Sunday, May 27, 2012

Query Letter Critique


Work this weekend has been…just ugh. Nuff said.

Original Query Letter

Dear Ms. Smith,

Andover Pierce just celebrated his seventeenth birthday. Andy should be shooting free-throws. Going to prom. Chasing girls. Instead, his time has come to spin “The Family Wheel”.

Forty-five years ago, citizens of The United Sections of Settlebones lived in a disease-free country. Scientific and technological breakthroughs made it possible to cure everything from cancer to drug addiction. Sick children no longer died at the age of eight, addicts turned into executives, and families prospered. For the first time in the history of mankind, people simply were not dying.

Central Control, the governing body of Settlebones, began to realize the ominous consequence of science. They knew people were not supposed to live for 130 years. They could see houses being built upon houses. They needed to stop the mass over-crowding. They understood what they had to do in order to save Settlebones: Infect their own citizens with the same diseases that humanity worked for centuries to cure.

Upon a citizen's seventeenth birthday, it is legally required to travel to the Silver Loop and spin “The Family Wheel”. Nine pegs bear the names of mental and physical diseases. One peg bears the word “healthy”. Decisions are made. Options are available. At the Spinning Session, spinners are given the opportunity of passing their disease on to a family member and receiving the verdict of health. Central Control doesn't care which family member accepts the disease. They just need someone to die.

Andy and his group of friends, Alpine Terning, the ex-girlfriend he still loves, Cal Pollard, his best friend of ten years, and Walker Menton, his next-door neighbor, have all come of age. It's their time. They have decisions to make. Fates to change. Their world has been flipped upside-down.

“The Family Wheel” is a YA thriller that plays heavily on the themes of loyalty, family, strength, and love. Per your submission guidelines, a ten page sample of my manuscript is provided below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

(Name redacted)


Query Letter After I Got My Grubby Paws On It

Dear Ms. Smith,

Andover Pierce just celebrated his seventeenth birthday. Andy should be shooting free-throws. Going to prom. Chasing girls. Instead, his time has come to spin “The Family Wheel”. This is a pretty good para, but I feel like the opening sentence is a bit weak for a hook.

Forty-five years ago, citizens of The United Sections of Settlebones<Not to be rude, but this name sounds sort of…comedic?  lived in a disease-free country. Scientific and technological breakthroughs made it possible to cure everything from cancer to drug addiction. Sick children no longer died at the age of eight, addicts turned into executives, and families prospered.  Not necessary, and since your query clocks in at 328 words, it could stand to lose some fat (I know, I know, Nathan Bransford says 250-350 is the word count limit and I’ve cited this tons on my blog, but let’s be honest, he’s practically the only one who says over 250 is okay. On another note, addicts and executives aren’t mutually exclusive. There are lots of executives who are addicts today, and without a special cure for disease. Oh, the world we live in!  For the first time in the history of mankind, people simply were not dying.

Central Control, the governing body of Settlebones, began to realize the ominous consequence of science. They knew people were not supposed to live for 130 years. They could see houses being built upon houses. They needed to stop the mass over-crowding. They understood what they had to do in order to save Settlebones: Infect their own citizens with the same diseases that humanity worked for centuries to cure. The last two paras feel like a lot of backstory, which doesn’t belong in a query letter. I want to read about Andover and what happens to him, but what I’m getting is a history of Settlebones (Sorry if it sounds rude, which isn’t my intention at all. Perhaps I should eat a meal and then sleep? No. No, that’s no good). Personally I think you can lose most of the second and third para. I understand the need to explain backstory (But this is all stuff they need to know! I can’t lose any of it!), but really, the focus should be on the character and the challenges they face. That’s what’s exciting. A sentence or two max devoted to explaining the disease/overcrowding problem would be the most I’d suggest. Something like ‘When The United Sections of Settlebones discovered the cure for all disease, they didn’t bank on (the issues you stated). Their answer? Infect citizens with the same disease they’d worked for centuries to cure.’ And then on to the next para, outlining the stakes for Andover.

Upon a citizen's seventeenth birthday, it is legally required to travel to the Silver Loop and spin “The Family Wheel”. Nine pegs bear the names of mental and physical diseases. One peg bears the word “healthy”. Decisions are made. Options are available. At the Spinning Session, spinners are given the opportunity of passing their disease on to a family member and receiving the verdict of health. Central Control doesn't care which family member accepts the disease. They just need someone to die.

Andy and his group of friends, Alpine Terning, the ex-girlfriend he still loves, Cal Pollard, his best friend of ten years, and Walker Menton, his next-door neighbor, have all come of age.<I don’t recommend naming this many characters in a query letter. It’s not important and it can lead to confusion, especially when including their last names too.  It's their time. They have decisions to make. Fates to change. Their world has been flipped upside-down. <This falls a little flat for me for a few different reasons. ‘Their world has been flipped upside down’ is a cliché, and the last few lines are vague. I want to know what exactly what Andy has to do, and what he risks if he doesn’t succeed. 

“The Family Wheel” is a YA thriller <Word count isn’t mentioned. Was that in error or was it a purposeful omission? Because it’s a bit of a red flag—perhaps your book isn’t finished yet, and thus you don’t know the word count? Or maybe it’s 358,000 words and so you thought you wouldn’t mention that in the query? Possibly none of those are true, but that is what pops into my head. Also, this sounds dystopian. There's nothing wrong with that. Just sayin'. that plays heavily on the themes of loyalty, family, strength, and love. Per your submission guidelines, a ten page sample of my manuscript is provided below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

(Name redacted)

I apologize, author, for the abundance of blue all over your query letter. It’s not that your book doesn’t sound interesting—it really does! Very fun premise. I just think your query letter isn’t shining the best light on your book. You’re focusing too much on Settlebones and not enough on your main character and what he faces. You mention a love interest. You mention a best friend and a neighbor. You mention themes of loyalty and family. Those things are interesting! Perhaps you could expand one or more of those areas instead?

Thanks so much for sending this in. I really appreciate having the chance to look it over.





17 comments:

  1. I COMPLETELY agree with your comments, Michelle. I just went through this query twice to see if I could add anything but I really - for the author's sake - suggest these, tops:
    1) The US of Settlebones does sound a little too quirky for my tastes. Please consider changing it :)
    2) There is a TON!!! of backstory in this that isn't really needed. I'd suggest looking at my comments below for more help in this area.
    3) It is really useful to include the word count of your novel. There are some exceptions, e.g. if your word count is 100,000+.

    I love using this guide from Absolute Write when I write my own query (or even synopsis).. Hopefully this will help you too :)

    1. What does your protagonist want?
    2. What does s/he have to do to get it?
    3. What happens if s/he fails to get what she wants? (the stakes)

    I think your query needs a lot of work. With yours as it stands right now, there is a ton of back story and not enough about Andy. If I were an agent, reading this I'd unfortunately reject you - there isn't enough about Andy for me to care about. There is too much about the society. I hate to be a little rough but I don't want to read about the society...I want to read about Andy. I want to get to know him. I want to know WHY I should care about him, WHY I should want to read your novel and pick it off the slush and read it and want to represent you.

    I think that you do have a story here and we WILL care about Andy, you just need to refocus your query letter. If you'd like any more help, please let me know. I'd be happy to help you.

    Wishing you all the best with this one :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awesome tips again, Rachel! I love the three points from absolute write (actually, I recall seeing those on the AgentQuery site as well. Very helpful.) And kind of you to offer to help the author :)

      Delete
    2. "Settlebones" really raised an eyebrow for me as well. I can see what the author was trying to accomplish with this title, but I'm afraid it does sound a bit silly. I hope the author will consider changing this.

      Delete
  2. The premise of this novel sounds really exciting. I can predict lots of conflict and emotional turmoil, but...I don't see, hear, feel any of it in this query.
    I want to know about Andover, your protagonist, and how 'The Family Wheel' directly effects him, his family, and his friendships.
    I think a simple change in focus will help you write a smashing query. Good luck.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great points, Amaleen, and I couldn't agree more!

      Delete
  3. I really like the premise of your query, but I think there is way too much backstory. And the only thing I get is that Andy is going to spin the Family Wheel. The thing is... This stuff happens to the MC. I would rather like to know what your MC does; what is the outcome and how will Andy react to that?

    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awesome points, Avery! Thanks for commenting, and welcome to the blog!

      Delete
  4. Great crit, Michelle! I agree 100% with all of your comments. It's definitely too much back story and the stakes need to be more clearly laid out.

    The story sounds fun though. Good luck with querying!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm sorry to say that I agree with Michelle and all the commenters. Lots needs to be cut out here, and we need to hear what the stakes are for Andy. As it stands, it's sounding a wee bit like a series of events with no climax (sorry!). Best of luck :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think all the advice is really spot on....is it just me or is this just the hunger games with a diferent vibe? The 'family wheel' die or disease roulette reminds me a lot of the 'reaping'? If so, this premise has been done to an already exceptional level so if I was an agent I would be wary of this.
    I think concentrating on Andy's journey might help take away from these comaprisons and give a more exciting slant on the story....hope this helps

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nice blog! Found you on Absolute writers. Looking forward to you slashing through my query when I finish my memoir....

    Congratulations on your upcoming book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I love AW. And please do send your query my way when it's complete :)

      Delete