Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Devin Cushman's Current Query Critiqued

Before we get to work, I want to make an announcement. I'm entering into a query critique partnership of awesomeness with my friend Ishta Mercurio. Basically, I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing, but Ishta is going to join me as a resident Picture Book query critique expert. What that means is that if I get any requests for PB query critiques, the query will actually go up on Ishta's blog, but still get my feedback, along with hers. If she gets any requests for query critiques for novels, we'll do the critique on my blog, again with combined feedback.

So that's it. Go make sure you're following Ishta, so you don't miss any of these new critiques.

Now, we're back to Devin's query. Before we get to the red ink and my thoughts, it looks like very few of you went to follow Devin's blog. She's very nice, and was totally understanding about me screwing up her gender yesterday, so please drop by Cushman in Cairo, and clock that follow button.

And now let's get to it. For anyone who hasn't seen one of these before, Devin's query will be in plain text, and my feedback will be in red.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

I would like to submit for your consideration my young adult, science fiction novel, AMPED.

You don't need this. Either put a more detailed personalized paragraph up front, or leave this info to your subject line or the final paragraph.

In a fiery burst of orange and purple, a solar flare erupts across the sky. This is interesting. Normally queries open with character first, but I think this can work. My only question is one of logistics. Is this solar flare really so vast it can be seen with the naked eye? Because that's not how it usually works, and if that's how this one works in your novel, that's kind of awesome. Avery Lancaster can suddenly see haunting images when she’s touched. This is where you need more. One reason queries often start with character is because it's the most important thing. Who is this story about, and what kind of person are they? Therefore: why should we care what happens to them? Opening by introducing your character gives you a chance to let us know what kind of person she was before the story began. She has no idea what these images mean, and she’s not the only one with a new, freaky ability. Teenagers all across America are suddenly getting Amped. The rest of this I like. Great inciting incident.

I would switch your opening paragraph around a bit. Open with Avery, tell us how old she is, and give us at least a word or two about what kind of person she was before the flare. Then you can mention the flare, and lead into the changes it brought for teens across America. Also, why only America?

The Flare Research Center is formed, and Flare victims are brought in for “their own” safety. No one’s calling it a prison sentence, but Avery has no intention of being used as a guinea pig. She and her friends flee into the mountains of Colorado just as winter descends.

I like this. It raises the stakes, and sets up some great conflict. Just a couple things need clarifying. Does she go to the center, and then escape, or do she and her friends flee before ever getting sent there? 

Survival is their only goal until they meet another group of runaways. Why does that change anything? This other group has already been investigating? Using their unique Amps, they band together to stay alive, and hidden from the FRC agents combing the mountains. But hiding isn’t enough. They must learn why the Flare only affected teenagers.

Except for what I mentioned, this is good. It sets up a mystery, with a clear set of goals.

When they discover the government is involved, they make a plan to bring the whole system down. But how can a motley group of kids take on the government? You don't need to ask this question, it's already implied, and the idea that it's going to be difficult should be obvious. In order to stop the FRC, Avery must face her greatest fear; embracing her Amp. If she doesn’t learn to harness her power, she may lose more than her normalcy. She may lose her life.

Otherwise, this is great. This ending summarizes a tough choice your character will have to make very well.

AMPED is complete at 80,000 words. It’s the journey of a broken girl searching to find her place in a changing world. It would appeal to young adults, with its strong female voice and unique elements of survival.

You don't need any of this. This is telling what the novel is about, when you've already shown us. Let your query and your pages speak for themselves, and then just continue directly to this next paragraph.

When I’m not writing novels, I am a technology specialist working at an American International School in Cairo Egypt.

If you would like to consider AMPED, I’d be happy to forward the complete manuscript. I also have an outline available for potential sequels.

The rest of this closing is good.

So, to summarize: most of this query is in great shape. The ending summary, and the tough choice your character is going to have to struggle to make, is particularly compelling. The main thing that needs work is your opening. We need a better sense of who Avery is before the changes, and why she struggles so much to accept what is different about her.

Other than that, just clarify a few things I've pointed out, and you'll be in great shape!


Devin Cushman

That's it.

What do the rest of you think? Did I miss anything? How would you re-write Devin's opening hook?


.jessica. said...

I think this book sounds AWESOME and I would definitely read it. One thing I wish the query addressed was what, exactly, these "unique Amps" are. All we know is that Avery can see haunting images, but... is she seeing into the future? Is she getting a glimpse of the present, through someone else's eyes? Are other people's Amps different? I just wanted to know a little more here.

I also thought it was a little abrupt that the main tough choice was kind of tucked in at the end. The conflict is set out nicely, but there's no indication before the last paragraph that she wishes she were "normal" or that embracing her Amp would be her greatest fear. (This might be addressed when you flesh out her characterization a little more per Matt's comments - like maybe she's living her life, just trying to fit in, and then this happens... I don't know.)

In any case, just some thoughts - but overall, loved it, love the concept, sounds great!

Old Kitty said...

Great title, love the adventure story too! I'm just picking up on lots of words that perhaps you don't need to use (I say perhaps,I don't know nothing!!! :-)) like "just as winter descends" and "A fiery burst of orange and purple". Also the phrase "she may lose more than her normalcy" - I think what's happened to her so far without even embracing her Amp is pretty un-normal (yep, I invented the word! LOL!) and extraordinary!

Good luck and take care
(p.s. I wrote this without reading Matthew's bits in red - first time ever! Yikes!)


Marta Szemik said...

Like I said yesterday, I really like this story. I agree to start the query with Avery. I feel like I care about the AMPED kids in your query, which is important. Great Job!

Michael G-G said...

Great title, Devin. I totally agree with Matt that you should start the query with the MC. The trick is in finding one or two details that establish his/her character in your reader's mind. As your query stands, we know nothing about Avery pre-Ampage, not even her age.

What is Avery into? Is it "16-year-old Avery Lancaster gets her kicks from rebuilding vintage cars," which would totally fix her in my mind. Or, "16-year-old Avery Lancaster wants nothing more than a life in politics, and she's getting her start campaigning for student body president." I know these examples are totally ridiculous (as I love to be) but they immediately give one a clue to the character.

Then, as Matt says, you can bring on the flare, the teenagers' new powers/abilities, and you are off and running--because the rest of the query, with its complications and choices is very good.

Thanks for sharing it, and best of luck!!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Congrats on the partnership with Ishta. And I agree with your critique. Except for the beginning, this in great shape. Sounds like a really interesting story.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I was just over on Devin's blog, and I am hooked. You're not surprised, are you, Matt? I <3 Egypt, Jordan, etc.

RE: The query. 1) I agree with Matt's points, as usual. It's a good, tight query. 2)This sounds like a great story, and I actually like that we don't get lost in a tangent about the the flare and all the different Amps. However, James Dashner also has "the flare" in his series, The Maze Runner, so maybe switching the name of the affliction with something different is a good idea.
Hope this helps!

Suzie F. said...

Great query, Devin. I think you query is real close to being ready. I agree with everything Matt pointed out. I'll admit I love your first sentence, but it sounds like a line from your novel - perhaps too descriptive for a query. Like others have said, we need to meet Avery right off the bat so that we'll care what happens to her.

Good luck! Your novel sounds exactly like one I'd like to read. I visited your blog earlier and I'm a new follower. Your pictures are gorgeous!

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is an awesome query, and I pretty much agree with everything Matt said.

I did wonder about the line in your opening when you say that Avery can see haunting images when she's touched. Did you mean, once she is touched by some force that resulted from the solar flare? Or did you mean that literally every time someone touches her, she sees haunting images? Or something else? I was a little unclear on how that works.

Other than that, as Matt said, just a little polishing will shine this beauty up.

Good luck!

Julie Musil said...

Wow, the story sounds amazing. I agree that the opening should be tweaked to include character first, then inciting incident, and then conflict.

But otherwise I think it's great. Nice word choices here, Devin (by the way, I have a son with the same name, so the gender mix up is understandable!)

Jessica Salyer said...

Great suggestions Matthew. I also agree with Jessica, I was left wondering more about the AMPS. Did each kid have different ones, and if so how does Avery's make her special? Thanks again, sounds like a great book.

mshatch said...

This sounds like a fun story and I definitely agree with starting the query out with the main character rather than the flare - like Julie said :)

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt is spot on again. My biggest thought was, i'd like more details about her amped power and why it effects her so negatively, why she's so afraid to embrace them to save herself and the others.
If you can answer that for me in the query, then you're pretty good for me.

Anonymous said...

Great points, Matthew. I definitely agree with the beginning; just jump right into the action.

Hart Johnson said...

I think this sounds like a really interesting story. I think Matt's comments are dead-on. At first I thought just combining the first two sentences (only using 'when' instead of 'in' for first word), but if you are adding some description, I think I'd beging with 'Avery Lancaster is just an XYZ high school student until a solar flare causes her to..."

Johanna Garth said...

I think this query sounds amazing. The one thing I'd like to see is one line setting it apart from other dystopianish novels. Maybe focus on the different Amp's abilities?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent advice as always. Agree about the first paragraph, especially the first line. Throws a red flag right off the bat.

Sub-Radar-Mike said...

Great critique... I'm getting used to your style, it makes it a lot easier to see the direction you intend for each of these.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I would delete the word "suddenly". I've read that this single word is a huge flag for book professionals that the author is a weak writer. You can use it in your story...I just think you should find another way of expressing an astonishing turn of events than "suddenly" in something as important as a query.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Matt has some great comments here, and I agree with everything he says.

The one thing that's missing in this query for me is a personal connection to Avery. I don't know anything about her as a person, rather than as a member of a group. I'd like to see Avery emerge from this query as a stand-out character, rather than just the name of your protagonist.

Good luck with this! Like many others here, I think it's a great title!

Jemi Fraser said...

Love the concept behind this story - and the title rocks too. Great advice as usual, Matt - I don't think this one will take much polish to shine! :)

maine character said...

Really like this idea and query. Sounds like Return to Witch Mountain crossed with Red Dawn.

The only problems I had with the query were how the largest solar flares are no larger than the width of the sun. Maybe you mean a super-strong aurora caused by a huge, satellite-dropping burst of solar wind from a solar flare. (If it was a solar flare, which I doubt since the government couldn't exactly pull that off.) So you probably got this covered - what the news is saying vs. what it really was.

Also, this: They must learn why the Flare only affected teenagers.

I'd think their biggest concern would be what the heck being Amped is and what to do with it and how not to hurt anyone or themselves with it. In trying to answer that, they'd go looking for clues and focus on how only they got Amped.

Really like how you have her face her biggest fear, which is always key, and how it will unlock her gift. How she's not going all super-power, look-at-me with it. Very cool.

Nicole Zoltack said...

I love the premise of this. I think Matt's advice is great.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

The partnership is a great idea!!!!

I love the premise too. Awesome advice as always, Matt. You covered everything. :D

Good luck Devin with querying!

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Reading the queries and comments here always makes me feel happy and hopeful.
I agree with the one or two clues about the main character. Is she normally shy? Pragmatic to a fault? Secretly wishing for a super power? Give us a sense of who she is before the Flare.
Thank you for helping us learn, and be safe in Cairo!

Jay Noel said...

First of all, "Ishta" is such a cool name! Looking forward to her contributions.

Maybe I'm just a science geek, but I hope there's a good explanation for a solar flare able to seen in the sky. If it's a true solar flare, the Earth is toast.

Also, the term "guinea pig" is an overused cliche term in paranormal stories. Maybe change that to "Avery has no intention of being dissected." Something more specific, dramatic, and dangerous.

I'm in total agreement with Matt on everything he pointed out.

My only real issue is: what is exactly this Amp power? Is it just the Psychometry that Avery possesses? Or do the others have other kinds of freaky powers?

Rusty Webb said...

Nice comments. I would have liked a little more detail on why seeing an image when touched is considered a power, and not a form of synesthesia - which is a neurological disorder.

But it's still quite good. More detail on the powers associated with the solar flare perhaps for clarification.

M Pax said...

Nice job, Devin and Matt. Sounds like a great story.

mindthagap said...

Thank you so much Matt for the helpful critique. And thanks for all the responders as well! This group is so positive and uplifting. I really appreciate the tips and comments. :)

I agree that I need to flesh out Avery's character more and what the Amps are... Here's a quick question for anyone still reading... Avery's Amp is one of the big mysteries throughout the story, she doesn't know what it really does. Should I focus on that or tell you about some of the other amazing things kids can do?

thanks again!

mindthagap said...

Ok, I've revised my query and posted it on my blog...

Check it out and tell me what you think! :)

Paul Michael Murphy said...

I'll be the contrarian. For this story I would not follow the conventional wisdom of starting with the character. While your character might be awesome, it is the premise that's intriguing to me. I would open with something like, "In a fiery burst of orange and purple, a solar flare erupts across the sky, giving only a small group of teenagers supernatural abilities." Then I'd get to character and include a little more about Avery.

While not serving the exact same purpose as a query letter, the jacket copy for The Hunger Games doesn't mention Katniss until the second paragraph because the concept is so appealing.

You might also gain an advantage by sticking out in a pile of query letters that start with "Rosanna's a sixteen-year-old gourmand who loves nothing more than stuffing her face when..."

Give 'em something new.