Friday, December 7, 2012

Kim Van Sickler's Current Query Critiqued

Here we go again. Here is Kim's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

(First sentence is personalized to explain why I'm applying to this agent.) Fiddlesticks: Witches Can't Write is a completed 70,000-word upper middle grade urban fantasy.

If you read my query critiques, you know I suggest this housekeeping stuff should go at the end. But I've said it enough times, so I won't harp on it again here. I will briefly say that upper middle grade urban fantasy is not a genre I've ever encountered. Urban Fantasy tends to be dark, gritty, sexy, and violent, and while none of that says you can't write a MG novel set in a fantasy city setting, it does say it's not often done, and may be a somewhat tougher sell because of it.

What's a mortal-loving witch who was born to write do when it's time to pick a career? Not ask rhetorical questions in query letters, for one. For Saryn Q. Fiddlesticks, a 13-year-old preparing to select her Life's Mission, the writing's not on the wall. Wow. Great name. But that said, I'd like a better sense of character. Age and occupation do help, and they're certainly interesting here, but in order to sympathize with Saryn and her plight, we need to know more about what kind of person she is before her story begins. Saryn's options are to let The Academy of Witches and Wizards tell her what to do, go mortal so she can follow her passion, or there's a third option I'm no grammarian, but I believe this is an independent clause, but it's batty.... you only need three dots for an ellipsis. All she has to do is convince The Academy that their superstition against writing is unfounded, persuade them to change the law, and coax them into recognizing a new Life's Mission of Writer. So ... the execution may need a little work, but as far as your premise goes, I love it. Books about characters who want to write always seem to resonate, at least for me.

As if that task isn't impossible enough, Saryn is ambushed by Gaylord Culbreath, another great name. her half-brother's eccentric mentor, who plans to use her to destroy the world. As Saryn battles Culbreath, then the witching establishment at her Coming-of-Age Ceremony, she must decide how far she's willing to go to follow her dream. Vague. What are her options? Write a scathing letter to the editor? Surely she has some ability to fight back other than with the pen?

Future fans of Cynthia Hand's Unearthly Unearthly series might enjoy this book. What? What's a future fan? Also, if you're going to make these comparisons, you don't put them in a one-sentence-paragraph on their own like this. That gives them far more weight than they deserve.

My credits include publication of two MG short story fantasies in the Center for Writing Excellence's Fiction in Five Fiction in Five anthologies. Published works are listed in italics, and sometimes, depending on the type of publisher, like if it's a magazine, the publisher goes in italics as well. I'm not sure about this center, so we'll wait to see what my readers say. I am an active member of SCBWI, and run a blog-- http://swaggerwriters.blogspot.com/ -- of six writers. Does your email client allow you to create hyperlinks in the body of an email? I would suggest that, rather than including the entire URL.

Thank you for taking the time to review (however many pages were requested.) I look forward to hearing from you.

Very truly yours,

Kim Van Sickler

So, in summary: if you dig down, you'll realize this query actually covers my three keys. Character (I would definitely like more of it, but it is there), Conflict (this is actually great, a witch who is not allowed to write, but won't stand for it), and Choice (this is completely vague, especially when it comes to how Nasty-Breath-Man is going to use her, but you do have the beginnings, so all you need to do is get more specific, and expand on this choice). That's an excellent start.

Really, all you need to do is flesh out the things you already have. How does Culbreath instead to use Saryn? Why is she the only one who can help him achieve his goals? What does the rest of her school think of him, whether they know about his plans or not?

You've got the makings of a great query already in place. The skeleton is there, you just need to expand it a little.

That's it.

What do you all think?

16 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The one part was a little vague, which you caught. Good suggestions!

Natalie Aguirre said...

This is a great start, Kim. I agree with Matt that you shouldn't start with the question. And if you flesh out the conflict and the choice at the end a bit more, it'd be great. Good luck with the querying. So excited for you.

mshatch said...

I think Matt covered everything. And I love the names, too. They're great! But there definitely needs to be more specifics in this query to catch an agent's interest. Especially the part about Culbreath using Saryn to destroy the world. You need to say how and you need to tell what Saryn can do.

Good luck!

Jessica L. Foster said...

Excellent advice. I must say that the voice in this query is great. I was confused about the brother. How does he use her powers? How does that conflict with her dream?
Also, the line "Saryn battles Culbreath, then the witching establishment" makes me think that the conflict with the brother is over and now she has moved on to a different battle. If it is resloved, I wonder why is it in the query since the query is for unresolved, hook-the-reader conflicts. Just my thoughts. :)

JeffO said...

There are some interesting things in the query, and I would say Kim maintains great voice and pace throughout, but a couple of things bother me: the first paragraph mission, of getting the academy to let her do what she wants, is very long, and it doesn't sound quite so compelling.

The second one is the idea of Culbreath using her to destry the world. What? Why her? If she's somehow special that she can be used this way, we should know up front what that is. Otherwise, it seems to come out of left field. Then, that paragraph ends with another slight turn that de-emphasizes the conflict with Culbreath. Finally, I'm confused about the 'future fans' line. Maybe I'm missing something.

Don't take this too hard. Loved the voice and the brisk pacing of the query, but I think you need to sharpen your focus a bit on her conflict with Culbreath, which seems like it would be higher stakes than being allowed to be a witch writer.

Oh, one last thing that occurs to me: the subtitle of your book puts me a bit in mind of the Bailey School kids series, you know, Vampires Don't Teach Second Grade, Monsters Don't Bake Cookies, etc. Just something to consider.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Hey Matt and everyone! Thanks for the thoughtful feedback! Like I told Matt in my initial e-mail: I've played around with this query so much, I needed a new set of eyes. Additionally, I've been looking at agent interviews where the agents ask for short queries. Thus my conundrum. Making my query short, but still compelling. I guess I've got the short part of it down. Lol.

Bryan Russell said...

I concur with Matt.

Anita said...

I like the personalized first sentence. I like titles in caps, because they don't get funky when sent in emails. I'd do it more like below. Good luck!

(First sentence is personalized to explain why I'm applying to this agent.) Fiddlesticks: Witches Can't Write is a completed 70,000-word upper middle grade urban fantasy. Future fans of Cynthia Hand’s UNEARTHLY series might enjoy this read.

13-year-old Saryn Q. Fiddlesticks is a mortal loving witch with a passion for writing. But since The Academy of Witches and Wizards is superstitious about the written word, Saryn only has three choices: 1. Let the Academy choose her Life’s Mission, 2. Go mortal, 3. Convince the Academy they should change their law about writers.


As if that task isn't impossible enough, Saryn is ambushed by Gaylord Culbreath, her half-brother's eccentric mentor, who plans to use her to destroy the world. As Saryn first battles Culbreath, then the witching establishment at her Coming-of-Age Ceremony, she must decide how far she's willing to go to follow her dreams.

My credits include publication of two MG short story fantasies in the Center for Writing Excellence's FICTION IN FIVE anthologies. I’ an active member of SCBWI, and run a blog-- http://swaggerwriters.blogspot.com/ -- of six writers.

Thank you for taking the time to review (however many pages were requested.) I look forward to hearing from you.

Very truly yours,

Kim Van Sickler
PLACE LINK TO BLOG HERE AS WELL AS YOUR CONTACT INFO (PHONE AND EMAIL)

Eliza Tilton said...

Good voice. Last paragraph is a little vague.

Katy Upperman said...

I agree: Great names! I loved the little "it's batty" bit as well--shows off the voice and humor of the story. I think Matt was right on with his mentions of vagueness. It's so tricky to pack all the intriguing bits of concept into two short paragraphs, but I think you're really close!

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I think this query/project is going to find a niche agent. What I mean by that is it's either going to be immediately rejected on premise, or it's going to be immediately celebrated on premise. There's going to be a love/hate reaction but no middle. That's just my opinion. But the agent that takes it is going to love it so much that it will probably start a bidding war.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I wanted to know (briefly) what the Academy had against the written word and whether Saryn's talent in that area is going to be an asset in her conflict with the evil mentor.

Angela Brown said...

You caught everything that gave me pause. No need to repeat. I have to admit this is the first query I've seen the use of "future fans." It actually made me want to go see what this other series is about. Not sure if that is a good thing for the actual querying author :-)

Kelly Robinson said...

According to most of the style guides I've worked with, an ellipsis at the end of a sentence is followed by a period, hence, four dots total.

DL Hammons said...

I agree with all of Matt's comments, especially the one about future fan. But overall, I enjoyed the voice it was written in. Good start! :)

Jay Noel said...

Absolutely right on, Matt. I would also recommend a little bit more on character - need a little more on Saryn and her motivation.