Friday, March 30, 2012

Nicole Zoltack's Current Query Critiqued

All right folks, here we are again. Happy Friday!

Today is Nicole's query again, but this time with my feedback, in red.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

Princess Cassandra never wants for anything, unlike her commoner friends Kylie and Vance who have to slave on their family's farm when they aren't off exploring with the reckless ten-year-old.

What this hook does, better than most hooks I read, is set up Cassandra as both a character, and a person in a situation. I want all my readers to learn from Nicole here, because if you focus on the word reckless, you'll realize just how much characterization one little word can provide. One more word is often all you need in a query.

Now, if I was to nit-pick this hook, which I will, even though it's good, because that's the point of a critique, I would say that it lacks the kind of punch that leaves the wind knocked out of you, and leaves you no choice but to read on. I think it's lacking because there's no inciting incident here. We do kind of get that incident early in the next paragraph, but I think the opening hook would contain more power if the introduction of the character(s) was combined with that inciting incident.

When Vance becomes lame during the trio's latest misadventure, I'm not sure what others may think, but I've always thought of lame as referring to an animal, and cripple as referring to a person. But then cripple can also be considered offensive. I think the main problem here, is the passive voice. Can you just get specific and say he falls and breaks his leg (or whatever)? Cassandra figures the royal healers can help him. If only her parents didn't pick now to teach her a lesson about shirking her royal duties to run off with her friends! As Cassandra searches for a way to pay the healers, she stumbles upon a dying which Witch? with a treasure map. The princess I get why you couldn't use a pronoun here, but can't you just say Cassandra? steals a horse (although is it really stealing when she plans on returning it?) and the trio sets off on a treasure hunt. With lame Vance in tow? How?

After a monstrous hailstorm critically injures Vance, I thought he was already lame? Or is this the same incident you were referring to early? You need to clarify. Cassandra sends him home with his sister. Forced to bargain with a cranky centaur and outrun a hungry bear-dog without them, Off topic, but has anyone seen the first episode of the new season of Avatar: the Last Airbender: the Legend of Korra? So awesome. And it has a bear-dog named Naga in it. Sorry. Cassandra continues their quest with the help of her "stolen" horse and a baby griffin she meets along the way. But she isn't the only one on the hunt. An evil sorcerer also seeks the treasure and will stop at nothing to get it. Worse, if she doesn't find the treasure soon, this adventure will be Vance's last. Why? I thought Vance already got sent home with Kylie? Is the treasure somehow able to save him from his critical injury?

Okay, so this second paragraph is mostly just really awesome. The fantasy elements you bring in sound like so much fun, and perfect for a MG novel. You just need to clarify a few confusing points, and it would be nice to see you sum this all up in a way that defines a high stakes choice Cassandra must make.

THE PRINCESS'S TREASURE HUNT is a 31,000-word MG fantasy novel with series potential. Perfect.

I am the author of a fantasy romance trilogy, Kingdom of Arnhem - Woman of Honor (2009), Knight of Glory (2010), and Champion of Valor (2011) published with Desert Breeze Publishing. Fifteen of my short works have appeared in various anthologies, including Mertales by Wyvern Publications, and many collections by Pill Hill Press. I believe the titles should be italicized here. The titles of these three novels, and the title of the anthology. Previously published works are usually italicized in query letters. Otherwise, this is also perfect.

(Personalization tidbit) Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,
Nicole Zoltack
(contact information)

Okay, so to summarize: the hardest query letters to critique are the ones that are already good. Nicole has done this before, so her query was already in great shape. Personally, I think this query would probably work well as is. This story reminds me of the tone of Anna Stanizewski's My Very Un-Fairytale Life in that it sounds really hilarious, and fun for kids. I bet some agents would request on the premise alone.

That being said, there are definitely some things that can be improved. I'd like Vance's injury to be worked into the hook, as an inciting incident that provides some tension right away. Then I would like some clarification on whether there is a second injury, what it is, and whether it is life threatening (because it seems to be). Finally, I want a final sentence that summarizes how high the stakes have risen, and the difficult choice Cassandra must make to overcome the conflict.

That's it.

What do you all think? Am I trippin?


Mary said...

Matt- great points as always (including the aside about Avatar-- loved the original series and will have to check that out!)

Having had the privilege to beta read this book for Nicole, I understood all the things you questioned.

This shows me how important it is to have someone who hasn't read for you read your query. Fresh eyes and all that!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query Nicole and critique Matt. I had the same questions about Vance's injuries that Matt did. And maybe one more sentence at the end would help. Good luck querying Nicole. Hope you have good news to share soon.

And Matt I've never watched Avatar. When is it on and where? I'll have to check it out.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Just those few details, but otherwise it was really good.

SA Larsenッ said...

Matt's done a bang up job with your query, Nicole. I totally agree with him, especially about your opening hook. It truly does duel duty.

Matthew MacNish said...


Nicole Zoltack said...

Trying to comment again...

Thanks so much for your wonderful crit, Matt! You made some great points. The hardest part for me with queries is the hook.

I can't believe I didn't catch that I had which instead of witch! How embarrassing!

Off to add some punch to my hook!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Yay, so glad I could finally comment!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yeah i really don't have anything to add. I'd just clarify where Matt pointed out and really that's it. Good job, lady!

Tonja said...

I can only comment today via the blogger dashboard (not from my blogroll).

Nicole's book sounds great!

As a 'disabled' person, 'crippled' is offensive, but 'lame' is confusing because it means loser in teen-world.

Jessica Peter said...

This is quite a lovely, and sounds like a great MG novel.

I only have to add agreements - I agree that both "lame" (because of the horse-like and the not-cool reasons) and "crippled" are not right. I'd just describe the injury. And the other agreement is that I did have some trouble following Vance's injuries.

Lori M. Lee said...

Great critique, Matt. And great query! I definitely agree with Matt, but I also feel like it's a little meandering. Also, your final line should be the clincher for Cassandra, but instead it focuses on Vance. Cassandra is the main character, but Vance seems to be the one driving the plot.

Janet Johnson said...

My questions were identical to Matt's. Sounds like a fun book. Best of luck Nicole!

Bryan Russell said...

Yeah, I liked this, but I definitely thought the details could have been more specific. For example, "When Vance becomes lame during the trio's latest misadventure" is rather vague, both in terms of what "lame" might mean and in what the "latest misadventure" might be. I mean, are they tipping cows or what? I think something more specific would add punch to the query, give the reader a feeling for what the story is like, and provide more character insight.

Just my two pennies.

Slamdunk said...

Yes, Nicole's done this before. Clarifying the possible redundancy was the only small thing that I asked as well.

Great effort.

Angela Brown said...

The query makes for a very interesting story of adventure for young Princess Cassandra and the critique provided is awesome because, hey, finding ways to improve and add just a bit more to the lure is always a good think. Thanks to Nicole for sharing and to Matt for doing another bang up job.

Also, I laughed my tar-tar off with that Korra aside :-)

Christine Danek said...

I thought it was really good. Matt, you make some great points to improve. Thanks for sharing Nicole! It sounds like a great book and I wish you luck.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Love the world building she did in this and I agree with a lot of your points Matt. The only thing that muddled me that wasn't mentioned was in the intro. Like you said, it's missing that immediate intrigue and I would have given the MC's age before hand instead of tagging it onto the end in 'reckless ten-year-old'. It took me a second glance to figure out we were still talking about the MC.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I like the phrase "nit pick". It implies that something is full of lice and puts this image in my head.

Your advice on queries is always so good. Tough criticism is the best criticism.

Kristen Pelfrey said...

I'm a big fan of one-word characterizations, and "reckless" worked beautifully here.
I really think the query is in good shape, except for Vance's injuries, which I had a hard time tracking. I'm impressed with the story line, and it is a book I would welcome in my classroom.

Misha Gericke said...

I agree with you on all points. The query reads like it's technically involved, but it's not really appealing to my emotions.


Suze said...

'One more word is often all you need in a query.'

This is good advice for people who aren't already enamored of adjectives and adverbs.

Speaking, sadly, from experience. See! Couldn't resist that extra modifier.

This is a cool thing you're doing here, MacNish. I dig.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Hi, Nicole! *waves*

I just have some niggling details to pick at, because I think you have a strong premise, but the presentation could be a little better.

1. It took me a couple readings to realize that the reckless 10 year old in the first sentence was Cassandra. How about the "reckless, royal ten-year-old?"

2. Vance is hurt twice, as Matt points out. Or at least that's how it seems. This is repetitive in a query. Can you explain it more precisely or focus on only the more grievous injury?

3.Do the King and Queen refuse to allow their healers to help the boy (seems very cruel) or is it that they make Cassandra responsible for the fee (seems like a fair consequence)? Please clarify.

4. Finally, as Matt said, the wrap-up line needs work because if Vance was sent home then it's not his adventure anymore. Besides, Cassandra is the MC. What are the stakes for Cassandra if she fails?

Hope this helps!

Theresa Milstein said...

I like the word "reckless" too. And I agree about lame. You don't need crippled, but be more specific. Here, one word won't do. Are the legs paralyzed? A leg?

It's a good query. The comments are minor.

Lydia Kang said...

Matt's nitpicking is good. The story sounds marvelous, it only needs a little tweaking. Great job Nicole and Matt!

Jessica Salyer said...

Great critique, as always, Matthew. The only thing I would add is what a couple other people commented on; I was confused by who the 10 yo was. Sounds like a great book Nicole. Good luck!

Jemi Fraser said...

I was confused about Vance as well. And I agree - there's a lot to like! It won't take Nicole long to polish this one up!

Teresa Cypher aka T K CypherBuss said...

I am still learning the ropes and don't quite feel qualified to add to the critique. I enjoyed Nicole's query--Nicole is a very helpful and generous person, like Matt. A few months ago, she critiqued my WIP's first page. And, Matt, a wonderful thing you you do here. I read and learn, read and learn... Thanks to both of you and everyone who commented.

I hope I catch up with you all during the A to Z...

erica and christy said...

Already saw this in a couple of (skimmed) comments, but yeah - lame told me he was a loser, not that he had an injury (my son's 11 and he concurs).

So maybe say he's "injured" and leave it at that??

farawayeyes said...

Hi Nicole, thanks for sharing. It's pretty obvious you HAVE done this before. The few points I was confused about have all been cleared up here.

Almost lost me for a minute on that Avatar 'aside'. That would be the 'dumb blond kicking in.

Apparently, I was not the only one having a 'blogger hates me day' at the comment box.

As for 'hate' - Hey Amazon, guess what was waiting for me at the indi bookstore today. Going to spend the weekend delving into 'Marbury'.

Suzie F. said...

Great critique, Matt.
Nicole, you have a great story premise and a strong query. I don't have anything to add except my well wishes. Your novel sounds like a wonderful MG adventure! Good luck with querying!

Rusty Webb said...

I liked the original quite a bit, but you're right about some things needing some clarification. I had to read the first paragraph a couple of times because I was confused as to who the pronoun was referring to towards the end.

But, very insightful of you all around.

Laurie Peel, RP-CRA said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for dropping by and introducing yourself as my A-Z contact. Looking forward to another great April of daily blogging!

Pa Ul said...

cool ill await for your a-z hope you visit mine too here

Ciara said...

Great comments, on an already strong query. I totally agree with your points. Sounds like a great story!