

First of all, I think your story sounds great! I love a good adventure, and I love a strong woman who can fight in heels. There aren’t enough of those stories, if you ask me.

My first suggestion would be to move your first paragraph (the one about why you’re contacting the agent) to the end. It’s not wrong to leave it where it is, but I think the query would read stronger if you just jumped right in.

I’m a little confused, though. There are a lot of characters hinted at in your query, only one of which is given a name. Tess. Is the man she’s trying to save separate from the handsome anthropologist and her ex-husband? And who is this enemy from her past and present lives? I would suggest focusing the query on Tess and the man she’s supposed to end up with, whomever that may be. It’s important for the reader to identify with the main couple in a romance, so make sure you mention his name in the query.

I like your ‘about me’ paragraph. It shows that you have personal experience dealing with the things mentioned in your book, and it never hurts to be a member of RWA or a similar organization. I would, however, suggest you cut the mention of your current project; you’re trying to sell VESTIGE, not what comes next. Also, in the previous paragraph, you can just say it’s an 83,000 word romantic adventure — the mention of ‘manuscript’ isn’t necessary since the agent already knows that’s what you’re querying.

Overall, nice job! Good luck!

~~~

Notes in blue!

Dear Dream Agent,

(Paragraph about why I am contacting this particular agent eg blog, interview, etc)

Tess Garibaldi is a flight attendant turned Indiana Jones in high heels Love it!. Her past collides with the present when she discovers she’s a Vestige–a reincarnated soul sent to protect civilizations. Haunted by the failure in a past life to save her Incan soul mate and his people, Tess haunted how? does she have flashbacks? nightmares? or is “haunted” used more metaphorically and she just knows about this and thinks about it? sets out to destroy the Trinity Necklace, an Incan artifact that causes death by incurable disease Any specific one? Or does it just cause people to develop a random incurable disease? If the former, even if it’s a made up disease, if there are any unique symptoms (people are turning purple! oh no! :P), then mentioning it might help us get a more visual/tactile feel on the story .

To end the destructive powers of the relic forever, Tess must find and stop the enemy is this enemy a man? a malevolent spirit? from her past and present lives and reunite with her reincarnated Incan lover how does reuniting with her lover stop the relic?. With a handsome anthropologist and dodgy ex-husband as the only candidates for mate or foe, Tess must choose wisely Wait, so one is the enemy and the other is her reincarnated love? Do the men know which is which?. Given her history of disastrous relationship decisions, choosing between the men she loves won’t be easy. But if she doesn’t get it right, Tess will not only lose her soul mate forever, the wrong choice could set off a chain of destruction Bit confused as to how, but if the reason for this is really complicated and long, you might be right in leaving it out.

VESTIGE is an 83,000 word romantic adventure manuscript with mythical elements as evoked by Jessica Andersen’s Final Prophecy series, and ancient historical romance reminiscent of Michelle Moran.

I have worked as a mountain guide in Argentina and tour leader in Peru, specializing in Incan history. I am a member of RWA, Australian Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime. I am on the committee organizing the 2011 RWA Australia conference and I write a regular blog on the Novel Adventurers. Currently I am working on a novel set in Argentina.

As per the guidelines of your agency, I have (attached or pasted, whatever the agency guidelines are). Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Alli Sinclair

Overall, I thought this was great :)

–Kat Zhang


Query Critique 8: We Were Broken

9 Feb

Dear Agent:

I am writing to inquire if you would be interested in my contemporary romance novel, WE WERE BROKEN, due to your stated interest in the romance genre (that line will change according to the agent’s sales and whatnot– I’ll always try to mention a book they’ve sold recently). A brief overview follows:

Twenty-one year old Grace Blanchett just wants to forget about the night she found her fiancé sleeping with her best friend.

So when Grace meets Summer at a coffee shop and learns that the girl has recently become homeless, she offers her the spare bedroom in her apartment. Because Grace needs someone, anyone, who’ll help ease the loneliness that’s crept in since she cut off her old life. An unlikely friendship grows between the two girls. They may be from very different walks of life—Grace from a privileged background, Summer the product of a broken home—but they need each other.

Their new friendship is put to the test when Summer discovers that she’s pregnant. Terrified of following in her estranged mother’s footsteps, she needs Grace’s support more than ever. Summer’s half-brother, River, does all he can to help, but his presence only complicates matters when Grace starts falling for him—even though he’s already seeing another girl. Grace has a decision to make—one that will challenge all that she stands for: should she follow her heart and become the other woman, or once again sever all ties—this time with River—and risk losing Summer in the process.

Written in the third person narratives of the two female protagonists (Grace and Summer), WE WERE BROKEN is complete at 75,000 words.

My passion for literature led me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English from Hull University. Also, I passed a Starting Writing Fiction course with the Open University. (Please note this query is a multiple submission. I would be happy to send you my completed manuscript.)

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Laura E. Wardle

~~~

I’m not usually one for contemporary romances, but I really liked this concept (and the title).

Firstly, I think 21 might be too young for your MC’s. Not because 21 is too young to be engaged (I was engaged at 20), but because in the genre I think characters tend to be a little older. Not really a huge deal though; if they’re out of college it would be easy to just up the age if an agent felt like you needed it.

Your opening sentence is great. Already we have tension, and can immediately sympathize with the main character, and we’re not even reading the book yet! I think the transition to the second paragraph is weak though. You say ‘So’, but there’s nothing linking the opening with the action. You might need to add in a sentence about how after losing her fiance and BFF she’s desperately lonely and just wants to move on with her life. SO, when Grace meets Summer…

Second sentence in the second paragraph opens weak, too, in my opinion. Try not to start sentences with Because. If you cut the ‘because’, you could actually move the second sentence and make it the first and fix the problem I was just talking about.

The rest is pretty clean, but I have read a few agents saying they have a problem with the MC deciding to become the ‘other woman’… I don’t know how your ms reads, but in the query you make it sound as if she has the option to have a continuous affair with River, which automatically makes him a scumbag and shows that she has self-esteem low enough to not see this in him. Something to consider.

Best of luck!

-Savannah J. Foley

~~~

Laura! I’m so glad you sent us your query. I’ve been interested in hearing about your book for a while, and having read your letter, am really excited about it!

I think Savannah’s right, though. 21 seems kind of young for a romance. Because fiction is still pretty segregated, 21 falls into that black hole known as “the college years,” and therefore isn’t very prominent in contemporary stories. If it wouldn’t change the feel of your manuscript, I’d maybe change the ages to 25 or 26. That way they’re still young professionals, but far enough removed from that taboo-esque age of 21.

Also, Susan mentioned this last week: A romance novel is a very specific genre in which the heroine and the hero are main characters — the story is from both POVs. Because you mention that your story is told from Summer and Grace’s points of view, it makes me wonder how to actually classify it. From the query, it sounds less like a romance and more like commercial fiction with a little bit of love thrown in. Just something to consider when pitching it.

Savannah covered everything else I was going to say! Except, you don’t need to put that last bit about multiple submissions in parentheses. Other than that, good job!

Query Critique 5: Glory or Death

4 Feb

Welcome to Query Week! Every day, this week and next, we’ll be publicly critiquing the queries you guys were awesome enough to send us last week. If we don’t publicly post yours, don’t worry, we’ll still email you our thoughts :)

See the bottom of our posts for great resources about queries, and use the tag ‘query week’ to see Query Weeks of the past.

~~~

Dear Agent,

The gods who created Ayla to compete in the Fourteenth Akkadian War request her presence when she turns sixteen. What a way to celebrate a birthday.

The month-long War serves to nourish the four-thousand-year-old hatred between mageians and therians. Bad blood forces the two species to live in separate underground cities—except for a handful of people like Ayla. She grew up with therians, including her best friend and childhood crush, Loran. But the war requires her to travel half-way around the world to train with other mageians, away from Loran.

Ayla would much rather train with him than the sweaty, blood-thirsty mageian boy she expects to be her training partner. She doesn’t get what she imagined; she gets Zalyn. He wants her as much as he wants to win and she likes flirting with him almost as much as she likes training with him. Ayla enjoys their friendly rivalry, forgetting the competition is a war—a death match.

The mageian and therian competitors meet for the first time on separate sides of the arena. Loran stands on the therian side. Ayla always knew he’d been created to compete just like everyone else, but seeing him on the other side is a lot harder than she thought. She doesn’t want to play the game if she has to lose everyone she loves to win.

GLORY OR DEATH is a 90,000-word young adult fantasy novel with series potential. This is my first novel.

Thanks for your time and consideration,

-Jessica Lei

~~~

Today we have a special “guest critique” from literary agent Natalie Fischer!  Here’s Natalie’s critique:

The idea of a gladiator-fantasy YA intrigues me a lot; unfortunately, the concept is buried beneath a rather confusing query.

My first thought when I dove into the first sentence was…huh? It assumes knowledge A) that the gods create beings for some purpose which might apparently be B) the Akkadian War, but I don’t know what Akkadia is or why there are fourteen wars (though that is definitely interesting!). It sounds incredibly fantasy-ish, but I was thrown off by the tone in the second sentence – it seems almost out of place for the fantasy I was set up for, more like a contemporary snarky teen voice.

The next paragraph explains what the wars are about, but I just end up wondering why in the world these species (so they aren’t human?) want to nourish hatred, and why people like Ayla get to live above-ground. Didn’t the previous sentence just say that the two species – which includes the therians – have to live underground? Then how does it make sense that Ayla grew UP with the therians, and yet she lives above-ground? And why is she training with mageians if she grew up with therians, the hated other species?

Ok. Let’s back up. Clearly, there is too much assumed knowledge and plot confusion in this query. I think it’s a matter of not keeping it simple enough. I would try something like: “Sixteen-year-old Ayla was created solely for the purpose of competing in the Wars – a death match between a chosen therian gladiator and a mageian one. For centuries these two species have used humans as their play-things to compete; but Ayla isn’t interested in playing games. Not when she’ll be competing against the only family she’s ever had – and the only boy she’s ever loved.”

Obviously, that may not work – I don’t know if the two “species” aren’t human, etc., but hopefully it illustrates that I’d just like to see this as grounded in OUR reality as possible – in any fantasy query, use terms and situations I’m familiar with, or explain ones I’m not, to avoid confusion.

~~~

As always, notes in blue!

–Kat Zhang

Dear Agent,

The gods who created Ayla to compete in the Fourteenth Akkadian War request her presence when she turns sixteen. What a way to celebrate a birthday. Love a snappy beginning, though the first sentence is a tad weak syntax-wise. Try making Ayla the subject. Also, you might want to be a little more clear about the “created by the gods” part. I’m not too clear on that. Is that normal in this world or no?

The month-long War serves to nourish the four-thousand-year-old hatred between mageians and therians What’s the difference between the two? Are they human? Humanoid? When you say “two species,” my mind starts jumping to wild possibilities, lol. Bad blood forces the two species to live in separate underground cities—except for a handful of people like Ayla. She grew up with therians, including her best friend and childhood crush, Loran. But the war requires her to travel half-way around the world to train with other mageians, away from Loran Could be slightly more clear about the reason. Is she supposed to be learning their secrets or something? Do they know she’s a therian? IS she a therian?.

Ayla would much rather train with him than the sweaty, blood-thirsty mageian boy she expects to be her training partner. She doesn’t get what she imagined; she gets Zalyn. He wants her as much as he wants to win and she likes flirting with him almost as much as she likes training with him. Cute :P Ayla enjoys their friendly rivalry, forgetting the competition is a war—a death match.

The mageian and therian competitors meet for the first time on separate sides of the arena. Loran stands on the therian side. Ayla always knew he’d been created to compete just like everyone else, but seeing him on the other side is a lot harder than she thought. She doesn’t want to play the game if she has to lose everyone she loves to win. Nice paragraph

GLORY OR DEATH is a 90,000-word young adult fantasy novel with series potential. This is my first novel.

No need to say it’s your first novel. I’d like a tiny bit more backstory on the war–like one sentence. Also, the difference between the two species (and whether they look human!). Also, what does the war entail? At first I figured like a normal war. But then you call it a competition and a game. So is this war not what we’d normall consider a war? If so, what is it like?

Oh, and you never mention those gods again. What part do they play in this war? Is it really their war and the “people” are just pawns?

Otherwise, good job overall with the query!

~~~

Helpful Links

Queries and Cover Letters, from the Elaine P. English literary agency blog

Query Letter Mad Lib, from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog

How to Format a Query Letter, also from Nathan Bransford’s blog

Query Shark, where literary agent Janet Reid tears apart your queries and puts them back together

AgentQuery gives their advice on what makes up a good query letter

A Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, a good article from Science Fiction Writers of America

 

Query Critique 4: Anastasia

3 Feb

Welcome to Query Week! Every day, this week and next, we’ll be publicly critiquing the queries you guys were awesome enough to send us last week. If we don’t publicly post yours, don’t worry, we’ll still email you our thoughts :)

See the bottom of our posts for great resources about queries, and use the tag ‘query week’ to see Query Weeks of the past.

~~~

Dear Agent:

It has come to my attention that you have an interest in the epic fantasy genre and young adult fiction, particularly featuring strong heroines. As such, I would like to propose my 86,000 YA novel, ANASTASIA.

It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it. When the capital city’s palace is attacked by stone behemoths aflame the night of her Seventeen Ball, Princess Anya Bourdon is forced to flee for her life as her home burns to ashes, clinging to her father’s cryptic last words and the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage.

The empty throne draws the eyes of neighboring monarchs: Sir Orlando de Luc and Lady Victoria Sol, both of whom are eager to make their countries the new ruling force of the kingdom. But Lord Fallon, king of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court, is not to be ignored, and his eyes may rest on things far more important than seats of power…

Now, armed with nothing more than a mysterious and powerful dagger of unknown origin, and accompanied only by her silver steed Starlight and a curious wanderer determined to see her story through to the end, Anya must travel the far-reaching lands of a kingdom she’s never seen for herself; search for Dulcina, the nymph wood where the answers to her questions lie; and navigate through the magic and intrigue of three courts nearing war—all while attempting to discover the destiny that she was always meant for.

In the past, I have won county awards for my short stories and poetry, in addition to having been published in my school magazine. I am currently a student at Columbia University, majoring in Biology with a concentration in Creative Writing.

My novel is available in full upon request, and I have pasted a partial in the body of the email as per your submission guidelines.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope to soon hear of a response.

Sincerely,

Schneider Rancy

~~~

Today we have a special guest critique from Joanna Volpe, an agent with Nancy Coffey Literary and Media! (Her comments are in red!)

Dear Agent:

It has come to my attention that you have an interest in the epic fantasy genre and young adult fiction, particularly featuring strong heroines. As such, I would like to propose my 86,000 YA novel, ANASTASIA. To be honest, this title is misleading. Because of the Romanovs, unfortunately the name Anastasia is automatically equated with them and that specific time period. So if you’re going to name your book ANASTASIA, you’re either going to turn certain literary agents away who aren’t looking for that type of book, or disappoint other literary agents who are and think this is about that. I would consider changing the title, to avoid any issue with that.

It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it. What was her destiny? If you start off with a line like that, you better explain yourself rather quickly. In reading the rest of the query, I notice that you don’t ever explain what her destiny is, so this just comes off as more confusing than anything.

When the capital city’s palace is attacked by stone behemoths aflame (are the stone creatures actually on fire? Confusing way to say it.) the night of her Seventeen Ball, Princess Anya Bourdon is forced to flee for her life as her home burns to ashes, clinging to her father’s cryptic last words and the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage. Is she actually clinging to the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage? This sentence is very long. I had to reread it a few times and I’m still not sure I have it right. You’re throwing a lot of information at us all at once—too much. You need to break this up into 2-3 sentences and clarify yourself.

The empty throne draws the eyes of neighboring monarchs: Sir Orlando de Luc and Lady Victoria Sol, both of whom are eager to make their countries the new ruling force of the kingdom. But the king of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court, is not to be ignored, and his eyes may rest on things far more important than seats of power…Again, since you’re throwing so many names at us, I cut Lord Fallon’s name here since “the kind of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court” is intriguing enough. When pitch high fantasy, try to simplify when you can. A lot of these characters will come alive when we actually read about them, but before then you need to get us interested, and it’s difficult when it feels like so many things are going on that we don’t understand.

Now, armed with nothing more than a mysterious and powerful dagger of unknown origin, and accompanied only by her silver steed (same reason as above—don’t need the horse’s name here, it will make it less confusing) and a curious wanderer determined to see her story through to the end, Anya must travel the far-reaching lands of a kingdom she’s never seen for herself; search for (same reason as above) the nymph wood where the answers to her questions lie; and navigate through the magic and intrigue of three courts nearing war—all while attempting to discover the destiny that she was always meant for. OK. The sentence is a little long, but not too hard to follow. I like how you raise the stakes and lay out her quest.

I am currently a student at Columbia University, majoring in Biology with a concentration in Creative Writing.

ANASTASIA is my first novel and is available in full upon request. I have pasted the first __ pages below as per your submission guidelines.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. You want to avoid ending with lines like that—some agents can get a little prickly about you coming off too anxious. I think it’s safe to just always end with a “Thank you” and leave it at that.

Great query overall, though!

~~~

I really like the concept for this story. I’m a big fan of the Anastasia legend and I like how you included so many fantasy elements of it. Also, Carrion Court? Omg that sounds so badass. So, overall, if I were an agent I would request to read this story. However, I do feel there are a few things you could improve on.

First sentence: “It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it.” You never specifically say exactly what was her destiny, which means that I’m confused from the very beginning. Not so great. In your second sentence I’m not sure if you mean ‘aflame’ as a verb or an adjective, so you might want to clear that up.

At the end of the first paragraph, you’ve used the verb ‘cling to’ to describe not only her fathers last words, but her mother’s mysterious death and lineage. You can’t cling to a mysterious death and lineage. Maybe you could say she clings to the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage?

Are Sir Orlando and Lady Victoria in the same kingdom or different ones? I would like to hear more about Lord Fallon and why he can’t be ignored. Also if you could find a way to explain the Carrion Court that would be great.

Okay, personal preference but… is there any possible way you could name the horse something other than Starlight? I just feel it’s been done before (this coming from a girl who actually had a horse named Starlight once, lol).

Clear up those questions and you’ll be golden! Final notes: I wouldn’t mention your school magazine.

Hope to see your book in print one day!

-Savannah J. Foley

~~~

Hi, I agree with Sav that this is a really interesting concept! I’ve written my comments below in blue.

Dear Agent:

It has come to my attention that you have an interest in the epic fantasy genre and young adult fiction, particularly featuring strong heroines. As such, I would like to propose my 86,000 YA novel, ANASTASIA.

It was her destiny, what she was born to do—not that she’d always known it. This is a decent hook, but while it’s worded in a way that’s supposed to be intriguing, it’s too vague to pique the interest of the reader. In fact, it’s kind of confusing.
When the capital city’s palace is attacked by stone behemoths aflame the night of her Seventeen Ball, Princess Anya Bourdon is forced to flee for her life as her home burns to ashes, clinging to her father’s cryptic last words and the mystery of her mother’s death and lineage. This is a really cool idea, and very intriguing! But this sentence reads as a bit too long and I got lost in it.  Perhaps you could break this down into two more effective sentences?

The empty throne draws the eyes of neighboring monarchs This is also really interesting, but I was a bit thrown here, because this didn’t follow the conflict you’d set up in the first paragraph regarding Anya. It makes the query seem disjointed, as there’s no real segue into this part.: Sir Orlando de Luc and Lady Victoria Sol, both of whom are eager to make their countries the new ruling force of the kingdom. But Lord Fallon, king of the flesh-feasting Carrion Court, is not to be ignored, and his eyes may rest on things far more important than seats of power…You have all these really interesting elements (the Carrion Court sounds super creepy, but awesome!), but I just feel like you’re not pulling them together quite right, yet. Your query needs to flow, and the sentences in this paragraph are both reading a little bit disjointedly, to me. Perhaps you could tie the second sentence into the first by beginning “But Sir Orlando and Lady Victoria will have to vie with Lord Fallon….” (although I’m not quite sure exactly what you’re saying about Fallon? What more important things are his eyes resting upon? It’s vague enough to be confusing.

Now, armed with nothing more You can’t say ‘nothing more’ and then tell me the dagger’s both mysterious and powerful! That sounds like some awesome weaponry to me :) than a mysterious and powerful dagger of unknown origin ‘of unknown origin’ is kind of saying a similar thing to mysterious, and I’m wondering whether you should cut it to streamline. and accompanied only by her silver steed Starlight a curious wanderer  determined to see her story through to the end, Anya must travel the far-reaching lands of a kingdom she’s never seen for herself; search for Dulcina, the nymph wood where the answers to her questions lie This is quite confusing, because you haven’t yet set Anya up as having any questions; and navigate through the magic and intrigue of three courts nearing war —all while attempting to discover the destiny that she was always meant for.

In the past, I have won county awards for my short stories and poetry, in addition to having been published in my school magazine You should probably not mention the school magazine –I think I was tempted to put that into one of my first queries, too . I am currently a student at Columbia University, majoring in Biology with a concentration in Creative Writing.

My novel is available in full upon request, and I have pasted a partial in the body of the email as per your submission guidelines.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope to soon hear of a response.

Sincerely,

Schneider Rancy

Overall, I think you have some really intriguing elements here. But your query doesn’t have enough direction. In your first para, you do a fairly good job of setting up the catalyst for your protagonist’s quest, after that, I kind of lost the plot. I think you can cut your second paragraph without losing too much at the moment (it’s really cool, and I can see some parallels to the real Anastasia story,  but it seems more like subplot material).  Replace that second para with one telling us what Anya wants, following her parent’s death (and preferably a vague idea about where she flees to, at least). ) Once you’ve set up her motivation, get into the conflict – what’s stopping her from getting what she wants?

Your final paragraph should let the reader of your query know what the stakes are. What happens if Anya can’t overcome the problems presented by the conflict? What does she, and possibly this entire world, have to lose? I’d also like to see more of your character’s actions.

This novel sounds like a really cool dark adventure story. Best of luck with it!

- Vahini Naidoo

~~~

I, too, am really intrigued by your story! Anastasia is one of my favorite animated movies, and my childhood was spent obsessing over books about her and the Romanovs. I like that you took a well known story and gave it a fantastical twist. But as Savannah and Vee both mentioned, there are a few things you could do to make sure even non-Anastasia-loving agents pick up your book!

I mentioned this with one of the previous queries, but I would move that first paragraph about why you’re querying a particular agent to the end. There’s no hard or fast rule about where to put it, but I feel like it always does the query a disservice when you could otherwise jump right into the story, hooking the reader immediately. Personal preference, so feel free to ignore! Oh! And you forgot ‘word’ after you give the word count. Easy fix!

That being said, I think your query is too vague. As the others mentioned, we need to know what Anastasia’s destiny is so we realize she’s actually invested in something. Knowing what that is would help round out the plot line you’ve provided. You could easily trim the overall plot down to a paragraph or two, then have a third that covers more of Anastasia’s motivations and the journey she’s about to go through. Vee also mentioned that you want to cover more of your characters’ actions, and I agree. Try to fit that into the plot paragraphs and you’ll be golden.

Also agreeing with the other ladies: take out the part about being published in your high school magazine. Having short stories and poems published sounds more credible, as well as the creative writing concentration. Maybe it’s just me, but your opening and closing sound almost too formal (ie: ‘It has come to my attention’ and ‘I hope to soon hear of a response’). It’s always nice to thank the agent for taking the time to read your query, however, so nice job there.

Overall, I think you just need to clear up some of the vagueness and you’ll be good to go. Good luck!

~~~

Helpful Links

Queries and Cover Letters, from the Elaine P. English literary agency blog

Query Letter Mad Lib, from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog

How to Format a Query Letter, also from Nathan Bransford’s blog

Query Shark, where literary agent Janet Reid tears apart your queries and puts them back together

AgentQuery gives their advice on what makes up a good query letter

A Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, a good article from Science Fiction Writers of America

Query Critique 3: A Steady Wish

2 Feb

Welcome to Query Week! Every day, this week and next, we’ll be publicly critiquing the queries you guys were awesome enough to send us last week. If we don’t publicly post yours, don’t worry, we’ll still email you our thoughts :)

See the bottom of our posts for great resources about queries, and use the tag ‘query week’ to see Query Weeks of the past.

~~~

Dear LTWF Bloggers,

The night of their college graduation, Maggie McGregor broke Will Buchanan’s heart. She thought she was doing what was best for both of them. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Neither of them needed to be tied down by the expectations of someone else. They deserved a chance to live their dreams, not compromise them for the sake of each other.

Maggie McGregor is a strong, intelligent college student with her future all planned out when she meets Will Buchanan. He’s everything she’s ever wanted in a man; he’s handsome, funny, considerate, and he’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her. In the safe, uncomplicated world of college, they thought happily-ever-after would be easy. But when faced with the real world, Maggie chooses to go her own way rather than changing her plans for Will. She has spent the past four years studying at Oxford and working to become a successful novelist. Now that she’s succeeded, it’s time to head home and face her past, specifically the man she rejected to pursue her dreams. But can Maggie find her way back to Will Buchanan or has too much time passed for either of them to return to how they used to be?

A modern day tale, A STEADY WISH tells the story of Maggie and Will and their journey back to each other. An adult Maggie’s memories provide the history of her relationship with Will as she moves closer to being able to embrace an adult life with the man she loves. With the help of her friends and family, Maggie realizes that she doesn’t have to compromise her dreams to be with the man she loves.

This romance novel is complete at approximately 90,000 words. A STEADY WISH is a book not only about the love between Maggie and Will, but the problems facing many graduating college students and young professionals today: should I plan my life around someone else? How do I know what will and won’t work out? Am I ready to live with that regret?

I am a senior English major, feminist studies and religion minor, at Southwestern University, a small liberal arts university in Texas. I wrote A STEADY WISH over the course of three semesters, while maintaining a 3.5 GPA. Other than a few articles in my school newspaper, I am unpublished. I also have a weekly blog,  tmlunsford.blogspot.com. With A STEADY WISH complete, I am currently writing my next novel, a Regency romance.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Taylor Lunsford

~~~

Sounds like a very romantic story!  Overall, though, I feel like you would benefit from some lessons/articles/books on query-writing.  I say this because 1) this letter doesn’t follow the expected query formula, and 2) you are committing some “no-nos” that are well-known and easy to avoid.

I’m sure these problems are simply problems with the query (and not with your novel).  Therefore, we want to make sure your query doesn’t reflect poorly on your novel!  Queries are HARD to write!  I spent months and months and months honing mine, so don’t despair if it takes a while. :)

One rough area I noticed was in the pitch (or story summary).  It seemed like there was a great deal of “telling” rather than “showing”.  Saying Maggie is strong and intelligent isn’t as helpful as showing it.  An example of showing Maggie’s character would be: “The day she graduated from Oxford, Maggie put her love life on hold to pursue her career as a novelist.”  This shows she’s tough (she’s choosing work over love!) and smart (she graduated from Oxford!) and hints at the conflict (love life!).

I felt like another mistake was “set-up” — the query seems to be filled entirely with what happened in the past.  I realize that some of the story is told in memories, but keep in mind that the actual story is what happens in present day.  What the reader cares about (and where the most tension/conflict exists) is in what is yet to come (the possible rekindling of Maggie’s and Will’s romance is the novel’s plot).  Therefore, your query needs to be set in the present.  You need to show where Maggie is NOW, what Maggie wants NOW, and what is standing in her way NOW.  You then have to show where Will is NOW, what Will wants NOW, and what stands in Will’s way.

Finally, I felt like the query failed to show what’s at stake or why a reader should care.  All I know is that Maggie and Will used to be together, but I don’t know why I want them to get back together.  I don’t know why they are once again in each other’s presence for a possible rekindling.  I don’t know what horrible thing will happen if they don’t get back together — like, why does it matter if they stay apart?

Essentially, because I don’t know Maggie’s GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict) or Will’s GMC, I can’t tell what’s at stake.  Without knowing the stakes, there’s no tension in the story.  And without tension in the story, there’s no enticement to find out what will happen to the characters.

I highly suggest reading the Query Shark (http://queryshark.blogspot.com) to learn the query mistakes to avoid.  To get a feel for the necessary query formula, I’ll direct you to my own link (where I lay it all out): http://susandennard.com/2010/11/29/how-i-got-my-agent-part-1-the-prep/.  Hope this helps, and best of luck!

On a side note: You probably know this, but I want to make sure! :)  A romance novel is a very specific genre in which the heroine and the hero are main characters — the story is from both POVs.  From your query, this does not sound like a romance novel since all we hear about is Maggie’s POV, and you specifically say, “An adult Maggie’s memories provide the history of her relationship with Will as she moves closer to being able to embrace an adult life with the man she loves.”  If this IS a romance novel, then you need to offer both POVs in the query.  So far, this sounds like it’s only Maggie’s story.  Be sure to also show what happens in Will’s half of the story.

~~~

Hey Taylor,

I’m a big fan of romance, and I really like your concept.  Looking back and wondering what you could (should?) have done differently is a very common human experience and should have broad appeal.

My biggest problem with your query is that it rambles, repeats itself, and (as Susan said,) tells us less about the action of the story than about the set up.  It could use a lot of tightening.  I’ve marked it up below so you can see what I’m talking about:

Dear LTWF Bloggers,

The night of their college graduation, Maggie McGregor broke Will Buchanan’s heart. She thought she was doing what was best for both of them. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Neither of them needed to be tied down by the expectations of someone else. They deserved a chance to live their dreams, not compromise them for the sake of each other. (I’m not sure you need any of this, since you say it again in the next paragraph.)

Maggie McGregor is a strong, intelligent college student with her future all planned out when she meets Will Buchanan. He’s everything she’s ever wanted in a man; he’s handsome, funny, considerate, and he’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her. (This first sentence is in present tense, but the rest of your query is in past.) In the safe, uncomplicated world of college, they thought happily-ever-after would be easy. But when faced with the real world, Maggie chooses to go her own way rather than changing her plans for Will. (Slipped back into present tense again.) She has spent the past four years studying at Oxford and working to become a successful novelist. Now that she’s succeeded, it’s time to head home and face her past, specifically the man she rejected to pursue her dreams. (I found this part very confusing.  You say she’s spent the past four years studying at Oxford and working to become a successful novelist.  I assumed this meant she was already successful at the time she graduated.  So when you say “now that she’s succeeded,” I thought you meant immediately after graduation, so I assumed she was returning to some man she rejected in order to go off to Oxford.  I think you need to clarify the amount of time that’s gone by since they graduated.) But can Maggie find her way back to Will Buchanan or has too much time passed for either of them to return to how they used to be?

A modern day tale, A STEADY WISH tells the story of Maggie and Will and their journey back to each other. An adult Maggie’s memories provide the history of her relationship with Will as she moves closer to being able to embrace an adult life with the man she loves. With the help of her friends and family, Maggie realizes that she doesn’t have to compromise her dreams to be with the man she loves. (I wonder about the relevance of this last line.  Wouldn’t a realization like this have occurred before the opening of the novel, if the action of the story is her attempt to return to Will?)

This romance novel is complete at approximately 90,000 words. A STEADY WISH is a book not only about the love between Maggie and Will, but the problems facing many graduating college students and young professionals today: should I plan my life around someone else? How do I know what will and won’t work out? Am I ready to live with that regret?

I am a senior English major, feminist studies and religion minor, at Southwestern University, a small liberal arts university in Texas. I wrote A STEADY WISH over the course of three semesters, while maintaining a 3.5 GPA. Other than a few articles in my school newspaper, I am unpublished. I also have a weekly blog,  tmlunsford.blogspot.com. With A STEADY WISH complete, I am currently writing my next novel, a Regency romance.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Taylor Lunsford

My main suggestion, Taylor, would be to pare this down so it is a more concise reflection of what the story is.  If the story is about a successful woman returning to a lost love, I would start the query with that.  As it is now, I started out thinking the book was one thing, then decided it was another, then eventually settled on a third impression of what the book was.  I think some careful decisions about the essence of your story will help a lot.

I think your story has a lot of potential.  Like Susan said, make sure your query reflects the hard work you put into the novel.  Take your time, dive into some query-writing resources, and you will do great!  Best of luck!

~~~

Helpful Links

Queries and Cover Letters, from the Elaine P. English literary agency blog

Query Letter Mad Lib, from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog

How to Format a Query Letter, also from Nathan Bransford’s blog

Query Shark, where literary agent Janet Reid tears apart your queries and puts them back together

AgentQuery gives their advice on what makes up a good query letter

A Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, a good article from Science Fiction Writers of America

Query Critique 2: Letters to Oliver

1 Feb

Welcome to Query Week! Every day, this week and next, we’ll be publicly critiquing the queries you guys were awesome enough to send us last week. If we don’t publicly post yours, don’t worry, we’ll still email you our thoughts :)

See the bottom of our posts for great resources about queries, and use the tag ‘query week’ to see Query Weeks of the past.

~~~

Dear LTWF:

When Emily Bell is taken from school into London society, she is miserable. Leaving behind her life of books and magic to please her disapproving Mamma also means leaving charming Oliver Wycliffe, a boy she has known for some time and has come to love. She tries to hide her misery along with her magic, writing only portions of the truth to her best friend and her sister. It is only in her unsent letters to Oliver that she feels she can truly be herself, a self she is rapidly losing amidst the London fog.

Emily is jolted out of that fog when Oliver is turned into a white rabbit and disappears, and an untrustworthy magician by the name of Mr. Stanton asks for her assistance with a spell. She discovers that her spell is to be used for dark purposes, and she is the only one who can stop him. Desperate to find Oliver before she loses her love to a cat, and feeling guilty for her rash decision to help Mr. Stanton, Emily must disobey her mother and use her magic. But it also means leaving the safety of her books and risking everything – and Emily’s newfound strength might not be up to the task.

LETTERS TO OLIVER is a YA historical fantasy in epistolary form, complete at 60,000 words, which I hope will appeal to fans of A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY and SORCERY & CECELIA.

I am also working on another YA novel which involves the French Revolution and werewolves.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Caitlin R. O’Connell

~~~

Oooh, I love the premise behind this!  Sorcery & Celia was one of my favorites growing up!

Overall, I think this is good, but I feel like I need to understand the basics of the world for the query to make sense.  Magic…is illegal?  I mean, why does her Mama want her to stop?  What kind of magic is it — wands, pentagrams, or incantations?

I think, to include this necessary information, you’ll need to also tighten your paragraphs (otherwise the query will be running too long).  But tightening will also give you smoother flow and more snap!

For example, paragraph 1 can be condensed to:

“After her mother drags her into London society, Emily Bell is miserable.  She had to leave behind her books and her magic, and worst of all, she had to leave her love — the charming Oliver Wycliffe.

<insert world information, like: The year is ___, and magic is common enough for gypsies and street vendors, but it is absolutely inappropriate for a lady of high society.  And though Emma tries to ignore the magic itching in her fingertips and the aching in her heart, she finds she is rapidly losing herself in the dreary London fog and social demands.>”

Now, with regards to my confusion over the story, when you say, “Emily is jolted out of that fog when Oliver is turned into a white rabbit and disappears, and an untrustworthy magician by the name of Mr. Stanton“, I feel like I need to know WHY Oliver got turned into a rabbit and WHO Mr. Stanton is — why would Emily trust an untrustworthy magician?

Next, you say, “She discovers that her spell is to be used for dark purposes, and she is the only one who can stop him.”  Specifics would be helpful here: what sort of spell and what are the dark purposes?  Without specifics, I don’t know what’s at stake or why I should care. :)  What Emily considers dark may not be what I consider dark!  Also, why is Emily the only one who can stop him?

When you say, “Emily must disobey her mother and use her magic“, I got confused because hasn’t she already disobeyed her mother? Didn’t she use magic if she was helping Mr. Stanton?

At the end of the pitch, you say, “But it also means leaving the safety of her books and risking everything – and Emily’s newfound strength might not be up to the task.”  I thought she already left behind her books when she moved to London, no? Also, I don’t think you mentioned Emily developing a strength during the story — so I don’t think you can talk about her “new-found strength”.  I think you can just say, “Emily might not be up to the task.” Then we know she has to build strength or fail. :)

Finally, you mention the book you’re working on right now.  Normally, this should not be mentioned.  Unless an agent specifically asks to hear about your other novels (and some do!), then I wouldn’t waste your precious page space mentioning it. :)

Good luck with this, and please let us know how your querying goes!

~~~

I have to agree with Susan — this story sounds awesome! I’m such a sucker for history and magic, so combining them is even better! Kudos on an awesome premise!

Overall, your query is good; if you sent it out now, you’d probably get a few nibbles. But as Susan mentioned, tightening up the paragraphs you have, in order to include more relevant information, is key. The thing with queries is that you have to make the stakes high. Right now my interest is piqued, but I don’t feel any urgency, you know? You did a good job in picking three characters to name in your query, but I want to know more about Oliver, and I want to know more about Mr. Stanton. What makes Oliver worth fighting for? And why has he been turned into a rabbit? Is he hiding a secret as well? If he is, mention it! Up the ante. As for Mr. Stanton, what is he up to and why? As Susan mentioned, why is Emily the only one capable of stopping him?

I was also a little confused by this line: “Desperate to find Oliver before she loses her love to a cat…” Are you referring to Mr. Stanton or an actual cat? Since Oliver’s been turned into a rabbit, it’s possible that this cat could be someone else entirely. Never leave room for ambiguity when it comes to things like this.

Also, don’t forget to include a sentence or two about why you’re querying this particular agent. It lets them know you did your research, and you’d be surprised how far that can get you.

Good luck!

~~~

Again, like yesterday, my notes are in blue! :D

Dear LTWF:

When Emily Bell is taken from school into London society, she is No need to cut out contractions in a query. In fact, unless you’re going for a rather formal air (which could be what you’re going for since this is historical), I’d say use those contractions. I think they make your writing seem less formal and stuffy–more inviting miserable. Leaving behind her life of books and magic why’s she leaving behind her magic? Did she go to a magic school? to please her disapproving Mamma also means leaving charming Oliver Wycliffe, a boy she has known for some time and has come to love “has known for some time and has come to love” doesn’t seem strong enough for me. Emily is miserable. Her feelings are strong. Try to infuse some of her voice into this. How does she feel about leaving Oliver behind? What will she miss about him? “Charming” is rather vague. There’s nothing wrong with it, but imagine how much character and voice you could add if you were a bit  more specific. She tries to hide her misery along with her magic, writing only portions of the truth to her best friend and her sister. It is only in her unsent letters to Oliver that she feels she can truly be herself, a self she is rapidly losing amidst the London fog. I like that imagery!

Emily is jolted out of that fog when Oliver is turned into a white rabbit and disappears, and an untrustworthy magician by the name of Mr. Stanton asks for her assistance with a spell Are these two related? If so, may want make the connection clearer. She discovers that her spell is to be used for dark purposes bit vague, and she is the only one who can stop him. Desperate to find Oliver before she loses her love to a cat, no need for this comma and feeling guilty for about her rash decision to help Mr. Stanton, Emily must disobey her mother and use her magic. But it also means leaving the safety of her books and risking everything – and Emily’s newfound strength might not be up to the task.

LETTERS TO OLIVER is a YA historical fantasy in epistolary form, complete at 60,000 words, which I hope will appeal to fans of A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY and SORCERY & CECELIA.

Overall, sounds like a great read :) I think you need to make the main conflict a little more clear, though. Mr. Stanton sounds like the Big Bad, but I need to know more about what he’s up to. “Dark purposes” just doesn’t cut it :P What are the stakes if Emily fails to stop him? How is all this related to Oliver?

I am also working on another YA novel which involves the French Revolution and werewolves.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Caitlin R. O’Connell

~~~

Helpful Links

Queries and Cover Letters, from the Elaine P. English literary agency blog

Query Letter Mad Lib, from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog

How to Format a Query Letter, also from Nathan Bransford’s blog

Query Shark, where literary agent Janet Reid tears apart your queries and puts them back together

AgentQuery gives their advice on what makes up a good query letter

A Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, a good article from Science Fiction Writers of America

Query Critique 1: The Recruited

31 Jan

Welcome to Query Week! Every day, this week and next, we’ll be publicly critiquing the queries you guys were awesome enough to send us last week. If we don’t publicly post yours, don’t worry, we’ll still email you our thoughts :)

See the bottom of our posts for great resources about queries, and use the tag ‘query week’ to see Query Weeks of the past.

~~~

Dear Agent,

Naomi Williams has been in juvenile prison for three years, when she receives a mysterious visitor who reveals a secret about her murder conviction.  The boy she killed was the son of an important terrorist leader, and as a result of his death, the terrorists are seeking hers.

Her last hope lies with her visitor, who persuades her to join the top secret government agency to which he belongs.  Put through training to fight back against the terrorists, Naomi knows she is expected to be a weapon; one who will live or die by the skills she’s learned and not let anyone get in her way.

James Knox is already a weapon, his fighting skills born from his years as a member of a notorious street gang.  He’s already lost the people most important to him, and doesn’t spend much time worrying about where his current lifestyle will land him.

When an assignment leads Naomi to save James’s life, all he knows is that he has to see her again.  Naomi, meanwhile, is torn between the lure of a real friendship and the need to keep her job under wraps.

As James becomes more aware of what Naomi’s life really entails, she must struggle to keep his existence a secret from the agency for which she works.  Because if the terrorists or the government discover what Naomi is hiding it could mean death—to both of them.

THE RECRUITED is my first novel, a YA complete at 95,000 words.  It is the first in a potential trilogy, but capable of standing on its own.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

-Anonymous

~~~

Overall, great job!  It sounds like an action-packed story, and I always love a good spy thriller.  The main issues for me were: 1) confusion, 2) an ambiguous villain and absence of what’s at stake, and 3) snappy writing.

1) I felt like the opening paragraph was a bit vague/convoluted — like it could carry more “oomph” if it were snappier. For example: “After three years in juvenile prison, Naomi Williams learns the boy she killed was the son of a terrorist — and now that terrorist wants her dead.

In the next paragraph, you say, “Her last hope”, but her last hope for what?  Survival? Escape from prison? Flawless skin? ;)

Then, this sentence — “Put through training to fight back against the terrorists, Naomi knows she is expected to be a weapon; one who will live or die by the skills she’s learned and not let anyone get in her way” — opened a few questions for me that I felt needed to be answered.  What skills does Naomi learn?  What is her goal?  What kind of terrorists are we dealing with?  Why does this government agency hire teenagers?

To avoid confusion in the third paragraph, I think you should describe James after we learn that Naomi met him on an assignment. I thought he was the mysterious visitor from paragraph 1, and it took me two paragraphs to realize he wasn’t!

Next, when you say “all [James] knows is that he has to see her again“, I wanted to know why he has to see her again. Did she steal his wallet?  Is he madly in love?

Finally, what is Naomi hiding?  You don’t need to tell us her secret, but at least hint or introduce that she has a secret sooner.  Like, was the secret that she killed the boy? Or is it something she learned at her new job?  Something about James?

2) Who are the bad guys?  “Terrorists” is kind of general, you know?  There are Irish terrorists, Afghan terrorists, American terrorists, skinheads, unibombers, etc.  What those people want is all different, as are their methods.  Who exactly is Naomi up against?  Whose son did she kill?  What BIG problem is Naomi trying to thwart — I assume it’s more than just saving her own skin since she works in an anti-terror agency.

Offering clear villain and stakes will really up the tension of the query and let the agent/editor want to read more — “Aaah!  What’s going to happen to X if Naomi doesn’t do Y?  Will Naomi be able to do Y?  I must read this novel!” :)

3) As for snappy writing, that’s something that will just take several drafts (oh, trust me on that!). :)  Cutting out words, tightening sentence structure, and having a query that rolls off the tongue is something that will require editing and tweaking.  Reading out loud will really help you hear how snappy the query is, and having other people read your query can help you find tricky wording.

Good luck!  I hope to hear good news in the future!

-Susan Dennard

~~~

Great feedback Susan! I would just like to add that I didn’t really get a YA feel for this… a character in prison for murder, training to be a military weapon, terrorist plots, street gangs… it felt like Naomi should be an adult. I think you should try to work more of your YA voice into this, starting with clarifying that she’s a teen from the beginning.

I would also like just a little background on the murder. Why did she kill him? A teen in prison for murder is very serious, and I would like a small indication of her personality and maybe socioeconomic background (if it was relevant to the murder) by learning details of the situation.

Lastly… why is Naomi hiding James from the government? Furthermore, why does she feel compelled to? I feel like your reason could give a great indication for her character, and probably link it around to YA again. I’m not familiar with your story, but maybe Naomi is lonely for company her own age, or feels like James really understands what it’s like to be a fighter, or she’s fallen deep in infatuation, etc.

Best of luck!

-Savannah J. Foley

~~~

Hey! I like to critique in-line, so I’ll just put my comments in blue below…

-Kat Zhang

Dear Agent,

Naomi Williams has been in juvenile prison for three years, no need for this comma! when she receives a mysterious visitor who reveals a secret about her murder conviction.  The boy she killed was the son of an important terrorist leader, and as a result of his death, the terrorists are seeking hers. I’m wondering why she killed this boy. You never say, and I feel like if we knew, it would give us a lot of insight into Naomi as a character. You don’t have to say a lot–just a sentence would do. Did she kill him in self defense? To protect a loved one? By accident? Or in cold blood?

Her last hope lies with her visitor, who persuades her to join the top secret government agency to which he belongs.  Put through training to fight back against the terrorists, Naomi knows she is expected to be a weapon; one who will live or die by the skills she’s learned and not let anyone get in her way.

James Knox is already a weapon, his fighting skills born from his years as a member of a notorious street gang.  He’s already lost the people most important to him, and doesn’t spend much time worrying about where his current lifestyle will land him. I think we could benefit from a line or two about these terrorists. What do they want? Why would James get involved? Right now, it’s all rather nebulous.

When an assignment leads Naomi to save James’s life, all he knows is that he has to see her again.  Naomi, meanwhile, is torn between the lure of a real friendship and the need to keep her job under wraps.

As James becomes more aware of what Naomi’s life really entails, she must struggle to keep his existence a secret from the agency for which she works.  Because if the terrorists or the government discover what Naomi is hiding, comma insert :) it could mean death—to both of them. Some of your sentences tend to be a little long and overly complicated. It takes away from the impact of the words–gives them less oomph. For example, this last paragraph could just read: “As James becomes more aware of Naomi’s life, she struggles to keep his existence secret from her agency. Because if either the terrorists or the government discovers what Naomi’s hiding, it would mean both their deaths.” Not a lot of changes, but it does pare things down a bit. Usually, the longer a sentence is, the less impact it has. And in a query, you want things to speed along, get as much impact in there as you can!

THE RECRUITED is my first novel, a YA complete at 95,000 words.  It is the first in a potential trilogy, but capable of standing on its own.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

-Anonymous

Over all, good job :)

~~~

This sounds like an exciting story! Your query just needs a bit more punch. The others have already given great feedback so I just thought I’d add a few things that jumped out at me. The query feels a bit long; most of the ones I’ve seen agents using as examples are quite short. Tightening up the wording would help with that. You want it to be a quick, easy read that makes the reader want more. Also, I’m going to second Sav and say that I don’t get enough of a feel for Naomi as a character. I would love to see more of her voice in this query, especially as it seems like it would be a major part of the book and important for making this a YA novel as opposed to an adult novel. Finally, I’m a bit unclear on the relationship between Naomi and James. Is it friendship, romantic, or do they want different things? It might help to make this clearer.

Good luck!

~~~

Helpful Links

Queries and Cover Letters, from the Elaine P. English literary agency blog

Query Letter Mad Lib, from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog

How to Format a Query Letter, also from Nathan Bransford’s blog

Query Shark, where literary agent Janet Reid tears apart your queries and puts them back together

AgentQuery gives their advice on what makes up a good query letter

A Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, a good article from Science Fiction Writers of America

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