Monday, June 10, 2013

Running from Ruby Ridge: Query

I promised I would show you guys this today. I'm a little apprehensive, because with all the time I spend on queries here, you're probably going to expect something phenomenal, but the thing is: queries are hard. I mean sure, I've spent a lot of time on them over the years, and I'd like to think I've gotten pretty good at recognizing good queries, and critiquing those that need a little work.

But writing my own is still hard.

I don't know if it's a matter of being too close to the story, having written it, or whether maybe it's the trap of trying to include too much (or getting stuck trying to be too concise), but writing queries for your own manuscripts is damn hard. That's why I always recruit friends to help me with mine.

The biggest influence on this query is my dear friend and critique partner Susan Kaye Quinn. I'm sure you all know her, so I'll just hyperlink her name, but Susan was one of the few who read the manuscript and helped me with the query. It was she who not only convinced me the longer version I'd written was not necessary, but also gave me the blueprint for the shorter version I'll show you today, that still includes the important points from the longer one I wrote.

After Susan, I got a lot of help from Jessica Corra, Angela Ackerman, Simon Larter, Adam Heine, Bryan Russell, and a bunch of the awesome people over at YA Confidential, like Alexandra, Katy, and Copil.

I highly recommend not going it alone, especially when it comes to queries.

Anyway, it's still a work in progress, but here is the latest version:

Dear Agent:

Seventeen-year-old Micah Neiss is not a nice guy. His probation officer considers him a dope fiend (not entirely false), a burden on the system (debatable), and a complete waste of his time (totally unfair). The truth is the foster system is just as broken as Micah. He’s been running from home to home ever since he can remember, but when bounty hunters for at-risk-teens finally catch him, and drag him off to a wilderness-survival/behavioral-modification center, he wonders if his abusive new “school” might finally break him for good.

Micah refuses to bow to the school authorities, and together with a bullied younger student, Chris, he escapes the mountaintop prison. But their situation goes from desperate to dangerous when an anti-government member of the Aryan nation and his bumbling nephew pick them up. While the men zip along a high-wire of drug-addled paranoia and loaded weapons, what began as a ride soon spirals into a kidnapping. Micah must decide if he should do what he's always done: run and save himself, or prove his probation officer wrong and save Chris, who is too naïve (and high) to appreciate the danger.

RUNNING FROM RUBY RIDGE, a 75,000 word YA contemporary novel with elements of magical realism, will appeal to fans of the psychologically gritty In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith and readers who enjoyed the magical, honest look at loss in Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King. My short fiction has been published under the pen name Matthew MacNish, in the anthology Literary Foray, from Static Movement Press, and in the online magazine, Vine Leaves Literary Journal. I blog about query letters, and the path to publication, at The QQQE, a Writer’s Digest Top 101 Websites for Writers pick, and contribute to the popular blogs Project Middle Grade Mayhem, and YA Confidential.

That's it. You're welcome to tell me what you think. I've got thick skin. Otherwise, I hope you all have a great, productive day!


Jessica Bell said...

Matt, having read the manuscript, I seriously can't think of any way you could make this better. Way to go!!!

Sarah said...

Matt, I think this is a really solid query. I'm with Jessica on this one!

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

I don't see any problems. My one and only concern is with the magical realism. Where is it? That would get my interest.

J.L. Murphey said...

I'm nit picking here. This is YA right? My first impression of the boys is as high school age (kids) from your query. When you use the term "men" is jarring. Maybe "young men" would be less of a jerk.

Matthew MacNish said...

Hi J.L. - thanks for your comment! The "men" actually does not refer to the boys, it refers to the men who give them a ride/kidnap them.

I'll have to think about whether that line needs clarification. Thanks!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

It's always easier to give advice on someone else's query than to work on your own. Nevertheless, I think you've got it really close!

Like Huntress, though, I think that if you're going to name it magical realism -- which it is; I still remember the scene that chilled me so much! -- you've got to weave a hint of it in here.

Maybe if you address the foster system in just one sentence and hint at the secret Micah doesn't want anyone to know in the other, that would be enough?

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query, Matt. And your story sounds fantastic. Sorry you struggled with it a bit but it's a bit comforting to know we're not alone.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is an awesome query, Matt. If I were an agent I'd be requesting the full.

My secret to writing queries? Write one that sucks and send to CP and a few beta readers. They will rewrite for me because it is so bad, and I end up with a great query. Works for me! :D

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's like writing a synopsis - tough to do for your own work and help is always needed.
Agree with others that a hint of magic is needed.
Someone who'd been to a conference recently posted a list from an agent panel of what they want and don't want in a query, and one of the things was not to compare your work to anything else. Maybe that just depends on the agent?

Elise Fallson said...

I've read this a couple of times and I can't think of anything to add other than what has already been mentioned. This is a tight and attention grabbing query. All I want to do next is to read your book.

T. Drecker said...

Queries are monsters, but it looks like you tackled this one well. I agree with Dianne, if you're dibbing this Magical Realism, you might want to put a little hint in there to show why.
Crossing my fingers for you!

JeffO said...

This query is very well-written, a nice blend of summary and voice.

As Huntress and Dianne said, I don't see any magical realism in the story. I'm not sure how big a part it plays in the story, but you may need to address it more here.

I do have a couple of nitpicks, or things to think of. First, I think you can shorten the first paragraph a bit without losing the sense of who Micah is. This will bring you to the exciting 'escape into greater danger' part a little bit quicker. Second, I feel there are conflicting images of Micah between the end of para1 and the start of para2. He's afraid of being broken; he's refusing to bow to authority. I get it, but it doesn't quite square up for me here in the query.

I think, to me, the escaping goes with the fear, not with the defiance. In reality, all of it would be jumbled together in Micah's mind (and I'm sure it's quite well illustrated in your book), but for the logical flow of the query, it's just a bit 'off', at least to me.

That's a lot of words to say I think you've got a really solid query, and a winner of a story. Good luck!

Suzie F. said...

Hi Matt.

First, I love the title of your novel and would definitely read this. Your query is well written, but like Jeff mentioned I think you can shorten it a bit without losing your premise. My biggest concern is the last sentence in your first paragraph. I think I counted 47 words.

Sorry I can't add anything else right now; I'm running out the door to work. I'll try to stop by later.

Good luck! Your novel sounds awesome!

Bish Denham said...

Good job, Matt. I've been waiting to find out what your story was all about! I think the first sentence would be stronger if you eliminated the comments in the parentheses. They aren't needed because the second sentence strongly hints that Micah's PO is or may be wrong about him.

SA Larsenッ said...

Of course it's harder writing your own query. Totally understandable.

This query is really, really good, Matt. It has a great setup and states the problem clearly, leaving me with enough intrigue to itch to read the story.

:) (You had a fantastic support group. Great and talented people. Very wise of you.)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Matthew - sounds very interesting - and lots to take in ... but very strongly presented.

Love that you took lots of advice too and had some great support -

I'll enjoy reading the story .. cheers Hilary

Michael G-G said...

Solid query, Matt. Like others, the introduction of magic realism in the closing paragraph made me go "huh?"

Nobody else has tripped on the high wire, but I thought that line about "zipping along a high wire..." was a tad strained and made me think of the circus. Perhaps it's the word "zip"? Here's a stab: "With their 'rescuers' armed, drug-addled, and paranoid, what begins as a ride soon turns into a crazed kidnapping." (No one else seems to think the high wire is a problem, so it may just be un-caffeinated me.)

Great sounding-story; ace title. I like the comparisons you give in the final paragraph. Good luck!

mshatch said...

I kind of liked the word zipping because it gave a sense of how high the kidnappers probably were but I agree witht he magical realism comments. The only thing I noticed was this: "...what began as a ride..." maybe should be ",,,what begins as a ride..." in keeping with the present tense of the rest of the query. Yes?

Otherwise, nicely done. And it's much easier finding and correcting the flaws in other people's queries than writing your own :)

Melissa Sugar said...

I think it's a solid query with a quick hook. It makes me want to read the book. Your unique voice stands out and the story intrigues me. I'm a bit confused about the magical element, but I know you can't cover it all in a query letter.

Well done.

Kristen Wixted said...

I think how you say "a contemporary novel with elements of magical realism" is fine--it didn't jar me at all.
sorry to be a disagree-er--
I also like the term "psychologically gritty."
Also, I have to be honest...a lot of times when I read the queries on here I don't comment, because I am just too overwhelmed with how confusing or dull they are to figure out what to say.
This one held my attention, and this is not the type of story I usually read, so it's not that. It's just very well done.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

Solid and professional. I look forward to reading the book when it's published. I'm a huge fan of realistic contemporary YA.

Margo Berendsen said...

Wow!!! I couldn't find a thing I'd change about it. It has voice, character, conflict, choice, and chills. I totally want to read this, and this wouldn't normally be my thing I don't know the comparison books but I'd STILL READ IT!!!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yeah, having read the MS, i think this is spot on. I did have a problem with the opening sentence, mostly because i DID think Micah was a nice guy and sympathetic, but the following sentence is so so awesome, you have to keep the opening as is.
I also don't know that you need the magical realism tag. I'm not sure. I'm thinking of Laurie Halse Anderson's Winter Girls, where the MC sees the ghost of her BF throughout the book and it's never resolved whether she is imaginging her or not, and i don't know that i would consider that aspect of the book magical realism, you know? But then again, i'm not sure. I think you're probably fine either way.

When are you going to test the waters with this bad boy?

Andrew Leon said...

It looks good to me, but, then, I'm not the query expert.

I suppose you don't want to hear more agent stories, right now, huh?

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

I think it's spot on, but you're missing a great opportunity. Having read your beautiful manuscript, Micah's voice is awesome. I think this is one of those cases where you should take a chance, and write this query in Micah's voice and not in this particular (let's tell you what it's about) format. Where are all of those crazy analogies that leap off the page? I think the query needs to reflect the source material and voice is completely absent here.

Patchi said...

I think you covered the 3Cs, but you should add a bit about the magic for the genre to make sense. Good luck!

Eliza Tilton said...

Hmm, leaving Las Vegas YA style? Sounds good! I agree about the magical realism aspect.

Katy Upperman said...

I love this even more than the version I read a few weeks ago... Best of luck with this, Matt. I'm rooting for you!

Jay Noel said...

This is a great query. Although the mention of "magical realism" threw me off. I never would have known that from reading the first part of your query.

farawayeyes said...

OK, I’m going to tell you what I think, but first I want to say two things. 1. I know nothing about queries that I haven’t learned here in your space and 2. Whatever I might complain about, you got me. I would definitely read the book.

In the first paragraph, I would lose the parenthesis and use another form of punctuation. I find the parenthesis very distracting. Probably just me.

You speak of him ‘running from foster home to foster home’. I would use another work like shuttled or funneled. Something that denotes he’s forced into these homes. Running almost seems like he’s going eagerly.

Why not call the place where he is sent simply a ‘wilderness reform center’. I got a little lost in all those adjectives.

Next I would add ‘full blown’ in front of kidnapping, to the sentence where you say ‘what begins as a ride soon spirals into a kidnapping.

Where you state – ‘Micah must decide if he should do what he's always done: run and save himself, or prove his probation officer wrong and save Chris, who is too naïve (and high) to appreciate the danger.’ I would use a phrase directed more as Micah’s character (especially the change in his character) than ‘prove his probation officer wrong’. Something like ‘or act completely out of character’ OR ‘take a leap into manhood’ OR ‘be responsible for a change’. OK, those are all cheesy suggestions, but I think you get what I mean by using a phrase that reflects the changes in Micah as opposed to referencing an outsider POV.

I’m with the others on the reference to ‘magical realism’. If you want to talk about it, you probably should do something to show it.

Finally, I know it’s completely acceptable to use references to other works, but I think it’s risky (you have actually said that before) mainly because these elements in other works as so perceptual. For example; I loved ‘Vera Dietz’ but I personally saw nothing very magical about the look at loss in that story, honest yes, gritty, yeah that too, but magical was lost on me. Anyway…that’s just my take.

One last thing, and this is definitely JUST ME, but you title really throws me. This might be hard to believe, but I actually lived in Idaho for a number of years and anything captioning ‘Ruby Ridge’ automatically leads me to think of another sad rendition of the Weaver Family Saga. While you have certainly incorporated elements of the local militias into your story, do you really want to make this connection to Randy Weaver? I may be the only one of your readers who would even pick up on this. Idaho is still a very sparsely populated state and most folks probably have no idea what I’m even talking about here.

All of that said…my critique is probably more on general writing than specific query writing, but then the query letter is a sample of our writing, right? Also, I’ve never had so much to say about a query letter before and I know most of it is pretty nitpicky, but that’s because I like you and I like what I’ve read here about this story.

Here’s where you get to tell me if I’ve learned anything at all from all the QQQE.

Adam Heine said...

I really like what you've done with the sadistic choice :-)

Nate Wilson said...

Matt, bravo for putting your latest query under the microscope to receive the same scrutiny you usually dole out.

I think the best part is the second line. It's the only one where what I presume is Micah's voice comes through. If you can add another dash or two of that voice later on, your query will be stronger for it.

As farawayeyes says, "running from home to home" sticks out. It makes it seem as if he's the one running between homes, whereas I suspect it's the foster system actually doing the shuffling (though maybe he regularly runs from them, too? If so, I'd try to make a distinction).

Likewise, I was a little thrown by where The Aryan and his nephew "pick them up." Sounds more like they were taken against their will, rather than joining them voluntarily. Maybe they "hitch a ride with" them instead. And it may be personal preference, but describing the nephew as "bumbling" didn't add anything for me. I might lose it from the query.

And as others have said, I'd also show a hint of the magical realism before you mention it's in there.

But overall I like what you've got. I wish you the best of luck molding it into a query agents can't refuse.

Nancy Thompson said...

You have a lot of great critiques here! I agree with most. Give a hint of the magic. I love the words in the parentheses, but not the parentheses themselves. It's distracting. I know you don't think emdashes belong in a query, but they work well to draw attention without being a distraction. I would definitely shorten the descriptive name of the school he's sent to & be more concise. Personally, I love comparisons. It gives a precise direction. But it can also be a bit of a pigeon hole, so just choose wisely. The only other thing that stands out to me as missing, or at least vague, is the voice. Considering the perspective you're telling this story from, I can only imagine how strong it must be in the book, but it doesn't come across that way in the query. And while I do not think it wise to query in first person, you might gain more of that original voice by writing it in first person to get some of Micah's attitude in the mix, then rewrite it back in third. Other than that, it's great & more than anything, the story sounds awesome & very intriguing. I'd read it! Oh and, the Ruby Ridge thing, those old enough, like me, will have an instant connection to the incident there years ago, so if that's what you're going for, you're spot on in the title. I doubt younger ones would make that connection though.

Angela Brown said...

Because so much of the query came off with that gritty contemporary YA feel, the mention of the magical realism sort of stopped me.


I'm just tinged a shade of green with envy at this solid query :-)

Jared Larson said...

Dude, all I can say is, it sounds exciting, and I'm excited for you! You've worked hard to gain the support you have with your writing. Well deserved and I wish you the best with this.

Kiera Paul said...

Matt I find it very brave to put oneself and work out there for criticism. At least here you are among friends, so no need to worry :) I know I came to the shoot out a bit late and everyone’s already hit the high points so I just wanted to extend encouragement! I read your query a number of times and then all of the comments here – you are in GOOD hands!

Beyond that I wanted to comment/piggy back on a few noted comments. Stina’s cracked me up! I love her suggestion. The only problem I’ve faced is that when people have given me critiques they’re generally vague and leave me with more questions than answers (lol). I 100% agree with Alex’s comment about agents not wanting to see the comparisons done. I’ve had agents tell me directly that excluding them is the way to go. Do I follow this advice? Nope. I can’t break from it. And perhaps that’s a downfall of mine, but if an agent is going to reject on that alone – kinda silly, right? Lastly, echoing Sarah’s question of when, I just wanted to ask if you would be so kind as to give us an update if you do give this wings and set it free in Agentland.

Don’t leave us hanging man!

All my best,