Tuesday, November 23, 2010

JD's Query for LOST AND FOUND Critiqued

Before we get started I just want to say thanks to Justine for being the first person to ever reach out to me in the forums. She was the first person to ever critique my query way back when and it's been a pleasure to be her friend ever since and watch her skill at crafting queries grow immensely.

In fact I think this query here, that we're looking at this week, is an excellent example. The query is already very good, and along with an awesome premise and some great writing would probably earn her several requests. But we're here today to try to make it the very best it can be, so I'll try to nit-pick it apart a little.

Here goes:


Twelve-year-old Kelly Moore is determined to do something someone her age has never done before: win a National Barrel Racing Championship. All she has to do is win the State Finals and she’ll be on her way. When her beloved horse, Rocket, and seven other horses are stolen right after she competes at the finals, Kelly freaks.

This opening paragraph is really good. I do think there are a couple of things missing though. I think the second half of your first sentence makes for a strong hook. What would make it even better is just a little more of Kelly's character, and maybe a teeny bit of backstory. Is she a good kid? Straight A student? A loner? Is her family life happy? Mom and dad divorced? I think from the info you give that we can probably infer that this a good girl from a decent home, but it would be great to know a little more about her ASAP.

Otherwise your setup of the conflict and the stakes is excellent. Well done.

Kelly’s biggest fear is that her horse is on its way to the slaughterhouse. She hangs missing horse flyers everywhere and questions everyone. No luck. When she accuses a barn manager of theft and breaks in to his office in an attempt to prove his guilt, Kelly’s gets a dose of parental retribution. But she won’t give up.

This is also good. You're expanding on the conflict and the players without going overboard. One thing I think you should consider here is injecting a little more voice. Kelly may be a good kid but she might refer to being "freaked" about her poor house and the slaughterhouse, and she might have a flashy adjective for the barn manager. Is he "nasty", "smelly", "mean old"? I know those are all kind of lame, but I bet you can come up with something better. Ask Em!

Kelly’s nemesis, Missy, had her horse stolen too. And Missy’s bound and determined to not let Kelly leave her out of the chase. Kelly finally catches a hot lead and does the unthinkable: hides in the horse thief’s trailer with Missy at her side. They find the horses but get caught by the bad guys in the process. No one’s future is looking bright when a fire engulfs the barn they’re in.

Just a couple things here. I actually think this is pretty darn good too. I like how the stakes get raised here and how the old nemesis gets involved but I got a little confused when you jumped from hiding out in the trailer to getting caught inside a burning barn. Obviously it makes perfect sense in the story, but it felt too quick for me in the query. You might be able to leave the burning barn out, after all you don't want to give away everything. Or you can keep it in. This query is certainly short enough to leave you room, maybe just transition into that climax a little differently if you keep it.

Kelly must put her dislike of Missy aside while they work together. If she doesn’t, the girls won’t be able to save themselves—or their beloved horses—before it’s too late for them all.

I actually love this. This is one of the best summarys, clarifying the choice that Kelly must make, that I've seen in a while. I would keep this.

LOST AND FOUND, a middle grade novel, is complete at 31,000 words.

Obviously you've got more room for housekeeping and personalization if needed, but this critique is about the meat anyway.

So. Well done Justine! It's so cool to see how far your query skills have come. I wish you the best of luck in submitting this fun little tale.

What do you guys think? Any suggestions for adding more character to her hook and making that first sentence pitch pop a little more?

31 comments:

Matthew Rush said...

Yeah, and reading back over I just noticed that you already used the term freaked at the end of the first paragraph. You probably don't want to use it twice, but you could also say "totally flipped" or something else age appropriate in place of one or the other location.

Thanks again for sharing this with us Justine!

Talli Roland said...

Great critique as usual, Matthew - I agree with your 'freaked' feedback. I noticed that too.

I think the query is really strong and like you said, a few very minor tweaks and it could be a winner!

Justine Dell said...

Thanks Matt! U R Awesome!

Funny thing, last night while I re-reading this query I was like, "Hmm...I should really take out that burning barn part. It gives too much away."

Thanks so much for your imput. Ever little tweak counts! ;-)

~JD

Tracy said...

I'll just follow that up with a big "What Matthew said". Justine's done a good job with the query already, and I'm totally not at all versed in what goes in a MG book, let alone how to query one.

Melissa Gill said...

Great job Matt and Justine. I was going to second the "leave out the burning barn" bit, but I see you've already jumped on that.

This exactly like the kind of thing agents and publishers are looking for in MG, mystery, suspense, contemporary. I think you've got a real winner here.

Good Luck!

Holly Ruggiero said...

Well I’m a query-illiterate so I’m watching the process. But I do like the story setup. I hope that is worth something. :)

Shannon said...

I agree with Matt's assessment. Just a couple of things that jumped out at me:

1. I had no idea what a National Barrel Racing Championship was. It wasn't until I was in the final sentence of the first paragraph that I figured out it had something to do with horses. In addition to showing us a bit more about Kelly's character is there a way you can ground me in her world faster?

2. I noticed a few grammar errors. I know, I know - nit picky. But queries need to be perfect. The grammar mistakes stuck out.

3. I want to know more about her character. Is she a good girl or a rebel? I'm not sure if her breaking into the barn manager's office is a huge risk for her or just another antic.

4. Why is Missy Kelly's nemesis? Nemesis is a broad term. I want to understand the conflict, which might raise the stakes.

5. Agree with Matt about confusion about the 3rd para.

6. The last para is a great summary but I think a stronger word than dislike (despise) might give it more meat. And I'm still not sure what the girls need to save themselves from?

Overall, very well done! Good to see you around, Justine, and thanks for sharing.

Kelly said...

Sounds like a great premise for the story.
Good summary, but I think it needs to be punched up a bit with more exciting verbs/words. Show voice and description of main character an it will be perfect!

Shain Brown said...

I think this is such a great story. I have no experience in MG writing, but I read the letter to a friend's daughter and she loves the idea. Thanks for the exposure into MG.

Thanks Matthew.

Jessica Bell said...

Nothing more to add from me as I'm not familiar with MG stuff. But I think it's a great query! :o)

Christina Lee said...

GREAT input, Matt. I actually don't think she needs the entire second paragraph--and i agree (with Justine) about toning down or taking away the burning barn part (And not giving a bunch of things away)!

Justine Dell said...

You all are awesome! I'm glad so many of you like it! The premise of the story was actually my daughter's idea. All I did was put the details down on paper. Now she wants a who series. ;-)

~JD

Stephen Tremp said...

I love the escalating conflict! I want to read the book. Really. I don't have much to add as you said this is the meat and potatoes. It'd be great to see the final paragraphs like your credentials or the equivelent thereof.

Oh, and I have an award for you. Its not much, but my PhotoShop skills are limited at bet.

Slamdunk said...

Great work Matthew and Justine--these posts are helpful to everyone.

I also appreciate the help that other bloggers have offered me.

LTM said...

Matt said exactly what I was going to say... ;p

seriously, though, I think this is great, and I do agree that third 'graph gives TMI. But it looks like you've all got it covered.

super query, Justine--GOOD LUCK! :o)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I think you have a lot of great comments here already, Justine. I agree that you should add more voice. Matt's and Shannon's comments are spot on! :-)

Carol Riggs said...

Really good comments so far, from Matt as well as from blogger buddies. Sounds like a fun story, and girls who love horses will be thrilled! I agree with the 1st Shannon--knowing nothing about horses, I had no idea what Barrel Racing was. This is crucial info and should be in the hook/first line somehow.

Rocket is a great name for a horse, by the way!

Old Kitty said...

When I first read Justine's query - I really thought "wow" and the wow for me was the whole premise of two girls overcoming their differences and co-operating together and hopefully discovering a shared sisterhood too! If I was an agent I'd ask to read it asap!! LOL!! Oh but I think Matthew's raised some good points here to mull over. I haven't a clue about queries so it's an eye opener for me seeing the bits that Matthew's pointed out that may need clarification and further re-writing! GOOD LUCK Justine and thank you Matthew Rush! Take care
x

Nicole Zoltack said...

I used to love reading the Saddle Club books when I was younger. I love reading stories about horses. I can't really say new to add about your query, you've already gotten such great advice! :)

IanBontems said...

As I said yesterday, I like Justine's query and the premise seems very sound to me. This is exactly the kind of book my girls would read.

I wouldn't worry about 'giving too much away,' in the query, but I think Matthew hit on something when he said he was confused by the sudden shift in situation, perhaps the clarity could be improved there.

Good critique Matt, and nice query, Justine. Good luck with the agents.

Joanna St. James said...

Actually everyone's comments got me thinking could this be a little too long for a query since you still have to add the introductory paragraph and the personal paragraph listing your accomplishments too?
Am not sure how it looks on word, but this is just an observation you might want to watch out for, I think what you have down is fantastic btw

DEZMOND said...

I've noticed that most writers in our blogosphere write YA things or books for kids. Why's that?

Amanda Borenstadt said...

I'm not a great query writer, so I'll stay out of the debate. I like it, though. :)

Justine Dell said...

Actually, Dezmond, this is my first attempt at younger material. I write romance. Crazy switch, right? lol But I've noticed the trend, too. I think because it's a genre that intrigues a lot of readers (not just young ones) and the market is pretty big.

Joanna, at 233 words the word count falls within the normal range. I've even got a little wiggle room to add the personal info.

I'm so glad everyone likes it! (With a few tweaks, that is). Makes me smile. ;-) I guess they were right: "Write what you know". LoL. I know TONS about horses!

~JD

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Okay, trying my hand at this (though I always feel so useless offering advice)

Overall I think the query is clean and strong. But I did feel like voice was missing, which I know some people have already said (including matt) but...I'll add a little more.

I felt like I had a really good idea what to expect from the plot of the book--which is more than half the battle--but I felt like I didn't really have much clue as to the books voice or style, especially in the opening paragraph, where I really think the voice should shine.

Phrases like "is determined to do something someone her age has never done before" and "All she has to do" and "she’ll be on her way" are all kind of...generic. I've read them before in lots and lots of places. Not saying they're bad--at all. But I wonder if there's a way to say them that showcases your voice more.

It's hard to give specific suggestions, since I don't know the voice or style of the book. But I definitely think being more specific, and adding more emotion to the statements will help. Especially when you talk about her discovering that her horse is stolen.

Great comments from Matt and everyone else. Hope mine helps. Ignore it if it doesn't.

Arlee Bird said...

I thought the query came off as short, sweet, and to the point. It was all I needed to know. I like that.

Lee
Tossing It Out

Jemi Fraser said...

I like it! I definitely want the book for my classroom! :)

Vicki Rocho said...

I didn't read anyone else's comments so this might be completely off-the-wall, or it might be repetitive.

I'd like to see arch nemesis Missy introduced a little sooner with a blurb about WHY they're enemies. Is Missy the reigning Barrel Racing Champion? Is she snooty?

Other than that, nice job!

beth said...

I didn't read anyone's comments (even Matt's!) so I could be unbiased :)


Twelve-year-old Kelly Moore is determined to do something someone her age has never done before: win a National Barrel Racing Championship. All she has to do is win the State Finals and she’ll be on her way. When her beloved horse, Rocket, and seven other horses are stolen right after she competes at the finals, Kelly freaks.

^The last sentence, where she freaks, is a little over the top for me. I think it's just a word choice issue for me.


Kelly’s biggest fear is that her horse is on its way to the slaughterhouse. She hangs missing horse flyers everywhere and questions everyone. No luck. When she accuses a barn manager of theft and breaks in to his office in an attempt to prove his guilt, Kelly’s gets a dose of parental retribution. But she won’t give up.


^This, I think, it too much detail.


Kelly’s nemesis, Missy, had her horse stolen too. And Missy’s bound and determined to not let Kelly leave her out of the chase. Kelly finally catches a hot lead and does the unthinkable: hides in the horse thief’s trailer with Missy at her side. They find the horses but get caught by the bad guys in the process. No one’s future is looking bright when a fire engulfs the barn they’re in.

^This is something I think you could condense. It's a lot of detail--all I really need to know is Kelly and Missy's horses are gone, she has to work with her frenemy to get them back, and it gets dangerous at the end. The extra stuff, about the fliers and the parental involvement and everything, are the details that make your BOOK good, but that aren't needed in the query.

Kelly must put her dislike of Missy aside while they work together. If she doesn’t, the girls won’t be able to save themselves—or their beloved horses—before it’s too late for them all.

LOST AND FOUND, a middle grade novel, is complete at 31,000 words.

^Those last two paragraphs are really good.

OK Now I'm going to read Matt's comments...

I do think a little backstory would be good--but not much. Here's the way I think of it: each story tends to have an external plot (horses missing) and internal plot (working with enemy). So your backstory should focus on those things: how much she loves the horse and hates Missy.

Tamara Narayan said...

Oh Justine, this takes me back to the early days of Bransforums! I like this query, but I'll offer some ideas of tightening it up and places you could instill the voice/vibe of the character.

Kelly Moore dreams of winning the National Barrel Racing Championship—something no twelve-year-old has ever done. But when her horse is stolen, Kelly’s dreams of trophies turn to nightmares of her beloved Rocket lost to a slaughterhouse.

Hanging missing horse flyers and questioning patronizing adults is getting her nowhere. Even her parents turn against her after she breaks into the (uber-creepy?) barn manager’s office to nail the slimeball.

With no adult listening, Kelly teams up with her least favorite person, Missy-nose-in-the-air Taylor to find their missing horses.
When the horse thieves catch them hiding in a trailer, these would-be Nancy Drews have more to fear than the safety of their horses.

Ghost in the Machine

Elana Johnson said...

I'm beyond late, as usual. I really liked the query, and agree with most of what Matt said. And what everyone else said.

Of course, I didn't notice any grammatical errors, but that's totally not my strong suit.

I do just want to say that while everyone is talking about "voice this" and "voice that" you have to use the voice of the novel in the query. And if it's well-written and gets to the main conflict and consequence of your story, it's fine.

Not every query has to be "voiced up" you know? So I'm just wondering if your MS is written this way. If it's not, then you shouldn't try to do something to your query that would make it different from the novel.

Okay, end of soapbox. :)