Welcome to the June Query Workshop with some of our past and present PitchWars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected many wonderful writers to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query letter for one lucky writer. The writers are anonymous. Follow along all month to view the query critiques. We welcome comments and further suggestions, but please keep them kind and respectful.
Here are the next two mentors and their critiques …
Mindy is a YA author who has worked in a high school library for thirteen years. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, a post-apocalyptic survival story set in a world with very little freshwater, has been optioned for film my Stephanie Meyer’s Fickle Fish Films. The companion novel, IN A HANDFUL OF DUST was released in 2014. Look for her Gothic historical thriller, A MADNESS SO DISCREET in October of 2015 from Katherine Tegen Books.
Mindy’s upcoming release …
Grace Mae knows madness. She keeps it locked away, along with her voice, trapped deep inside a brilliant mind that cannot forget horrific family secrets. Those secrets, along with the bulge in her belly, land her in a Boston insane asylum.
When her voice returns in a burst of violence, Grace is banished to the dark cellars where her mind is discovered by a visiting doctor who dabbles in the new study of criminal psychology. With her keen eyes and sharp memory, Grace will make the perfect assistant at crime scenes. Escaping from Boston to the safety of an ethical Ohio asylum, Grace finds friendship and hope, hints of a life she should have had. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who stalks young women. Grace, continuing to operate under the cloak of madness, must hunt a murderer while she confronts the demons in her own past.
In this beautifully twisted historical thriller, Mindy McGinnis, acclaimed author of Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, explores the fine line between sanity and insanity, good and evil—and the madness that exists in all of us.
Mindy’s query critique …
Below is my query for THE OTHER EYE
Seeking revenge for a beating he deserved, sociopath Bobby Lee Stover commits a mass shooting. An innocent victim, young Jim Dunn is left blind in one eye. This is a good hook, and I’m curious to read more. However, the phrasing you have at work in the second sentence is passive, which takes a little bit of the punch out of what is otherwise a strong hook. I’d rework your second sentence to remove the passive voice.
Years later Bobby Lee encounters someone who knows his murderous past. He kills the man, not knowing he carries an organ donor card. The way this is phrased makes it sound like he wouldn’t kill him if he did know he’s an organ donor, which I’m sure isn’t the case, so you’ll want to rephrase this a little. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to include the fact that Bobby is never arrested / caught / tried for the mass shooting (at least, I assume that’s the case since he kills this man).
Jim How old is Jim at this point? feels lucky to get an eye transplant, right up until the nightmares start. Every one of them ends in his own murder. He then chances to meet Carrie Gibson How do they meet? This sounds like authorial convenience, the recipient of his I’d use “the donor’s” not “his donor’s” donor’s other eye. That’s when Bobby Lee, the man who murdered the organ donor (I’d – cut, we already know this), the man haunting Jim’s and Carrie’s dreams, first tries to kill them. Why would Bobby Lee want to kill them, and how would he know who had received the organs?
Only two things can identify the donor’s murderer. Jim has one, Carrie has the other, and the killer wants the complete set. So the eyes themselves carry the memory of the donor’s murder? You need to make it clear how Bobby Lee would know that 1) the organs were donated in the first place 2) who received them 3) that the recipients are having nightmares transmitted by the donated organs that can allow them to identify Bobby Lee.
Thank you for this opportunity.
Jeanmarie is a YA Contemporary writer represented by Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. She’s a University of Michigan grad (Go Blue!) who somehow missed receiving her Hogwarts letter and has never gotten over the disappointment. You can find her on a beach in NYC, with a book in hand, wishing she could surf as well as her daughters.
Jeanmarie’s query critique …
WINNER TAKES ALL, a 75K YA magical realism, is a dystopian Mulan retelling. It is inspired by the Yuan Dynasty and the Japanese occupation of China, as well as the current political instability of my home, Hong Kong. This comment is mere nitpickiness, so take it for what it’s worth: you can omit the “it is”, and blend both sentences together for a more streamlined full sentence. For example, “WINNER TAKES ALL is a 75K YA magical realism Mulan retelling, inspired by the Yuan Dynasty……” I also would shy away from mentioning the dystopian genre because of so much discussion going around that that genre is a harder sell. Why potentially turn an agent off in the first line? You can do without it, anyway—the descriptive elements you’ve already included here are great on their own.
Talisa can’t see ghosts, and no one can find out. [By “no one,” do you mean none of the Delennians? I think so, but I’m not sure. I’d consider naming the Delennians in that first sentence to be 100% clear. Like, “Talisa can’t see ghosts, and the Delennians cannot find out.”] Delennians cling to their ancestors and traditions like the only meat of the year. Luckily, everyone’s too busy surviving the poor harvest and the rule of the foreign Qihrin. Another scrawny peasant down the street isn’t worth attention.
Then her family sells her into the army. [I love how this sentence is separated out to show its importance. I can hear the background soundtrack going, “Dun, dun, duuuuuun.” Great!]
Conscripts [What is a conscript? This threw me off. (Or maybe it’s just me and I need a vocabulary lesson, LOL.) Maybe use one brief adjective in front of the word to help give context to those who don’t immediately know the word’s meaning] haunted by every death can’t kill a battlefield of enemies. For once, Talisa comes out ahead of her peers. [I like how she’s suddenly in a position of power. Great shift there.] The Qihrin [Consider describing the Qihrin again with one good adjective, like, “the feared Qihrin” or the “the powerful Qihrin” or something like that, just to tie things back to the mention of the Qihrin in the first paragraph—it brings the Qihrin alive again] offer her a government position, [I’m a big fan/abuser of em dashes. I think you could use one here instead of a comma] life without winters on an empty stomach. The price is her freedom, and the alternative rebellion, risking death for a crown—and the favour of Delennian spirits. [I got lost in that last sentence. I’m not sure which phrase connects with which, and which two choices are supposed to be in opposition. I *think* my confusion stems from the punctuation. Is rebellion the alternative to the government position? If so, I think it might be clear to say, “…and the alternative, rebellion” OR “…and the alternative—rebellion.” Also, I don’t understand the phrase “risking death for a crown (although it’s quite a pretty phrase! Don’t ditch it completely!) Does she risk death by NOT accepting the government position or by taking it? And where does the crown come in? I think if this sentence were tightened, it would clear up so much, and would help push the conflict even further. It seems like it’s a critical point in the story (and the query), so you really want to get it as clear as you can.] When Talisa chooses the latter [by the latter, do you mean the favor of the Delennian spirits? Again, if the previous sentence were made clearer, I think I’d have a better handle on this here sentence and wouldn’t need to ask this question], the Qihrin defeat and kill her before she’s eighteen.
A year later, fifteen-year-old Ylen just wants to leave her past as Talisa’s ally behind and shelter her younger brother. But her uncle schemes to kill her brother and claim Ylen’s hand in marriage. The Qihrin prince [I’m curious…why does he want to find Talisa so badly?] offers to eliminate her uncle if Ylen tracks down Talisa’s ghost for him.
Talisa’s ghost isn’t in the capital where she died. To find the hidden dead queen [When did Talisa become a queen? I thought she was a scrawny peasant? Does this relate to the “crown” in Talisa’s section? If so, that sentence with the crown mentioned in it could use fleshing out. That seems like a really important piece of info.], Ylen retraces Talisa’s footsteps through long-forgotten battlefields and palaces. But much better known is Talisa’s hatred of Qihrin. [I think you need a more powerful transition than “but much better known.” Something that brings her to the places where she WILL find Talisa would pack more punch. Something that shows the reader that the key to finding Talisa is in her hatred of Qirhin, and what does that mean? Will Ylen have to infiltrate the Qirhin?] To save her brother, Ylen must betray the queen’s legacy to the queen’s enemies.
WINNER TAKES ALL alternates between Talisa’s and Ylen’s POVs in the past and present. [This is up to you, but I think since you have a connection to Hong Kong, you might want to highlight that once again. It shows that YOU are uniquely qualified to write this story, and that you’re passionate about it, and the culture and history depicted within it. Plus, it’s just plain interesting.] Thank you for your time and consideration.
This story sounds SO super cool! What a fantastic premise! I happen to love Mulan (and Asian culture in general) so the concept was very intriguing to me. I got a little lost in the paragraph where Talisa is presented with the choice of taking the Qirhin’s government position. I think you can easily make that clearer with a little fleshing out, and also making a few more references to how Talisa becomes queen. I particularly liked Ylen’s journey! As it stands now, she gets less time in the query than Talisa does. Maybe a few more bits about her conflict and betrayal would help heighten the tension at the end. Best of luck with this!
Thank you, Mindy and Jeanmarie, for your critiques. Interested in learning more about querying from those who’ve been there? Come back Thursday for our next two critiques by Pitch Wars mentors Leatrice McKinney and KT Hanna.