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

Advertisements

11 Responses to “Query Critique 1: The Recruited”

  1. Marc Vun Kannon January 31, 2011 at 6:54 AM #

    Is the fact that this story is 95K words long relevant? I thought YA stories were generally shorter than that.

    • savannahjfoley January 31, 2011 at 8:46 AM #

      The majority are, but there are outliers. Sarah’s book sold at over 100k, and I think Susan’s came close (my own is at 105). 95k is pretty decent, but in agent edits a lot can probably be cut. It’s not really a big deal. 150k, on the other hand, would raise eyebrows.

    • Kat Zhang January 31, 2011 at 9:53 AM #

      I don’t think many agents would have much trouble with a 95k YA ms, though it is on the longer side of “normal.” Like Sav said, though, it does vary and longer stories have sold! If your question was to whether or not including a word count is relevant at all, it is! Generally, it’s expected that you include a word count in your query.

      • Susan January 31, 2011 at 11:26 AM #

        My YA sold at 92K, and I AM required to shorten it. However, a 95K story won’t scare off an agent OR editor; they’ll just help you shorten it!

        • Sarah J. Maas January 31, 2011 at 3:52 PM #

          Just chiming in here to say that QUEEN OF GLASS sold at 140k words. BUT I think that’s really, really rare. Anything over 100k is pushing it, I think. These days, I try to keep my mss under 100k.

          • Myra January 31, 2011 at 8:10 PM #

            Hmm, but if it’s fantasy YA it can usually go up to 120k, no? I think I’ve seen both 120k and 110k as caps for fantasy in YA, whereas contemporary is more around… 60-80k, I think, but I’m not exactly sure since I don’t write contemp. :p

            • sdennard February 1, 2011 at 12:20 AM #

              Contemp is definitely lower, but I was told that max for YA fantasy would be 90K. You can probably get agent interest with 100K (mine was 95K, and I still got interest), but that’s really pushing it. I’ve never heard of 120K in YA — adult fantasy, yes.

              Of course, if the book is amazing enough (like Sarah’s QOG!) then the word count won’t interfere. 🙂 Um, unless you’re at 200K…or more. Then it’s just not happening. 😉

  2. ychi January 31, 2011 at 10:39 PM #

    Oh my Godiva, that’s some *intense* critiquing going on! Hope the next time Query Week’s hosted on LTWF I’ll have a query ready (that’s not on Sooz’s blog! :D).

  3. Becca January 31, 2011 at 10:40 PM #

    Yay for query week again!

    I thought I’d chime in and make sure people know also about Nathan’s awesome forum for critiquing query letters. People there are EXTREMELY helpful, especially in critiquing multiple drafts of your query.

    http://forums.nathanbransford.com/viewforum.php?f=13&sid=53ab36c6e5f4f4536c0808ec9c3d2138

    • sdennard February 1, 2011 at 12:18 AM #

      Thanks for the link, Becca!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention Query Critique 1: The Recruited « Let The Words Flow -- Topsy.com - January 31, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julie Eshbaugh and Let The Words Flow, Julie Eshbaugh. Julie Eshbaugh said: Query Week is here! Critique Number One is Posted! http://t.co/KZyTqXN #amwriting #queries […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: