Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bish Denham's Current Query Critiqued

Before I get started on this query, I have to warn you all, but especially Bish: this query is already very good, and I'm going to have to be extremely nit-picky in order to be able to say anything at all. Please remember that, and keep in mind that any feedback on any creative writing is always going to be incredibly subjective.

Bish is a friend of mine, so I happen to know that she took part in probably one of the coolest contests ever held in the blogoshpere not long ago. The Bookshelf Muse held a contest earlier this year in which the prize was a mentorship from Angela Ackerman, where she would help you with every aspect of your writing and publishing career. Bish won.

What this means is that this query has been put through the ringer by Angela, who is also a friend of mine, and happens to have one of the keenest eyes for this kind of thing of anyone I know. So it some ways it's almost pointless for me to critique this query, because I know it's already been polished to the point of near perfection, but I'll give it a try, because Bish asked, and because there is almost always room for a little improvement.

So here we go:

Dear Agent,

From the moment he hatches, Marvin P. Tinkleberry knows he is destined for greatness. For one, he has a marvelous, well-groomed tail. For another he can puff out his throat pouch in the most spectacular way. Maybe the other lizards in his colony don’t take him seriously, but he knows the truth, it lives in the marrow of his bones, he’s going to be a hero.

So this opening hook is essentially perfect. It gives a great sense of character, is full of fun, light voice, and begins to hint at some kind of conflict. Normally I might want to see a little bit better idea of the plot, setting, backstory, or something other than just character, but this is a short, fun MG novel(la), and the plot is well covered shortly after.

If I was to suggest one more addition, I would like to see another funny phrase that tells us just how full of himself Marvin is. You could say "he's going to be a hero, Lizard of the Lane (as in Cock of the Walk)." I don't know. It's already very good, so I'm just grasping at straws here.

When a feral cat threatens his home of Stone Wall in the Garden by the Sea, clearly there’s only one lizard for the job. Travelling Over the Hill to find and befriend a dog should be as easy as snapping up a sleeping moth. And as for help, he doesn’t need any! After all, if Marvin’s ancestor, Prince Leopold, could go it alone, so can he.

This is also good. I love the capitalization that make it clear these are the proper names of important places in Marvin's life. I love how obvious it is that we know what the conflict is going to be, without you having to spell it out for us. Marvin thinks enlisting a dog's aid will be easy, but of course we all know it won't.

If I was to nit-pick this section, I would say that you can cut the "And" before "as for help," but you don't have to. Also I would like to know why Marvin's ancestor was a prince, and what he was prince of. If it was only Stone Wall in the Garden by the Sea, that's fine! You could probably just say Prince of Stone Wall, and that would be fun, because it would show us that he probably wasn't really prince of anything that important, which would help explain Marvin's inflated opinion of himself. If it's something else, that's okay too.

It doesn’t take long for Marvin to see that the world beyond Stone Wall is not the same as his pampered life back at the garden. A beautiful tail is not much help against deadly scorpions or navigating the fearful I think you might consider a better word here. Fearful can be used to describe something that causes fear, but it is more commonly used to describe someone who is easily scared. Terrifying or horrifying would both work. Sucker Cactus Forest. Nor are hungry mongooses and rats frightened by a even the most impressive? pouch display. It becomes clear, if he’s to complete his mission, Marvin must deflate his ego, accept help, and make a plan. Along with El Grekko Gecko, the Great Iguana, and a lovely female named Leeza, Marvin sets out for the poisonous wasteland of The Dump where he must find the one key to befriending the fearsome dog and saving his colony from extinction: a Bone.

I'm trying to be as critical as I can here, but there isn't a lot to add. These last couple sentences are especially good, where they summarize the conflict, use a some very clever names to briefly introduce some fun supporting characters, and give us a great sense of stakes. The idea of the Bone as a plot ticket is very well played here. It sounds so easy, but we can all guess it won't be.

But it will cost him, and Marvin will have to decide if he is willing to pay.

You could mention what it would cost him, depending on what it is, and whether it can be described quickly, but I really don't thing you have to. This is already a great summary and we have an excellent sense of conflict, stakes, and choice.

A Lizard’s Tail is a fun MG adventure approximately 24,000 words in length. It is steeped with the exotic flora and fauna of the Caribbean. I am a fourth generation U. S. Virgin Islander and have had stories and articles published with Spider Magazine, Wee Ones, Blooming Tree Press, Fun For Kidz and My Friend. I also placed first in the Children’s Writer Fantasy/Folktale Contest put on by the Institute of Children’s Literature.

I've always been taught that the working title of an unpublished work is capitalized in the query letter, but Angela would know better than me, so if she told you to italicize I would stick with here advice. Otherwise this section is good, except for Blooming Tree Press. Why is that publication not italicized?

(Personalization bit here.) May I send A Lizard’s Tail for you to view?

Thank you for your consideration

Bish Denham

Wow. That was tough. This query is already so close. I don't think there's much that needs to be changed. Consider my advice with a grain of salt, considering the subjectivity of my opinion. In any case where my thoughts contradict Angela's, I would default to hers.

What do you think, readers? Did I miss anything? Is there anything you would change?


Donna K. Weaver said...

Even if you couldn't find much to comment on, the things you mention that work and why they work is nice to know.


Stina Lindenblatt said...

What a cute story and great query. I would cap the titles too. Mostly because when I send queries, I remove things like italics so weird things don't happen to the format when I email it.

Suzie F. said...

Bish, you write beautifully, and I think your query highlights your talent. Matt's right - it's apparent that you've worked hard to get your query near perfect.

I don't have much to add and it's mostly nitpicky.

1st P: I love the name of your MC and your voice is wonderful! Your last sentence is beautifully written. I hate even suggesting this but you may want to consider shortening it for your query.

The only other nitpicky point would be in your housekeeping paragraph. I don't think you need the word "fun" in front of MG adventure. Your query illustrates quite effectively how fun and delightful your story is.

Good luck, Bish! It was a pleasure reading your query. I hope an agent scoops this up fast. I would love to read your novel to my little girl!

Creepy Query Girl said...

what a fun and fantastic premise! Great job Bish!

Angela Ackerman said...

Wow Bish, you've done a great job tightening this up. Like Matt, the only stuff I see is nit picky tweaks. He's got great advice as always.

I agree with the word choice from Fearful to terrifying or even dangerous (but I'd love to see a word that 'one ups' dangerous to make it scarier...'deadly' is a bit too much, so something in between, maybe?)

If you use steeped, I would say 'steeped in the' rather than 'steeped with', but that's just a personal preference.

Lots of comma's here:

After all, if Marvin’s ancestor, Prince Leopold, could go it alone, so can he.

I'd tighten up what you can, maybe:

After all, if Marvin’s ancestor Prince Leopold could go it alone, so can he.

Also here: Maybe the other lizards in his colony don’t take him seriously, but he knows the truth, it lives in the marrow of his bones, he’s going to be a hero.

after bones I think you need a : not a comma.

Because you have so many italics going on with your credits, I'd not italicize your book title. I'd also italicize Blooming Tree Press, because it's the name of a publisher and one of your credits.

You hit all the important plot points, injected Marvin's voice and attitude, and did a great job here implying that your background shows both that you are a strong writer and that your setting will be absolutely marvelous and authentic because of your experience.

Excellent job, Bish--you nailed this query.

(And FYI, this is a absolutely fantastic book. Some lucky publisher out there is going to love including it in their catalog!)

Matt, as always you rock, workshopping this query. :) And thanks for all the kind words. Bish was so awesome to work with, I think I got more out of the mentorship than she did!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Sarah said...

This query really looked good to me. I have to say, my initial impression was that this query was going to be for a picture book or chapter book, so I was actually surprised to see that it was MG. However, I totally defer to experts in the distinctions among books for the younger set. Apart from that, it's excellent.

Bish Denham said...

Wow! Thanks Matt and Angela and everyone. I get the suggestions you've made and will take them into consideration. Now I have to be careful not to let my ego get too inflated. It's just a query after all. :)

Jessica Bell said...

This is such a good query and it sounds like an awesome book too! I wish I had a kid I could read it to!

Bish Denham said...

And thanks to everyone else for any all suggestions!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Yeah, this query is great and i have nothing to add. I would love to read this.
Oh and i agree with Matt, as far as i know (and have been querying with) you would caps the title of the novel.
Good luck!

storyqueen said...

Send the query, Bish!

Christina Lee said...

Love this already so I will defer to Matt and not touch it. I'm going to guess you will get tons of requests!!!! Good luck!

Lydia K said...

It looks like a fun read!

Anita said...

Great suggestions from everyone! I love coming here because it's such a perfect example of how people help each other in this writing community.

Anonymous said...

I'm no agent, so I'm no expert when it comes to the mechanics of a query (Lord knows), but I WILL say that if the manuscript delivers writing even half as good as found here, she's sold a reader. And I believe that would bring a smile to any agent's face.

Well done! And good luck.

Patti said...

Great query. I love reading what works for a query and this one definitely worked.

Kelly said...

Excellent job, Bish. You have highlighted your story well. I am lucky enough to have read this story, and the query is awesome too!!! :)

Carol Riggs said...

Thanks, Matt and Bish, for this query and critique! Very lovely voice here, and my only comments are to CAP the title of the book, and the first paragraph seems slightly over-detailed without getting to the meat of the conflict. I'd bump up the major conflict sooner and describe it earlier.

I think this is fine as MG, but lower MG since it has animal protagonists. Sounds like a totally fun read! Best of luck out in queryland!

Emily White said...

This is such a great query! I absolutely love your opening paragraph. It gives us such a great idea of who this character is. Thanks for sharing!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query. My only suggestion is the same as Matt. Let us know the stakes for Marvin at the end.

Old Kitty said...

I am ready to buy the book the moment it is published.

That's what I think of this query!

Take care

Bethany Elizabeth said...

When I read the query yesterday I also wasn't sure if anything needed to be changed, but I totally agree with your critiques, Matt. It sounds like such a fun story!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I want to read this story. Great job on the query and the critique.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hits all the key points.

Bish Denham said...

I am totally blown away and humbled by all these wonderful comments. You have no idea (oh sure you do!) how much I need this right now. (I've had such a spate of bad news lately...) Anyway, this really is a lovely bit of silver lining. Thanks everyone.

Rosalind Adam said...

Well done, Bish. That's brilliant and good luck with the submission.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Really cute story! I'd still say it's just a bit on the long side.

Michael Offutt said...

traveling with one "l" is the U.S. spelling. Travelling with two "l's" is the British English spelling. I personally would prefer it spelled with one "l" if I were an agent in the United States (which I'm not) and were looking at a market for the book in the U.S. but that's just me. Gray vs Grey...I dunno. I always type "gray" but I know others that insist on "grey".

Very nitpicky I know.

RaShelle said...

Sounds like a fun story! Great job!

Joe said...

I learn a lot from what to change but many times I learn even more from what works. I read this query yesterday and loved it. I have never been good at query letters and have struggled through them over the years looking for good models. What's so helpful here is pointing out what's good, why it's good, and what can be changed, and why. I know this is what you have been doing on your blog for a long time but as someone realatively new to your resource, I can't get over how incredibly helpful it is. If I'd had a resource like your blog to work with, maybe it wouldn't have taken me 75 queries to get my first agent...

maine character said...

Really well done.

The only points I'd make would be what Matt said of “fearful” (maybe “dreaded” would work), and what Angela said of the colon.

ali said...

Well, I think it's pretty fantastic. Such a fun sounding story! Good luck with the querying Bish!

Trisha said...

Great query for a fun-sounding story!

Michael Winchell said...

I believe your critique is on the money. Nice work...and nice query and story!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

You did a great job and so did Bish! I don't think I could add much to this except maybe just clean up the comma splices and run-ons...I know, I feel so lame. Ha!

Good luck in the querying!

Happy Mii said...

Bish, great query, great voice.

You know you're on the right track when your critiquers have to pick nits. I have two which no one else has mentioned. I'm not a fan of exclamation marks in queries (blog comments are another matter!!!!) and I don't think the one in the second paragraph is necessary.

Second, I think saying that something is 24,000 words in length is redundant. I would prefer writing "A Lizard’s Tail is a fun MG adventure complete at 24,000 words."

Nits, nits, nits. Matt did a great job on what was a great query for a super story. If this doesn't find an agent, I'll be doing some hat eating.

Good luck, Bish!

Happy Mii said...

Just to let you know that "Happy Mii" above is actually me (Michael G-G) but my 14-year-old keeps sneaking onto my laptop, and I keep failing to check that I'm signed in to my oqn Google account. GRRR!!!

Michael G-G said...


Pk Hrezo said...

I agree. I think it does it's job. Nicw work, Bish ... and Matt! :)