Friday, April 22, 2011

Michael Gettel-Gilmartin's Current Query Critiqued

Okay, so first of all I really want to say sorry to Mike. I hope my being sick this morning didn't cost you too many helpful comments on your query.

The good news is that I will be leaving this post up all weekend, and will be emailing some of my query master friends and asking them to drop in and share their thoughts. So hopefully it will all balance out.

Now let's get to it. Here is Mike's query (again) with my thoughts in red.

Dear (Name of Agent),

A ghost is on the loose. That’s twelve-year-old Jared Hearne’s explanation for the recent feeling that invisible eyes are boring into the back of his skull. But when he tries to snare the spook, he surprises a glamorous woman preening in front of the bathroom mirror. Even weirder, after Jared’s yells rouse his parents, the person who shuffles out of the bathroom isn’t some willowy red-head but his older sister, Athena. Now everyone thinks Jared’s delusional. He’s out to prove them wrong.

I think you've got a great idea and even a nice hook buried underneath this, but it's bogged down by a lot of words, and a lack of specificity. I'll admit I got a little confused, and had to read it twice. The bottom line here is what?

Jared thinks there's a ghost in his house, and he ends up trying to trap his older sister, thinking she's the ghost, and wakes up the entire family, right? That sounds like a hilarious scenario, and you've got the potential for an awesome hook surrounding this wonderful character. A young boy, who is obviously thoughtful, and curious about the paranormal, but perhaps has some feelings going on in his life that leave him a little ... baffled.

First, he has to solve the mystery of what Athena’s up to. Is there a connection between the mysterious disappearing woman and the golden orb he spotted tucked away in Athena’s pocket? Sneaking into her room, Jared steals the orb and discovers its secret: the power to allow people to shape-shift and travel through time, as well as pick up communications from the past. Such as the voice of a teenage Shakespeare, pleading to be rescued from execution.

And this is where things start to get good. You're much more specific in the paragraph, and you're starting to set up a few great conflicts. I love the idea of Jared having to make a choice about whether to invade the boundaries of his sibling's space, at the risk of not discovering what's really going on. I think that sounds like an excellent plot for a MG novel.

Jared and Athena zip to Elizabeth (should this not say Elizabethan? I'm no expert on that) England and spring Shakespeare from his cell. But talk about a comedy of errors. Shakespeare hijacks the orb and returns to modern times with Jared, leaving Athena stranded in the sixteenth century. Eager to experience his brave new world, the Bard-Dude goes on the lam. He “borrows” the high school quarterback’s Mustang and ends up in a tournament at Laser Tag World. Jared gives chase, desperate to herd the problematic poet back to 1582. Until, that is, the orb is stolen.

This query keeps getting better. This third paragraph is filled with voice and hilarity, and I love how you continue to raise the stakes. You might be including a bit too much information for a query, in the sense of so many subplots, but it's actually not so much that it isn't working for me.

Now Jared has a new mission: to hunt down the thief. Or else, Shakespeare’s enrolling in high school next semester. And Athena’s history.

Great summary.

SHAKESPEARE ON THE LAM, a middle-grade adventure, is complete at 35,000 words. I am a member of SCBWI and would be happy to send the complete manuscript at your request.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Michael Gettel-Gilmartin
[Contact Details]

I think you're off to a great start here, Mike. My biggest concern is how you're hook is written. This query starts out a little slow, and then keeps building and building until it ends very well. If you can re-write the beginning to be as exciting as the end, you'd be in great shape.

It can be very tough to write a hook, but the good news is that I think you have the hook there. You just need to re-write it so that it is much more succinct, and has the punch that comes with a few short, but powerful sentences.

What do you guys think? Feel free to disagree with me, and if possible, maybe you can suggest a better opening hook for Mike.


Jayme Stryker said...

The beginning almost sounds like a scene from the book. Mind you, a scene I would love to read in the book. :)

If you're looking to simplify, maybe something along these lines might work:

Twelve-year-old Jared Hearne is being watched. He feels the eyes boring into the back of his skull. But when the ghost he's been hunting turns out to be his sister, everyone thinks he's delusional.

This may not be what you were going for, but this is essentially what I gleaned to be the main idea of your first paragraph.

"Herd the problematic poet" made me laugh. Ultimately an unruly Shakespeare loose in modern American sounds superbly entertaining!

Sarah said...

First--Matt, I hope you feel better very soon.

Next, I totally agree with your crit. When I first read it yesterday, I noticed that each paragraph is better than the last, and the final para is by far the strongest. Although this query does read a bit synopsis-y, I think that's kinda ok since it's a shorter MG novel as opposed to a longer work. But you do want to show an agent that you can be tight, concise, and say a lot with a little.

The first para is nice in that it goes straight to the action (instead of "Jared is an ordinary boy who blah blah"). But it's a bit confusing to a naive reader and lacks punch. Combine the first two or three sentences if at all possible. That's where you need the punch. And I know you can do it, because the final line of your query is brilliant, and "problematic poet" made me laugh out loud. You just need an opening line that approaches that wit and charm, and you'll have it made. If you tighten this thing, I think you'll get requests.

Here was my only overarching question--where the heck did this orb come from? You give no hint of an explanation, like where Athena got it or if anyone else wants it, and I would think that would be a major piece of the plot. I think even a sentence could fix the problem of the super-convenient orb, at least showing that it's part of the story.

Best of luck with this, Mike! It sounds like a really fun, funny read!

Michael G-G said...


Oh you're good! My red pencils are standing at the ready.

(And how the hell did those gremlins get in and eat the "an" from Elizabethan?!!! I swear I read that query a million times to prevent errors like that. Where's the number for my optician?!)

Jayme Striker: you're brilliant too. The first para is the opening scene from the book. Thank you, thank you for the rewriting.

Now, back to drinking your chicken soup, Matt.

Shain Brown said...

I loved the beginning, but as Matt said, I got lost in the amount of words used, and it required me to read it again.

The idea is good, even funny as I imagine it unfolding, but some cutting is needed.

I am very interested in the second paragraph. That is a lot of different powers, which makes me wonder how are they going to work. These are the interesting things that makes me want to keep reading.

I look forward to seeing how this finishes. As always, thanks, for your bravery in allowing yourself to be subjected to the feedback. It is a tough process but offers help to all of us.

Thanks to both, Matt and Michael.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Matt's critique too. Just tighten the first paragraph.

I really loved this part: Eager to experience his brave new world, the Bard-Dude goes on the lam. He “borrows” the high school quarterback’s Mustang and ends up in a tournament at Laser Tag World. Jared gives chase, desperate to herd the problematic poet back to 1582. Until, that is, the orb is stolen.

Stealing the mustang, the laser tag, and then upping the stakes by having the orb stolen are great and very middle grade-ish.

And nice job in the last paragraph showing the personal stakes for Jared.

Good luck. It's great seeing another middle grade author's query.

Laura Pauling said...

I love the idea of Shakespeare enrolling for high school. But as the others said, this is way too long. Too much of a synopsis. Where the query should just hook and tease. Just adding more details is not going to convince them of this. I'd stick to the main character, his goals, the obstacle, and the stakes. You've got to show them you can write tight.

Good luck!

M Pax said...

It's an intriguing premise. I think if you just make the first paragraph pop with the hook, make it front and center and really stand out, you're golden.

Best of luck to you, Mike. :)

Get better, Matt.

Old Kitty said...

I like the first sentence "there's a ghost on the loose"! :-)

I need to know what happened to the glamourous woman! :-) Is she a red herring - cos the real meat of the story is Shakespeare transported to modern day America? And why was he about to be executed?

Just wondered!!! Otherwise it's a fab fun premise!

Good luck! take care

Hollister Ann Grant said...

Hi Michael. I love the last two paragraphs and agree with Matt's comments about the first paragraph -- I would try to shorten it. Good luck!

A small nitpick. Shakespeare was born in 1564, possibly on April 23, the date everybody celebrates. I'm terrible with math, but if this takes place in 1582, wouldn't that make Shakespeare 18 years old? Do you want him to be that old?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It does start slow. I'd say compact it as well.

Suzie F. said...

Hope you're feeling better, Matt.

Mike, great premise for a MG adventure. I love it! Here are some of my first impressions as I read your query.

1st P: Like Matt commented, great hook but too wordy. I had to reread the part about the ghost and his sister because I got a bit confused. I think you could cut your 2nd sentence and write, "But when 12-year-old Jared Hearne tries to snare the spook...Even weirder, the person who shuffles out of the bathroom isn't the ghost but his older sister, Athena.

Nice voice so far and I like the last 2 lines of this paragraph.

2nd P: Great paragraph, though I think you could cut the question you ask.

3rd P: Again, great voice but I wonder if some of it is a little too much. The phrase "brave new world" instantly made me think Huxley reference? I think "Bard-dude" is cute but am not sure it fits with the voice here.

btw - I'd so love to read this scene!!

Love your last 3 lines.

Just one thought which may be something to think about (and please feel free to ignore). I wonder if "on the lam" is an expression that MG kids are familiar with. If you have access to kids this age you may want to ask them if they've ever heard this expression. My middle-grader who is an avid reader, didn't know what it meant, though she's just one.

Good luck, Mike and I hope this helps. I love your site and became a follower :)

Josh Hoyt said...

First off I really feel you are doing a great job using the language of the book in your query. It is wonderful the different words you use to do this like the ones that have already been mentioned. I also had to read the first paragraph several times to figure it out and I was in a hurry so I had to keep refocusing. (This I think is how an agent will look at it, in a hurry.) The first sentence got me, monopolize on this. Maybe something like this.. A ghost is on the loose and twelve-year-old, Jared Hearne's, is going to have the time of his life trying to prove he isn't delusional. Just a thought. I think the other paragraphs are great but may need to be shortened and tightened up a bit. This sounds like a great story and I can't wait to see it on the shelves :)

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

first off, i think this query/ sounds awesome. Your voice comes off really strong in it, which is always great.
I think, though, especially in the first paragraph, things get a bit bogged down. Since the whole "ghost" thing doesn't really play an important part in the rest of the query so i would cut it. In fact, if you tweak it a little, i think starting your query with the second paragraph will make it a lot stronger. That's where all the important stuff begins anyway.
Otherwise, though, as Matt said, the query gets stronger as it goes along. Honestly, besides the stuff i already mention, it reads pretty strong. I definitely get a great MG vibe from it and that's awesome.
Good luck! (though i'm not sure you'll need it ;) )

mshatch said...

I completely agree with you, Matt; fix up that first paragraph, maybe cut the word count by half to get to the heart of it.

ps I love this feature of yours.

Angela Ackerman said...

I would agree that the beginning of the query blurb leaves me a bit confused. I would like a stronger more succinct idea of the situation that launches the story--there's a lot of details here added in that make the hook feel a little lose.

I think too, it feels just a tad bit like a play by play explanation early on, almost more synopsis than query blurb.

I'd condense this book down to the most basic plot line. Is it imperative that we know that Jared sneaked into Athena's room? That he yells for his parents? That Shakespeare ends up in a tournament?

There's just a few lines that overlap a bit and could be condensed. But of course, you know what is the most important about your story and you want to get across the 'flavor' of this type of adventure, so take my comments with a healthy dose of salt. :) The premise sounds like a lot of fun.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Michael G-G said...

Thanks, everyone. I've really enjoyed your comments and analyses and they have really helped me.

It's been great hangin' with you guys in the QQQE clubhouse. I've got red pencil shavings up to my knees and have gone through about a ream of paper as I edit, but that's a small price to pay for getting my query into shape.

Thanks a bunch!

LTM said...

Hi, Michael! First, this sounds like a fun book--it kind of made me think of those Magic Treehouse books, but with more of a boy appeal. And I love the whole little brother-big sister setup.

I agree w/Matt (as usual) that the first 'graph was super confusing. I also had to read it twice. (I didn't get the ghost-chase was in the bathroom, so maybe that's a clue to the confusion.)

Also, too much at the end. You could probably just sum up it up with a sentence about Shakespeare running amuck in modern high school maybe the Mustang example OR the laser tag, and the problem that he has to rescue Athena.

This has loads of potential. Best of luck to you! :o)

P.S. It's Elizabethan England.

Robyn Campbell said...

Hey Mike! First let me say this book sounds wickedly wonderful. I would love to read it.

I think (and that's dangerous:) that the query seems a bit long. Agents want to see lots of white space.

The first paragraph takes many turns and I can't keep up with all of them. I think you need to concentrate on the MAIN man. Jared. You need a logline that has a clearly defined character, inciting incident, tangible outer goal, conflicts and consequences. You have some of this all ready. Your logline is about your main character ONLY. (Don't bury the outer goal.) It is the most important part of your plot. It HAS to be in your logline. Make the agent care about Jared.

You don't have to tell everything in the query. Just as you leave stuff for the reader to figure out when writing your novel, same with the query. Only in the synopsis do you tell everything.

I love how you kept the housekeeping at the end. That's EXACTLY where it needs to be.

Great job and I can't wait to read such a cool MG read.

MacNish, feel better. :-) Chicken soup????

Melody Valadez said...

Okay, I'm going to take you up on your 'feel free to disagree' line. :)

First, this is a well-written query with an intriguing premise! You have good grammar, good pacing, and you kept me reading to the end. :)

However, it felt like a lot of information. What's the "problem" of the book? The first paragraph would have us think that it's the quest to prove that there's a ghost in the house. Second paragraph: rescue Shakespeare from execution. And in the third paragraph, Jared has to get Shakespeare back to his own time. They're all great, but you should probably stick to one (or at most two) in your query. It's a case of too much backstory (first paragraph) or too much subplot information(second OR third paragraph, depending on your focus) in the query.

Again, this is by no means a bad query! It seems like a very marketable premise, and you have excellent writing skills (a must for good queries, and something often overlooked).

Good luck querying! :)

Michael G-G said...

Yup, as Hollister Ann Grant says in a preceding comment, today is my man Shakespeare's birthday. So, I'm going to celebrate him as well as y'all, by announcing that I have cut the query from 270 words to 214--most of it from the first two paragraphs.

Thanks to everyone for some shrewd, honest, fair and balanced critiquing. I "heart" you all.

aspiring_x said...

1st- matt, you have to be the nicest guy in the world to be so concerned about the inconvenience your illness might have caused!

2nd- on to query critting! mwha ha ha haaaa! :)
heya michael! i'm late to the party and haven't read every other comment, so i apologize if i'm repeating stuff... also, i'm no expert remember that!
- the story sounds super cute!
- it's really a time travel story and not a ghost story, so i would not start with a ghost hook. the intro para was very effective, and i'm sure it makes for an awesome intro to the story, but i think that it's inappropriate to start the query with that.
- for the sake of the query, the range of powers of the orb sound strange. i wonder if you could hook with the orb... even the moment that he hears shakespeare's voice... how exactly does he discover the powers of the orb? maybe that moment could be used to hook.
- i love the comedic list... and that's another thing about that first para. it didn't feel as comedic as the rest of it. but i wonder about the balance here. this is a fun para, but what percentage of the book does it take up? because it uses a lot of the query, and then all of a sudden the orb is stolen. i just wish there was more of a build around the theft of the orb and emphasis on the crisis of the sister being stranded than there is. maybe throwing in another phrase of sentence about the stakes (which are high and wonderful!) would add some more emphasis....
- there are some nitpicky things i would suggest. like the voice. you have the bard-dude part that sticks out like a sore thumb standing next to the rest of the voice. i wonder if you couldn't incorporate more of such voice when you rework the beginning of your query.
- my email is over at my blog, if you want any advice on a later version of the query, just let me know. i don't always have the best advice, but i'll try my best to help you! this book sounds like a great read for my kid, so get moving and get it pubbed! :)

Donna Hole said...

Mike; I have to agree with Matt here. This sounds like a hilarious read. Re-writing the opening to be more humorous and concise would help, and not giving away all the details of the novel in the third paragraph.

I did see a couple incongruencies. The first is the ghost in the opening line. Once his sister walks out of the bathroom, there isn't a concrete switch from this being a ghost story to a story about the orb and its abilities. Smoother transitions from the ghost, to the orb, to focusing on young Shakespeare might make this stronger.

The four main concepts I'm getting from the query are the relationship between the siblings, the introduction of the orb, the escapades with Will, and finally the theft of the orb in the present. If those are the main points, then perhaps you could tighten the focus and transitions. Whatever your 3 or 4 main plot points are, the query should focus on those.

The other thing I noted was that Jared has to first "solve the mystery of what Athena’s up to" but in the next paragraph they are off on an adventure in the orb together. Like with the transition from ghost to orb, their sudden working together is awkward.

But I did love that summary :) Excellent finish.

Oh, I see you've already re-written. I'll leave my comments anyway in case there might be something you can use.

This sounds like such a fun book to read. Good luck with the querying.


Carrie said...

This sounds like a fun book. I like the idea and some of the humor/ voice that comes through in this query.
I think adding some of this humor/voice to the first paragraph would be good.
I think the time travel and adventures with Shakespeare seem to be where your story is so maybe start with that.

Jemi Fraser said...

LOVE the summary paragraph - and the concept. This sounds like something my MG aged students and I would love to read :)

Tightening up the first part of the query should help. Do you need the ghost part? It seems out of place with the rest. Could you start right with the orb instead? I think that's your hook.

Sounds like a terrific story - good luck!

Anita said...

Fun premise! Some people say tighten the first paragraph, but I say start all over. I had no idea what you meant. Before you start writing just say, "What do I mean?"

I also did not understand the last sentence in the second paragraph.

And like others have said, it's a tad long for a query, but if I were an agent, I'd read the whole thing and ask for a few chapters.

Good job!

Lydia K said...

Lately I've found queries that focus on the early part of the story--the first fifty pages, for instance--is a great way to do the query. It might work here too. The story itself sounds thrilling, though!