Query Workshop … critiques by Maggie Hall

Woman laptop grass

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 Maggie Hall 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 Maggie…

HeadshotSmallMaggie Hall is a traveling, decorating, champagne-drinking, USC-football-watching YA author. She is currently traveling the world with her husband, which means right at this moment, she might be on a beach in Thailand, drinking wine in Paris, or anywhere in between. Her debut novel, a YA international thriller, is coming from Putnam/Penguin in 2014. She is represented by Claudia Ballard at William Morris Endeavor. You can learn more on her website: http://www.maggiehall.com and follower her on Twitter (@MaggieEHall).

And here’s more about her forthcoming book…

THE ELITE:

Avery Rhodes’ newfound family can shut down Prada at the Champs-Elysees when they want to shop in peace, and can just as easily order a bombing when they want to start a war.

They are part of a powerful and dangerous secret society called the Circle of Twelve, and Avery is their missing heir. If they discover who she is, some of them will want to use her as a pawn. Some will want her dead.

To thwart their plans, Avery must follow a trail of clues from the crypts of Paris to the back alleys of Istanbul and through a web of ancient legends and lies. And unless she can stay one step ahead of beautiful, volatile Stellan, who knows she’s more than she seems, and can decide whether to trust mysterious, magnetic West, she may be doomed after all.

Add it to Goodreads!

And here is her first critique …

Dear Fabulous Agent,

Sydney Reynolds accepts an invitation to join an elite honors society at her new college. Being part of the group will look great on her transcript when she applies for grad school, but in the mean time, she’s just hoping to finally make some friends. Unfortunately, she’s just as petrified of her fellow brainiacs as she was of the high school kids who had her begging to be home-schooled the second half of her junior year. Maybe even more so since she’s the only seventeen-year-old. Speeding through the twelfth grade curriculum to go to UCLA a year early isn’t turning out to be one of her brighter ideas. [Can you figure out how to condense this all to once short sentence about Sydney? In a query, we need to jump STRAIGHT into the action!]

Just as she’s about to find a dark lab somewhere to hunker down for another long social winter, the head of the honors society, Professor Davison, invites her to participate in [HERE. This is where you start a query. I mean, not in the middle of a sentence—that would be weird. But start where the game changes. Where the action begins.] a confidential research project where she learns a couple game changing facts. First, the real purpose of the program is to locate potential candidates for mind reading and mind control training. Second, she’s their number one pick. [I’m already wondering at this point what they’re doing with the mind control…]

What could be better than an invitation-only, super-secret neurological study on how to steal people’s thoughts right out of their heads?

Being crazy awesome at it, that’s what. [I like the bits of voice we see here and there, as long as this is Sydney’s voice in the MS.]

And Sydney is.

Her abilities win her the attention of the strange, yet brilliant student aide, Dean, and they begin to build a friendship [a friendship? Or more? Is there something more punchy you can tell us about her relationship with Dean?]. But just as Sydney believes things are finally going her way, she learns that several of her most distinct high school [doesn’t really matter when the memories are from—what matters is that her mind is being messed with] memories aren’t real. Someone has tampered with her mind and is most likely using her as a spy to steal the professor’s research. [Again, I find myself wondering what the point of the mind control is. It seems like it would be important, and interesting for the reader to know. If Sydney knows from the start, tell us! If part of the book is Sydney finding this out, and especially if it’s sinister, tell us that!]

The professor and Dean help her dig into her mind to find out who’s controlling her and why. [As I’ll talk about in my longer notes, this sentence and some other sound more like a synopsis than a query. In a query, try your best to give us cause and effect in quick, punchy soundbites.] But the closer she gets to the truth, the more everything inside Sydney screams for her to abandon this new life she’s found and run.

MASTERED MIND is a young adult paranormal novel [it’s YA?? Surprised! See my notes], complete at 90,000 words.

I’m a member of RWA and YARWA. I’ve included the first chapter of my manuscript below per your submission guidelines. Thank you so much for your time and consideration. [Very nice, concise, pretty much perfect closing.]

Sincerely,

Hello! Thanks for letting me read your query!

First of all, I am SO reading this when it hits shelves. Secret research project with mind control? Sign me up!

On to the query: The first thing I noticed was that this is too long. You want to keep the meat of your query at around 200 words, and the meat of your query here is 315. The whole query is 357. 250 words is a good length for a query, and you can get away with a little more, but this is definitely pushing it.

The problem, I think, is that you’ve almost given us more of a synopsis than a query. Your whole first paragraph is backstory, and, while it’s really important to the plot of the MS, we don’t need to know every bit of it in the query. As I said in the in-line notes, can you condense Sydney’s backstory down to one strong sentence that tells us a little about her, so we can move right into the plot? It’s best to start a query where the action starts. In this case, it’s that Sydney is part of a confidential research project that’s more than it seems.

At that point, I like that you jump right into the fact that it’s about mind control, and that Sydney is a prodigy, but it also raises more questions. (You WANT your query to raise questions so the reader will want the MS, but you don’t want them to be confused. It’s a fine line, I know…) Anyway, my question is…why? As I said above, I feel like either Sydney would know what the greater point of the mind control is, or she’d want to find out. And your reader’s wondering that too, because that’s a big part of why we care about this story, and raises the stakes on Sydney’s own involvement.

Speaking of Sydney’s involvement, she seems a bit passive in the query. What does she do to move the story? Why? As the MC, we hope she drives the plot, and we need to see it in the query.

For instance: “The professor and Dean help her dig into her mind to find out who’s controlling her and why.” …so? We need a reason for them to be doing this, and we also need to see what SHE is doing about the whole deal. And what’s at stake if they fail? Is it a government conspiracy, stealing the research on mind control to take over the world, and Sydney must stop them before they get to her CIA operative dad? Or is it just the cute boy from Bio 101, trying to get in her pants, and Dean wants to stop him because he has a crush on her also? Very different stories, right?? 🙂 Tell us!

The other part of the query reading like a synopsis is that, though there are certainly places where the query is fun and punchy, we also get a “she did this, he did that” feel in a few lines. You want your query to read like the back cover of a book. Quick and enticing. Try reading over quite a few of those on Goodreads and see if you can get yours reading the same way. You’re well on the way to this, but putting those finishing touches would really help!

The other thing I noticed about this query was the age range. Not going to lie, I thought this was New Adult as I read the query. Though your MC is seventeen, college tends to reside firmly outside the boundaries of YA. Obviously I can’t speak for every agent and editor out there, but from what I’ve heard, I anticipate that you might have some agents hesitate for that reason. This isn’t necessarily a comment on the query, but something to keep in mind as you go forward, just in case. (IMO, this story could be aged up to NA or down to YA in high school if you did have this problem and wanted to make the changes.) (And also, I might be wrong! Please don’t let this discourage you—just keep it in mind in case you’re seeing comments like that.)

Thanks again for letting me read! It sounds like you have a strong story, and you’re very much on your way to a strong query, too. Good luck knocking agents’ socks off!

And here is her second critique…

Dear AGENT,

                I recently found your agency’s name on AgentQuery.com and noted that you are accepting submissions for woman’s fiction. I hope you’ll consider my 94,000 word women’s fiction novel FIRST COMES LOVE. I am requesting the opportunity to send you an excerpt of my 94,000 word novel “First Comes Love,” written in the genre of realistic women’s fiction, for your review and consideration. [Take out any wordiness you can! Anything that’s not the plot in a query should be short and sweet, and technically you are already including an excerpt in this email, so this sentence isn’t quite right anyway…]

When Marian discovers that her husband is having an affair with a (much younger) reality show starlet, [Great! Fresh and interesting conflict to start us off!] her divorce sets in motion a new start on life and love for not only herself, but for the friends there to support her—strong Jillian, whose troubled teenage daughter moves back home after becoming pregnant; fierce Corky, who seeks to escape her past by butting head-first into the future; and delicate Christine, whose determination to shut out the world is tempered by the handsome and persistent Lucas Whitman. [See my longer notes on this. Probably too much description of the friends here.]

Through surprises, failures, love, and loss that test their hearts and their friendships, [like what? If it’s important to the plot, I want more specifics. As of now, since we don’t have much plot here, this little bit we do have is too vague] the four women band together and risk it all on a career move [Ooh! What career move? THIS is plot. This is what differentiates your story from others in its genre. This is what I’m interested in!] that may just be the start of a new future… or the final nail in the coffin. In FIRST COMES LOVE, “First Comes Love,” perhaps starting over is the perfect opportunity to pick up the pieces left behind. [I like the tagline!]

I hold a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. I have written SEO for CampusExplorer.com, and recently left my position as Head Writer/Contributing Editor at Yidio.com to work as a Contributing Editor for Foodiebitch.net. [I don’t know this website, but the site name made me laugh, and it stands out!] This is my first completed novel. I am a motivated individual, and I appreciate any aid and criticism that will help me to improve my voice and become a stronger and more established writer. [Agents hope you being motivated is implied, and the rest of the sentence makes you sound less than confident in your writing—always be confident!]

Below you will find the prologue [Is a prologue necessary? Just the word “prologue” is a red flag for a lot of agents. Have you considered jumping right in to chapter 1? Or could your prologue be chapter 1?] for FIRST COMES LOVE “First Comes Love.” and I would be delighted to send more of the manuscript. Please reply if interested in sample chapters; also, if you would like a complete manuscript I would be delighted to send it to you. [Like the above, it’s implied that they will reply if interested. If it were me, I’d even leave out the “delighted to send you more” part, as it is also implied, and you don’t want any extraneous words in a query. In fact, if it were me, I might take out this WHOLE last paragraph and leave only the last sentence. A short and sweet end to a query is always the best bet. But it’s up to you!] Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Hi! Thanks for sending your query. You have a really great setup here—a much younger reality starlet? I can see the hilarity that could ensue, and also the tragedy for poor Marian. The problem is, that’s all I can really visualize about your book. You did a great job of keeping the query concise—so much so that it’s actually TOO short now. The meat of your query is only 129 words long, and the majority of that is spent describing characters.

I see two major ways to remedy this.

  1. Is the story multiple POV? If not, you’ve devoted too much of your query to describing the other three women. Nearly half the query is about their personalities. And though they sound like great characters—interesting, diverse—that leaves less room for…
  2. Plot. “surprises, failures, love, and loss that test their hearts and their friendships” is just too general—it doesn’t tell us what’s going to happen in the book. I can surmise what some of the tests might be about from the descriptions of the women, and this line could maybe work as a closer, but it mostly feels like you’re not giving us enough detail. I’d rather see the great details you put in your character descriptions boiled down to succinct little nuggets in this sentence so they read as more of plot than character attributes.

And then there’s the career move. What is it? That seems like the most plot-like thing in this query, and we hear nothing about it. Is the whole book about the four friends starting the business and the trials and tribulations that happen along the way with that and life? Because that’s really interesting! Tell me that! Or is it that all this stuff happens, and they start some crazy business as a last-ditch effort to hold their lives together? Especially if it IS all about them starting the business, you need a lot more about it. Either way, you need to tell us what it is and how it connects to their lives, rather than giving us two separate pieces of 1. Their lives and 2. This random business.

Like, right now it could just as easily be a heartwarming story of these four women starting a bakery and their loves and lives over the first year it’s open…or it could be a book about their lives all going to hell, and at the end of the book they all become strippers. I know, that’s extreme, but it goes to show you that you need more concrete details to get the reader engaged, and to let an agent know whether the book’s for them. I mean, if they’re really hoping for strippers, they’ll be disappointed by the bakery, you know? 🙂

Overall, it sounds like you have a great story, and you just need to tweak this query to give us more of it (and possibly a little less character description). IF the story is actually multiple POV…well, a query for multiple POV is a whole other beast! But we would at least need some indication of that if it was 4 POVs.

Thanks for letting me check out your query, and best of luck to you!

 Thank you Maggie 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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