Friday, April 13, 2012

Query Letter Critique


It’s that time again, folks. Another author has been kind/brave enough to offer me up her query letter for public critique. I'm not in the mood for longwinded introductions, so let's get right to it, shall we?

Original Query Letter

Dear Ms. (Agent):

When it comes to dealing with criminals, the United Federation doesn't mess around.  All convicts are exiled to The Island, a desolate island prison, to duke it out for survival--all of it televised on worldwide TV.


Seventeen year-old Niko considers it a death sentence when he's sent to The Island for a murder he didn't commit.  He quickly aligns with Sabra, a rugged beauty with a knack for armed robbery, and two other "newbies."  Starving and battered by veteran inmates, the foursome's prospects look bleak.  But all bets are off when tech-savvy Niko hacks into a prison guard's lost laptop, giving him complete control of The Island's network and the chance to plan an escape.


Back home in Delphi, Niko's best friend Landry sets out to find the real murderer and clear Niko's name.  Landry's never been known for her brains or her bravery, but if she can uncover the truth within three months, the Federation will set Niko free.  For Landry, who's secretly in love with Niko, the stakes couldn't be higher.  But her devotion to Niko starts to unravel when she sees the televised kiss between him and fellow inmate Sabra.  As her investigation leads her into the city's darkest corners, Landry must decide how far she really will go to prove Niko's innocence.


Complete at 72,000 words, THE ISLAND is a YA thriller with a romantic bent.  Fans of Marie Lu's LEGEND and Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT will enjoy a similar dystopian style in THE ISLAND.  I am a speech teacher by day and an avid writer by night.  Per your submission guidelines, a ten page sample of my manuscript is provided below.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
(Redacted)

Query Letter After I Got My Grubby Paws On It

Dear Ms. (Agent):

When it comes to dealing with criminals, the United Federation doesn't mess around. All convicts are exiled to The Island, a desolate island prison, to duke it out for survival--all of it televised on worldwide TV. I make this next point because the author mentioned not getting many agent bites with this query letter: the premise sounds a bit familiar. In The Hunger Games, teens are forced to fight to the death on worldwide TV. Your actual book might share very little resemblance to The Hunger Games, but based on this query there are some pretty big similarities, in my opinion anyway. 


Seventeen year-old<Hyphen between seventeen and year Niko considers it a death sentence when he's sent to The Island for a murder he didn't commit.  He quickly aligns with Sabra, a rugged beauty with a knack for armed robbery, and two other "newbies."  Starving and battered by veteran inmates, the foursome's prospects look bleak.  But all bets are off when tech-savvy Niko hacks into a prison guard's lost laptop, giving him complete control of The Island's network and the chance to plan an escape. This is a great paragraph.


Back home in Delphi, Niko's best friend Landry sets out to find the real murderer and clear Niko's name.  Landry's never been known for her brains or her bravery, but if she can uncover the truth within three months, the Federation will set Niko free.  For Landry, who's secretly in love with Niko, the stakes couldn't be higher. <<Something about the last few sentences doesn’t quite strike the right chord with me. You say the stakes couldn’t be higher—can you tell us what the stakes are instead? What’s at risk for her (Niko dying and Landry losing the love of her life before she’s even had the chance to tell him how she feels, obviously, but laying it out like that packs more punch than making the reader decipher what you mean). But her devotion to Niko starts to unravel when she sees the televised kiss between him and fellow inmate Sabra. <Another similarity to The Hunger Games. Maybe not the biggest deal on its own, but combined with the other major similarity it may turn off an agent. As her investigation leads her into the city's darkest corners, Landry must decide how far she really will go to prove Niko's innocence.


Complete at 72,000 words, THE ISLAND is a YA thriller with a romantic bent.  Fans of Marie Lu's LEGEND and Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT will enjoy a similar dystopian style in THE ISLAND. <Since the author mentioned not getting many bites on this query, my suggestion is to leave out the comparison. Not for the reason readers might think, though (There are differing opinions out there on whether an author should compare their book with other books in the market, and I usually stay out of the argument). The reason I say leave it out is because word around the writing community is that editors aren’t buying many dystopians anymore. Yes, some people are still getting deals, but the market is very saturated already, and so I’m thinking it might be best to just call it a thriller with a romantic bent and leave it at that. Especially since a few different sources from Bologna and other book fairs quoted editors as saying they’re looking for YA thrillers. I am a speech teacher by day and an avid writer by night.  Again, personal opinion here, but I would leave out anything that isn’t directly writing related, as well as the ‘writing at night’ line because it doesn’t really add anything to the strength of the query. Per your submission guidelines, a ten page sample of my manuscript is provided below.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
(Redacted)

This is actually one of the strongest query letters I’ve had the pleasure to read. It’s well written, flows very nicely, and follows the correct format. Plus the plot sounds amazing!! In fact, if the author hadn’t asked me to take a look at it specifically because of her lack of success in querying, I might have given it the thumbs up and not even noticed the similarity to The Hunger Games at all. It’s hard to say. So really my only suggestion is to try to minimize the similarity to The Hunger Games as much as possible and not to mention dystopian. That and I guess the query letter isn’t as ‘voicey’ as it could be, but overall it’s pretty stellar.

Good luck, author, and thanks so much for giving me the chance to have at look at your wonderful query! 


17 comments:

  1. I think the biggest issue here is "The Island" part. "The Island" already exists, a huge Michael Bay film that was already a dystopian pastiche. When I hear "The Island", I immediately think of Ewan McGregor and Scarlet Johannsen running around in white jumpsuits. You might want to distance yourself from any connection to that film and the whole dystopian montage it represents, otherwise your story risks coming off as unoriginal or worse, as a possible pastiche of The Hunger Games. (Unless of course that's what you're going for.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not familiar with that movie, but it's a convincing point you make! Thanks for your input. Greatly appreciated by me, and I'm sure, the author :)

      Delete
    2. I think any similarities to that one could be dispensed with by a change in title, since the storyline isn't so similar it would be a problem imo.

      But changing the title would also be a good way of shifting the focus back to Landry and avoiding The HG-sy comparisons again.

      This doesn't mean changing the book necessarily, just the query (what with it's only purpose being to get you requests.)

      Delete
  2. This is an excellent query. And what I'm going to say is entirely my subjective opinion, but the minute I read this, I'm thinking this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Running_Man

    and this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Condemned

    If I had to put money on what the problem is, I'd couple those two films (and the book the first one was based on) and, as Michelle says, and probably more pertinently, The Hunger Games.

    That doesn't mean I'm saying give up. How many agents have you queried?

    The other thing I'd say is - if the answer to my first question is ALL OF THEM - maybe swing the focus of the query to Landry. I get the impression the book is written from both points of view, and it might be worth approaching the query from her side of the story since that will help detract from The HG comparisons.

    In fact, it might be kind of interesting - like looking at The HG from Prim or Gale's perspective, if they wandered around doing interesting things while Katniss was off a-fighting. Ok, I'm waffling now. Hope that helps. You can clearly write.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awesome advice, Ruth! You know your stuff!

      Delete
  3. I have to agree that, based on the query letter, it does sound a lot like the Hunger Games. Like Michelle said, it might be quite different, but the way it's presented makes it seem far too familiar.

    Also, there's an Exile Island on Survivor. That's what I instantly thought of when I read that people were exiled to "The Island". Maybe it's nitpicky, but I personally feel that it might be worth consdering a location name change. It is an incredibly popular show,and I'd bet lots of people would notice this similarity too.

    That being said,I think this query is very well-written,and bodes well for the quality of the manuscript.

    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good point, Brandy! And an easy change, if the author were so inclined.

      Delete
  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the reader comments, and esp to Ms. Krys for her critique! I can definitely see the similarities between the query and HG, and I had no idea about that show on survivor or the movie that was referenced, The Condemned (I'm a bit of a hermit =)

    Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No problem! Really glad you found it helpful :)

      Delete
  5. I've read all the other comments and I agree with every single one of them. The story actually sounds fantastic, and I'm sure with a bit of work you can change the spin on the query. It does (at the moment) ring of The Hunger Games. A title change might just help, too.
    All the very best with your querying in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  6. What a helpful critique! I also vote for a name change -- I keep imagining Ewan MacGregor, which I hardly mind, but it doesn't help your story seem original. Best of luck! :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I would certainly be less concerned with The Hunger Games and more with "The Condemned". Here is the movie's description. (As soon as I read the query I thought of that movie).

    Jack Conrad is awaiting the death penalty in a corrupt Central American prison. He is "purchased" by a wealthy television producer and taken to a desolate island where he must fight to the death against nine other condemned killers from all corners of the world, with freedom going to the sole survivor.

    I think at the end they take over the gaurds on the island and hack the computer system as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well it's easy to see your point, Erin. Eeek. That's very unfortunate for this author. I really really hope it's an easily fixable problem!

      Delete
  8. Oooo! Thanks for posting this! I found your blog while browsing the web for opinions on wether or not to reference popular books in a query. The opinion here seems to be to leave it out. Which has been my suspicion as of late, since I wasn't getting many bites on my MS, and I suspected my query was the culprit!

    Doin' a re-write now! Fingers crossed query neural dos comes out lookin' a bit more spick and span ( :

    P.s. New follower!!

    ReplyDelete