Friday, July 22, 2011

Helene Dunbar's Current Query Critiqued

Helene and her query are back again today. I'm sure everybody is used to this by now, but just in case we get some new readers, here's how it works: Helene's query will be in regular, black text, my thoughts, feedback, and stupid jokes will be in red text. Then I would love it if you readers could offer some of your own thoughts in the comments, feeling free to disagree with me, because we all know how subjective all this is.

So let's get to work.

Dear [AGENT]:

Before I get started I just want to point out that this premise sounds incredibly compelling to me. I think if Helene submitted using this existing query, she would probably have some success. We can polish the query, but it's already pretty good, and the strength of the idea behind this story already comes through.

Now let's nit-pick it as much as we can, only because there is always room for improvement.

They say your life can change in a heartbeat, but sixteen-year-old Cal Ryan knows it takes longer than .857 of a second for a car to spin towards yours and kill one of your best friends. He knows that it takes longer than that for your damaged heart to be replaced with someone else’s. And he knows that overcoming his guilt could take a lifetime.

Okay. So this opening hook breaks the rules a little bit, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm not sure the "they say" is the best way to grab an agent's (assistant's) attention. It's not a rhetorical question, which is good, but you don't want to place questions in your readers head that they may not have an answer to. Here the question would be "who says?"

Now I want to talk about exactly what we're trying to get across here. Where does .857 seconds come from? Is that the length of an average heartbeat? It sounds like it might be, and I like the whole comparison of time, and how the measurement of a heartbeat ties into Cal getting a heart transplant, but I want to look at the execution.

First of all it's written wrong here. Think about how you would say this out loud. "... longer than point eight five seven of a second ..." That doesn't make sense. Neither would "...eight hundred and fifty seven thousandths of a second..." Actually, that would make some sense, but I think what you mean here is .857 seconds. The seconds need to be plural because although technically this is less than one second, mathematically we're actually talking about a plural idea.

My second problem is that it all feels kind of passive. I mean yeah, Cal knows all these things, so it is him actively acting on the subject in these sentences, but it still comes across with less punch than it could, I think. What if you said something like: "It doesn't take much longer than a single heartbeat for the blur of a car to spin into sixteen-year-old Cal Ryan's Jeep, killing his best friend, and changing his life in just over .857 seconds. It takes far longer than that for the surgeons to transplant his injured heart, and he dreads that overcoming his guilt could take a lifetime.

I don't know. That's not great either, but I think you get my drift. The last thing about the opening is that I would love to get a better sense of who Cal was before the accident. Was he the caring nerd? The apathetic musician? Something else?

Cal thinks he does a lot of thinking and knowing, is he wrong? he’s lost everything: his friend, Lizzie; a promising future as a baseball player; and any chance he had with Ally Martin, the girl he’s had a crush on for two years. But when he learns that his donated heart was Lizzie’s and starts hearing her voice, sharing her dreams, and feeling her desire for their mutual friend Spencer, Cal fears he’s losing the only thing he has left – his mind. I would avoid em-dashes in queries, because they never end up formatted properly. And two dashes in a row looks like shit. You could probably just use a colon here.

This is it right here. This is actually very good querying. You've got a great set-up for conflict, an excellent sense of what the character is going to be going through, and a pretty good hint at what kind of choices he's going to have to make, all in a few nice, succinct sentences.

As Cal is forced to examine the things he’s always taken for granted, he discovers that friendship can overcome many obstacles and that, sometimes, what you were looking for was inside you all along.

This is a tiny bit vague, but I think it works. This last line is especially great, with the implied double meaning. Love it.

GHOST LIGHT is a complete young adult novel at 64,000 words.

You don't need to say complete. Unless you're pitching a non-fiction project, your novel better be complete, even though it really isn't, until the editor says it is.

A member of SCBWI, I am a marketing manager/editor for a nonprofit organization, as well as a freelance music journalist for Irish Music Magazine (Dublin, Ireland). I have extensive non-fiction writing credits which include the 2006 biographies for “Celtic Women” (EMI/Manhattan) and articles in multiple encyclopedia series for Thompson Gale Research (Cengage Learning) including “Exploring Law & Society” and “Great American Court Cases”.

This is great. I can't see anything to change in these credits.

Thank you, in advance, for your time and consideration.

So basically I really like this query. The middle is especially good. It's short, sweet (not really), and to the point. I think if you re-work the beginning, give us a better sense of what kind of person Cal is, and make the hook and the accident more active, more powerful, you'll be well on your way to The Garden of Good Queries.


Helene Dunbar

What do you all think? Am I crazy? Can anyone suggest a better rewrite of Helene's opening paragraph (it wouldn't be hard to top mine)?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'd change the .857 of a second to just 'a second.' Simpler and cleaner.

Samantha Vérant said...

I'd lose some of those "thats!" There are an awful lot of them. Otherwise, this sounds pretty "d" good.

Old Kitty said...

What about using fractions for the second? Like "it takes a sixth of a second..." or something like that?

I see now what Matthew is saying about the passive voice in the first para! It's like Cal has to stand out a little bit - his character has to take centre stage and be more dynamic! The second para explains why - he'll fall in love with Spencer because he's got Lizzie's heart - so delicious complications galore will abound!! Yay! Well - I've learned something new!! Oops I am using em dashes!!

I do love the premise of this book!! Good luck Helene!!!! Take care

Sarah Pearson said...

Another really interesting sounding idea. I'm not a lover of the time thing either but you've had some good suggestions on that. If I were really really nitpicking I would just say 'their friend Spencer', leaving out the 'mutual'. Like I say though, that's really digging :)

Good luck with this one, I hope it's successful.

Anne N Kenny said...

I've heard using you/your is usually frowned upon. Just something to keep in mind.

And Matt, I've had a copuple of agents critique my query and add "completed" when I had taken it out. I guess that has always bugged me.

Suzie F. said...

Hi Helene!
I completely agree with Matt about the first paragraph. In fact (don't hate me for this) I'd scrap it altogether. I do like part of your last line (cut "And he knows"), Overcoming his guilt could take a lifetime. Maybe you could use it in your last paragraph.

2ndP: Imho, I think this is where your query should begin. Like Matt said, this is an excellent paragraph. It's concise and gives us the premise of your novel. I'd tweak the beginning by adding "Sixteen-year-old Cal Ryan." If you do decide to cut the 1st paragraph, you could mention the accident after "everything."

3rdP: I agree with Matt that it's a bit vague. The phrase, "the things he's taken for granted" sounds cliche to me. I'd especially avoid "things". What things? We also need to know what's at stake for Cal? We know he thinks he's losing his mind, but what are those obstacles he has to overcome?

This is a great query, Helene, and I think you're real close. Good luck! I hope my suggestions helped :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Matt that the first paragraph could use a little tweaking. But I do feel very intrigued by all the info in it and the way you've written it. So I'd keep it in there without being quite as passive.

Like he said the second paragraph is awesome. It's short but so sweet how you tell us so much with so few sentences.

Good luck. Sounds like a great story.

Talli Roland said...

I love the concept, but I think the first sentence is too wordy and needs to be pared down.

Great query, though!

Andrew Smith said...

Helene, my friend (we communicated privately yesterday)-

Matthew is saying nearly EXACTLY what I would have said. Remember I made a comment about tweaking those first few sentences. My brain just couldn't get past that .857 I swear I stayed awake last night wondering why you wanted to hurt me with that number and how I might pronounce it (point eight five seven, eight five sevenths, eight hundred fifty seven thousandths, and so on...)

Passive, schmassive... I wouldn't mind that. But... ouch! that number.

What if you played it in reverse?

I mean, start with the overcoming guilt and work backwards to the origin as being a moment in time that changed Cal's life forever -- and that turning point lasted only a fraction of a second.

Of course, not those exact words, but with this structure you build to something very emotional and powerful right at the end of a very compact string of words in your initial paragraph.

Just a thought. Also, yeah... Cal does seem to "know" a lot of stuff for someone who is probably on a journey to figuring stuff out. (?)

You know I love this query and premise.

Anyway, it works as is. I think you can do better with those first three sentences.

Nice job, Helene.

Theresa Milstein said...

I think it's a good query too. I'd take out that "thinks" in the 2nd paragraph. To Cal it's a given, so let it be a given. Good luck!

Lydia K said...

I liked the hookiness of the first paragraph but agreed with most people's comments about the timing thing. A little cleaner. But overall, the premise sounds really great.

Scott Stillwell said...

I agree that the premise is intriguing, and the query is concise and effective. Great job!

The only thing that tripped me up was the unconventional punctuation in the second paragraph. Even though it's probably technically correct, it distracted me and made it a little harder for me to appreciate the excellent voice of the paragraph. However, judging from the rest of the feedback, I'm apparently the only one who felt this way.

Again, great job, and good luck!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i'd read this.

Anyway, i don't dislike the passivity of the first paragraph. To me it seemed indicative of the life that was taken out of the MCs hands, like he's lost control.

That said, i think if you're going to do it, you need to make every sentence in the query perfect. There are a lot of "that"s sprinkled not just through the first paragraph, but also through the query. For exmample:

As Cal is forced to examine the things he’s always taken for granted, he discovers that friendship can overcome many obstacles and that, sometimes, what you were looking for was inside you all along.

There are 2 alone in this sentence and you can remove them without any structural problems.

Queries aren't that long, so i would recommend reading each word and consciously deciding if you need to keep it. And if you do, asking yourself if there's a better and shorter way to say the same thing.

Good luck!

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Hi, Helene!

Great concept here.

I agree with everyone about working on that first paragraph. In essence, I think it's bloated. You could essentially cut it to say:

It only takes a fraction of a second for an accident to kill Cal's best friend But getting over the guilt could take a lifetime.

The second paragraph is good, but I'd use that to explain the heart transplant, and maybe explain why having a heart transplant makes it impossible to be with the girl he's had a crush on. If anything, he could probably use the sympathy points to score a date.

And that third paragraph could definitely use some specificity. What are some of the things he has to overcome?

Really great job. Hope I get to read this one day!

Michael G-G said...

I'm going out on a limb and saying that I liked the opening paragraph because it showed me instantly I was in the hands of someone who understands the rhythm of sentences: the thrice repeated "he knows" have a great cadence.

Perhaps because I'm English, the .857 of a second didn't bother me or keep me lying awake. But now I have to look it up to see if it is one of those transatlantic differences.

I think the way it's written is different. This might have two results: wake up a jaded query-reading assistant and cause her to pay attention, or send a rule-following assistant into a funk.

So you can either risk it, or take the advice of almost everyone else and cut it or heavily rephrase it.

I LOVE the homoerotic thing. That's what makes the book different from other car crash/come back to life in strange body tropes I've read.

And Matt, just about every agent blog I've read stresses wanting to know that the novel is complete. I guess it signals to them that you haven't just got three chapters on your computer and want to get a jump on the competition before having revised 857 times.

I liked the list of credits, but kind of skipped things about the encyclopedia series. The Irish Rock Mag and bios of Celtic Women were cool, though.

This is a great query for what promises to be a great book. I'll buy it when it comes out.

Christina Lee said...

Hmmm... I think this is so so close. let me take a crack at the first para:

Your life can change in one heartbeat, but sixteen-year-old Cal Ryan knows it takes one second longer for a car to careen toward you and kill one of your best friends. And even longer for your damaged heart to be replaced by another. But overcoming the guilt could take Cal an entire lifetime.

I was trying to go for flow but....I don't know. Good luck!

Suzie F. said...

Just jumping back in once more to say I really like Shaun's suggestion for the first paragraph hook sentences.

K, I'll be quiet now.

Kelly said...

If the .857 is key to the story, definitely keep it. It did intrigue me. But if it is not a crucial number in the story, lose it and use a fraction or something easier to roll off the tongue.
Great premise!! Well done!

Angela Ackerman said...

I love the twist of the MC feeling the desires of his heart's donor--and a male friend at that! I've seen plot lines like this before, but this element took things into a unique & unexpected direction! Great hook to encourage the Agent to request more.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Liza said...

There are some amazing and helpful comments here. The only thing I have to add is I got stuck on the guilt. If the MC wasn't driving the car that spun out of control, why does he feel guilty?

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

Well done, Helene! Looks like a damn good query :) I like the precise measurement of time with the .857 seconds; though it would be most appropriate if Cal was a little OCD or was very precise in his ways.

Melissa Sarno said...

I love the premise of this book and the query is very good. The only thing that confused me, because I really try and keep track of all the characters you mention, is whether Lizzie was the friend in the first paragraph who died. Then you say Cal 'thinks' he's lost Lizzie. Then you say he has her heart. I guess I would just want to know upfront that he lost her and now has her heart and remove the fact that he 'thinks' he lost her, because it confused me. Good luck Helene! :-)

Marsha Sigman said...

I'm jumping in. Hard to improve on anything Matt says but here's my crack at the first paragraph:

Sixteen year old Cal Ryan knows life can change in a heartbeat but it felt much longer than a few seconds when a stranger's car spun into his, killing his best friend. He knows it took longer to have his damaged heart replaced with another’s and he knows overcoming his guilt could take a lifetime.

I'd also lose the 'Cal thinks' in the second para and say he's lost his friend, his future, his crush and now losing his mind. Lose the two 'thats' in para 3 and be done!

It just needs to be tightened a little. That is my 2 cents. Why is it so much easier to see what needs to be done with someone else's work than my own?

This is an awesome story idea and I would definitely read it.

Robyn Campbell said...

I'm too late. *sniff* Sorry MacNish. I just got home and missed my chance to comment. I will say what an excellent idea for a story, Helene. :-)

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this premise. Sounds like an interesting read, indeed.

Matt is, per usual, spot-on with his analysis. The first paragraph, I think, could be improved by deleting the line about replacing hearts. Save that for the next paragraph. That way, I think you could end up with a clean time comparison that might be less passive.

Here's my two cents. (Again adjusted for inflation)

Sixteen-year old Cal Ryan has learned, too early and too hard, the timetable of car accidents. He knows the death of a passenger is measured in milliseconds and overcoming guilt is measured in lifetimes.

Then figure out a way to introduce the donor aspect.

Again, I really like this story. Best to you!

M Pax said...

Split second would work, but I think she did a good job despite it being unconventional. She grabbed my attention. I found the .857 compelling actually. But, I'm probably the exception.

maine character said...

Love the idea of this. I've seen a book and movie about this idea of cellular memory, but hadn't heard the Spencer angle before, and that's a kicker.

Two tidbits - period inside the quotation mark: “Great American Court Cases”.

And you could skip the obvious "in advance" in the last line so it reads better.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Excellent analysis, Matt.

Helene said...

A HUGE thank you to Matthew for taking this on and for his always astute comments. And to everyone who commented, thanks for your thoughts, time, and advice.

I agree that .857 doesn't exactly roll off the tongue (and neither does 857 milliseconds which makes even my head hurt) but it does fit the character who is a fan of stats and science and all of those things that are exact and known. But yeah...I get it.

That being said, I love Andrew's idea of reversing the whole first paragraph so I've given that a shot. Not sure whether it has the flow of the original but would love any thoughts you might have. is another attempt at the first two paragraphs:

Sixteen-year-old Cal Ryan learns the hard way that it doesn’t take long to create a lifetime of guilt. And that without even knowing it, your damaged heart can be replaced with someone else’s. He learns that, in the time it takes to draw a breath, a car can spin towards yours and kill one of your best friends. To Cal, it feels like it all happens in a heartbeat.

After the accident, Cal thinks he’s lost everything: his friend, Lizzie; a promising future as a baseball player; and any chance he had with Ally Martin, the girl he’s had a crush on for two years. But when he learns his donated heart was Lizzie’s and starts hearing her voice, sharing her dreams, and feeling her desire for their mutual friend Spencer, Cal fears he’s losing the only thing he has left: his mind.

(And just to answer Shaun's question: Cal has had a crush on Ally for almost two years and hasn't had the courage to speak to her. Now that he (1) feels responsible for the death of his friend and (2) feels like damaged goods...he's even more "sure" that she'd want nothing to do with him.)

Matthew MacNish said...

Helene, I think this is much better. The first paragraph reads better this way, and I too like Andrew's idea of reversing the order of the comparison you're making.

The one sentence I'm still struggling with is this one:

"He learns that, in the time it takes to draw a breath, a car can spin towards yours and kill one of your best friends."

Particularly the final clause. I think you need to add the fact that the car actually smashes into Cal's (and I would love to see the model of Cal's car here, using just the pronoun yours makes it confusing for me). And I would love to see a stronger verb than spins. Careens or bullets or something like that would be great.

Otherwise, this is a big improvement, and I think you're very close.

Helene said...

Matthew -

"Flies" would be the most accurate verb for the offending car. (It jumps the median and...something big and gray flying towards him is about all that Cal remembers of the accident)

What model car? Wouldn't this just add unnecessary words? (Also, as the car doesn't survive long into the story, the model of that particular car was never mentioned). But if I must come up with some sort of safe, relatively boring car that isn't a Volvo, I suppose I could manage it. :-)

One further question: The one word that I would love to ditch is "create". Do you create guilt? I guess you can, and I guess, to some extent, he does but...I've gone through a slew of wordings here and am not loving any of them....


Helene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shah wharton said...

Oh good luck to Helene! Great ideas all round here. Glad I found this place in my hunt to return a follow bestowed onto me this weekend.

Shah. X From

Deniz Bevan said...

I think you've pointed out some great stuff. On the other hand, I love the tone of this query and would snap up the MS if I was an agent!

Josh Hoyt said...

Great Critique I love coming back and getting more pointers.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Great critique, Matt. The premise mostly comes through, but the awkward wording hinders the reading of it. I'm also curious to know where that exact time of .857 comes from. It needs to be clear. In Megan Miranda's summary for FRACTURE, the exact time of eleven minutes is given for how long it took for the mc to be saved, but then it becomes clear that it's because the mc should have died in ten. So there's significance granted to that exact time. But definitely, fix that wording because the first thing I would wonder is if the entire ms is written in that way. I doubt it is (mainly because queries are so dang hard not do write awkwardly), but it would be a valid concern. You gave some great suggestions.

Anonymous said...

To reduce the thinking and knowing:

They say your life can change in a heartbeat. It takes longer than .857 of a second for a car to spin towards yours and kill one of your best friends. It takes longer than that for your damaged heart to be replaced with someone else’s. And overcoming survivor's guilt could take a lifetime.

After a horrific car accident, Cal thinks he’s lost....

Excellent analysis, Matt! I agree with the em dash. I remember using them, but sometimes they don't come out right in emails.

Nichole Giles said...

Great query and very nice comments. Sounds like a great story.

Slamdunk said...

Well done Helene and Matthew.

I agree with Matthew on the ".857 seconds" idea though it did require thinking and that is not something I excel after 1 am.

Samantha Vérant said...

Helene- Good luck and keep us posted!

Lola Sharp said...

Well, since I'm so late to this party and everyone already gave such excellent feedback, I have nothing new to offer.

Thus, I'll just wish you well on your query journey.

And *waves* to Matt.


Bethany Elizabeth said...

I really liked the opening paragraph as is. I mean, I'd agree that 'they say' may not be the most original hook, except that what comes after it is so immediately compelling.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Could you use "in less than a second" or something similar to that rather than using a decimal. The storyline sounds interesting.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Haven't read the comments (even yours) so I'm just basing this on the the black text.

For me, it was an interesting setup to a story. Car crash, heart transplants, sounds exciting.
But for me, the query was riddled with cliche. Almost every line had one.
Can change in a heartbeat.
could take a lifetime
he's lost everything
a promising future
any chance he had
he's had a crush on
when he learns that
he's losing the only thing he has left
forced to examine (passive!!)
always taken for granted
friendship can overcome obstacles
what you were looking for was inside you all along

Agents and editors are dying to find creativity and originality.

Cal Ryan, promising high school junior baseball player, loses his best friend in 0.857 seconds, his heart in 6hrs 23mins, and his guilt...well the wreck replays in his head like a demonic DVR.

The rest of the query should be similar. Don't tell me what the book's about or what it's like, show me what the book is.

Good luck and keep posting queries!