Query Critique 2: Artistic License

21 Jun

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 2: Artistic License


Dear Let the Words Flow,

Seventeen-year-old Cameron Nile is a student in the visual arts department at Clearbell, an arts and sciences boarding school tucked back in rural Maine.  While he lives under the rule of his strict parents at home, at Clearbell he can be himself. That means telling corny jokes, spending the whole day painting and, as he discovered two years ago, being gay.  It’s easy for him because at Clearbell, there is no such thing as “normal.”

As Cameron goes into his junior year at the school, however, he realizes that the real world is catching up with him.  First it’s his boyfriend of almost a year, Michael, whose family suspects he has clinical depression.   Their relationship has been described by their friends as easy and sweet, but sometimes, Cameron feels like he’s walking on eggshells as he tries not to be the one to send Michael into a downward spiral.

There’s also Jean, an older classmate Cameron had a brief and failed affair with.  He’s taken an interest in Cameron again, and he’s used to getting what he wants.  This includes first place in the visual arts competition at the fall carnival in October.  Cameron loves Michael and is willing to give Jean a run for his money for that blue ribbon, and at least one of those things could end in disaster.

ARTISTIC LICENSE is a young adult novel complete at 62,000 words that mixes general fiction with romance and LGBT themes.  I am a current student in the Creative Writing department at the University of Maine at Farmington, where my studies have included fiction writing, sexuality, gender roles and mental health.  Thank you for your consideration.


Joana Hill




Savannah J. Foley:

Thanks for your query! Here are some nitpicky things:

“An arts and sciences boarding school tucked back in rural Maine.” Tucked back where? Into the mountains of rural Maine?

For your second sentence I would use your characters name for the second ‘he’, otherwise you’ve gone an entire sentence without really specifying who you’re talking about. In your third paragraph you run into this problem again, using ‘he’ when you should probably use the character’s names more.

The last sentence in the third paragraph is awkward.

Overall, I’m really not getting much of a sense of the plot. What’s the real struggle here? What’s the leading action, the conflict, the climax? Honestly the feeling I get from this query is that the novel might be just a string of events. Mildly dramatic, but not really plot-driven.

I think your mini bio was great, however. You gave the agent a bit about yourself and backed up your ‘expertise’ with relevant studies.

Best of luck querying!


Sarah J. Maas:

While I liked the ideas presented in the first paragraph, I think it could be made even catchier by adding some more of Cameron’s voice. As it stands, it feels a bit distant—adding some of his voice will make it stand out even more. The second paragraph definitely interested me more than the first, but the mention of Jean in the third paragraph was one character introduction too many.

I would like to see the query narrowed down a bit—maybe Michael and Jean’s drama can be condensed into one paragraph, and then the third/final paragraph can be more about the plot—which I’m still lacking some concrete details about (Savannah explains those concerns well in her critique). All in all, though, I think this query has a lot of potential, and if it were a bit more focused and had a bit more of Cameron’s voice, it’d be pretty good.


Sammy Bina:

You’ve got some really great stuff here! With some minor tweaking, I think you’d have a really strong query letter. From what you’ve provided, I get the sense that your novel is more character-driven than plot-driven. If that is, in fact, what you’re aiming for, I think some more information about the three boys would be really beneficial. There’s an obvious love triangle, and because you’re working with three main characters, I feel as though you could easily condense that information into one paragraph. That would leave some room to greater explain the plot. Even with character-driven stories, you need to be able to explain the plot as well, and keeping the romance aspect of the story confined to one paragraph would make it easier to do that.

I agree with Savannah in that you provided some good background information about yourself. It  shows that you are qualified to write the kind of story you’re presenting. I wish you the very best of luck in querying this story! I think it’s got great potential.


Vanessa Di Gregorio:

Your query is better than quite a few others I had seen while I was interning at a literary agency. That being said, I still think it could use a bit more work. Your mini-bio is wonderful, so I wouldn’t touch that. It seems to me that your story is more character-driven as well. Perhaps look at adding more of what the actual conflict in the story is, and the problems that arise (from both Michael’s depression and the love triangle). Think of what is crucial in understanding your story; if you were writing the blurb at the back of the book, would there be anything else you would add? Perhaps something more about the plot’s progression, or the character’s progression? We need to see that the story is moving somewhere, be it emotionally or physically or both.

But overall, great job. And best of luck!


Julie Eshbaugh

Hi Joana!  My critique will be fairly brief, because I agree with what’s already been discussed above.  I want to just add that I think your title and set-up are very evocative of a time and place in life that lends itself to a compelling story.  The idea of this nonconformist young man, tucked away in a locale where he can be himself, yet feeling the “real world” encroaching, is extremely appealing to me.  My suggestion would be to clarify Cameron’s main desire/goal (is it to maintain his idyllic life?) and the main challenges to that goal (the rising drama coming on one hand from Michael and the other from Jean?)  Lastly, if you also clarified the stakes that you imply with the words “and at least one of those things could end in disaster,”  I think you’d have a killer query.  I find myself very interested in your book, so the query succeeds at that essential task, but it doesn’t quite convince me that I will be compelled to read through to the end.  Add a little more tension, and I think everything will be in place!

Best of luck querying Artistic License!


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


2 Responses to “Query Critique 2: Artistic License”

  1. Joana June 22, 2010 at 11:09 AM #

    Thanks so much, guys! This is my first query letter ever, so it’s nice to know I’m on the right track, at least.

    • svonnah June 22, 2010 at 11:13 AM #

      Glad we could help!

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