Friday, November 9, 2012

Marcy Hatch's Current Query Critiqued

Wow. It's Friday, but this damn phone still won't stop ringing. I'll try to get this up as soon as I can.

Anyway, here is Marcy's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent:

The last thing 17-year(-)old Kassandra Dyer I immediately think of Mara Dyer when I read this name. remembers is falling. Hmm. On the one hand, this opening is intriguing, because it's mysterious, but on the other, it's vague. Who is Kass? Where did she fall from? How far was the drop? Mystery is great, but it doesn't really have a place in most queries. The one thing I will always insist on when I critique queries, is Character. Sure, I've seen great queries that break that rule and work, but the best thing to hook a reader into any story, even one barely summarized in a query letter, is to give them a person to care about. Who was Kass before this story started, and why should we care whether she overcomes whatever is thrown at her? When she wakes up in the dark it’s hours later and somehow she has miraculously survived a fall that should’ve killed her. Stranger still is the fact that no one is looking for her. After all, she’s a missing teen. There should be helicopters and flood lights sweeping the desert. Towers Mountain should be crawling with searchers. The rest of this paragraph? Pretty effing awesome. The strange circumstance you've thrown this character into is an excellent hook. Who wouldn't want to find out what the hell happened here?

Kass knows something is terribly wrong, but it isn’t until she reaches the closest town that the diary in her backpack and a newspaper in a diner reveal the truth: The unsolved disappearance of Kassandra Dyer was a big event – em-dashes--don't use them in queries if you can possibly avoid it--one of the most noteworthy events the town of Cave Creek, Arizona has ever seen. But it happened ten years ago – and for Kass, dressed in the same clothes she wore on the day she fell, no time has passed at all. The rest of this is all pretty good too, but I would maybe consider adding the part about it being ten years, to the part about her disappearance being in the newspaper. I assume the article is there that day because it's the tenth anniversary? If so, just be specific and say that. It actually would get the point across much quicker, which is always great in queries.

Now Kass has to figure out what happened; how she fell, where she went and what it will take to get back home – if she can. If she even wants to.

The good news is she’s got somebody on her side. I'm so undecided about this. This being YA, I'm assuming this is a boy her age, so in one sense I want to know a teeny bit about him, like maybe his name, and if he is, in fact, a boy her age. That said, this query is working pretty damn well with all the mystery you've got going, so I really can't decide. The bad news is she’s got someone else on her tail, someone who wants her story and will do whatever it takes to get it. Same goes for the bad guy, but I'm actually more okay with him being a mystery than the friend.

THE UNSOLVED CASE OF KASSANDRA DYER, a crossover YA YA is usually followed by a genre. I get that this is crossover, but as some were curious about yesterday, a crossover between what and what? Mystery and Romance? Sci-Fi and Fantasy? Magical Realism is great, but it's kind of a genre and it kind of isn't. with elements of Magic Realism, is complete at 70,000 words. I have pasted the first x pages per your requirements.

Thank you very much for your time.


Marcy Hatch

Man. This one is hard. One the one hand, it suffers from what I always call most query's biggest problem: vagueness, but on the other: it kind of works, because in spite of the fact that the query kind of lacks what I would normally want to see, it still entices me to want to read the pages. I'm really on the fence about what to tell you to do here.

I think if your pages are good, then this query is going to work fine for agents who allow you to include them in the body of your email letter.

The problem is those agents who don't allow pages in the body. I mean sure, this query is still good enough, and mysterious enough, that some of them will probably ask for partials, because let's face it, this is pretty good. But you don't want pretty good, you want really good. So let's see if we can take this good query, and make it great.

First, I would change your opening sentence. Kass is 17, which is upper YA, so she's going to have a pretty well defined personality long before she falls through this magical realism wormhole, so give some insight into what kind of person she is. Even one or two adjectives can go a long way. 

Second, decide whether you want to name or describe anyone else. If the friend is a boy with potential for romance, which would be common for YA, then I think you should consider naming and describing him, but I also don't think you absolutely have to. I can see it working either way.

Thirdly, I would try to reword the second paragraph. It's a little clunky, a little wordy, and could be tightened up for clarity.

Finally, a word about em-dashes. I love em-dashes, I used them all the time in novels. But they don't work very well in query letters. If this was the 90s, and we were still printing and snail mailing our queries in, you'd be fine, but email clients can do funny things to advanced formatting like em-dashes. Try emailing a rich text email from gmail to your work, or from your work to yahoo, and you'll see what I mean.

Now, if you must have em-dashes, do them right. There are no spaces on either side of an em-dash. If you want to represent an em-dash with simple formatting, use a double hyphen, like--this. The double hyphen method is how I would suggest formatting an em-dash in a query, if you can't figure out a way to skip them. But, if you don't want that ugly character in your letter, make sure you use a real em-dash (CTRL+ALT+Minus on the 10-key), not a space--hyphen--space. In MS Word, it looks like this:

That's it!

Sorry for going off. I'm not sure I've ever explained my aversion to the em-dash in query letters fully before. I hope it helps.

Now, what do you all think? Isn't this query already pretty good? Do you agree with my suggestions? You certainly don't have to!

Happy Friday! May your weekend bring good food and drink, and may all your teams win at sports, unless they're playing against mine.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Spot-on as always. Agree we need to know something about the somebodies. (Wow, that was vague, wasn't it?)

Sarah said...

Like Matt, I immediately thought of Mara Dyer too, and since that series is HUGE and her full name is in every title, you are immediately putting yourself at a disadvantage by having a last name and title so similar. You want to be original!

Now, I have to say, the first part of this query really excited me. It has this fascinating Rip Van Winkle creepiness that totally hooked me.

But then--vague. The good news/bad news paragraph both frustrated me and put me off. I suggest either not mentioning these people or actually saying who they are. Otherwise, I'm afraid it does spoil a query that started out astoundingly strong.

I also think you need to give the agent a better sense of the stakes. What's the risk if she doesn't get back home? How does she know getting back home is even possible? You say "where she went", like she's been somewhere else for 10 years instead of this being a time-travel thing--but there's no hint of the implications of that, and it seems important! Basically, we don't have a clear sense of what's at stake for Kass and what her choices are.

I think this query has tons of potential and the story sounds fabulous, so if you can rework the second half of this letter, I believe you'll really have something!! Best of luck!

maine character said...

I’d add what she fell from in the first sentence, otherwise we don’t get the sense that she’s outside. You could even say she was out there climbing the Tower to get away from her bossy mother, or something like that, to give some character and sympathy.

Since she wakes up in the dark, you don’t need to say it’s hours later.

Really like the second paragraph – the mystery and how it’s revealed.

I'd like to know who she left behind, what her relations with them were like, or if she tracks them down in the present time.

Finally, the someone on her side and someone else is a bit vague – good for a book jacket, but I'd really like to see more details.

So yeah, sounds great, and good luck!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with your comments Matt and also Sarah's about the last few paragraphs. This is really intriguing but a little too vague, especially in the later paragraphs to know what the problem and the stakes are.

And I can so relate to the damn phone. Not looking to going to work soon and dealing with mine.

Megan Hand said...

Amazing advice. I, too, would like to hear about who exactly is on her side. I did think that was vague. Other than that, fix this thing up, and get it out, I wanna read this thing!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great query, but I agree with Matt, you need more specifics, especially the part about who the someone is. If he's a boy, then it hints at romance.

Nevermind the food and drink. I just want it to stop snowing.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Great story premise and great critique. The stakes are unclear here. She's already dead, so what's the result if the bad guy/gal get's her story? Is she trying to track down her murderer? Might he murder again? Is this even a murder mystery? I'm intrigued, but I don't know that I'd go to the trouble of checking this book out of the library or buying it without a few more tantalizing details/understanding of the enormity of her situation. I want her death to be relevant to what's happening in the world of the living and for her to be fighting for something important

Make sense?

Bryan Russell said...

I really like this query, but what I wanted was a slight clairification of the initial fall in the first sentence. Is she falling and hitting her head in a living room? Or falling off a plane? It's a great hook, but I can't picture it, which means I have trouble locating the story and character at first. Something like "the last thing she remembered was falling off the cliff" creates a much more precise picture, allowing me to more clearly see the character and setting. As a reader I always want to see what's happening, not merely understand it in an abstract sense.

Anyway, I love the idea and love the hook. A touch of streamlining and voila!

Angela Ackerman said...

I really do love the query and the idea behind the story! That said, I'll tap in to what Matt said about vagueness. When I read this yesterday, a few phrases jumped out at me as overly familiar.

The last thing X remembers
miraculously survived
Stranger still
something is terribly wrong
reveal the truth
figure out what happened

These bits are the sort of generic type hooks you often see in taglines for books and movies. I'm thinking of the agent here who has already read 100 queries before she hits want her to feel your story is unique, and that the writing is fresh. Because of this, I would try to eliminate as many of these as possible so they don't ring of 'similarity' if that makes sense.

I think the first one you can get away with, because it's super important to the storyline, but I still flagged it because it was the first sort of 'generic' line that stood out to me. I think the last one you can keep as well, but the others I would really try to create some fresh turns of phrase and specificity. Hope this helps!

Angela :)

Angela Ackerman said...

And I forgot to mention--I've been to Cave Creek--it's a cutesy little town. :)

Jadie Jones said...

GREAT post! Fantastic feedback and I like how you set it inside the letter itself. This is my first time seeing your handywork. Love it. Actively stalking starting now :)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I've already given Marcy feedback on this query before now, so I won't add much here. But Marcy, if you remember, I was a little unsure about that good news/bad news paragraph, too. I really liked it, but somehow it bothered me.

Maine Character hit the nail on the head: It would be perfect on a book jacket. That's why I like it so much. But an agent will want a better sense of what to expect in the manuscript, so explaining who these people are and their role in the story is better than a catchy line, for their purpose.

Also, the stakes for Kass are important. One of the commentators assumed she is dead, and that's not the gist of the story. So you may need to spell out the real situation. (Which I won't reveal here. Sorry everybody. Yes, I've read it. :D )

mshatch said...

Thank you everyone for your suggestions and comments! I truly appreciate it. And Matt, as always, your crit was spot on. I know what I need to do now to make this really shine. THANK YOU!!!!

farawayeyes said...

Late as usual, but still wanted to say, I liked the original enough I would read the book. I do think a little more clarity on the good news/bad news personas would be helpful and I too was a little confused by the 'fall', as in falling off/into/onto what?

Thanks Marcy and Matt.

Mina Burrows said...

Really good comments, Matt. I think with query letters it's always a toss up with what agents want.

Kass's story sounds really intriguing too. Fingers crossed, Marcy!