Friday, August 12, 2011

Adam Russell Stephens' Current Query Critiqued

All right. Let's get right down to business. For those who haven't seen me do this before, my thoughts, feedback, embarrassing anecdotes, parenthetical asides, and corny jokes will be in red. Intro and outro will be bold. Adam's query will just be regular old text. I would say black, but I can't remember if my blog style forces it into some other color, like old-crone-grey, or doo-doo-brown.

Anyway. Before I get to critiquing what Adam has shared with us already, I want to talk about query letters, and the standard structure I generally suggest when people ask me to help them with their query. However, before I even get to that, I want to point out that there are no ultimate rules. For an example of an excellent, incredibly short query (by my friend Josin L. McQuein) that broke all the standard expectations, but still worked, please see this post, at Query Shark. Seriously, read that query; it will blow your mind.

Now I'm not saying you should break the rules, just showing that it can be done.

Anyway, so assuming you want to write a regular old query letter, this is how it works: One page or less, 250 words is generally a good guideline. Usually 3 paragraphs. First is your opening hook and pitch. You need to get across a strong sense of character right away, and if you can sprinkle in some backstory, in a nice, organic way, that's great. Second, you want to introduce the conflict. If you can sprinkle in setting and stakes, great. Finally, you need to give us an idea of what choices your character has to make in order to overcome the conflict.

So that's: Character. Conflict. Choice. The three Cs.

I'm not saying this query doesn't do that, in fact it does have all the basics, but I think it's missing other things. We'll get to that in a moment.

Before I get to the actual feedback, I want to point you to one more post. My own query (which isn't anywhere near perfect, and it still a WIP), won a contest at WriteOnCon last year, and I posted the analysis of it by Literary Agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, which you can find: right here. She does a great job of explaining what works, and why.

Anyway, to the query:

Dear Agent,

My name is Adam Stephens, the author of a 45,000-word YA novel entitled IMPERFECT SYMMETRY.

You can skip all this. Your name needs to go at the end, with the rest of your contact info. Housekeeping like word count and genre can go up front like this, and some agents prefer it that way, but I advise people to get right to what matters: the story.

IMPERFECT SYMMETRY tells the story of 17-year-old Adam Smith, who lives a double life. Your first sentence really needs more punch than this. The first sentence is the most important one. It's good you've included his age, but we need a better sense of character. You get right to some great stuff in the next sentence, but if you can incorporate his duality into the opening, it would make for a much stronger hook. And "lives a double life" is a bit cliche. On the internet, where he has spent a substantial amount of his summer, Adam is openly gay and, as a result, has developed a suitable relationship. What is a suitable relationship? I have a suitable relationship with my boss, because even though I can't stand him, he still signs my paycheck. The people I actually care about? Our relationships better be more than just suitable. I think I know what you mean, but you need to reword it. Is it loving? Caring? Exciting? All of the above? At home, the son of a chaplain at a private Christian boarding school, Adam appears Appears? To who? I think you can use a different (better) verb here. more conservative, his orientation a deeply buried secret he hopes no one suspects. Adam’s secret is well-kept until the day his online boyfriend—who lives in Scotland—shows up Shows up, or enrolls? You need to make this clear, because the way it's written here it sounds random, and comes out of left field. I know from your blog that he enrolls, so you need to just say that in the query, although it still seems pretty random, I think it can work if you just make it clear. at Pisgah Heights Academy, Move this up to where you first mention his dad is the chaplain, and you won't have to repeat these ideas. the school where Adam attends and where his father works as chaplain. Suddenly, he must choose between his church His Faith? Is Adam a Christian, or does he fake it for his dad's sake? and his boyfriend, his heart’s truth or his secret’s lie This is vague. I like the language of it, but I don't understand what it means. What is the lie of his secret? Just the fact that he's hiding it? Ultimately, Adam also knows whatever decision he makes will no longer simply impact his life, but the lives of everyone else around him. This is pretty good. A nice sense of the stakes, even though it might be considered obvious. Only, Adam isn’t entirely sure his heart, scathed by past burns, Get specific here. What past burns? Where's mom? can take another plunge into the fire.

The full manuscript is available upon request. Thanks for your consideration.

Okay. So I think the strength of your premise may be enough to garner some requests even if you don't change this query, but if you do want to tighten it up some, I would try to start with something like this:

17 year-old attacking-midfielder Adam Smith has to juggle more than just soccer balls. He spent his summer on the internet, falling in love with his Scottish boyfriend, but at home he must hide his sexual orientation, because his father is the Chaplain of the Christian boarding school he attends: Pisgah Heights Academy. His relationship isn't just a lie to be kept secret, to dad it's a sin.

So obviously that's really cheesy, and you probably wouldn't want to write it that way, but it's just an example of how you can squeeze more of the important information right into the first line or two, in order to pack more punch, and hook the agent right away.

The last thing I would say is that this query comes off as dry, and lacking voice. This is a YA novel, so try to write the query using the language that Adam Smith would. The only caveat to that is that the voice and tone of the query needs to match the style the novel is written in. If this story ends in tragedy, and therefore the writing in the book is a bit more formal, then this query's voice might be good. If the story is funny, or more lighthearted, then you will want to inject that into your query.

So that's it. What do you guys think? Can anyone write a better opening hook than I did? Come on, mine was pretty bad, surely one of you dear readers can do better.

Please leave your feedback in the comments, and feel free to disagree with me!


Jessica Bell said...

I like your new opening. The trouble with these posts nowadays is that I don't have much to say because you say it so well!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for spelling out the 3 C's of a query. You make it so clear. If only it were so easy.

What about:

17 year-old attacking-midfielder Adam Smith's life is a lie. (or lives a lie.)He secretly spent his summer on the internet, falling in love with his Scottish boyfriend. But at home he must hide his sexual orientation, because his father is the Chaplain of the Christian boarding school he attends: Pisgah Heights Academy. To his dad and friends at school, his choice is a sin.

Great suggestions for tightening the query. And good luck Adam. I've so struggled with my own query.

Slamdunk said...

Nice work Matthew and Adam. The Mrs. used to carve up my writing like this and I was always happy to see the improved end product.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Agree with your suggestions. The whole pitch is dry, like an essay, and needs some excitement and personality.

Old Kitty said...

My one caveat is the name of the mc. Adam S. Which also happens to be the first name of the author and initial of his surname.

Also "Adam Smith". Can't the name be more than Adam Smith or is that a deliberate use of Adam Smith being the Scottish philosopher - Wealth of Nations author?

Sorry, I just can't help but connect author to the mc. Which probably is just me being mad!

ANYWAY! I can totally see the potential of this story - young conservative (deeply christian?) lad is gay but can only express his true feelings online. So he finds a bf this way and all is well until the bf turns up on his doorstep opening all sorts of cans of worms in Adam's erm.. Family!

I totally agree about using Adam's voice to bring some dynamism to this story in the query letter!! Good luck!

Take care

Chris Phillips said...

The new opening is great.

Angela Felsted said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angela Felsted said...

The premise is good, my question is: how does the protagonist feel about his faith? If it's an inner struggle for the protagonist and not just a matter of going against his father, that might be an important thing to put into the query as well.

Jess said...

Nice comments from Matt~ I agree with him. This sounds like a great premise, and I wish Adam the best with the query process :)

Lydia K said...

Great comments, Matt. I like the changes to the opening graph. Much punchier and there's more voice.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Terrific analysis, Matt.

I enjoyed reading your query, too. I hadn't seen that post.

mshatch said...

I agree, you did a great job improving upon the original and I'd wager if that query was tightened up and given more voice as you suggest it will garner some interest.

Michael G-G said...

I so agree with your analysis, Matt, and your opening paragraph is a goal scorer. (Although the juggling balls may be a bit Freudian.)

I think the main thing this query needs is voice. A dry-sounding query will get subconscious bells in an agent's mind aringing: "Is the book written like this as well?"

This query needs more punch and character--emotion, really. I saw Adam's writing on his blog, and know he can do it.

Adam, I think you've got a great story here. If you follow Matt's suggestions, I think you'll have a great query too. (I should know. It was only after my query got the QQQE treatment that I started getting requests.)

Good luck, Adam, and thanks for sharing your work.

Andrew Smith said...

I like the idea of the story a lot.

Do you juggle soccer balls?

I think Matthew makes some great suggestions, Adam. I'm kind of interested in what Adam's goal for this work is.

For example, knowing that Adam is young and just kind of starting out, does he see this as a step in his development as a writer (finishing your first work of this length is an amazing accomplishment)?

Or... is he working toward publication of THIS product?

If so, I think the 45,000 word length may be a bit short for a subject of this level of maturity. That, like so many things, is not a hard and fast rule... just maybe.

Works of this length are frequently published as e-books, and there is nothing wrong with that. A lot of agencies (in fact, MOST agencies) are evolving into facilitators for authors who do exactly that, and they can help with a lot of the editorial and other technical details involved in producing a quality "indie" title.

Also, I don't think the intro lines are necessarily bad. It's easy for an agent to see name, title, length, etc., and an agent's eyes would naturally skip down to the chunky paragraph that describes the essence of the story.

I do like Matthew's description of the 3 Cs, though. This is brilliant advice, and easy for writers to wrap their heads around.

I also agree with Kitty about Adam Smith. I don't mind the first name part being the same as the author's, but, as an Econ major, any time I hear Adam Smith I start thinking about free market capitalism and supply and demand. Which might be very clever if there were references and joking hints relating economics to sexuality and perhaps the regimentation of the protagonist's upbringing.

I want to know more about the story, as well as what the author's intentions regarding his work are.

Nice job, Matthew.

And great going, Adam!

Carrie said...

I like the premise of this book. I like Matthew's suggested revision for the opening.
I agree with the voice thing. I think so much voice comes across on Adam's blog when he's writing about this book. Maybe adding some of the voice he uses when he talks about the book on his blog into the query letter.

Shain Brown said...

I really enjoyed your opening. You spelled so much out and I love the idea in using the 3 C's.

Adam, great work. I like the story and look forward to reading it. But you need a first sentence that gives us more. in the way of personality and packing a punch. Offer something to entice the reader, something that will pique their curiosity and set you apart.

Good Luck.

Michael Offutt said...

You hit on everything so well Matthew it's hard to find something to say. I love your example of a rewrite that you have in italics. It would be nice to see a revision of this query once he goes through all the suggested changes.

storyqueen said...

I would say that were I an agent (which I am not) I would probably flip ahead to the first few pages pretty quickly because the premise sounds very intriguing. I would want to see what kind of voice this author has when he tell this story because (for me) that is what the query lacks, a sense of the voice of the author.

But I would definitely read pages to see what there was.


Katrina L. Lantz said...

Great breakdown, Matthew! And good luck to Adam in working the important things in while keeping the voice of your work. I love that there are blogs like this because queries are so tough! And after you've written an entire novel with themes this heavy, it's hard to pack that into a few brief paragraphs. I like Matt's ideas for the beginning. Always front-load a query with the catchy and the conflict! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

This sounds like an intriguing story - but I agree with Matt - it could use some spice. You've got a story dealing with strong emotions - let us feel those. If possible, get some of that choice worded into the first sentence, or at least the first chunk.

Great title btw! Good luck with it :)

Christina Lee said...

I actually think you mostly nailed it, Matt. AND I totally think he will gets lots of requests for this one, once he makes it punchier--nice work!

Ishta Mercurio said...

I'd like to add to Matt's excellent summation of the "three Cs" that a good query often takes the form of three paragraphs: hook/query (the "meat"), housekeeping (where you put the stuff about ho long it is, who the intended audience is, and why you chose this particular agent), and resume (where you list your publishing history if you have one, and any memberships in professional organizations for writers).

Angela Felsted makes a good point about the protag's faith, and its role in the story (and possibly your query).

As for an opener, there are lots of ways you could go. Matt came up with a good one, but I think you could even go straight to the stakes: "17-year-old Adam Smith's fear of his Chaplain father has him buried in the closet. But with his online boyfriend's surprise enrollment at his father's school, Adam is forced to choose between the family he has always known and the love that pulls him forward. Either way, someone's heart is going to get broken."

Or something like that. The second sentence is crappy, and I don' know anything about your book, so you'll be able to come up with much better specifics than I did.

The key, as Matt pointed out, is being specific, and eliminating vague statements. And I agree that writing it to match the "voice" in your novel is a must.

Good luck! Your premise sounds awesome, and I look forward to seeing this one on the shelves. :-)

Clarissa Draper said...

I think your critique is great. The character is dealing with a lot of serious stuff but the way it's described is hum drum. I like that you told him to "kick it up a notch!"

Adam Russell Stephens said...


You deserve much praise for your excellent, honest, and thorough gutting of my U-G-L-Y baby. I am indebted to you forever!

And thank you all so much for your comments!! You have helped improve me 100%.

Sarah Pearson said...

Late again, so all the good stuff's been said. I'll just add my voice to the 'great story, query a bit dry' brigade. I'd love to see a revised version. I do worry that 45k is a bit short for commercial publication, but that might not be the aim.

Totally unrelated but I would pay money to see old-crone-grey in the crayola box :)

Anita said...

I came late to the par-tay, but that's okay, because there's some solid advice here...a lot of it repeats, which tells me that it's probably correct.

Thanks so much for sharing this query...we all learn from these things.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Much better - that first sentence needs to start with a punch and then never let up.
I did like the brevity of it - one paragraph is perfect.

Jonathon Arntson said...

Alright, Matt made me come here. I have not read any other comments, so forgive me any repetition.

I love the premise of this story, but the way it is explained in the query makes everything sound contrived and convenient. The story itself may be anything but contrived, but the query does not lead me to believe that.

I am also wondering about the internet relationship, I need more. Does Adam like the relationship because it's easier to not have someone in his town? Does his bf showing up create other problems beside Adam having to choose his identity?

I suppose I am jumping the gun on a few of these topics, otherwise the query would end up at a page itself.

Lastly, I want to give Adam mad props for putting this out there. I have a hard time putting my own writing on my blog and I have the power to remove it if I want.

Matt, you've proven your site is a positive and supportive venue and when I get to the querying stage, I'll send you my query, chin up.

Anna Staniszewski said...

I really like how you helped focus the query so it's much tighter. I was thinking the same thing about the voice, that it comes off as a bit dry. Like you said, if it matches the tone of the story then it could work, but otherwise it might be a bit off-putting. Best of luck to Adam!

K. M. Walton said...

Hi, Adam--

Here's my go at it:

Dear Agent,

IMPERFECT SYMMETRY is a YA novel complete at 45,000 words.

Seventeen-year-old Adam Smith lives a double life. On the internet he is openly gay and in love. But being the son of a chaplain at a private Christian boarding school has buried who he really is. Deep.

Adam’s secret is well-kept until the day his online boyfriend—who lives in Scotland—shows up at Pisgah Heights Academy. Suddenly, he is forced to confront the lies he has told. Even to himself. He must choose between his church and his boyfriend.

Ultimately, whatever decision Adam makes will impact his life and everyone he loves. Is his heart strong enough to take the plunge into the truth?

The full manuscript is available upon request. Thanks for your consideration.

Hope this helps. Kudos for putting your query out there. You certainly chose the perfect venue--the QQQE is awesome. I wish you the best of luck on your query journey!

j. littlejohn said...

i thought your version did pretty well

Shrinky said...

Can't linger, I need to go take notes.. cheers for the pointers!

Charmaine Clancy said...

You really turned this query letter around. I like your version a lot.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i agree with Matt. I think the bones of your query are there, just just need to build it up better, zazz it up so to speak. Follow what Matt said and i think you'll have a good draft to tinker with. As for the missing voice, the best advice i ever took for capturing voice in a query (and i promise, it works) is to write the query in the voice of the MC - write it in first person from the MC's POV and then change it to third person. The voice always comes through using that method