Andrea’s query critique . . .
New Adult: Thriller
Dear Agents— (personalized)
[Hi there! First, thank you so much for trusting me with your query letter. I hope I can give some feedback that resonates with you, but as always, it’s your story. So take what works for you.]
[Initial thought just from scanning the page—this query is very likely too long. There are no “absolutes” but generally, you want to aim for 350 words. The aim of a query letter is not to tell your whole story, it’s to create enough interest that an agent wants to read more.
It had been a hell of a year for death already by August of 1991 for sisters Kristi & Dana Larsen. Discovering the body of a missing 11-yr-old girl outside a secret biker bar on the outskirts of their hometown, a rural suburb of Chicago, was the icing on the cake. [I’m a little confused as to whether this novel takes place in 1991, or the body discovery is something that happened in the girls’ past. I’m assuming it takes place in ’91, given the girls’ ages. If that’s right, you’ll want to change that first sentence to present tense. (All queries should be written in present.)] Kristi, 16, grieving the recent losses of both her best friend and aunt, wants nothing more than to retreat from the world and escape into her heavy metal. Dana, 17, back in town from a months-long drug binge, is trying to swindle the Outlaws biker gang out of several tons of heroin before returning to the city. [General commentary, but you may want to consider this Young Adult rather than New Adult. NA is a difficult age range to sell, and your MCs are well within YA age range.] When another girl is kidnapped a few days later, it sends them down radically different paths. [I am 100% here for these sisters getting justice for these young girls.] Dana chooses a path of revenge based on old injuries and Kristi is forced to decide between standing on the sidelines & piecing together the clues to the murderer in the small town’s midst, but to do so she’ll have to channel her grief before time runs out.
[This is a lot of info, and it’s presented in a fairly formal way. Take a minute and go read the back cover of a few of your favorite books, or the summaries you’d see on Barnes and Noble/Amazon etc. Queries aren’t exactly the same, but it should give you an idea of how your query should read. Or, try writing the query in first person, from the POV of your MC (important note: please don’t send first-person queries to agents—they rarely work—but it can be good practice for getting voice and perspective into your query.)
For example, if either girl was writing this query, would they say “We found another body and it sends us down radically different paths”? Probably not. Your query should read almost like a part of your manuscript, not as if a third party is reporting on the events.
Harboring a dark secret is Kristi’s favorite teacher & mentor, Jason Thomas Wilson. With looks like Tom Cruise and a personality like Paul Rudd, everyone in town loves him. Hiding in plain sight, he’s also overwhelmed by grief which compels him to abduct these girls, looking to recreate past events of a lost romance in hopes of new endings. [Just a quick note on phrasing here—it is definitely not grief that compels anyone to murder children. I firmly believe villains should have motivations and a reason behind their actions, but I’d just be careful how you present them.] [So the teacher is the killer? Do we know this in the book from early on? If not, I wouldn’t reveal it here. Remember, the aim is to entice, not to tell the entire story.] Only someone close to him might have a chance of stopping this psychotic charade, but can some teenage girls be up to the task when the police have failed thus far? [Rhetorical questions in queries almost always hurt more than help. You want to lead the reader, not give them a chance to provide their own answers, because they’re rarely going to give the answer you want them to.]
Standing in their way is not only each other, but also their own family: Robert, their alcoholic minister father, who becomes overzealous in his quest to see justice done, getting farther away from his own faith in the process; their Uncle Russ, the Police Detective on the case who is overwhelmed and in over his head; Heather, their 12-yr-old youngest sister who goes along with her eldest sister’s revenge plans; not to mention Kristi’s emotionally-needy boyfriend, Phil, who tries to get her to leave the whole town behind and run away with him. [You’ve now named seven people in this query. That’s about four too many. J I don’t think you need this paragraph. You can give us some of the details when describing how it fits into the plot as it relates to the sisters trying to find the missing girls, but you probably don’t need to use any of the names (ie “Kristi’s younger sister” is fine) and we don’t need to know about all of them. Narrow your focus to your main MC and their story/goal/stakes.] Finally the two sisters will have to take on both the consequences of Dana’s actions and the killer in their midst, as Kristi is left to choose between violence or retreat. [What does this mean, exactly? Queries NEED specifics. What kind of violence? What is she going to do? What does retreat mean? She gives up?] Despite her best intentions, choosing the right path carries a heavy cost. [What is that cost?] What depths will she have to go to and what toll will it take? [Good question! You should answer it, right here, in the query. Those are your stakes! And you want them to be clear and specific. You want to tell us exactly what Kristi has to do, what it will cost her, and what wil happen if she fails.]
[Okay, let’s talk query writing. First, we need to know who your MC is. I’m assuming Kristi and maybe Dana, but I’m not entirely sure. Are there other POVs as well? Generally, you’re going to want to pick ONE and write your query from that POV. Judging from your last paragraph, it seems like Kristi is the one who has the biggest decision to make at the end of the novel, so she’s probably the one you’re going to want to focus on.
Now, most queries have some basic questions that need answering.
- Who is my MC and what do they want?
- What do they have to do to get it, and who/what is standing in their way?
- What happens if they fail? (These are your stakes.)
So, let’s look at Kristi. 16yo Kristi is still reeling from the loss of her aunt and BFF when she finds the body of an 11yo girl outside a secret biker bar. We have our MC! Now what does she want? She wants to retreat from the world and escape to her heavy metal. We understand why she’d want that with the losses she’s experienced, but as goals go, it’s kind of hard to quantify. Your MC should want something–something measurable that people can look at by the end of the book and see whether they’ve achieved it or not. Now, maybe that’s just holing up in her room until the end of time, but, is that a * compelling * goal? Will readers cheer for her to never speak to another human? Seems like finding who hurt that little girl she found and finding the other girl who’s gone missing is the type of goal that drives a story.
So. Kristi. Lost two loved ones and just wants to retreat BUT THEN she finds this little girl and she wants to avenge her and then another girl goes missing and Kristi feels compelled to find her. Now we have an MC and what they want!
It’s worth mentioning WHY Kristi feels so compelled to avenge/find these girls though. Is there a personal connection? Does she feel responsible somehow? Why isn’t it enough to just call the police and expect that they’ll handle it? This doesn’t need to be a drawn-out explanation, but it does help show us who Kristi is and give depth to her personality.
Number 2! What does Kristi have to do to achieve her goal and what’s standing in her way. This is where things get a little fuzzy. “Channel her grief” is kind of nebulous. What actual acts does she need to take? And what or who is stopping her from doing them? It seems like her sister is a roadblock—maybe Kristi is trying to piece together the clues and manage Dana at the same time? What else specifically about the case is making it difficult to solve? This is where you get to show off your plot a bit. Not from beginning to end. Not every twist and turn. Just give us enough specifics that we understand how your story works without turning your query into a synopsis.
And that leads us to the third question: What happens if she fails? I’m guessing a little girl stays missing/is murdered, unless the cops find her. You mention choosing the right path comes at a heavy cost—this is where you need specifics and not language that could apply to any number of books. You want the detail of your story. Show exactly what Kristi has to give up—what it will cost her—to find this little girl. These are the stakes of your story.
I love the idea of these two sisters trying to overcome their own grief and issues to try to find this missing little girl. And it sounds like you’ve got a complex and emotional plot. I think right now it’s just getting buried in the query. Try to focus one person and tell the story from their POV. Show us the heart of the story.]
It’s no secret that violence is an epidemic in the US. [Not sure you need this. But your call.] This story came together upon hearing one town’s stories of grief & forging through tragedy following a mass shooting in a recent year where I lost four close family/friends and had some soul-searching of my own.[On a personal note, I am very very sorry for your losses. <3] At 93K words, “EXIT, LIGHT” tries to probe those issues and not be your run-of-the-mill thriller. [I’m sure it’s not your intention, but this reads a bit like you’re insulting other thrillers. There’s nothing wrong with highlighting what makes your book special, but you can do that without tearing down other books.] [The phrasing for this sentence that I find simplest and clearest is: EXIT, LIGHT is a 93,000-word NA(YA?) thriller with series potential.] It’s True Detective meets Winter’s Bone, told in a multi-POV format like Into the Water, with the family conflict similar to Sharp Objects — like Scandinavian crime fiction with a teenage twist (but aimed at adult audiences.) [There are a lot of comps here. I’d try to slim this down. Sometimes too many comps can muddy the waters so much that it becomes hard to get an idea of what the story might look like. I’m not sure what you mean by aimed at adult audiences, and it’s hard to tell whether the book would make more sense as YA or Adult without knowing all the details of POVs/ages etc, but I’d do somet research and see which fits best for you.] I’m a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts MFA program and a Screenwriting teacher at various levels. [This is good! Bio is relevant and concise.] This is my debut novel, [Not necessary to state this is a debut] and while I’m not sure about series potential, I think a sequel or two might be in order. [This may just be me not quite understanding, but a sequal or two seems like a series? Adding “with series potential” to the end of your title/wordcount sentence is cleaner and standard enough that it will avoid the confusion. Agents won’t hold you to that if a series doesn’t work out. Thanks for your consideration.
Sincerely, Full Name
and website (if you have one and want to include it.)]
Thank you, Andrea, for the critique! We are showcasing three mentor critiques each day leading up to the Pitch Wars 2019 submission window, so make sure to read the other two critiques for today and come back tomorrow for more.