Welcome to the first day of our 3-day-long Query Critique Week (say that five times fast)! We received a ton of queries, and even though we wish we could have chosen more, we were only able to pick 9 of them to critique. Let’s get started!
Query 1: Eduardo’s Parakeets
Ann Haibel, Holocaust chronicler Nathan Vogelmann’s editor, is stunned to learn Nathan may have had an affair with an Auschwitz guard.
Nathan collapsed when he heard one of Eduardo’s Parakeets warble a song in German. The song unlocks Nathan’s past as an undercover agent in Buenos Aires in 1944, and an affair with escaped guard, Edalina Haselbeck.
The parakeets are supposedly bred by the shadowy “Eduardo” in Bolivia, but only Edalina could have encoded the song. Ann can’t live with Nathan’s crime on her conscience, but she can’t expose him without knowing the truth. Nathan is in the ICU. Ann can’t press him.
Ornithologist Derek Sarastro’s futile searches for Eduardo have landed him in hock with a loan shark. He unscrambles the song and threatens to sell Nathan’s unsavory past to the tabloids. While Ann parries with Sarastro, Bolivian government official Hector Merino arrives.
This is 1991 and reunited Germany doesn’t want its Nazi past sullying its new image. Berlin warns La Paz it will withhold IMF funding if La Paz doesn’t bury all traces of Edalina. Merino knows Ann will keep quiet to protect Nathan, but he has to silence Sarastro.
Ann won’t countenance bloodshed, and she has to learn the truth behind Nathan and Edalina’s alleged affair. Merino either takes her and Sarastro to hear what Edalina has to say, or Ann blows the story apart–Nathan, Germany, and Bolivia be damned.
Merino apparently backs down. In Bolivia, they leave for the nesting grounds. Merino carries weapons.
¿Está usted interesado?
Gracias por usted tiempo y consideración.
The first sentence, while a bit abrupt, interested me a fair amount–I had the impression that this was a Holocaust tragic love story told through the lens of an editor’s research. However, the following paragraphs led me in a completely different direction from what I expected, and left me scratching my head. Is this a thriller? Suspense? The initial introduction of the parakeet felt out of left field, as does the mention of it being “Eduardo’s” parakeet—who is Eduardo? That question isn’t answered until the following paragraph. The entire query jumped around a bit—mentioning random people and events. By the end, I didn’t feel enticed to read more—but rather felt that I was left in the middle of a convoluted summary. This query needs serious focusing and paring down. And what’s up with the Spanish at the end?
Hi David. I get the feeling from this query that English isn’t your native language. The transitions here are rough, or don’t appear at all.
In general this query is all over the place and not coherent. I’m sad about that, because this seems like a great story, from what I could decipher. Sarah’s right; you jump into the story too quickly. Your first paragraph should be a lead in, perhaps with information on how you found the agent and why you think they will like your story. Then jump into the plot. Also, you need a lead out. Tell the agent more about yourself, and potentially what experience you have that relates to this story.
Also, that Spanish at the end is weirding me out. If you’re querying an English-speaking agent, your query needs to be in English -all of it. The rough query would lead me to suspect that your novel is like this as well: great idea, but disjointed.
Best of luck!
First off, I think the concept of your novel is really promising! But to get agents to request a sample of it, I think your query needs a fair amount of work. It would be wise to introduce your characters right off the bat, so the agent doesn’t waste his or her time trying to figure out who Eduardo is, or his relationship to the other characters. You want to be careful, as well, that your query letter doesn’t read more like a synopsis. I think you spent more time worrying about writing out the main plot points instead of weaving them into a brief, yet enticing summary. A good reference point would be the back cover of your favorite novel. It’s usually a paragraph or two that describes the very basic plot and leaves the reader hungry to fill in the gaps. I think, with some tweaking, you could rework some of the information you’ve given here and turn it into a summary agents would find very compelling. However, I’d leave out this line completely: “Merino apparently backs down. In Bolivia, they leave for the nesting grounds. Merino carries weapons.” It’s very weak, and doesn’t add anything interesting to your query. Also, words like ‘apparently’ make you sound unsure of yourself and your writing – not something you want to convey.
Queries are generally written in the present tense, and I noticed you switched back and forth once or twice. These are easy changes to make and will really improve the flow of your query. Another thing that would really help would be to remove the Spanish at the end. While some might know what it says, it’s very jarring and unprofessional (if the agent you’re querying speaks English, that is). Even if you’re querying a Spanish-speaking agent, I would suggest keeping your query entirely in one language.
Vanessa Di Gregorio:
While I definitely think your story has potential, I think your query needs a bit of work. Like the others have said, it’s a bit disjointed. I think one thing you could do to improve your query is to set the context of the story closer to the beginning (ie. it being 1991 and whatnot). Before seeing the date and the circumstances, I was a bit confused as to what was going on. I found myself rereading the query a few times, and I’m still not 100% sure what it is about. Start with the general basics before you go into the smaller details. While you definitely want the agent reading the query to wonder about what is happening, you don’t want them to be confused. Do you know who your market and target audience is? It might also help to add what genre your story is (suspense? historical thriller?). And I agree with Sammy; those last lines are unnecessary. Your query really should also be in just one language; the Spanish threw me off completely.
I would also suggest that you have someone read over your query before you send it out; if a critique partner finds themselves confused, then the agent will definitely be. A fresh pair of eyes never hurts. And always ask yourself if what you’re including in your query is significant to your story. I hope you find this helpful!
Hello David! I believe that your story may very well be an intense and fascinating international thriller. However, as noted in the critiques above, your query is too much of a summary, which makes it confusing and unfocused. That’s the bad news. The good news is, this problem can be fixed!
A strong query is sharply focused on several key points:
1.) Who is the protagonist?
2.) What goal of the protagonist drives the book?
3.) What are the obstacles that are going to make the book interesting?
Although you convey a lot of information in your query, I really can’t identify the protagonist with certainty. I think it’s Ann, and I believe her quest is to protect the reputation of her most celebrated author, but it also might be to obtain justice. I’m not really sure. The one thing that would make this query much stronger would be to tell the agent the most basic components of the story – who is it about, what is their goal, and what are the stakes? In telling that, you can generalize a lot of what you have specified here – you can use terms like “a desperate ornithologist” or “the Bolivian government” to avoid throwing too many names into the mix. All the names make such a complex story confusing and also dilutes the focus that should remain on your main conflict.
Good luck! I love the idea here and think you may have a great story!
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