Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kristen Wixted's Current Query Critiqued

It's raining in torrents here, and my office has a metal roof. So I can barely hear myself think.

Who comes up with these clichés? Thinking is silent, of course you can't hear it.

Anyway, the point is, I'm just going to dive right in, and get to work. You all met Kristen yesterday, and if you didn't, just scroll down to the post beneath this one.

Today I'm featuring her query again, this time with my thoughts, in red text.

Here we go:

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent:

I’ve read your profiles and interviews on xxx blogs/web-sites, and I am impressed with your sincerity and your passion for good quality children’s writing. I hope you will consider my middle grade novel, SILVER POOL OF LIGHT, for your list.

I'm not going to cover this first part. I mean I could say this is too short and too generic to really qualify as true personalization of a query letter, but I get the feeling you were just giving an example, and wouldn't intend to write your personalization this way for every query you send in.

Eleven-year-old Eve Tilton, a self-proclaimed “blossoming” celebrity, YES! This is the kind of thing I always try to fight for in the queries I critique. In 7 little words (okay, yes, some are hyphenated), you've given us a wonderful idea of who our character is, showed us why we should care, and done it with voice.  NOTE TO READERS WHO QUERY: This is how you introduce an MC. has been afraid of the ocean since living through a horrible I'm not sure you need this. I can't imagine surviving a deep ocean accident that would be anything but utterly terrifying. If there is a key plot reason for this, get more specific. sailing accident at the age of five. So maybe she's can't fully remember the details? Just the paralyzing fear? When she spends the month of July on Martha’s Vineyard that sounds like torture for someone with her fears. with her step-siblings and great aunt, she hopes for privacy. Privacy? That seems odd. I can't remember thinking about privacy at eleven, and I'd be picturing Eve hoping not to drown. Lately Eve’s been forced to share so many personal details on celebrity blogs and the ever-growing iGirl website…it’s becoming tedious. Okay. Now I'm confused. Forced by whom? I get that she's some kind of eleven-year-old iCarly or something, but who is forcing her to do this, and what details is she sharing?

So your opening paragraph starts out strong, with incredible character, and decent hook, but it soon gets muddled for me (subjectivity). I don't have a clear idea of what the plot is going to be, which isn't necessarily required this far into the query, but it's giving me a sense of "I thought it would be about this, but it's actually about that," which is not usually good.

Plus, Eve has a secret friend—don't use em-dashes in queries. It works here, because I pasted from your word doc, but email clients do funny things to advanced formatting like this. Besides, this works better as a sentence. she doesn’t want her step-sibs snooping around in Aunt Tibby’s attic when she’s writing to eleven(-)year(-)old Jane Mayhew. Because Jane lives in 1874. Eve doesn’t know how it works—em-dash maybe the diary they write in time-travels, or maybe the sea chest the diary is kept in. But if she writes in the diary and places it in the chest, and waits…Jane writes back. From 1874. I really like this. It sounds like a fascinating premise, but the problem here is that your plot is only getting more muddled as things go on. Right now I get the feeling that the plot is the correspondence between the girls, and the fear of the ocean and the iGirl stuff is all backstory. I obviously could be wrong.

This paragraph suffers from much the same problem as the first. It's well written, with good voice and cool ideas, but it's not cohesive, in the big picture sense, with the rest of the query. Right now I have no clear idea what the main conflict in this book is, and I've read too much not to know that by now.

It’s pre-occupying, technically this verb makes sense (though as a word preoccupy does not need to be hyphenated) but I don't think it works here. I think you want something stronger. writing back and forth with a girl from more than a hundred years ago. They write about what they have in common: funny aunts, clueless fathers, acquaintances with more interesting lives than their own. But just as Eve is invited to hob-nob with film stars, Wait. What? So the internet celebrity stuff is not backstory? Now I'm really confused. It's not that you can't have subplots in the novel, and I'm sure they work well there, but your query needs to focus on one main conflict. she discovers that Jane is going to board a doomed whaling ship. Eve enlists Liam, her twelve-year-old, slightly smelly step-brother, to help her keep Jane off the ship. Can they time travel? Or do they have to convince her with a letter? As they plot and plan, she tries to focus on Jane, but it’s so hard to concentrate on tempests, malaria, and whale blubber when you’re invited to a movie star’s private beach…. You only need three dots in an ellipsis. Eve faces difficult choices, knowing that if Jane boards that ship, she will die in an accident eerily similar to the one Eve survived the day her mother died. I do like the way you sum this up. Well done on summarizing.

SILVER POOL OF LIGHT is complete at 48,000 words. How do you fit all this plot into so few words? Last summer I completed the advanced novel workshop at the University of Iowa, isn't this one of the most prestigious writing programs in the country? Good stuff. and have attended numerous SCBWI writing workshops. I hold a certificate I didn't even know you could get certificates in writing. I may have to look into that myself. in Children’s Writing from Emerson College and am a member of SCBWI. Please visit my writer’s blog: Don’t Forget the Samovar, at Excellent bio. I wouldn't change a thing.

Per your submission guidelines I have pasted in the first 5/10 this is like your personalization I think, just an example. pages below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Okay. So the pros are that you've got great writing, great voice, and great ideas in this query. That's good news, because those are harder to fix.

The problem is that this query lacks focus, and may be too long. Without the to and from lines, it's 390 words. Now I'm not going to tell you there are rules about query length, because I don't believe in that crap. I've seen a query that had less than 50 words and it blew me away just as much as it did Janet Reid. I can't think of an example, but I'm sure there are longer queries that work too. As long as it serves the story, don't worry about length. Problem is: I worry that your length here doesn't serve the story.

Try to focus on one plot line, one conflict, and the one choice that must be made. I think it's the correspondence with the historical girl, and the need to save her, but I can't quite tell for sure.


Kristen Wixted

That's all, folks.

So what do you guys think? What would you change? Do you think she really needs to cut as much as I think she needs to cut? How would you write a better opening hook for this story?

A NOTE ON ELLIPSES: There is actually apparently some debate about the point I made about three dots in an ellipsis. Some manuals of style describe a terminal ellipsis that can use four dots, but only if it ends a sentence or a paragraph. There is also debate . . . on how to space ellipses. When I write them in fiction, I always surround each dot with a space on either side, because I prefer the way it looks, but there are publications out there that will tell you that is wrong.

I'm going to continue to suggest to Kristen that she only use three dots (you'll notice some of hers do only have three dots, so the one with four may have been on purpose), but I would like everyone to keep in mind that like all the advice I give, it is highly subjective, and should only be followed if it resonates for you (the author).


maine character said...

Matt really summed up my notes from yesterday:

You mention the sailing accident, and then place her on Martha’s Vineyard, so when it got to the line, “she hopes for privacy,” I didn’t understand the connection since I thought she’d be trying to stay away from the ocean.

So maybe something like, “...she is not only freaked out by being surrounded by water, but she’s also burned out and needs time alone. She finds solace in her aunt's attic, where she finds more adventure than she'd expected.”

So yeah, like Matt, I found the celebrity part distracting (which, of course, Eve does, as well), and I wasn't pulled into it until you got to the time travel.

By the way, there was a good TV movie about the same letter-in-a-desk trick, called “The Love Letter,” based on a Jack Finney story, if you'd like to check it out.

That's the part I liked best, especially when you link it in with Eve's mother, which really raises the emotional stakes.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Your story sounds very interesting but I think you should focus like Matt said on one plot line. Perhaps you can weave in a bit about the celebrity issues with something like: When she escapes to Martha Vineyard to get away from the spotlight, she's glad to reconnect with her secret friend . . . or something similar.

I do love the idea of the secret friend. I want to know more about how they try to keep Jane off the ship. Good luck with your query.

Liza said...

I do agree with Matthew's comments and would tighten up the query. This is an amazing story though...I love the whole idea.

Emily White said...

I really love your first line about your MC, but I agree with the others that you should stick with one plot line in your query. I think that little description is just right to give us an idea of who she is.

Also, I love the title of your novel!

Good luck with this! I hope to read it someday. :)

.jessica. said...

Absolutely agree with all Matt's comments. (Except the elipsis thing... I am pro-4-periods at the end of a sentence, in case we're voting.) :) It sounds like this is an intriguing story with a very cool MC (I would have loved living vicariously through a time-traveling quasi-famous 11-year-old at that age!) But like Matt, I'm left with some questions at the end.

I wonder if it really matters - for the query - that she was in a sailing accident at a young age. I think the stakes are high enough (for purposes of the query) in that her friend might die in an accident without it really mattering that she has a history of surviving one herself. (Obviously it's important to the book, and probably adds a lot of the emotional pull, but for the query I think we can take for granted that the MC wouldn't want her friend to die, even if it isn't all tied up with her own memories and the death of her mother). Taking that out would also help focus on what I think is the main conflict here - her rising fame vs. helping her friend.

I think it would also help to explain the whole fame thing a bit more. How does she go from being a "self-proclaimed" blossoming celeb to actually being one? Is she forcing *herself* to post so much info online, to try and get famous? If so, wouldn't she just be able to turn off the computer if she needs privacy that badly? If not, who IS making her post so much online?

Thanks for letting us take a look at your query! Looks like a great story. :)

Lydia Kang said...

I agree that the first line is super-duper strong, but there seems to be too many plotlines going on in the query. I'd stick with the main one and see it to a "cliffhanger" ending on the query. Great job you two!

Talli Roland said...

Spot on, Matt. I'd echo all the other comments that the opening is strong, but I got kind of lost in the rest of the details.

Michael G-G said...

Kristen is cool, and I love her Samovar blog. As Matt says, this is well-written. As Matt and others also say, there are too many plotlines. A query sort of has to tease/seduce an agent/editor into requesting the book. The main plot seems to be the time-travelly letter-writing, so I would stick to that. Otherwise, you have the reader asking too many questions.

I actually had a problem with the "self-proclaimed" blossoming celebrity idea. Is she a sort of Kardashian? Later on, it suggests she's actually in demand to hobnob with movie stars. So perhaps you can lose the "self-proclaimed"?

The choice for Eve seems whether to hobnob with stars or save her "friend" from going down with the whaling ship. (And I actually want to know how the "slightly smell step-brother," a description I love by the way, is going to achieve that.)

Kristen, all in all, this sounds like the sort of story I love. Thanks for being brave enough to share the query with us.

Anonymous said...

My only addition is that the first paragraph didn't seem necessary. At least, not where it was. Personally, I think it would make a stronger point if it was just: "Dear Sir/Madam, Eleven-year-old Eve Tilton..."

Also, your thinking is silent? Man, there's something wrong with me.

Old Kitty said...

Yay! I thought Eve was a most gorgeous character - and the letter had such a strong voice too - I love that Eve (I presume she's this sassy 11 year old going on to 32) explodes out of the letter.

For the the 3rd and 4th paras could be amagamated maybe?

Take care and good luck! x

Steph Sinkhorn said...

I think you nailed it, Matt. I had the same nitpicks. Generally a good query with interesting plotlines and good use of voice, but a little too much going on with the two conflicting plotlines. Narrow the focus and this will be perfect, I think.

Angela Ackerman said...

Great points, and it sounds like a great story, but I feel like maybe as you said it's a bit unfocused. It feels like the Diary and Jane is the meat of the story, so that needs to be the focus, and it takes time to get there with all the stuff about her being a superstar & her fears of drowning.

One nitpicky thing--the 'slightly smelly step' made me notice the writing, so I'd reword this.

Great premise, a complicated character and strong voice--all awesome!

Angela 2 The Bookshelf Muse

Michael Offutt said...

Lots of rain where you are at, eh? That sounds kinda exciting.

Again, spot on with your critique. She could use work on the first paragraph but I suspect you are right when you say that this is just a "filler" for actual ideal research so best to move on to the following paragraphs.

Wine and Words said...

Rain on a tin roof is one of my favorite songs :) We've got so much damn insulation I can barely hear the sounds I love. Just the drip drip drip as it comes down the gutter pipe...hardly the symphony I was craving. Record it for me, would ya?

D.G. Hudson said...

Your critique - Matt - highlights the important things for Kristen to work on. I agree with most of your points, especially about deciding the main plot and being clear about it in the query.

As for the cliché - 'I can barely hear myself think' or 'I can't hear myself think' - they could be southern in origin. (How long have you lived there?) My sister lives in north Atlanta. My mother, a Georgia lady, used to say that same phrase when we kids were too noisy.

Matthew MacNish said...

@ DG - I've lived in Atlanta for five or six years, but I'm from Seattle, and I've always heard the saying. I have no idea where it comes from, except I suppose the metaphor of one's thoughts having a "voice" in one's own head.

Johanna Garth said...

I too got very confused at the point where she is writing back and forth. I love the idea that came through with the query but I felt like there was too much going on. I have to reiterate what Matthew said about focusing on the main storyline for purposes of a query.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Love your explanations, as always, on the Query. You always give me so much to think about.

The book sounds fun.

Sub-Radar-Mike said...

Glad to see you're still keeping up with the critiques, this one was great as usual. I love learning more and more about revision... maybe some day I'll up my writing game over at my blog. That might be a stretch though haha.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Yeah, she references many things in the query letter and I'm not sure where they all fit in the grand scheme of the storyline.

Christina Lee said...

clink, clink, clink, drip, drip, drip.

What a marvelous concept you've got here! And I like the shot maine character gave with it--"She finds solace in her aunt's attic, where she finds more adventure than she'd expected."

Arlee Bird said...

I like the basic premise of the story but Matthew I think you are spot on with your critique. That intro paragraph sounds a bit too much like pandering to me.

Best selling author Lani Diane Rich visits
Tossing It Out
Wednesday November 16th.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I read this query yesterday on my phone while walking around the cafeteria on 5th grade lunch duty (ugh) and these were my thoughts at the time:

I would skip the paragraph attempting to flatter the agent. I figure they've seen that before and they'd rather read a hook for your story so they know whether to give this query any more time.

I think you have a GREAT premise here, but I also think your query focuses on the wrong parts of your story. You spent a lot of time on ordinary details and not enough on the extraordinary mystery.

Is Eve really a celebrity -- or only a "self-proclaimed" one? Let's make that clear from the start because it does make a big difference.

Furthermore, vacationing in Martha's Vineyard with relatives pales by comparison to the accident which killed her mother and left her traumatized and the pen pal from another time period who is headed for certain doom.

Those last two things need to be the focus of your query, because those are the plot elements that are going to get your manuscript requested. They need to be presented FIRST and in such a way that the agent has no choice but to request your ms to find out what happens.

Heaven. said...

Great advice :)

Sara McClung said...

I'm going to go ahead and agree with Matt's comments. I will say though, the novel sounds intriguing with a nice dichotomy between the trials (or, you know FUN TIMES) of being a modern-day child celebrity, and the back-and-forth communication with a girl from 1874--and the darkness of Jane's possible upcoming death. From the past.

Kristen said...

I was telling my husband today how 10 years ago there is NO WAY anyone could have had so much help from all over the country (possibly world?) on a writing project. I am in awe at how many people gave me advice. Even though I've been commenting on these queries for the last few months, I just didn't see this being as helpful as it was.
Tonight I re-checked the comments and saw 25--OMG! I had thought I was lucky with the 13 this afternoon.
I'm going to put them all in a doc and keep reading them till they penetrate.
Thank you everyone, especially Matt!

Just Another Day in Paradise said...

Kristen - I still applaud your bravery. Love the premise of your story. Thank you for letting me learn alongside of you, how the process should work.

What wonderful,helpful, caring comments. I applaud all of you.

Jemi Fraser said...

Everything I would have suggested has been said. I'd just like to say that with the voice you write with, I don't think it will take any time at all for your to make this query sparkle! :)

Donna Hole said...

Hi Kristen;

I'm not very good at MG; I don't read or write in it so don't want to say much. Except; yes, it is long for the genre and does cover too many points of interest.

As for the elipses thing; I'm of the mind that it is so controversial that the writer needs to go with their gut and let whatever editor picks up the project determine how their agency handles the issue. I myself use space dot space dot space . . My own personal style, and not used to replace comas, semi-colons, periods, conjunctions.

I think the same for dashes and em-dashes. Use them where you feel appropriate, and let an actual agent/editor/publisher tell you how they want it formatted.

However; I do think it appropriate that Matt brings these technical writing issues to your attention. Some writers aren't aware that there are debates over the usages. I know I wasn't until several critiquers brought it to my attention, and my face-to-face crit group had a serious discussion over these various issues.

Thank you Kristen for submitting your query here. While I don't write in this genre, I think my own women's fiction query may have a lot of the same discrepancies that Matt and the others have pointed out in your's.

Good luck with your revision/query process Kristen. This novel sounds intriguing.


Donna Hole said...


I've been reading your query critiques for some time now; but for some reason the crit on this particular query resonates with my own query issues. Funny that, as this is MG and the novel I'm querying is womens fiction.

What caught my query eye was your comment: "It's not that you can't have subplots in the novel, and I'm sure they work well there, but you're query needs to focus on one main conflict."

I'm going to add this to the top of my query letter because I think this is exactly the problem with it. I'm putting too much subplot and not enough actual plot into the synopsis. The query lacks a specific focus, and you (and Kristen) have helped my define the discrepancy.

Who knows where one will find inspiration; huh?

Ok; I gotta go work on that query now while I still understand how your feedback has inspired me :)

Thanks for being here for me . .


Bryan Russell said...

Interesting query and interesting discussion!

I'm going to take a slightly different tack than everyone else, in that I think you can have subplots in a query. The key, though, is that they have to be tied in perfectly to the main plot. The subplot has to be something that pushes the main plot, that helps force and explain the action. Here, it was hard to grasp the connections, though I can sort of infer that they're there.

For me, it's about ordering the things properly, and then providing the causal links that show how each thing pushes the next.

1. She's a celebrity hopeful, always seeking attention.

2. This can be overwhelming, and so on vacation she wants to avoid everything - even if that means Martha's Vineyard, water, and her old fears.

3. She begins a magical correspondence with someone from the past, but the present still intrudes.

4. Her big celebrity break arrives... but it's in conflict with saving her historical friend. And, to save her friend, not only must she balance friendship with ambition, she must face her own fears about the water, etc.

I think this is basically what the query says, but the parts don't tie in. I think if you tie it together, though, the elements will be clear, and the reader will see how they combine to create the central conflict(s). This way they set up the choice clearly: ambition and celebrity or friendship and facing one's fears?

Also! Punctuation! There are various style guides, with various options for ellipses. Chicago Manual of Style has three periods, with spaces before, between, and after (Chicago is often used in publishing). Of course, I hate ellipses like that. I prefer a space after, but none before or between. And, yes, at the end of a sentence you often use an ellipses (three periods) and then a period (to terminate the sentence). This isn't so big of a deal in fiction, as the ellipses is most often used to show a thought or idea traling off, often as a sort of emphasis. In many other areas, however, the ellipsis is used to indicate that something has been removed from the middle of a sentence, and thus, if it's at the end of a sentence a final period is needed to avoid confusion.

Also, the colon after "Please visity my writer's blog" should be a comma, as you continue the sentence after you've written the name of the blog. This makes the name of the blog a parenthetical element, which means that it should be enclosed in commas (before and after). Or parentheses, but the commas would be more appropriate here.

Yeah, I'm an editor. The day job makes me crazy, I know.

Best of luck!

Rusty Webb said...

This might be the first query I've seen you critique that I'm not sure I agree with on every detail. I guess it was bound to happen at some point.

I enjoyed it a great deal and thought it was very strong already. I followed the synopsis and had a pretty clear idea of the plot (I think I do anyway). But, like you said. It is a pretty subjective. You do a service for us all here, much appreciated.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Kristen is awesome! Matt's suggestions are too (and so's Matt). My issue was that as good as the info in the 1st line is, when you got to the time traveling letters you hooked me. I couldn't tell that this had fantasy elements in it until then. I thought it was dealing with celebrity status or something. So yeah, focusing on what the main plot is, and keeping the voice is the key. You can do it!

K. M. Walton said...

Dang, Matthew, this was a spot on critique. Very nice work. I agree with every point you made.

PS My editor and copy editor schooled me on elipses while editing CRACKED. They both said four go at the end of a sentence.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Great query and great analysis of it. I agree that the plot was too complicated for the purpose of the query...too many plot lines/details. They're important to the story, but not the query.

I'm a three-dot ellipses girl. For proper formatting, I believe I read to do the spaces, but I can't recall for sure.

Kristen Pelfrey said...

I, too, love the bio and that nugget o' greatness at the beginning with your phrase about the main character. I did get a little lost in the middle. I would do as Matthew advises and seek what most serves the story. It sounds like a wonderful book and I look forward to seeing it published! Thank you for letting us share your process!