Query Workshop … critiques by Jolene Haley

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Welcome to the query workshop. From November 1 through November 19 several talented friends of mine will critique queries submitted to the workshop by some brave authors. Today we have Jolene Haley pulling out her ink pen and giving suggestions to her writers on how to tighten, sharpen, and shine their queries.

Here’s some more information about Jolene…

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Jolene loves writing strong female protagonists and has a passion for YA novels on the dark side. In addition to her day job, she runs writer’s haven Pen and Muse, does publicity for Swoon Romance, and contributes to YA Stands, an online community for young adult writers. Her background is in English Literature and Composition, with accolades from California State University of Fullerton. She’s a member of SCBWI, ALA, and YALSA. Follow her on Twitter  – she might give you some jellybeans.

And here is her first critique …

Dear Perfectly Spelled and Well Researched Agent Name, (Hehehe, nice J.)

I can tell by first glance that this query feels long. It’s recommended queries to be about 250 words (but there are no rules). Sixteen year old Sixteen-year-old Torontonian Kateri (Teri) Weber was supposed to die of an incurable disease. I think you have a great concept for the hook, but the words aren’t grabbing enough. I’d pick different wording or start with a stronger hook. There are many different techniques such as asking a question or making a statement. I’d always pick something bold like “Sixteen-year-old Torontonian Kateri (Teri) Weber should be dead.” Or “…is a walking miracle.” Less wordy. More to the point. Also, unless the name has some significance, you could probably just use Teri Weber (though I’m assuming with a long name like that it means something to the story? Instead, a miracle turns her into the poster child for the existence of saints and she ends up living in a whirlwind? of reporters, Vatican officials, and doctors following her every move. To escape from under the miracle media microscope, her parents send her to spend the summer with her aunt Abigail in Evenfall, New York. In order to shield her from the frenzied media, Teri’s parents send her to Evenfall, NY for the summer.

Even though the tiny Catskill village lets her escape into quiet (we assume this because it’s a tiny village) obscurity summer (we know it’s summer. Repetitive) life, Teri can’t run from her own questions about what it means to be a miracle and what she needs to do to deserve this second chance at life. Wordy. Rephrase. Tighten this up! But great concept here. I can imagine the internal toil she feels. Why her? Why this miracle now? Nice work there. From nun-stalking…Okay, so I love that all of a sudden your query has voice, but this is confusing. How does nun-stalking making her a perfect Catholic? I’d maybe introduce this paragraph backwards. Something like, “Teri believes the only way to repay her miracle, is to transform into the perfect Catholic.” And then introduce the rest of the antics… Was she religious before? ahem, nun surveillance… in the village community garden to giving up her silly jewelry-making hobby to volunteering for the village carnival, Is this critical to the story? If not, leave out. Teri becomes all about shaping herself to become the perfect little Catholic. She even tries to set her aunt up on dates as one of her good deeds. These feel out of order. You should go chronologically.

The problem? She kind-of sucks at being perfect. Is anyone good at it? Her plans What plans? Did she have an end-game in mind? Did she create a map to perfection and started to check things off the list? They weren’t mentioned before. start unraveling as Abby finds out about the matchmaking Did she not want this? She didn’t know? Wasn’t mentioned before that it was unwanted…, her garden plot What garden plot? Be specific. starts dying a black-thumb-induced death I get the analogy, but feel oddly placed considering this isn’t a gardening themed book, and she turns out to be epically awful about praying How can this be? Is there a right way?. Seriously, three nights in a row waking up with a rosary imprint on your face has to be a hint about sucking at prayer, right? Ha! There’s that voice again. Nice. Funny. But not sure it belongs in the query… I can’t help but wonder if there are more specific things you can include that are relevant to the plot and bigger picture instead of this.

Also, it seems like this story shows a lot of great growing pains, but I can’t help but wonder what’s at stake? I get no sense of what she has to lose. Why should we, as readers, care? What sets her apart from others? You want to show us, not tell us this. Also, Evenfall has Justin, This seems out of place. There has been no previous mention about a boy. If he is pivotal to the story, mention him sooner. If not, leave him out. the awkward-sweet swimmer and artist who, while tour-guiding her through the most beautiful spots in the Catskills, starts becoming more than just a friend. If future nuns So that’s her plan? To become a nun? Maybe mention this sooner. Seems pretty pivotal to the plot can’t fall in love, then Justin is major trouble. What happens to miracles who can’t live up to saintly ideals (like what? Be specific. What are the ideals she’s trying to live up to?)

EVENFALL is a love story to (word choice?) faith, questioning, and summertime. This statement didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’d remove questioning and summertime. I’d also make sure to list genre. I know the main character is 16, but it’s important to not make anyone who might be interested in representing you and your book to not have to dig for the answers. You can re-write it any way you want but something like this would be more acceptable: Evenfall is a young adult contemporary novel, complete at 60,000 words. This “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” for the twenty first century meets “Gilmore Girls” (with a miracle) is a standalone 60,000 word young adult contemporary. I feel that Teri’s story will appeal to fans of Jennifer Smith’s and Tiffany Schmidt’s books and to readers who struggle with questions of faith and perfection. I think this is great that you’re mentioning other works similar but I don’t necessarily think you need both two author mentions and two book titles. I’d say pick one category (book comparison or author comparison) and go with it. I am a member of SCBWI, a children’s liturgist at my church, and an imperfect Catholic who definitely I’m an adverb hater hasn’t been part of a major miracle. Love that all of your qualifications are relevant. Great job! Too many people tend to give info that isn’t relevant.

(Insert guideline info here) What guidelines? Do you mean like, “I’ve included the first 250 words below? Or? Thank you for your consideration.

Kind Regards,

Awesome job here! I can see what you’re trying to do here, but it isn’t quite executed. Your query isn’t tight and to the point, and it’s a little confusing. You need to figure out:

1.      What’s at stake
2.      What are three major plot points
3.      What do you want to show about your character that will be important to someone who might be interested in the story.

And when you do, that is the meat and potatoes of the query. That is what you want to get across.

Feel free to revise and send over to me if you want. Jolene dot Haley at Gmail dot com. J

Good luck and happy querying!

And here is her second critique…

Dear Awesome Agent, Ha! Nice!

Four years ago, Arie and Kieran were best friends. Arie was the smart girl who had perfectly mapped out plans for her life, who toted her agenda around like a badge of honour. Kieran was the hotshot athlete poised to become the next star of the school’s track-and-field team. And then there was Wesley, the boy Arie never tired of poking fun at, the invisible fat kid who just happened to be Kieran’s childhood friend. This is great background information but it’s boring. It doesn’t hook me. In fact, it seems like your book is just full of stereotypes (the smart know-it-all, the hotshot, and the loser) (and I KNOW that this isn’t true! I’m sure your book is special so give it the hook it deserves!)… This opening isn’t going to grab attention. Come up with a hook or a statement that makes the reader HAVE to find out what happens. Many people don’t recommend a question at the beginning anymore, but it has worked. Since the rest of the story (and the name) refers to something that they’ve done (secrets and lies), maybe there’s some juice in there? Something spicy like: Secrets don’t make friends. Or… I don’t know. I’m sure you can think of something a million times better than that. The point is, when I was an editorial intern working the slush pile, I’d read 100 queries a day with stereotypical characters and boring queries. You want something that makes it JUMP from the page.

Now, just weeks from graduation, Kieran and Arie no longer talk Why? This is a query. You don’t want to be vague unless it’s part of some huge reveal at the end., and Kieran despises his former best friend. No longer the awkward fat kid Seems a little insensitive unless you’re referring to how people referenced him before, Wesley has taken Kieran’s place as track star, and restyled himself as just Wes If he’s taken place as track star, you don’t need the second part. It’s clear he went from zero to hero. And, despite her best laid plans for a perfect prom to end the year, Why does she want a perfect prom so badly? Why is this so important? Arie finds that her labelling and colour-coding falls short when her on-again, off-again boyfriend situation This is a situation? This is the first I’m hearing of it. You’re talking about it like we know. Set this up better. blows up in her face and I kind of feel like this is where your query should start. This is the action. leaves her scrambling to find a date way too close to prom night. Calling up a long list of past favours and debts owed, Arie manages to wrangle the reluctant but amused Wes—who’s squaring off against relationship problems of his own—into being her date for just one night. Pissed off at the thought of Arie manipulating Wes to fit into her neat little plans Why does he care? Are him and Wes still friends even though Wes stole his spot?, Kieran comes up with a plan of his own, one he intends to use to bring Arie down. What does this mean? What is he going to do? How is he going to do it? Is he willing to put his friend in the crossfire?

In one single, sparkling prom night, Arie’s, Kieran’s, and Wes’s pasts are dragged out for the grade to see as all their plans Be specific. What plans are colliding? Who is dragging them out? What pasts can be dragged?  What is at stake here for each one? Why do we, as readers, care? Does Arie know that Kieran is trying to get her back for something? collide.  They hold themselves and each other accountable for secrets and lies dating back more than four years Here is the juice that sounds like it makes up most of the tension. You should plug in some of this into the query. We all have secrets. And readers love discovering them. And obviously, this is the source of the conflict so we should probably know it (or at least some of it) , and come to understanding of how and why their friendship fell apart. Wait… so they don’t know why they hate each other? I’m sure that they do know why they hate each other so maybe re-word that. Told from alternating perspectives, three points of vew—Arie, Kieran, and Wes—ALL THE THINGS WE’VE DONE is a YA contemporary novel complete at [x] words. It will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen and Elizabeth Eulberg. As per your agency’s guidelines, I have pasted the first [x] of my manuscript below. Thank you for your consideration. It’s usually suggested you put a little about yourself in a query. If there’s anything relevent and/or writing successes, I’d include here.

Sincerely,

Don’t forget to include the info below your name that tells an agent how to get in contact…such as a phone number, email, and anything else you want to show them (website, etc.).

Nice draft here, but it needs work. The main issue here is that it’s not unique enough to stand out. Your characters also sound a little too one dimensional or stereotypical. Find a way to present them that doesn’t make them sound so flat. Also, you need a hook! I’d pass on this wordy query if I was reading it. However, I think the concept sounds great and once re-worked could really shine and be interesting!

Feel free to revise and send back to me jolene dot haley @ gmail dot com. J

Thank you Jolene for taking the time to participate in the query workshop! Everyone join us tomorrow for our next set of query critiques. Please feel free to drop questions in the comments.

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