Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Query Letter Critique


Original Query Letter

Dear Agent:

A series of what appear to be brutal animal attacks have beset the small Oregon town of Silver Falls, and sixteen-year-old resident Toby Hoffman is almost grateful for the carnage. While upset about the loss of life, he views the crisis as an opportunity. If he can save others from future attacks, maybe he can overcome the guilt he's been plagued by ever since failing to save his mother from a deadly car accident.

When he was younger, Toby heard all the scary bedtime stories about the creatures that lived in the neighboring woods of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. These stories were made up to keep the town’s children from wandering where they weren’t wanted, but Toby begins to wonder if there might be more to them after his best friend Nate wakes up covered in blood in the reservation woods – with no recollection of whose blood it is or where it came from.

Aided by Rachel, a Native American girl who's moving off the reservation and into the house next door, Toby uncovers the supernatural causes behind the attacks. While doing so, he also develops feelings for his new neighbor. However, his feelings are quickly put to the test when he and Rachel discover that her uncle is the one who unleashed the cursed, immortal Shaman who's now terrorizing the town.

As more details come to light, Toby is forced to accept the reality that werewolves actually exist and that the town has more than just the Shaman to contend with. Nate has become one of the monsters too. To make matters worse, Nate shows no intentions of giving up his extraordinary new creature capabilities. To save Silver Falls and become the hero he already once failed to be, Toby will have to face off against his best friend.

The first in a planned series, THE ONE YOU FEED is a young adult horror novel of 92,847 words. After reviewing the manuscript for an online critique service, author Stephen Mertz commented, “I believe you have very strong potential here for a saleable YA/Horror novel, but it could appeal equally to an adult (i.e., wider) mass market audience.”

I’m hoping that you might feel the same. The synopsis and full manuscript are available upon request. Thank you so much for your time.

Best,

(Name Redacted)

Query Letter After I Got My Grubby Paws On It

Dear Agent:

A series of what appear to be brutal animal attacks have beset the small Oregon town of Silver Falls, and sixteen-year-old resident Toby Hoffman is almost grateful for the carnage. <Reads as a bit backwards. I’d prefer ‘Sixteen-year-old Toby Hoffman is almost grateful when a series of brutal animal attacks beset the small Oregon Town of Silver Falls.’ Others may disagree!  While upset about the loss of life, he views the crisis as an opportunity. If he can save others from future attacks, maybe he can overcome the guilt he's been plagued by ever since failing to save his mother from a deadly car accident. <Your query is too long (383 words total, so it’s at least 33 words too long by the most generous standards and about 133 by industry norms. For that reason, and because I don’t think it matters how the mom died, I’d consider a more simplistic ‘If he can save others from future attacks, maybe he can overcome the guilt that’s plagued him ever since his mom died.’ In my own very humble opinion, the slight vagueness is a bit more interesting anyway.

When he was younger, Toby’s  heard all the scary bedtime stories about the creatures that lived in the neighboring woods of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. These stories were made up to keep the town’s children from wandering where they weren’t wanted, but Toby begins to wonder if there might be more to them after his best friend Nate wakes up covered in blood in the reservation woods – with no recollection of whose blood it is or where it came from. <I’m afraid this paragraph reads not as a continuation of the first but as an alternate first paragraph. And now I’m not convinced you need both. I like that what Toby wants is clearly laid out in the first para, but waking up in the forest covered in blood is certainly more intriguing than animal attacks, imo, which have been done before. Perhaps a combination of the two paragraphs? Something like ‘Sixteen-year-old Toby Kaufmann has heard all the scary bedtime stories about the creatures that live in the neighboring woods of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. They were made up to keep the town’s children from wandering where they weren’t wanted, but after Toby’s best friend Nate wakes up covered in blood in the reservation woods – with no recollection of whose blood it is or where it came from—he begins to wonder if there’s more to these stories than anyone could have ever imagined. (Insert some better transition) While terrified for his friend, Toby views this crisis an opportunity: if he can help his friend solve this mystery, maybe, just maybe, he can overcome the guilt that’s plagued him ever since his mom died.’   As a bonus, this is 117 words versus 154.

Aided by Rachel, a Native American girl who's moving off the reservation and into the house next door, Toby uncovers the supernatural causes behind the attacks. While doing so, he also develops feelings for his new neighbor. However, his feelings are quickly put to the test when he and Rachel discover that her uncle is the one who unleashed the cursed, immortal Shaman who's <who is (reads smoother, imo) now terrorizing the town. Interesting! 

As more details come to light, Toby is forced to accept the reality that werewolves actually exist and that the town has more than just the Shaman to contend with. Nate has become one of the monsters too.<This paragraph was great up until here. ‘Nate becomes one of the monsters too’ reads as an afterthought, a bit too simplistically worded for something so huge. To make matters worse, Nate shows no intentions of giving up his extraordinary new creature capabilities. To save Silver Falls and become the hero he already once failed to be, Toby will have to face off against his best friend. <I’m not sure the stakes are entirely clear here. We know Toby wants to be the hero, and to do that he needs to save the town from these creatures…but what does Toby have to overcome in order to get what he wants? I don’t think facing off against his best friend is the answer. Is it overcoming this new, overwhelmingly powerful werewolf part of him that perhaps makes him feel strong and invincible for the first time since his mom died? Facing off against the friend is a part of it, I’m sure, but I think there’s something deeper there that would read as more compelling stakes.  

The first in a planned series, THE ONE YOU FEED <Love the title!  is a young adult horror novel of 92,847 <Stating the exact word count like this is a sign of an amateur (Sorry for the bluntness!). I’d round up to 93K and leave it at that. words. After reviewing the manuscript for an online critique service, author Stephen Mertz commented, “I believe you have very strong potential here for a saleable YA/Horror novel, but it could appeal equally to an adult (i.e., wider) mass market audience.” <While I’m thrilled that this author had such a nice, positive thing to say about the book, this did raise a bit of a red flag for me. This sounds like a paid-for critique service (Google has confirmed this to be true). That isn’t bad in and of itself, but I just don’t think it belongs in a query letter. I’m worried that others might not view a critique that was paid for as entirely honest, as the critiquer has something to gain by giving a positive review. It serves the financial interest of the critiquer to say at least some nice things about a manuscript, as an entirely negative review may not be conducive to repeat customers. But please, author, don’t think I’m saying Mr. Mertz wasn’t being truthful—I’m NOT! Just pointing out what might cross an agent’s mind when reading this.

I’m hoping that you might feel the same. The synopsis and full manuscript are available upon request. Thank you so much for your time.

Best,

(Name redacted)

Despite my lengthy critique, there are a lot of great things to work with in this query. It could use some streamlining, as I’ve mentioned, and to be a bit clearer in the stakes department, but overall a pretty great start! And the title—I just love it!  (I know, I know, titles change all the time and you shouldn’t be married a title, etc., etc.,…but it’s GOOD!)

I hope this helps, and good luck, author! 




26 comments:

  1. So I loved your comments, Michelle and tried to rewrite the query. Of course this is only a suggestion but I thought it might be helpful :-)


    Dear Agent:

    Sixteen-year-old Toby Hoffman’s heard all the scary bedtime stories about the creatures that lived in the neighboring woods of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, but he begins to wonder if there might be more to them after his best friend Nate wakes up covered in blood in the reservation woods – with no recollection of whose blood it is or where it came from.

    Aided by a Native American girl, Rachel, who moved off the reservation and into the house next door, Toby uncovers the supernatural causes behind the attacks that have been happening around town. While doing so, he also develops feelings for his new neighbor. However, Toby’s feelings are quickly put to the test when he and Rachel discover that her uncle is the one who unleashed the cursed, immortal Shaman who is now terrorizing the town.

    As more details come to light, Toby is forced to accept the reality that werewolves actually exist and that the town has more than just the Shaman to contend with: the realization that Nate has become one of the monsters too. To make matters worse, he shows no intentions of giving up his extraordinary new creature capabilities. To save his hometown from any more attacks, Toby will have to face off against his best friend.

    The first in a planned series, THE ONE YOU FEED is a young adult horror novel of 93,000 words.

    The synopsis and full manuscript are available upon request. Thank you so much for your time.

    Best,

    Your Name Here

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    1. Awesome, Rachel! You have a knack for this stuff!

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    2. Thanks Michelle, :) I try I try...
      (am also doing the bad bad thing - slightly self promoting - I updated my blog about book expo america)

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    1. The title IS great, and I'm not easy to please when it comes to titles...

      After seeing your revision, the only critique I would make is that you might want to try to streamline it even more. I think...okay, this might be crazy, but I feel like you could take out the second paragraph. You'd need to connect a bit, of course, but it feels kind of back-storyish to me in this context. Also, adding a one-line hook as your first sentence is never a bad idea.

      It looks like a thrilling premise! Best of luck!!

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    2. Um, YES! Definitely getting rid of the second para is a great idea. I'm pretty convinced, now that you mention it, Susan, that it doesn't add a ton to the query besides word count, especially since the genre isn't paranormal romance, as I would have thought with the werewolf and romance bit. Awesome idea!

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  3. I also love the title! Super cool. And YA horror intrigues me very much.

    One thing though: this strikes me as very similar to Twilight. Werewolves on an Indian Reservation. Reserve next to a small town where the MC lives. Townie falls in love with native from the reserve. Unexplained animal attacks. I'm sure this story is nothing like Twilight, but it's just something that struck me when I read this, and I thought I'd point it out in case that point could be helpful to the author in crafting his/her query.

    Best of luck!

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    1. Good point, Brandy. That thought did cross my mind as well but then I wondered if I was just noticing because I've seen the Twilight movie a hundred times. You know, the part where Carlisle says something about unexplained animal attacks to Bella at the police station? No? Okay, I'll shut up now...

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    2. I remember that scene fo sho!

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    3. Reading this query made me think of "the village" by M. Night Sham Sham...

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    4. Yeah, it is sort of reminiscent of that movie, isn't it?

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  4. Oh, and great crit, Michelle! And excellent suggestions too from the other commenters.

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  5. Thanks everyone. A lot of great suggestions here!

    Yes, the Twilight similarity is unfortunate, but I swear I wrote the first draft years ago, before I knew anything about Twilight. Luckily, the Shaman is the only Native American who turns into the creature. The rest of the werewolves are kids from town (who are turned by Nate after he is turned by the Shaman).

    I see your point about clarifying the stakes for Toby. For the record, he never gets turned, but his friends do. He decides to try to overcome the fear and doubt he’s been struggling with ever since freezing up and failing to save his mom by stopping the attacks – not realizing at first that a couple of his friends are behind many of them. In a way it ends up being a really bad “be careful what you wish for” scenario, but still one he has to deal with.

    I greatly appreciate all the ideas for ways to streamline the letter and thanks for the heads-up about the critic quote possibly raising red flags.

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    1. Sucks when that happens, Jim. I swear I'm constantly anxious that someone is writing my book and is going to get it published before me. But I'm sure you can write the query in such a way as to reduce comparisons to Twilight.

      And glad you found the critique helpful!

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  6. Great advice as usual, Michelle. Lots of words to strip from this query, but an exciting sounding book all the same. Definitely the type of book I'd read. :-)

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  7. Completely agree with the advice given already on this one. Good luck Jim!

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  8. Good suggestions, Michelle and fellow commenters.

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  9. Wow, your awesome at query critiques! When I'm done with mine, I'm definitely sending it your way :)

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  10. I love the fact you can read into the stakes of a story without them even being written -that is one very enviable talent! Yo ho ho and a big shout out of greatness to you Michelle. Wow ...am still in awe!

    To Jim - good luck! I'm sure you're now one step closer to the top of the agents reading list.

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