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Query Workshop … critiques by Laura Tims

Thursday, 14 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 Laura Tims 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 Laura…

Photo on 9-17-13 at 11

Laura Tims is a college student (one more semester!) who doesn’t like coffee but who will gladly drink all of your tea. Her young adult book, PLEASE DON’T TELL, will be coming out in the fall of 2015 from HarperCollins. In the meantime, you may find her biting her nails, playing with her hair, or engaging in other nervous habits. She’s repped by Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency and blogs here: http://literatureandlaura.wordpress.com/. You can also follow her on Twitter @laura_tims.

And here is her first critique …

Dear [Agent name],

I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in NA romance, and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].

Even from jail, twenty-one-year-old Payton Daniels’s father is ruining her life. (Great opening!) The last week of her senior year of high school, her father (just say ‘he’) did something unforgivable (I almost want something here that implies shock/horror instead, since what he did is obviously unforgivable; maybe ‘unthinkable’)—he killed her mother. After Fleeing to Florida State two days after graduation, she severed ties with everything from her past, including her boyfriend of two years. But when her scholarship money runs out, Payton has no choice but to go back to Oregon home and enroll at Drexler University to escape debt purgatory. Her plan is She plans to lay low and apply for early admission to the medical school program at Drexler Drexler’s med school program in the spring.

Right off the bat, you have some strong attention-grabbing conflict, which is excellent. I’d say that this paragraph is mostly lacking in voice. Is there a way you can replace some sentences with phrasing that stands out more (to match your conflict?) There’s also so much going on in this paragraph that I’m starting to feel a bit bogged down with all the details. You can fix this by cutting tiny things that aren’t crucial to the query, like the fact that she’s applying early admission, or changing sentences around so they’re slightly shorter and easier to digest.

The task is easier said than done (This is a clichéd phrase. Replace it with something original, like “Misfortune’s still got its claws in Payton”) as Payton discovers that her Medical Ethics teacher, who doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for her father (something punchier could go here – “who turns up his nose at the daughter of a murderer”), is on the medical admissions board. To top it all off, she runs into her angry (maybe a more dynamic word than “angry”—‘resentful’ If he’s going to be made sympathetic later, ‘hurt’?) ex-boyfriend, Blake Hiller, who also happens to be a med major and is enrolled in the same Medical Ethics class.

This is a tiny suggestion, but maybe include Blake’s name in the first paragraph so we make the immediate connection that he’s the boyfriend she abandoned when she fled.

Blake does everything in his power (again, this is a clichéd phrase. “Blake’s hellbent on making…”) to make class as awkward as possible for Payton. As if being at the same university isn’t close enough, they both apply for a medical internship and When they’re both hired for the same medical internship, Payton finds that being forced together for hours each week is just what the soon-to-be doctor ordered. Rephrase: “the forced companionship sparks an old flame.” With their relationship burning hotter than an Erlenmeyer flask on a Bunsen burner, (love this!) Payton’s feels her walls are melting down. But when Blake starts meddling with her family affairs, (again, this sounds clichéd and oddly old-fashioned. Rephrasing example: “When Blake’s well-intentioned intervening with her still-traumatized family gets too personal”) Payton must decide if she is willing to come to terms with her father and risk her acceptance to medical school or push it away along with everyone in it—including the only guy she’s ever loved.

Again, there isn’t much voice in this phrasing. Maybe something like “Payton may have to trade acceptance into med school for her own acceptance of her father’s actions, or go back to pushing her past away—including the only guy she’s ever dared to love.” Phrasing aside, I’m having a bit of trouble buying that one teacher’s disdain for her father’s history could prevent her from getting into this med school. Is there a way to up the ante there? Maybe it’s not just disdain, but he knew her father, maybe he liked her mother, or maybe he sees only Payton’s father in Payton? He seems key to the conflict, so really deliver his issues with a punch.

Coming Alive is a 70,000 word dual narrative New Adult Contemporary Romance. It has finaled in the RWA LERA chapter contest.

If this is a dual narrative, I’d almost expect to hear more about the other narrative character, who I’m assuming is Blake, in the query. What are his goals?

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

I think the strength of this query is the promise of the dynamic inner conflict your MC will face with her history, so that’s great! Seems like this story has a lot going for it. Just make sure your language is strong and has voice—sometimes agents look to the writing in the query to assess whether or not you’re a strong writer overall.

And here is her second critique…

Dear Amazing Agent,

I follow you on Twitter and recently read in your #MSWL post that you are interested in representing more young adult titles. With that in mind, I thought you might be interested in my completed 70,000 word YA Historical Romance, NOTHING BUT SKY.

Great personalization here! Showing that you’re familiar with their Twitter means that you’re probably also familiar with their querying preferences. It’s a nice touch to connect your MS to something that they’ve mentioned they’re looking for.

The only place 18-year-old Grace Lancaster feels alive is in the air. This is a great opener, but try rephrasing to make it punchier. “Eighteen-year-old Grace Lancaster only feels alive in the sky.” As a post-World War I wing walker (comma here) Grace thrills crowds, and battles inner demons, trying to forget her miserable childhood. Each time Grace is in the sky she tests the limits of her mortality. Whether hanging by one leg off the edge of a wing or dangling by her teeth 500 feet above ground, she is always testing death.

Interesting premise, but your core idea here is that Grace wing-walks to drive away her fears, and you don’t need a whole paragraph to get that across. A single sentence like “The thrill of acrobatics with five hundred feet to fall is the one thing that scares her inner demons away” would really be all you need after you say she’s a wing walker.

But when Henry Patton, a handsome, young mechanic with plenty of scars from the battlefield, joins her barnstorming team, he questions her motives and sanity. Some rephrasing could work well here. “No one’s ever questioned her motives, or her sanity—until Henry Patton, a mechanic with plenty of scars and an easy smile to boot.” Here, I’m trying to make it sound snappier while also implying Grace’s attraction to him in a more memorable way. With each new death-defying trick, (Who is performing the tricks – Henry, or Grace? Confusing sentence structure) he pushes Grace to consider her reasons for being a daredevil. Annoyed with Henry’s constant interference, and her growing attraction to him, she continues to test the powers of the sky.

Again, it’s always good to condense where you can. You don’t need to say that he pushes Grace to consider her reasons—that’s implied when you say he questions her motives. Keep the last sentence, but consider rephrasing in a way that highlights voice: “But a boy’s concern is a hell of a lot less appealing than another day testing death in the air.”

After a her latest risky trick midair risk saves a pilot’s life, (is this a notable pilot, considering that it makes her a star? If so, say “famous pilot” or something like that) Grace becomes an instant star (wherever you can, always substitute phrases with more voice or, in your case, historical context—here, you could say “Grace becomes a media darling”), attracting a Hollywood studio who offers a chance to perform on the national stage. Knowing this will secure the future for her and her team, Grace jumps at the chance. Again, condensing: “When a big-time Hollywood studio asks her to perform on the national stage, Grace jumps at the chance to have her future, and fame, secured.” But when tragedy strikes, (Now that you’ve condensed, you probably have space to elaborate on this tragedy. Is Grace injured? Be specific where you can) it crushes Grace’s world, and brings an unwanted visit from her alcoholic father. (Is this visit important enough to mention in the query? There’s no sense of how it ties in with the main conflict you’ve been building. If you really want to mention it, you could weave it in better with your query itself, like “And nothing can scare her inner demons away when they knock on her door in the form of her alcoholic father”) With her dream of returning to the sky slipping away, Grace must face (stronger word here, like “confront”) her past and decide whether Henry, and her life, are worth risking for one final trick.

Is there a way you could elaborate on the last sentence? When you say “final trick” are you talking about her chance to perform on the national stage? I’m guessing that she gets injured and has to decide whether or not to perform on the national stage despite that, but it’s definitely guesswork—it’d be better if you said it outright in your query.

NOTHING BUT SKY is a work of fiction, but the story was inspired by real-life women who risked everything to follow their barnstorming dreams in the early twentieth century.

I hold a B.A. in Journalism and English. I have over fifteen years of experience in marketing and public relations and have used those skills to promote my work. (Not sure that you need this last sentence, but it’s your call.) I recently completed a public relations internship with Inklings Literary and am currently doing an editorial internship for Month9Books. My short stories, “Emanate,” and “Unearthed,” are part of The Fall and Summer’s Edge anthologies published by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. My writing has also appeared in Liquid Imagination.

I really love this idea, and I’d even suggest using CODE NAME VERITY (a popular historical YA that involves a female flyer) as a comparable title. Your concepts are strong all through the query—I’d just suggest some rephrasing to condense as well as to inject some voice. You could also clarify what the tragedy is, and the context of the final trick. Also, I know this isn’t “Title Critique”, but I’d suggest altering your title very slightly to read NOTHING BUT THE SKY – I tripped up a bit over NOTHING BUT SKY. 😉

Thank you Laura 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

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