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Query Workshop … critiques by Emmie Mears

Thursday, 7 November 2013  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

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 Emmie Mears 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 Emmie…

EmmieEmmie Mears

Student of history. Gamer. Language nerd. Displaced Celt. Emmie is currently mucking up the lives of demon-hunters and mythology professors for her current projects. She’s represented by Jessica Negrón of Talcott Notch Literary Services. She’s also the editor and Grand Pooh-Bah of Searching for SuperWomen, a geek hub focused on furthering the conversation about the role of women in geekdom and loving awesome things in the process. You can follow Emmie on Twitter (@emmiemears) and find out more about her on her website.


And here is her first critique …


To Whom It May Concern,

You probably already know this, but always address each query only to one specific agent. There’s no quicker way to get an agent to hit DELETE than a generic “Dear Agent” sort of opening. Each query should be tailored to the agent specifically. Read their blogs, check out their Twitter feeds, do research and craft a little opening paragraph that shows them you know who they are and why you believe your particular novel would be right up their alley.

A new evil stirs in the south. They come for those who posses ancient magic. Those who have the blood of the master races. Tabor has this magic flowing through her veins and it’s powerful.

Your hook has to do a couple things. It needs to set the tone of your story, and it has to entice someone to read more. While I think this first paragraph seems to set the tone (dark, dire, and fairly grim), its vagueness takes what could be powerful and gives it a little nudge toward melodrama. Right off the bat, there’s both too much detail and not enough.

Start with Tabor. She’s the focus here. She’s the one you want us to take this journey with. Maybe: “The ancient blood of the master races flows through Tabor’s veins. Power. Magic. A death sentence.”

On her nineteenth birthday the Dominion comes for her. How did they find her? If Tabor can’t escape the monastery she will become a slave to their murderous Lord Farenan. He wishes to use her magic for evil causing unbalance in the world. Her only chance for survival is to run away with her new caretaker, Arsan and find the true Artican nation, her people. But they haven’t been seen in a hundred years. Where does she start looking?

Here again, we have too much detail and not enough – which really just amounts to finding the right details to include. There are a lot of names and a story-specific jargon. The Dominion, Lord Farenan, unbalance, Arsan, Artican, a monastery, her caretaker. That’s a lot for one query, and this paragraph ends up being confusing. Also, there are two rhetorical questions in this paragraph that don’t do anything but stop the flow. I think the integral bits are here, but they need to be honed. We have our protagonist (Tabor), our antagonist (Farenan), and the inciting incident (the Dominion coming after her), but I still finish the paragraph without feeling the tug to know more.

Here’s an example of how it might be tied together a bit more: “In the south, the Dominion hunts down anyone with the blood of the ancients – and on her nineteenth birthday, they find Tabor. Captured by the murderous Dominion leader, Lord Farenan, Tabor and her magic are all he needs to claim true power in the world. He will use her magic to unleash evil.” (That last sentence is just a generic example, as I haven’t read your book. You can add any of Farenan’s specific goals there.)

Introducing another character (Arsan) is a bit much for this paragraph. You can omit the name and still understand that she has a new (maybe) ally.

For example: “Unwilling to be used, Tabor places her trust in her new caretaker who promises to aid her in finding her people – a people who have not been seen in a century.”

Many dangers lay on the trail ahead, but none as dangerous as betrayal. Their journey is cut short when Arsan hands her over to her pursuers for his own selfish reasons. They take her into the heart of Winter Land, a cold and desolate place, trying to force her to search out her ancestors, but the dark plays tricks on the eyes. Out of the shadows comes a fury named Nell, Tabor’s protector. She is freed from the grasp of Farenan, but for how long?

This paragraph tells a bit much for a query. There’s a new setting and another new character mentioned. I think this can be tied into the concluding paragraph.

With the help of her magic, Tabor decides to confront her captor. If she doesn’t stand up to him, he would pursue her to the ends of the earth. There would be no safe place to hide. A bloody battle ensues, ultimately leading to Farenan’s death, or is it?

Just as Tabor finds her people hiding in the mountains, an army of corpses, sent from the Underworld threatens to destroy them. The only way for Tabor to save her new home is to travel to the Underworld and defeat Farenan once and for all.

Can Tabor subdue her demons of self doubt, trusting that her magic will keep her alive, or will she be killed as the world falls apart around her?

These remaining paragraphs are a bit more suited to a synopsis than a query. A query is a hook to get the agents to read your attached pages, so you don’t need to go through every single plot point in the book.

Here’s what it might look like if you tied the above paragraphs together and omitted some of the plot points: “Tabor quickly finds that her new ally has his own agenda. Betrayed and recaptured, Tabor is taken to the heart of the Winter Land and forced to searched out her ancestors. Her people hold the secrets to her safety and her freedom – but Farenan seeks to make Tabor their destruction.”

I counted five rhetorical questions in the query, which a lot of agents say is a big pet peeve. All a query needs to do is tease the agent with enough of the story to get them to flip eagerly to your pages. If they end up confused, they won’t get that far. If you have trouble with figuring out what needs to be in the query, I recommend checking out Nathan Bransford’s Query Mad Lib. It’s formulaic, but it’s an excellent starting off point to make sure that you’re hitting the points that need to be hit as well as giving you an idea of what’s really extra.

The complete manuscript for the Artican is 94,000 words, for young adults and is available upon request. This is a multiple submission.  Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Keep your closing simple. You don’t need to tell agents that it’s a multiple submission these days, so you can omit that. Example:

“ARTICAN is YA fantasy, complete at 94,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.”

One final note is that there were a couple grammatical/mechanical errors in the query. Agents will make allowances for a couple (but not many) typos and spelling errors in a 400 page manuscript, but not in a 250 word query. They know from reading thousands and thousands of queries and sample pages per year that what they see in the query and opening pages will continue in the manuscript. Sometimes other eyeballs on a query or manuscript see a lot more than we see in our own work, so it’s understandable to miss some things. Hokey as it sounds, reading a query out loud can also pinpoint awkward sentence structure and construction.

I think you’ve got a solid story here – it just needs to be distilled into the most powerful possible vessel for a query. I hope these notes help you!

Good luck!

And here is her second critique…

Dear Agent Fabulous Agent,

I was delighted to read on your blog that you are seeking middle grade ghost stories and believe my MG paranormal mystery, GHOST FARM, may interest you. My novel, complete at 35,000 words, will appeal to fans of Micheal Beil’s SUMMER AT FORGOTTEN LAKE and Mary Downing Hahn’s ALL THE LOVELY BAD ONES.

Great personalization and opening! Also, kudos for having researched and included applicable comp titles. Fellow queriers, take note.

Instead of having a blast at summer camp, twelve-year-old Rebecca is stuck babysitting her cousin in Iowa. Bo-ring. But once she arrives at her family’s old farmhouse, her recurring nightmares about a freaky storm get worse, and a shadowy apparition starts stalking her every move. Rebecca’s not bored, she’s scared—and no one seems to care.

Bam. This is a fabulous hook. Not only does it immediately establish the setting and who I’ll be following for the duration of the story, but it clearly reflects the tone and voice of a middle grade ghost story. Bravo.

The only tiny alteration I’d make is adding “now” in front of the closing sentence of this paragraph. It’s a little transition that will make that last sentence a little less jarring, because we were told earlier that she’s bored. Without a transition, it contradicts what we were told earlier.

Her widowed mom is too busy dating some old boyfriend on the neighboring farm to help. His daughter Kelsie has all the adults wrapped around her finger, but in reality she’s a troublemaker always spying on Rebecca.

This bit is a little jumbled. I like the first sentence, because it’s good characterization for her mom and also establishes Rebecca as an independent protagonist. The second sentence gets a little muddled. The “in reality” is a little reminiscent of narrator intrusion, though I think this is an otherwise good characterization of Kelsie. Perhaps: “His daughter Kelsie has all the adults wrapped around her finger, even though she spends most of her time spying on Kelsie and [insert one more specific example of troublemaking here].”

Isolated but determined,Rebecca follows ghostly whispers to a stash of letters written by her great-great-grandma when she was twelve—letters that hint at a tragic family secret.As the ghost grows more frightening, Rebecca struggles to piece together the mystery in her family’s past, convinced it holds the key to stopping the ghost. But when the puzzle finally forms a picture, she realizes she isn’t the one in danger. If Rebecca can’t face the apparition and her terrifying dreams, Kelsie is the one who will suffer.

Nice. This paragraph establishes the stakes and Rebecca’s internal arc. This is really solid.

I am an active member of SCBWI and attended the 2013 winter conference in New York. For the past seven years I have written for and directed an annual variety show performed by adults for elementary school kids and parents. I have a degree in Radio/Television/Film from Northwestern University and have written several screenplays.

This is a good closing. The only comment I have here is to note that unless those screenplays have been sold and would be say, credited to you on IMDB, omit them. Mentioning them otherwise is similar to mentioning that you’ve written (but not published) several novels. If they are professional writing credits, mention that (“I have written several screenplays that have been optioned by Paramount/Fox/whatever”). An agent would definitely want to know if you’d sold any screenwriting on a professional level.

Overall, this is a great query. Other than a few nitpicks, I think you’ve nailed it. If I were an agent, I’d be requesting this from the query alone. Well done, and good luck!

Thank you for your consideration. I hope to hear from you soon.


Thank you Emmie 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.


Filed: Misc, Workshops

  • Nikola Vukoja says:

    What a great job Emmie did!

    For the author of QL -1 I had to read it 3 times to really follow all the names, though, after reading I could see where it was headed, but the (?) drove me a bit nutty. Take Emmie’s advice, cut back on all the names and rhetorical questions and use the space to establish the crux of what is at stake.
    Also, Emmie’s suggested changes (for what its worth) really worked for me.

    For the author of QL -2 I too loved your QL, ad the voice was so clear and evident — congrats on a great job! Again, take the (small) suggestions made and good luck 🙂

  • For the author of query 2- I agree with Emmie’s advice, just a couple small things. Great query! I also wanted to point out the author of comp title SUMMER AT FORSAKEN LAKE should be spelled Michael. Good luck!

  • Leila says:

    Wow. I love when Brenda puts these workshop series on her blog. I always learn so much. 🙂 Thanks to the brave people who sent in their queries, and thanks to Emmie for critiquing. You really honed in on what was good about each query and what needed work!

    I love the query for GHOST FARM. I wasn’t expecting for Rebecca to have to save the annoying Kelsie, and the query has left me wondering how Kelsie or her family is connected to the mystery at Rebecca’s family farm… Just the right amount of information and stakes!

  • Wendy Parris says:

    OMG I just saw this! I’m the author of query number 2. THANK YOU SO MUCH Emmie, for your kind words and your helpful suggestions! I’m seriously tearing up a bit here – I’ve worked on this darn query for months!. Really appreciate everyone’s blog comments as well.

    Brenda Drake, you’re the best 😉

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