Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Toni Sinns' Current Query Critiqued

Okay, first things first, Happy 200th Birthday to Charles Dickens. If you've never read any Dickens, I highly recommend you read one of his novels this year. You won't regret it.

Now let's get to work. I have Toni's Picture Book query again today, but this time with my thoughts, in red.

Here we go:

First, I want to make it clear, I'm not very experienced with Picture Books, so I want all of you to take everything I say (or write) with a grain of salt. I've never written a PB, and have only ever read or critiqued probably one or two PB queries.

I have been researching them since yesterday, though, so I will point Toni to a few resources right off the bat. First, I have two friends and readers who I know are experienced with PBs, whose blogs you should definitely be following. They are Shelley Moore Thomas, and Ishta Mercurio. I expect both of them to be able to stop by today. Another blogger who I don't really know, but I'm told is experienced with PBs is Verla Kay.

Some other articles I found about PB queries are: this post, at From the Write Angle, this post, at Barbara Kanninen's website (she also offers paid critiques, here), this post, by literary agent and author Mary Kole, at Kidlit.com, and finally, this excellent video, from WriteOnCon 2011, by author Emma Walton Hamilton. I know that's a lot of links, and you certainly don't have to visit them all, but there's some good PB query letter info out there.

NOTE: The previous two paragraphs are full of links, but my blogger template can make them hard to see when they're red. Hover your mouse over the text if you want to check for hyperlinks.

Anyway, what I've learned, is that there are basically two types of PB queries. Most agents who accept PB submissions allow the entire manuscript to be pasted in an e-query after the letter. This is much like the first five pages of a novel, but because PBs are so short, they often accept the whole thing. This does not include artwork, though they often ask for a link to an online portfolio if you also illustrate your own work. In that kind of submission situation the kind of query you write for a novel is not needed. Just a very short summary and an introduction.

We're going to focus on the other kind of submission. The one where the agent doesn't want to see the manuscript unless a traditional query has piqued their interest.

Dear Agent,

I have written an approximant this is a typo, which is fine, because you can remove all of this. 399 word fictional adventure for all children called “Baby Dragon’s Sound” or “Where is my sound?” This entire paragraph can be handled in the subject field of your email. Write it like this: "Query: BABY DRAGON'S SOUND, picture book, 400 words." The title of an unpublished work is always capitalized in a query, and it is absolutely fine to round up by one word, or even ten.

Opening up you meet baby dragon and quickly find that baby dragon makes no noise. Don't open this way. This is telling. I know some people mentioned yesterday that you should name Baby Dragon. I disagree. I mean you can if you want, but I recall many PBs as a child where the character was simply Max, or Ugly Duckling. However, you want to show us the opening. Something like "when he's born, Baby Dragon is concerned to discover that he cannot roar" (or coo, or whatever sound he needs to make). The baby dragon He goes on an adventure to find his sound. As Baby Dragon walks down a small road he comes across fairies, gnomes, and elves. He is unable to make the same sounds as the people he meets on this road. I'm unclear on what this means. All these creatures are usually able to talk in fantasy settings, is Baby Dragon expecting to be able to talk? He finally hears his mother and returns to the nest. He finds his sound with his mother. This is kind of adorable, and I get the sense that it works very well in your story, but I think the concept of "sound" is a little vague for the query. Is there any way you can make it more specific? Is it a roar? Or can he talk, and you mean his voice?

This story is full of children magic. What does this mean? This is the kind of thing you should show, not tell, anyway. The characters are all mythical and live in children’s imagination. Are you saying it's a Frame Story? Like it starts out with someone telling the story within a story to a child? It is fun for children to hear and easy for them to learn to read. There is also the ability to make this book into a sound book with buttons for the different creatures. Other books have followed the search and find story line idea and have sold well. I believe mine can stand on its own by being about the magical creatures of the child’s imagination. Cut the rest of this. It's good to show you've done your research, but you need to find another way to do that. Comparative titles from the agent's list are good, but don't bring this other stuff up, because that's the agent's job.

Thank you for your time. I have placed the text portion following this letter. I cut that only because in this example, the agent doesn't allow the full MS in the e-query. I can’t wait to speak with you about joining your team. You don't need this, but if you want something like this, don't say, "can't wait," say, "look forward to ..."

Thank you,

Toni G. Sinns

That's it.

What do you guys think? Anybody disagree with me about Baby Dragon being okay as a proper name in a PB? Anything else you'd like to see added or changed?


Sarah said...

I think "Baby Dragon" can absolutely be the name of the creature, particularly if the other creatures in the story are called things like "Gnome", "Fairy" and "Elf." However, if the creatures are called things like "Boris the Gnome" and "Herkimer the Fairy", then I think Baby Dragon should probably also have a proper name.

You've provided so many wonderful resources here, Matt! I know absolutely nothing about PB queries, so I'll let others who are more knowledgeable tackle the meat of the query. Best of luck, Toni!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I'd be okay with Baby Dragon as the name too.

I think if you're going for a straight query that it should follow the basic rules of giving us the character, the conflict and the hook. This seems to tell the story's end too much.

But I love the story and that it's interactive. I think kids would have fun with that. Good luck.

Em-Musing said...

Cute! I can hear me read this to my grandson, and absolutely saying "baby dragon" works for me. I always do SFX and voices when I read a story so it'd be fun to hear what sound baby dragon winds up making. Couldn't add another comment to yours, Matt.

farawayeyes said...

Kidlit and PB are way over my head, BUT as far as Baby Dragon being called Baby Dragon, I think it's cute.

Anonymous said...

"This story is full of children magic." I actually caught this yesterday, yay! :) The one thing I remember reading from an agent blog a few months ago was, if you say the story is incredible, awesome, fantastic, etc. then the story better be incredible, awesome, fantastic, etc. Yep, better showing rather than telling! :)

Awesome job!

Sarah Pearson said...

I can't comment as I know nothing about PB queries. I will say that Baby Dragon sounds like a great name.

I assumed children magic was a typo, and should be children's, but I could be wrong.

Old Kitty said...

Good luck Toni!!! I love Baby Dragon already!! I can't add anymore to what Matthew's suggested - I think the story is alive in your query - it's just the grammar side of things that need tweaking.

Good luck! take care

Dawn Ius said...

Matt, Great job on researching PB to handle this query so effectively!

I'm on team Baby Dragon. For PB I think it works very well. Kids will associate with the "concept" of the baby rather than the dragon's name, which could also be the name of their dog, cat, etc.

Toni, I'd read this book to my new nephew for sure!

storyqueen said...

Hi Matthew and Toni!

First, let me say how difficult it is to write a 200 word query for a 300 word book. I mean--really!

Most of the time (but not all) you are permitted to send the entire manuscript with the query. The only way to really see if a PB works is to see the actual PB.

That being said, the query should be on the shortish side, even if you are not permitted to send the ms along. And you MUST decide on which title to use before you query.

I rather like the name of the dragon baby simply being Baby Dragon.

It is important when writing a PB query to give a taste of what the book might be like. This is probably one of the few instances in query-writing where you might want to quote your book. (Or, write in a similar style to your book.)

You might open a query with:

Poor Baby Dragon has no sound!

(And then go on to describe his adventure...)

Good luck, Toni!


Brinda said...

I'm with the group that knows nothing about PB book queries, but some parts of the query grabbed me and others didn't. I love the name Baby Dragon. I'd hope to be able to insert more actual sentences in this type of query to give us a glimpse.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't know anything about picture books either but I think Matthew made some good suggestions.

Anonymous said...

I think Baby Dragon is a sweet name for the creature in question as it's simple for kids to understand, I asked my niece and she said it's a cute name.:)

Matthew MacNish said...

From the mouths of babes. Thanks, Eve!

RachelMaryBean said...

Thanks for all the PB links, Matt. And good luck, Toni! I think Baby Dragon sounds very cute. :)

Ishta Mercurio said...

First, Matt, thank you so much for the mention! And you did a great job with the other links - you've provided some great resources for everybody writing picture books.

Baby Dragon is great for a name - it's a picture book, so it's perfect. And yes, writing a query for a PB is HARD!

The main issue with this query (other than what Matt has pointed out) is that it's too much synopsis and not enough hook. The StoryQueen was right: open with something interesting that gives us the heart of what the story is about, and stay close to the flavor of your manuscript. Make voice of the query and the voice of your book match. Remember that the query is not meant to tell the plot; it's meant to make us want to turn the page to see your manuscript.

I've found that I get a good response with this template:

One brief sentence (or two) introducing your manuscript (this is the hook), followed by one sentence giving the details like word count, audience, etc.

One or two sentences telling the agent why you picked him or her specifically: I saw you talk about loving fantasy PBs in an interview, etc.

One or two sentences listing your credentials: you teach a creative writing class, or you're a member of SCBWI, or you own a pet dragon, or whatever.

Then sign off, with something like "I look forward to hearing from you. Please note that this is a simultaneous submission. Sincerely, ..."

Good luck! This sounds like a fun PB.

maine character said...

I love the subject - who doesn't like dragons, and we're all struggling to find our voice.

Matt's links are great, and for one resource I found years ago, when researching children's books, there's Harold Underdown's site - tons of information there, including this page on queries:


Emily White said...

This is a great critique, Matt. And what a wonderful list of links! You definitely picked out everything that threw me yesterday. I'm just going to have start saying bravo and nothing else from now on! :)

Carolyn Abiad said...

Baby Dragon is cute, but I also like Sarah's "Herkimer the Fairy" idea. Boris and Herkimer? I see a great boy book or a Cartoon Network show out of that combination. I <3 Sarah. ;)

Back to the query. I don't know much about picture book queries either, but are there consequences if Baby Dragon doesn't find his voice?

Nicole Zoltack said...

Even with a PB query, you need to give the editor/agent a reason to want to read your story. There's no hook here. And you don't have to give away the ending either, this isn't a synopsis.

After Baby Dragon hatches, he opens his mouth but nothing comes out so he goes on an adventure to find his voice. He comes across fairies, gnomes, and elves but can't talk like them. Will Baby Dragon ever learn how to roar?

I know we're generally told not to use questions in queries, but I think they work well in PB queries.

Kristi Helvig said...

Several of my critique partners write picture books, and one of them has had two published (and another on submission w/ her agent). One thing that worries me about the query is that if there's that much "telling" in the query, it could be in the ms as well. My crit partners swear that all PB writers should have read and memorized the following 2 books:

Picture Writing by Anastasia Suen----helpful with plot, handling description, etc.

Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz----It will carry you page by page for layout, pacing, and tension.

Hope that helps, and I think "Baby Dragon" works as a name.

Marta Szemik said...

For me, writing a query for a full length novel is much easier than PB. I like Matthews suggestions and love Baby Dragon as Baby Dragon. It's simple and cute, easily identifiable by the children.

Bryan Russell said...

Much tidier now.

D.G. Hudson said...

I know very little about picture books, but I know more about Charles Dickens.

Oliver Twist is my favorite, and I've read several others, but not all. I loved his long descriptions of Old Bailey and Miss Haversham's dusty parlour. (I think that's her name) Happy B'day, Charles!

BTW - I enjoy reading the query analysis that you do, there's always a tidbit I didn't know. . .

Barbara Watson said...

Toni, the story sounds adorable and I'm already loving Baby Dragon. There's tremendous advice provided here. My main concern with the original was the telling.

Christina Lee said...

I think you did a great job on this, Matt! *pets Baby Dragon*

Carrie Monroe said...

I agree with Story Queen and Ishta's advice of having a hook and I love the opening that Story Queen suggested.

Keep your query concise but also use some of the whimsical, magical voice of your story. I also love the idea that he finds his sound with his mother. Your description reminded me of Are You My Mother? with magic creatures.

Below is my suggestion for a shorter synopsis.

BABY DRAGON'S SOUND follows the adventures of a dragon as he tries to find his sound. Along his way he meets fairies, elves and gnomes before returning to the nest to learn his sound from his mother.

(Also I like Matthew's suggestion of a roar or voice)

Suzie F. said...

Looks like you have some great suggestions here from Matt and those who've written PB queries. Sorry I don't have anything to offer as I write MG and YA. I'll leave the advice to the experts. Good luck!

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Matthew and the others in this great community left many wonderful comments, and I don't feel exactly sure of my footing with picture books.
My only thought about the name "Baby Dragon"--and Sarah makes an excellent point about parallel naming--is that I know my nephews/nieces reading picture books don't think of themselves as babies. However, the story lends itself to the tots seeing themselves as "bigger kids" than Baby Dragon.
So I can see it working either way.
I apologize for not being more helpful. I really appreciate your taking the Query Plunge; I always learn something from Matthew and his Merrie Band.

Nancy said...

I agree with needing a bit more hook and also love Baby Dragon. In terms of Dickens, I have read the illustrated classics along with my daughter but ought to try an adult sized portion at some point.

Slamdunk said...

I had to return and read them.

I like how you researched before offering an opinion Matthew. Between the post and comments, I think this will be great for Toni.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yeah, i'm definitely OK with "Baby Dragon" as the name. And this book sounds adorable. But i agree with everything Matt said. I would definitely make sure to check every single sentence and word for spelling and sentence structure. Because too many errors will earn you a form rejection.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Wow, you really did your homework, Matt, with all the amazing resources.

I love the suggestion about being specific as to which sound Baby Dragon wants to make. And I love his name as Baby Dragon. Makes him sound adorable.

Angela Ackerman said...

Great take on this Matt. I think Baby Dragon works here. In fact I think a kid would connect with their plight more by keeping it that way than giving it an actual 'human' name.

Good luck with this!