Query Workshop … critiques by K.T. Hanna

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 K.T. Hanna is 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 K.T. Hanna…

KTK.T. Hanna is an Australian expat who lives in Kansas (long story), with her husband, baby girl, two corgis and psychotic cat. She’s a binge writer, who edits ruthlessly. Dictionaries are her nemesis as singular words inspire plot bunnies. She writes science fiction, fantasy and horror for MG, YA and adult. She’s represented by Bree Ogden of D4EO Literary. You can find out more about her on her site or follow her on Twitter.

 

And here is her first critique …

 

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent,

 I am writing to you because I am a big fan of your blog, which has been very helpful in giving me some insight into the publishing world. According to your website, you enjoy young adult fiction that makes you laugh out loud and stays with you after you’ve finished reading. I believe my story will fit the bill.

I wouldn’t tell them what they enjoy according to their website. I’m sure they already know this, so you’re just wasting space you could be hooking them to want more of your book in. This is very generic and doesn’t spark interest.

My novel takes place over the three weeks it takes for Atalanta Reed’s life to self-destruct. She wants to use her new-found superpowers to be the next Batman, but is stuck with small town life in De Luna, Florida (population 1,982). When a crusading thief comes to town, Atalanta, or ‘the Osprey’ as she’s known to the town paper, gets the crime spree she always thought she wanted; but finds herself in over her head when someone frames her for piracy – seriously, piracy. Her boyfriend is getting jealous, her best friend is getting suspicious, and her parents are starting to notice something is up – even with her eccentric sisters diverting their attention. The only thing left to do is depend on the one person who may or may not be responsible for the Cone of Uncertainty her life has become. One thing is for sure, being Batman isn’t easy with Robin Hood around.

First up – Wall of text. You shouldn’t hit the reader with one huge paragraph. Make sure to turn this into 2-3 hard-hitting paragraphs.

Second – be VERY specific. Agents want specifics, without the ending. So lead us up to almost the end, but don’t hand it to us.

I have questions here: Don’t tell when it takes place, just tell the story. Telling the reader that it’s over in three weeks, doesn’t add anything to the query. I’m sure I’ll get that in the gist of the story.

New found super powers? What super powers? Be specific, entice the agent!

Small town Florida is enough. You don’t need to tell the exact population in the query.

Does the thief have a name?  Is it a boy or a girl? Do they have powers? Why is she known as the Osprey? Do we see comparisons with Spiderman here because of the paper?

Piracy of what? Is she pirating books? Do you mean open seas pirates? I’m at a bit of a loss here.

Why is her boyfriend jealous? Why is her best friend suspicious? How is she the Osprey if her parents are only just noticing something is up? If it’s YA is she 15, 16, or 17? Does she not have a curfew?

Why is Cone of Uncertainty capitalized? Who is this person who may or may not be responsible? And better yet, why would we care if they aren’t responsible? Are they tied to the thief?

There are so many questions in such a vague mass of information that. The agent may find it very difficult to care about any of it if it’s not clear. Be specific. Don’t be coy. Make the agent want to know more. Make them care.

THE OSPREY is a 67,000-word Young Adult novel that appeals to the readers who are looking forward to more kick-ass super heroines in their life, and are longing for super-powered adventure and romance on the YA shelf.

Okay so – there’s romance in the book? See I didn’t get this from the query section. You should make sure that’s clear, or at least hinted at, because I didn’t get it anywhere, except the jealous boyfriend, which doesn’t sound very romantic. Are you trying to say this is a mix of KICK ASS (movie) and something else?

Even here, perhaps especially here, be more specific. If you really have no comparison (and there is nothing specific enough here for me to suggest any) do something as simple as this:

THE OSPREY is a 67,000-word Young Adult novel that appeals to readers who long for super-powered adventure and romance.

I am currently working as a marketing intern at _____________ Press, trying to soak up some knowledge of the publishing industry in general, and marketing specifically, for when I do get published. I have pasted below the first 10 pages for your consideration and I would love to send you the completed manuscript if you are interested. Thank you for your time.

It’s not necessary to know why you’re interning where you’re interning, just that you’re interning. If you have super-powers yourself which uniquely qualifies you to tell this story, then mention and elaborate on that, but otherwise keep it short and sweet.

I am currently working as a marketing intern at _______ Press. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best Regards,

Overall:

I really want to suggest how to rewrite this query, but I can’t glean enough specifics to warrant an attempt. Anything I try would be mostly with guesswork on my behalf. I would suggest sitting down and pulling out the most important aspects of your novel and making sure they’re all in there.

Be very specific. Show the agent exactly what it is about your book that’s unique and makes it the one they have to have.

Hope this helped a little

K.T. Hanna

 

And here is her second critique…

Dear Ms. XXX,

Being black in a small town in West Virginia sure as hell ain’t easy.  And being gay is even worse.  But in those deep hollers, where a scream will carry for miles, if you’re both you’re straight-up fucked.  So when Antoine’s meth-addled sister goes missing he’s all alone in finding her.  His plan is stark and simple:  stir shit up and see what floats, then flush the scum down the drain.  Or bury them in a shallow grave.

At first, I thought this started out with great promise. With a bit of tweaking it could work much better. Avoid being too introspective and mysterious. Agent’s need specifics of what’s going down, not vague inklings. There’s too much preamble and not enough action. I feel like it’s the intro to a stage play for setting.

In the deep hollers of small town West Virginia being black and gay is catastrophic. So, when Antoine’s meth-addled sister goes missing, he’s a one man search party. His plan is start and simple: find out what happened and make them pay. Even if it means someone ends up in a shallow grave.

Slinking unnoticed through a sea of white faces ain’t exactly possible, especially with Ant being the star wide receiver and all. So when his sister doesn’t turn up for Thanksgiving dinner and he starts asking questions, it’s like wearing a neon sign in the middle of the deep, dark woods.

I get that you have a voice in your book, but be careful which parts of it leak into the query. The agents want to know the ins and outs and how unique your story is without being distracted by lingo better left for the mood of an entire novel.

So here is where I see difficulties: Who is Ant? Is this the shortening for Antoine? Because this isn’t made clear if it is. Why do we care that he’s the star wide receiver? Is this connected to the previous paragraph about Antoine? Whose sister? Antoine’s or Ants? If Ant is Antoine – don’t we already know from paragraph one that his sister is a meth addict and has gone missing? Why have we backtracked? If Ant is a different person – is this another sister? Are there two missing girls? Calling your character by their full name and nickname can be confusing. Just use his full name throughout the query. The agent will learn his legal name when he/she reads the manuscript.

Don’t waste words with describing the asking of questions in this way.

So when his sister doesn’t turn up for Thanksgiving dinner, he starts asking questions.

Only this neon sign ain’t afraid to shock a bitch if he has to.

Completely superfluous and a sort of shock value that doesn’t add anything by way of clarification and actually serves to confuse what the book is about even further.

As the trail leads further down the rabbit hole of trailer trash degradation,  Ant finds himself over his head in a cesspool of drugs, lies, and all the ties that bind thicker than blood.  But when he reaches the bottom he realizes he can’t even ensure that he’ll make it out alive, so when the cute boy he loves to hate volunteers to help out things really get messy, forcing Ant to choose between his family or his heart.

What trail? Trail of where his sister is? So there’s a conspiracy? Between who? Is it a town thing? A football thing? Because you mentioned football and I’m guessing it has to have a basis. The only person we’ve met so far is Ant/Antoine. Why wouldn’t he make it out alive? I know virtually nothing about this, so I find a lot of this paragraph to be vague references.

What boy? Does he have a name? What does he do? Does he know Ant’s sister? Is he on the football team? Why does Ant love to hate him? Why is it only now that it gets messy? Does family mean his sister and you’re telling us the stakes are finding his sister or being with the boy we only just found out about? If so – the stakes need to be higher. It needs to be the point of no return unless Ant make a great sacrifice. What will happen to his sister if Ant doesn’t find her? What does he have to do or such and such bad thing will happen?

The New Black is a YA thriller completed at 60k words.  It’s a gritty, dark novel in the vein of Winter’s Bone meets Elmore Leonard.Like this. It’s nice and to the point.

Overall:

I really wanted to be able to read through and just give you suggestions as to what to change. Like I said, the first paragraph with some tweaks is pretty promising, but could definitely do with more specificity.

However, after that you start referencing who I assume the main character is by a different name. Easily solved by keeping his name full for the query. Introduce your main players. The boy he hate/loves, his sister – and perhaps one other pertinent person. The lack of names here gives the agent no connection to what I’m reading, and only an identity crisis for Antoine.

Be specific. Show the agent what is unique and special about your story. What makes it stand out? Why it is the agents just have to request your manuscript. You shouldn’t beat around the bush or try to outlingo the plot. Leave the lingo for the book and focus on the plot for the query.

Hope this helped

K.T. Hanna

Thank you K.T. Hanna  for taking the time to participate in the query workshop! This is the last set of query critiques. Make sure to check the posts from 11/1 through today. Please feel free to drop questions in the comments.

4 comments to Query Workshop … critiques by K.T. Hanna

  • Marieke

    Ooh, the second one sounds very intriguing! I agree it needs tightening, but I love the initial premise of it 🙂

  • AJL

    For the first query, I just wanted to point out that Batman doesn’t have superpowers. So gaining superpowers and wanting to “be the next Batman” doesn’t really work. At least for Batman fans. 😉

  • Nikola Vukoja

    Great comments.
    For the first one, like the commenter above, as soon as I read Batman=Super Powers, I couldn’t suspend the disbelief. Batman doesn’t have super powers so therefore if that is the aspiration then the entire story would not work for me.

    As for the second one, I 100% agree the first paragraph was about 95% there and had me reading on. But just like K.T. I got confused with ANT. I too thought it might be another person and another missing sister; first thought serial-killer. Then I realised it was the MC’s nickname. Regardless of what your MC calls himself in the MS, pick a name in the query, just one name and stick to it.

    I also wanted to show the Author of QL 2 something:
    “As the trail leads further down the rabbit hole of trailer trash degradation, Ant finds himself over his head in a cesspool of drugs, lies, and all the ties that bind thicker than blood. But when he reaches the bottom he realizes he can’t even ensure that he’ll make it out alive, so when the cute boy he loves to hate volunteers to help out things really get messy, forcing Ant to choose between his family or his heart”

    The first sentence has TRAIL and TRAILER in it, it’s never a good idea to use the same word twice in the one sentence.
    “and all the ties that bind thicker than blood” – doesn’t work for me. I get the feeling the Author is trying too hard.
    And the last sentence has some 45-words in it plus it used WHEN twice and 7x a form of HE/HIS. It was way too much for me to take in with one gasp. The last sentence needs to be made into 2-3 shorter, sharper sentences that get rid of pointless words (e.g. can be cut right back).

    As for the love-interest for ANT, I kind of didn’t get that. It had the feeling of “Oh I better add a love-interest for good measure.”
    This could be easily fixed if you had the boyfriend a name and mention him closer to the start, perhaps something about black gay trying to find another gay-guy in the South is near impossible, or something like that and throw in the BF’s name.

    Also, this story reminds me a little of 8mm – which isn’t a bad thing 🙂

  • Just want to chime in on query one: I would cut your personalization and dive right into the book. Generally, you want paragraph one to give your hook/why we should care about your character. Paragraph two should lay out the conflict, and paragraph three the stakes (though if you are smart about your sentences, conflict and stakes could go in one paragraph).

    I do want to mention: your lead’s name threw me for a loop. I lived in Atlanta, GA for ten years, and I cannot look at the name Atalanta without thinking it is a) Atlanta misspelled and b) a very weird name for someone (I’m sure someone will name/has named their baby Atlanta, but I don’t advise it!). In a contemporary story especially, the reader is going to think about this protag’s odd name more than, well, focusing on the actual story. I understand Atalanta was a Greek figure, but generally Sooper Younique names are distracting, IMO.

    I actually like the detail of the population of her town; I think it gives the query a bit of color. But I do think that detail could be dropped into a pithier sentence. And play up small town Florida! Small town South has a certain flavor, and Florida is its own animal… it’s a unique detail.

    From what I can tell, these are your important details/things you need to convey clearly in your query: what are her new superpowers? Why is her nickname the Osprey (since, you know, it is your title)? You need to show me who her family/boyfriend/friends etc. are before you can dump apparent conflict on me if you want me care/understand stakes. You should establish who your character is and what her situation is before you move onto conflicts. Speaking of: what are the stakes?

    So this is possible your most intriguing line, IMO: “One thing is for sure, being Batman isn’t easy with Robin Hood around.” Putting aside the fact that Batman doesn’t have superpowers (which I actually think is OK if your point is she wants to be a social justice advocate… though Robin Hood is too?), this means you have a Robin Hood like antagonist in your story! And you haven’t actually mentioned it yet! Now, I’m going to guess that Robin Hood is the plucky antagonist/turns out to be the love interest? (if not, that’s fine, but that where my brain went) Set that up! And while you’re at it: if she wants to be Batman/whomever, maybe explain why? Is she a comic book nerd? Color!

    This graph: “THE OSPREY is a 67,000-word Young Adult novel that appeals to the readers who are looking forward to more kick-ass super heroines in their life, and are longing for super-powered adventure and romance on the YA shelf.” You are saying a whole lot and yet saying nothing. First off, this is not just a Young Adult novel. It needs a genre. Sounds like urban fantasy to me, so say “THE OSPREY is a YA urban fantasy complete at 67,000 words.” You should list comps as a means of illustrating what kind of readers your books will appeal to. I would pick two relatively recent YA books with urban fantasy elements and humor. Since it is superpowers, you could maybe get away with a media comp. Something like: “I believe it will appeal to readers of BOOK by AUTHOR and BOOK by AUTHOR.” Or, if you mix a media comp with a book comp, change “readers” to “fans of.” (KT Hanna’s suggestion of Kick-Ass is a good one, though they don’t have superpowers)

    Anecdotally, superhero YA is very hard to sell, so your job in this query will be to convince an agent that your book stands out from the crowd and could sell. Double reason comps are important because you should show you are aware of the current market. A tall order, but not impossible! It does certainly sound quirky, but it needs more specific details and reasons to care about the MC and her problems.

    Good luck!

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