Friday, March 21, 2014

Kurt Dinan's Current Query Critiqued

Today we have Kurt's query again, this time with my notes, in blue.

Here's the letter:

Dear ______,

Sophomore Max Lewis is living in a world of suck: he’s considered a nobody for quitting the lacrosse team, he’s just pissed off a tyrant - err - vice principal, and now he’s been humiliated in the latest epic prank by the mysterious Chaos Club.

And that’s just his first day of school.

So, this whole opening looks pretty good to me, but when Kurt emailed me, he explained that he'd been seeing a lot of rejection with this version of his query, so I thought maybe let's see if we can dig a little deeper.

Some of you will have seen all this before, but for Kurt's benefit, I'd like to link to some posts I've written about queries, and what they need to do. Here is a good place to start, but this is also useful (great - looks like this one was removed - blogger tip - if you ask someone to write a guest post for you, don't delete it later).

Anyway, what I always tell people to focus on when crafting queries is the three Cs: CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and CHOICE. The first two are absolutely required, and the third is what can make a good query into a great one. After that, the next key is specificity. Any vague language is a killer of good queries.

Now, focusing on Kurt's query, or at least this opening hook, we've got a decent sense of character. I mean Max is a sophomore boy, so right there we can infer a lot of things. He's a lacrosse player, but he's also just quit the team, and that tells us some more about him. Furthermore, we know what he's just pissed off the VP, and he also refers to him as a tyrant (or at least the narrator of this query does). That all clues us into a lot of great hints about his character, but ... there might be a reason this is falling flat. 

Don't get me wrong, this is a good opening. It hits all the required notes: character, voice, specificity, hook, but we're not shooting for good. We're shooting for great. So, what could make this better? Well, for starters, we could use a little more CHARACTER. Like, who is Max before his story starts? We've got some of that already, which is good, but even more would be better. What kind of person is he? We know he's athletic enough to make the lacrosse team, but what about some other defining personality trait? If you look at my own queries, you'll see that some detail of the protagonist's personality from before the story begins is always shared. In addition to character, I'd like to see a stronger hook here. How? Specificity. What is this epic prank? I'm sure it's absolutely hilarious and embarrassing in the book, why hold back from that in the query? Be specific, make it zing, and make your opening hook stand out from the other hundred queries the agent's assistant reads that day.

Angry, embarrassed, and tired of being victimized, See? This stuff would all hit the reader so much harder if we knew what the prank was, and why it hurt Max so deeply. Max recruits four other misfits to form The Water Tower 5. Why are they called that? Seems important since it's the title. Their goal? Destroy the Chaos Club. But how do you wipe out an organization with an anonymous membership capable of trapping cows on the school roof See? THIS is what I'm getting at. THIS is an awesome example. More like this please. and assembling stolen desks into a giant phallus on the football field? Brilliant. Easy, by relying on what Max does best – scheming, scamming, and swindling.

Well, maybe not that easy.

I would cut this. I get that you're going for rhythm, but sometimes you just want to let things flow. You just punched us in the gut with some very interesting, specific details, so let us sit with that while we move into the next paragraph.

Furthermore, I like that this is starting to sound a lot like a modern THE CHOCOLATE WAR, which is a great, great book.

The Water Tower 5 lures the Chaos Club into the open by framing them for a series of pranks involving precision vomiting and indecent pictures of the school mascot. This is getting really good. I can't believe you're getting rejected. Unfortunately, they also succeed in attracting the attention of the school’s administration and security team. And it’s not like the Chaos Club is going to let a bunch of underclassmen take them down without a fight. Soon, Max finds himself arrested, suspended, and even worse, dealing with an angry girlfriend. With summer only days away, can Max devise a caper ingenious enough to clear his name and expose the Chaos Club? (Hint: It’s possible, but he’s going to need a hell of a lot of weather balloons to pull it off.)

I don't know man, all in all I think the body of this query maybe starts out a little flat, but it sure ends with a bang. Sometimes subjectivity is just a bitch. This ends on a very high note in my opinion, so I think maybe you just need to fix the beginning. You could always add the sadistic choice that usually ends most great queries, but the last line you already have is pretty damn good as is.

THE WATER TOWER 5 is a contemporary YA novel (94,000 words) Why the parentheses? fusing the offbeat relationships of The Breakfast Club with the capers and cons of Ocean’s 11. These are some pretty good comparisons, but I would try to find a novel to fit in here, if possible. Maybe THE CHOCOLATE WAR (unless your book isn't as dark in tone). I'm a nineteen-year veteran of teaching high school English who has had various short stories published online and in print. My short story "Nub Hut" appeared in 2010's Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. Make this a link if possible.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Okay, in summary: you've got a great query here, so I can understand your frustration. But like I said, there is almost always room for improvement. I recommend you focus on that opening hook. Kill us with a CHARACTER so bold and well imagined that we immediately care about him, sympathize with his plight, and root for his victory. If you can pull that off, everything that comes after will automatically shine brighter.

After that, you've pretty much nailed all the high points. Get specific about that opening prank, and then you can probably drop some of the details of the later ones, in the interesting of trimming so that the agent gets to your pages quicker. 

Other than that, I think you finish really strong. Let me know if you have any questions.

That's it!

What do you all think? Disagree with anything I said? Hello? People still read this blog, right?


Dianne K. Salerni said...

I thought the opening lines were *almost* great. This is the phrase that held me up:

"he’s considered a nobody for quitting the lacrosse team"

It's too passive, and "considered a nobody" is too weak. Can you just say "he's quit the lacrosse team" or "he's off the lacrosse team"? You don't even have to explain why. This may seem like a small thing, but if you blow the voice in the opening paragraph, that's going to hurt the query.

And it also bothered me that the entire school year was encapsulated in the query. I don't know why, but I felt jarred that we went from the first day of school to the last week in just a couple paragraphs. Can you leave out one or the other time reference?

Steve MC said...

When I read this yesterday, it had such voice, and such confidence and humor, I was sold on it halfway through. He obviously knows this age group, and he sets up the conflict and escapades well.

Reading your notes today, I see exactly what you mean. The title character could still be anyone. The escapades can't latch onto a character we yet care about, and so it seems generic in a way. So yeah, that can be improved.

Even as is, this query was fun to read, and makes me think Kurt could deliver a great manuscript.

mshatch said...

I completely agree with Matt and Dianne. I thought this was a great query and also wondered why it was getting rejections. But I do think Matt made some excellent points and Dianne makes a good point about that line (he's considered a nobody for quitting...). Somehow that struck me wrong. A nobody is someone who was never ON the Lacross team to begin with. Max was somebody but then something happened to make him quit which makes everyone else who used to think he was someone think...what? He's an idiot? A big baby? I don't know, but nobody doesn't seem like the right word to me.

Other than that, I really liked this and would be very intrigued if it came across my desk!

Sarah Ahiers said...

i'm honestly shocked that he's mostly getting rejections with this query. Could it be kicked up a bit? Sure. And i totally agree with adding an actual book in the book comp part (show you know your market) But even without that, i would really expect a lot of requests from this query.

It makes me wonder about the sample pages being submitted. With a query this strong i would expect the pages to be strong as well, but maybe that's where the disconnect is?

I don't know. What a horribly frustrating place to be.

Kimberly Gabriel said...

Matt - great comments as usual. I really liked Kurt's query and I love his opening pages. He has been getting some requests for this, but based on what I've read of his query and MS, I'd expect him to be getting more. Hopefully with the tweaking you've suggested, he will get more. I like the suggestion about The Chocolate War too. Thanks for the links too - more great tips.

Kurt Dinan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kurt Dinan said...

First off, thanks a ton, Matt. This is just what I was hoping for when I sent you my query. (Actually, I was hoping for you to say, "Guess what, Kurt? I'm actually an agent in disguise and I want to rep your book without reading it!", but I didn't have my hopes up.) It's nice to know the query isn't completely off the rails, it just needs tweaking here and there. All of you (commenters ((not a word?))) have some great ideas here, too, and have given me a lot to think about this weekend. So thanks to all of you.

And yeah, I'm starting to think maybe Sarah's right - it could be the pages I'm including. I'll definitely have to take a look at that soon, too.

Matt, you're a great guy for helping people out in this manner. The query process is painful, but your blog makes it tolerable. You have my permission to take next week off from work. If your boss has an issue with this, send him/her my way.

Patchi said...

Great suggestions for how to improve the query--not that I found anything bad with the original. I think the pages might be the problem, or the list of agents Kurt is querying. Good luck! This seems like a fun novel.

Margo Berendsen said...

Man that's a good query and if you're getting rejections on it, then I should give up on my query completely ;)

I think the comments are all helpful. The only thing I could think to add was the premise might not be original enough. Now I'd read it anyway because if the characters and writing are fresh and interesting (and clearly they are here, the query assures me of that), I'm hooked. But everywhere in YA these days you hear agents clamoring "need fresh ideas! I fresh take! Something new" (and then they also add ("but great writing trumps everything!")

So if there is something unique about this high school war (in addition to a unique character, which is your best shot), then bring it out in the query.

Lydia Kang said...

I thought this was a pretty great query and am surprised about the rejections.

One thing may not have to do with the writing, but the size. 94K words is pretty long for a contemporary, and agents may think you're an overwriter based on that alone. I think contemporary is usually less than 70K?

In any case, good luck and thanks again Matt for a great and illuminating post!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Lydia might have something there. I hadn't paid attention to the word count, but it IS pretty high for a novel of this type.

Perhaps it's time to put on the Grim Reaper robe, grab a scythe, and commit a massive word massacre?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Matt, the opening can use a little work, I thought the rest was excellent. Good luck!!

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with Matt's comments. This query is so close! Make sure we're rooting for your main character. Also my 94k contemporary YA. For what's it's worth, I've heard be careful about making comparisons to things that are dated. Some agent said even using Harry Potter is considered dated because the first book came out so long ago. Good luck with the rewrite!