Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Justine Dell's Current Query Critiqued

First of all: Go Hawks! Go Mavericks! Way to shock the world.

Now, let's get right to Justine's query, and my critique. My thoughts will be in red.

Perpetually eighteen-year-old Nicodemus thought he knew the purpose of Hell. After all, he was born there. It’s all about teaching humans about humanity, how to care, blah, blah, blah. Two thousand years later, he finds out he was wrong.

I think this has some strengths and some weaknesses. I mean the idea of a character who lives as some kind of gatekeeper for hell is very interesting, and the premise itself is almost enough of a hook, but not quite. We need a better idea of what the conflict is going to be. I mean I understand what you mean when you say the purpose of Hell is to teach humanity about caring, kindness, and so forth, but can you be more specific about what Nic has to do?

You've got a strong sense of character, and some great voice going, I just think you need to re-word this opening hook a bit.

Nic, part-mortal, part-freak, longs for one thing: a normal life. When he’s forced to bring a fifteen-year-old human to join the permanent ranks of Hell, he realizes normal is the last thing he will ever be. Nic wouldn’t wish his life on anyone. Who wants to be the reason a teenage mother commits suicide or be the person who starts a chain reaction that causes a father to shoot his newborn son? So how can he force someone so young to do what he does? The bringer of pain. Loss. Suffering. It’s not poetic. It’s not altruistic. It’s madness.

So in many ways I love this paragraph. It's fun to read, it's FULL of great voice, but ... it's also left me a little confused.

What exactly does Nic do? What's his "job?" I mean it sets up some great conflict and stakes to think that he is somehow the cause of all these terrible things, but I'm left feeling like I have no idea how or why he is the cause of such suffering.

Nic didn’t choose his existence, and he certainly doesn’t want to force it on someone else. But when Nic discovers he has a twin—one who’s hell-bent on killing Nic—the race for the human’s soul becomes a matter of life and death. Literally. Freakin’ great.

I like this, it raises the stakes, but my one hang up is with "the human." Is there a reason you don't want to name this character? And is "the human" the same character as the "little pop-tart human girl" you mention in this next paragraph? Which is an awesome description, by the way.

If you can make that clear, or clarify that they're the same earlier on, I think that would help.

Between damning the human to a life of servitude in Hell, the homicidal twin, and a hot little pop-tart human girl who makes Nic wild, something’s gotta give. And it has to be Nic. But death is the only answer when these worlds collide. And no one is safe when the gods play favorites. Like Nic doesn’t have enough crap to deal with.

You might want to drop the line about gods. It's the first time you've mentioned gods, and it might be a bit much, and I don't think it's needed with all the other amazing conflict you've got going on.

I'm also not exactly clear how death being the only answer works.

Title, word count, personalization, yada yada!

I think you're off to a great start, Justine. You clearly have a powerful premise going, and it sounds like your story is filled with some very interesting characters. If you can streamline this query letter, and clarify a few points, I think you'll be well on your way.

What do you all think? Please share your feedback in the comments!

31 comments:

Justine Dell said...

Thanks, Matt! It's funny that you mention the part about the gods and death in the last paragraph because I actually just added that bit. LoL.

The story itself has many different subplots, with A LOT of characters, and a world that is purposely confusing, so I tried to get more of the voice in the query (which is the same as in the book) in order to hook the reader. I kind of knew it was confusing and I think a part of me did that on purpose thinking ... hmm ... if they like the voice and are intrigued/confused enough, maybe they'll requests pages to find out what the heck is going on!

Um, that obviously hasn't been working out so well. LoL.

So, I see some issues now that I didn't see before. Thank for your feedback!! ;-)

~JD

aspiring_x said...

justine (HI!!!),
in the first para i would cut the sentence with the blah blah blah. it's a fun sentence, tons of voice, but i don't think it's necessary and the query felt too long to me on first read. you want to make sure those agents can tell that you are a word conservationist.

in the second para, i would cut the first sentence (same praise and reasons as the one above). and if you replace the fifteen-year-old human with fifteen-year-old name, i think you can use human in all the other places to keep your voice and the insinuation that nic is not human. then i'd insert, nic wouldn't wish his life as a insert definition of what he is. then i would cut some (or all) of the examples of what makes him the bringer of pain. the thing is you have so much good stuff in this query- just too much!

the third para threw me and i don't know why... maybe if it was tacked onto the end of the second so that the format doesn't feel so odd... i think it's the twin thing... i'm not sure what it is...

last para, the last couple sentences have me a bit lost. i'm not sure what to make of them. they don't really explain anything, but sound cryptic. i love cryptic sounding things, but there needs to be a clearer message being given.

i could be off, because i'm exhausted and my brain isn't functioning yet. and also, crucible is a project i'm excited about because of what you've posted over at your blog! best of luck justine! you can always email me with a later version if you want!

Shain Brown said...

I love the premise of the story, but at the same time I feel a little confused by the vagueness of Nic and the human.

As Matt mentioned I think a name for the human is detail that must be added. I also wish I understood a little bit more about Nic's responsibilities. I really enjoy the twin idea, it leaves the opening for several interesting ideas.

Thanks for sharing your hard work.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Justine,
This query definitely had me curious to find out more, which is a very good thing.

I think Matthew's suggestions are bang-on, and I don't have much more to add.

Good luck revising and querying!

T C Mckee said...

Justine, you had me at "pop tart". :)

Jess said...

Cool premise! I agree with most of Matt's suggestions. Best of luck on this :)

Jessica Bell said...

I agree with Matt on everything. (Gee, Matt, you're becoming a reall pro at these things!) I would also get rid of the cliched phrases like, 'wouldn’t wish his life on anyone,' 'matter of life and death,' 'something’s gotta give,' 'play favorites.' Mind you I haven't hung around long enough to find suggestions of replacements :o) Good luck, Justine!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i think the voice is really spot on in this query, but otherwise i agree with Matt. Some tightening, some clarification (and it doesn't need to be a lot. Maybe just one sentence or two) would really smooth out and zazz up this query.
Maybe just one sentence at the end of paragraph one, or the beginning of P2 about the specifics of his job. I think that would do it.

Good luck!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I loved the voice and the premise intrigued me, but I just felt a little too confused about what it is Nic does. Mainly it's the second paragraph that bothers me. I thought he was there teaching about humanity/how to care, now suddenly he's causing women to commit suicide and murder? What?
That said, I really do like your voice, it comes across clear and strong. If it comes down to a battle between voice and clarification - at least at this level - then I'd say go for voice. This IS interesting, and probably would get partial requests - at least, that's how I feel. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Matthew said it best - little tightening and clarification. Like the idea though!

Chris Phillips said...

"It’s not poetic. It’s not altruistic. It’s madness."

These sentences should probably go. Why would anyone think it was altruistic or poetic? With the conflicts presented and the question right before this set of sentences, "it's madness" is already understood.

That will leave you room in that paragraph to flesh out what nic's role is also.

Angela Ackerman said...

Justine, sounds like a great dilemma in your book with high stakes. Lots of voice here, giving the agent a great idea of what the book holds in store.

I do think you can tighten a bit. I'm in a hurry, but here's a few bits to consider:

You incorporate fragments in this to get across the voice which is great, but too many and it starts to jump out a bit. I'd tighten this:

It’s not poetic. It’s not altruistic. It’s madness.

To this:

It’s not poetic or altruistic. It’s madness.

And I would also take off the 'freakin' great', because for me, it spoils the rhythm just a touch. 'Literally.' is a good way to end that para, imo.

Also, last para, you have a few too many sentences starting with the and/but scenario. I think in this final para it loses some steam as well.

Without reading your book, maybe something like:

Between damning the human to a life of servitude in Hell, the homicidal twin, and a hot little pop-tart human girl who makes Nic wild, something’s gotta give. And when Gods play favorites, no one is safe, not even the immortal.

(Dunno, something like this might make it a bit punchier).

Oh and love 'hot little pop tart human'. That's just an awesome, voice-y description!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

First, I think the voice in this is fantastic. Definitely comes through and suggests a lot about Justine's ability to write well--it really draws me in. That said, I was a little confused, primarily about who Nic was and his purpose. In the first paragraph, I was left wondering why someone born in Hell would care about humanity--so I think first and foremost, it's important to establish what he is (purpose) right off the bat. I also gather there are a lot of subplots, but it can make it feel kind of confusing, taking the main premise in too many directions for a query. I would suggest streamlining and getting it down to its most basic premise and trying to stick closely to that. It seems like that might be Nic and his purpose and how that purpose is thwarted and threatened (just a guess, though). I suspect the first pages would be enough to garner a request even if the query weren't perfect, though. There's obvious talent here.

Emily White said...

Ooh! You've gotten such great advice already on this! I really do love your voice, but I do agree that the query got a tad confusing. I want to especially second what Matt said about telling us exactly what Nic does.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Justine - Wow! Love the fresh premise and the voice coming through in the query is awesome! I think you have the same issue that I struggle with, and that's conveying the plot in a clean and concise way. It's tough to boil down a whole book into a couple of paragraphs, no? :D I think Matt's advice in this regard is spot on. Just one tiny thing to add - Take out that first word! It's an adverb and doesn't do anything for the rest. That's my two-cents. Feel free to totally ignore me though.

Anita said...

Everything Matt said! Good luck, Justine!

Justine Dell said...

Wow! Thanks so much everyone! You have all given great feedback--and some wonderful praise *blushes*.

I will do my best to give Nic's voice plot justice in the query!

~JD

Tracey Neithercott said...

Matt, you're spot-on as usual.

I loved the voice (especially, like everyone mentioned, the hot little pop tart phrase), but I agree that parts confused me. I left my notes below.


Perpetually eighteen-year-old Nicodemus thought he knew the purpose of Hell. After all, he was born there. It’s all about teaching humans about humanity, how to care, blah, blah, blah. Two thousand years later, he finds out he was wrong.//I see that you're setting up the conflict, but at this point I don't know what it is. My takeaway: Nic was born in Hell. Hell isn't what he thought it was. But I know there's more to this. If you added something here about what happens--to sort of sum up the story in a line--we'd have a better grasp on the problem beyond Nic's view of Hell changing.//

Nic, part-mortal//,// part-freak, longs for one thing: a normal life. When he’s forced to bring a fifteen-year-old human to join the permanent ranks of Hell, he realizes normal is the last thing he will ever be.//How does that make him realize it? Doesn't he know being born in Hell means he'll never be normal?// Nic wouldn’t wish his life//Wondering here what his life entails.// on anyone. Who wants to be the reason a teenage mother commits suicide or be the person who starts a chain reaction that causes a father to shoot his newborn son?//How is he the cause? I guess I haven't grasped what he does exactly. I think an explanation would clarify some of the other questions I had in this paragraph.// So how can he force someone so young to do what he does? The bringer of pain. Loss. Suffering. It’s not poetic. It’s not altruistic. It’s madness.

Nic didn’t choose his existence, and he certainly doesn’t want to force it on someone else. But when Nic discovers he has a twin—one who’s hell-bent on killing Nic—the race for the human’s soul becomes a matter of life and death. //Confused here. If Nic's twin just wants to kill Nic, why does that affect the human? Is Nic's twin after the soul too? Or is it just that Hell won't get that soul? In which case, "the race for" makes me think both Nic and his twin are after the soul.// Literally. Freakin’ great.

Between damning the human to a life of servitude in Hell, the homicidal twin, and a hot little pop-tart //Love that// human girl who makes Nic wild, something’s gotta give. And it has to be Nic. But death is the only answer//Why's death the only answer? And whose death?// when these worlds collide. And no one is safe when the gods play favorites.//The gods? So is Nic's twin a son of a different god?// Like Nic doesn’t have enough crap to deal with.

Old Kitty said...

Yay - what a great look at fab JD's query!! Oh but I do like this story's concept and central theme. Nic (love that name!!) conflicted about Hell - love it! Hell sounds pretty good too!! LOL!

I think Matthew's critique is so helpful! I say bring on these gods to the fore and really focus on this Nic guy (like Matthew said, what does he do exactly?). GOOD LUCK JUSTINE!!

Take care
x

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Great job (by all). I think it's all been said, so I'll keep my mouth shut. Shocking, I know.

Michael G-G said...

Hi Justine,
I haven't read other comments, so hope I'm not too off base.

I like much of the voice of this. It captures the "devil-may-care" attitude (don't pardon the pun!) of much of YA.

I particularly like the final paragraph, esp. the "hot little pop-tart," although I'd be tempted to stop at "when the gods play favorites."

I like the fact that Nic's been led astray about the purpose of hell, but I really could do without the example of shooting the newborn son (how's that for a squeamish male for ya?)And, any reason not to name the 15-year-old who's been condemned to hell?

I think the second para could be pruned--and hopefully others more insightful than me have shown you how.

Otherwise, I'd say you are pretty much on the right track. Were I an agent, I'd request some pages.

Good luck!

N4M3L3SS said...

awesome following back :)

LTM said...

Hey, Justine!!! I'm not reading any of the other comments (except Matt's which are really mine anyway*)...

My only hangup in the first 'graph, and this is a total nitpick--I thought purgatory was where you learned to be a better person. I thought hell was like the end. You're done. But I can suspend disbelief! (And if no one else notes this, please disregard. ;o)

I thought the second 'graph was actually okay. It's possible you could streamline a bit if people are getting confused. I didn't~

Okay, here's where I felt there was a bit of repetition--like I just read this. MAYBE you could somehow merge 2 & 3, edit down some and then go w/it. E.g.:

"Nick wouldn't wish his life on anyone. Who wants to be (keep all ... to) The bringer of pain. Loss.

All Nick wants is a normal life, but when he's forced to bring a 15 yo ... the last thing he will ever be. On top of that, he discovers he has a twin--one who's hell-gent on killing Nic."

Aaand... I'm with Matt here. I got lost on "the human." Name this person and all the trouble disappears.

I do like this next 'graph the damning the pop-tart, (sounds like there's kissing--yay! ;o)

Again, I'll defer to my notes to Matt. ;p Drop the part about the gods--I didn't understand this. Who are they playing favorites with? Huh? Is this Nic's father? TMI--save it for when they're reading your FULL!!! :o)


This is a super-fun premise. I like it very much, and I think w/just a little streamlining, you've got a killah query here. GOOD LUCK, Justine!!! :o) <3



*it's a joke arising from how we often catch/comment on the same things.

Jemi Fraser said...

Justine - you have a fabulous voice!! I think a lot of people will be intrigued enough with your letter as is. If you give it a bit of polish & shine following these suggestions, I bet you've got a winner :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

I'm definitely intrigued by this and I think so are others which is good.

I really liked the first paragraph but I agree with Matt. If you can tweak it a bit, it would be stronger.

I was confused in paragraph 2. It seemed inconsistent with his job to help humans find humanity in paragraph 1.

I liked paragraphs 3 & 4 but you need to tie them to the first paragraph more. I'd recommend tightening paragraph one and a short paragraph 2 if you need it.

I can totally relate to a story with subplots and it's hard to narrow down the query. I think you allude to it enough in paragraphs 3 & 4 so if you can focus on the biggest plot in paragraph 1 & 2, it could be really great. Good luck.

Slamdunk said...

Well done Justine and Matthew. My only amateur suggestion would be to mirror what Jessica said--work to remove the cliches so that the uniqueness of your story is portrayed.

L.C. Frost said...

Hey Justine!! I just wanted to say that your story sounds solid, but I agree with above comments; I wasn't clear on what exactly your storyline was. Also might be a bit lengthy; from my personal experience, I got a ton more hits off a query that was about 200-240 (depending on personalization). Best of luck, I hope the feedback on here has been helpful to you! Queries are such a pain. :P

Jo Schaffer said...

Story sounds interesting-- query break down is thorough and helpful.

Elana Johnson's book From the Query To the Call has some good stuff in it. She critiqued my query for me.

It helps to get input like this from fresh eyes.

BTN Hip Hop said...

good read as usual. keep it up!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm guessing this is based on Greek mythology (I remember a Nic in the Percy Jackson series). Is that right? If so, you can remove that line about the gods (though I did like it), and mention the mythology (whichever one it is), in the part about title, word count, genre. If it isn't based on mythology, then you definitely want to keep the line out, otherwise, it gets confusing.

I love this concept (and voice), and I think Matt did an awesome job with his suggestions.

Em-Musing said...

I ditto everything Matt says, (and others)...but the story sounds amazing.