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Query Workshop … critiques by Brenda Drake and Jami Montgomery

Sunday, 17 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 I’m pulling out my ink pen and giving suggestions to my writers on how to tighten, sharpen, and shine their queries.

And here is my first critique …

Sixteen-year-old class president Kenzie Moriarty doesn’t think life can get much better. (This line isn’t hooking enough. We get her age and that she’s in school here, but we don’t get why she thinks life can’t get much better. You must hook the agent right off with a “WOWZER” of a hook.) But when her Grams lays (“lays the news” read odd to me. It could just be me, though.) the news on her that she and her sisters are the Fates and immortal (This is unclear. I think you could make this clearer with a different structure so that it’s clear they are both the Fates and are Immortal.), Kenzie’s torn between being thrilled she’ll have eternity to accomplish everything she wants, and dread that one of the girls will be responsible for ending people’s lives. (I love this. Great conflict.)

 To determine which sister will be responsible for each job, Kenzie and her sisters have to take two tests. (Are the tests too complicated to mention here? I’d like to know what they have to do. Mud wrestle or fight to the death? Or is it a mental test? I think giving the agent a clue as to what the tests are would add a cool element to this pitch.) The first decides who will spin life-threads while the second determines who will cut them. (Love!) When Kenzie meets sweet and sexy artist Tanner Groves she decides life is fine just the way it is. (It feels like this sentence needs something more to it. How is life just fine the way it is?) Kenzie’s adamant it won’t be her job to cut (How is she adamant? Maybe it’s just that she’s “determined to beat the tests” to make sure she’s a spinner instead of a cutter? What does she have to do? What are her odds? Are the tests something she’s not good at? Are her sisters more talented? What are the obstacles?) , but the life hanging by a thread isn’t at all what she expected. (Nice!)

 FATED is a 69,000 word young adult urban fantasy that will appeal to readers of The Goddess Test series by Aimee Carter and readers of Tera Lynn Childs’ Forgive My fins series.

 I am a member of SCBWI and received my English degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Thank you for your time and consideration. (I’d give this its own paragraph.)


This is a great start. I would come up with a better hook, add a little more information, and clarify a few things as mentioned. Otherwise, great job, and I love this premise!

And here is my second critique…

Dear XYZ,

Sophia, Isabella, Madison, and Emma (Age?) are nerds and proud of it.(This isn’t hooking. Your hook should be what is special about your story. That these girls are proud to be nerds doesn’t work. Find that spark that makes your story unique.) They’re as enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering, and math – the STEM subjects – as Fancy Nancy is about being a girly girl.(Cute!)  They’ve organized their own STEM club, and even have their own STEM kits filled with nerdy goodies such as calculators, rulers, and duct tape. (This is nice details, but it doesn’t go in the first paragraph. The first paragraph should be the hook.)  When the girls decide to enter the school science fair, however, their individual experiments go horribly wrong, and they have to combine their individual STEM talents to save the day. (And here’s the hook at the end. It should be at the beginning of the query. You want to hook the agent right off with the inciting event. What propels the characters into their journey where they’ll never be the same again?)

The STEM (STEM is used so many times in this query that when I first opened the .doc they glared at me. Don’t use this word but a few times to avoid this.)  Girls Take Off (Titles are all caps: GIRLS TAKE OFF) is a complete picture book manuscript at 747words (Not sure about word count – see Veronica’s comments below.).It is also timely given the current interest in promoting STEM education (particularly amongst girls) from The White House, The Girl Scouts, The American Association of University Women, the University of California – Berkeley (California Girls in STEM Initiative), the Center for STEM Education for Girls, and numerous other groups. (Don’t give the agent a long list of who has interest in promoting STEM education, just give a few, and then end with “and numerous groups.)

If the book is well received, I would love to build the concept into a series, starting with additional picture books, one for each member of The STEM Girls.  I would also like the girls to have a vibrant online presence.  I developed a concept site (http://MySTEMGirls.com) to give a feel for what I envision for The STEM Girls brand, and to serve as a platform for generating interest in the book prior to publication. (Strike this out. The agent will ask this when needed after he/she offers representation. He or she is already thinking this stuff while reading your query. Plans for the future should be left for later discussions.)

I am submitting this manuscript to other agents, but I think this book is particularly well-suited to your list because . . . [personalized].

As for my background, I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and a former senior government official.  I know that breaking into the picture book market is challenging, but I promise that you will not find an author more dedicated or appreciative of your time. (Uh, no. Don’t do this either. You don’t want to turn off an agent. How do you know they don’t have clients more dedicated or appreciative of his/her time? I know that you didn’t mean it that way, but you want to be careful mentioning things like this in the query)

I look forward to working with you, and thank you in advance for your time. (Good!)


I really enjoyed this premise, and it’s such a great idea. Make sure there’s only one space between sentences. I’m not sure if it changed during transmission or not, so thought I’d just mention it in case it didn’t.

Here’s how you should structure your query letter:

Paragraph 1 – The hook with the characters and the inciting event or plot catalyst.

Paragraph 2 – Mini-synopsis with conflict and crisis. What will your character have to do to save the day? What will happen if they don’t accomplish it?

Paragraph 3 – Further information about your book. Like word count & genre. (Some like to start with this paragraph and then have the hook follow. I would only do this if you have a referral or you met the agent, or you had an agent and are looking for a new one. If you don’t have anything special, then start with the hook.

Paragraph 4 – Your bio.

Remember, your query only has to give enough information to entice an agent to ask for more pages. Don’t go into too much detail and keep your query to one page. (You do. I’m just saying that for everyone else.)

And because I don’t normally work on Picture Book pitches, I decided to ask my critique partner, Veronica Bartles, who does to add anything she thinks is needed.

* 500-600 words is a good target for picture books. You can sometimes go higher, but the closer you get to 1,000 words, the more agents and editors tend to shy away. (Here’s a good word count link here.)

* This manuscript has the feeling of a middle grade, not picture book. With the repeated mentions of STEM and the science fair, I’m picturing 4th or 5th grade (3rd grade at the youngest), which is squarely in MG territory. STEM is big even as young as kindergarten (and maybe even pre-K), in that thecurriculum does include a lot of science and technology at younger and younger ages, but they don’t really put the emphasis on calling it “STEM” at that age. And I’ve never known a school system that does science fairs for grades younger than 3rd.


 Veronica Bartles

Author of TWELVE STEPS (Swoon Romance 25 March 2014) and LETTERS FROM HEAVEN



My wonderful marketing assistant, Jami Montgomery, offered to do a critique on my post day. You can find Jami’s bio in my sidebar. Also, Jami has an editing service. Check out her Facebook page here and the price list here.

JamiJami Montgomery

Dear Agent:

Eric wants to give his father a tight warm hug, and then shove a sword in him. The hug is for siring him, and the sword is for raping his mother and ruining her life twenty years ago.

All his childhood, Eric endured the arrows of ridicule for being a bastard while his mother lived the life of a whore to survive. For all that, he blames that filthy pig, (I would take this out. The fact that he raped Eric’s mother and then left them both tells the reader the father is a “pig” without the extra words) his father.

He has been preparing all his life to confront his father, but finding one man in the entire world isn’t easy(,) and he only knows his father is a dangerous sorcerer. His only clue is something that the pig dropped near his mother that night(,) and that clue leads him to a man(I would remove this as well) Azal.

Azal is champion of a game: a game (Extra wording that isn’t necessary) played in hell with mind, magic, and swords.(Does this game have a name? More background and information on the game would be nice, since it seems to be a huge part of the plot of your novel.) To get his hands on Azal, Eric has to play and win that game against him (The wording is a bit strange, to me. Maybe try something along the lines of “Erica has to play against him and win.” It’s easier to read and not as wordy). But(But is a weak word. Maybe “However” would enhance the sentence and give it more of a sense of dread and foreboding) the thought of winning is only(This word sounds off in this sentence. I would remove it) laughable because freaks from(“Freaks” doesn’t sit right with me. I think just saying that his nightmares wait for him in the game is just as foreboding) his worst nightmares are waiting to squash him, burn him, and eat him in the game. (The repetitive “him”s are unnecessary) Oh, and (The “Oh, and” sounds a bit unprofessional. Are there other words you could use instead?) the game is all that stands between an army of monsters and millions. (I would elaborate here. Millions of what? People? Dollars? And where did the army of monsters come in? What do they have to do with Eric finding his father?)

My adult fantasy, WALLS OF INFINITY, is complete at 125,000 words. The book will appeal to the adult readers of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and A Game of Thrones. (This information is normally found at the beginning of a query, not the end) Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards

Thank you Veronica for weighing in on this query for me and Jami for offering a critique! Everyone join us for our the next set of query critiques and check out the ones that came before. The critiques are going on 11/1 through 11/19. Please feel free to drop questions in the comments.

Filed: Misc, Workshops

  • Xander Ironheart says:

    Thank you Brenda for accepting my query. 🙂
    And Jami, thanks to you for critiquing my query. You were great. 🙂
    I’m the author of Walls of Infinity whose query Jami critiqued on this page.

  • Chris Bailey says:

    Thank you, Brenda, for this series! I know I’ll be referring back to the critiques for future query letters. There’s nothing quite as educational as reading opening lines that resemble ones I’ve drafted in the past and finding out that they’re not hooks, after all. Oops. Will keep trying! 🙂

  • Jami says:

    Thank you so much for letting me critique a query for you, Brenda 😀 It was a great experiment.

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