Friday, April 25, 2014

Augustine Chan's Current Query Critiqued

Okay. Today we have Augustine's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear [ ],

[THIS PARAGRAPH WOULD BE TAILORED TO AN AGENT] I read that you look for fiction that introduces readers to a fully realized world, and a voice that no one can forget. Not necessary, or if this is part of your personalization, because you read an interview where they mentioned this bit specifically, make sure you tailor that line to each individual agent. I am hoping that you will find all this and more in my adult novel coming-of-age debut, Think of the Children. It is complete at 97,000 words. You don't really need any of this either. It's implied. Also, working-titles of unpublished manuscripts go in ALL CAPS in query letters, so it would be THINK OF THE CHILDREN. Also, you can get all this across in the subject of your email, which should look something like this: QUERY - THINK OF THE CHILDREN by Augustine Chan. Word count and genre should go at the end of the query, where you compare this story to other works. I'll talk about genre later.

Daniel Hoover, a twelve-year(-)old latch-key kid, lives in a small, rural A little redundant, but not a huge problem. Midwestern town. He has a special bond with his mother, but she holds down three part-time jobs to make ends meet and he never sees her. In her absence, he has to look after his mentally-challenged younger brother, keep the household running, and balance his mother’s checkbook. In spite of this, he has never been in trouble at school, and manages to become a division-level wrestling champion with an unblemished academic record.

This isn't a bad opening as far at nuts and bolts go. It's got a sympathetic young character we can care about and root for, and while it doesn't really get to any kind of inciting incident yet, it sets up a situation which seems ripe for conflict. 

That said, it reads as very dry and lacking any real voice or style. I'm under the impression that even though this is a story about a child, it's more of a literary novel told by a narrator with an adult's sensibilities. If that's true, you do want to be careful about voice, since you certainly wouldn't want to practice writing a query from Daniel's first person point of view if this is not actually a Middle Grade novel.

Daniel has everything going for him. Except a dad or a mom who's ever home. He believes his life would change completely if he won a sports scholarship to the elite Fieldstone Place Academy. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to rise above his family’s staggering poverty and the weight of his mother’s expectations. Today, a recruiter will be visiting, watching him during practice and informally interviewing him after. But the school bully, Sammy, is out to get him, and has promised to ruin his interview. By the end of the day, in one terrible moment, Daniel’s entire world is shattered. This is vague. Avoid vague language in query letters like the plague. Be specific, and hold nothing back. Unless there is some serious O'Henry twist to the ending, you can just say exactly what happens in a query letter.

Again, this is strong in substance if not in form. Is the story really all told in a single day? This query makes it seem that way. I'm struggling a little with what to tell you about how to improve this. You've got the facts down, and they make it clear there are interesting elements to this story, but they come across as just that, a series of facts, with no emotion to the language used to present them.

By turns poignant and tragic, Don't do this. Don't tell an agent what the strong points of your writing and story are, show them with your query and your pages. Think of the Children THINK OF THE CHILDREN is a cautionary tale about bullying, a critical dissection of a child’s indomitable spirit and fire against all odds, and a deeply moving The reader will decide if they are moved or not. Not the writer. story of hardship and hard-won triumph. The book captures, without flinching, those moments in the day of a life forever altered by the actions we do and do not take; and the story of a person turned away from his natural path, turned to a new way of being. It is akin to Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life This Boy’s Life (titles of published works go in italics in query letters) and, more recently, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation Girl in Translation. I don't know these books, but it sounds like you know your market. But rather than saying akin, can you say something like "it will appeal to fans of X, because of Y?" That makes it a little clearer why you're comparing your MS to a particular book.

I would also include your word count and genre in this paragraph. It's best to keep all of that "housekeeping" type info in one place.

I received my MFA from Columbia and for three years I was the assistant to the editor of Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Twice I was a writing fellow at the writer’s colony, Artcroft. This is all excellent. Columbia is a great school! 

Upon your request, I would be happy to provide the complete manuscript or the first three chapters. Don't tell the agent what you'd be willing to send them. You'd be willing to send them whatever pages they ask for. Full manuscripts or the first three chapters are certainly standard requests, but make sure to check and follow the agent's guidelines. Thank you for taking the time to consider my work, and look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Augustine Reyes Chan

In summary, you've got the bones of an excellent query here. A sympathetic protagonist is there, even if we struggle to care about him a little bit because his situation in represented as facts rather than emotions. The conflict and stakes are also clear, even if, again, they come across a little dry. 

If this was a Middle Grade novel, I'd know exactly what to tell you to do to improve it, but considering it's an adult novel, you might actually be better off without overdoing voice. That said, I do think you could do with a little more active voice in your sentence structure. Just for example, cutting an opening like "He believes," would make the rest of the sentence carry that much more impact. There are several places you could cut words like this to simplify structure and pack more of a punch.

This is a tough query to critique, because it has all the necessary elements, and style and voice can be such a subjective thing to evaluate. Make sure you take a look at my past query critiques, and analysis of successful queries, to get an idea of what works and what doesn't.

That's it!

What do you all think? Can you suggest anything I've missed that might make this query connect a little less with the head and a little more with the heart?

NOTE: I forgot to share this yesterday, but you can find Augustine on:

7 comments:

mshatch said...

The story sounds interesting but I don't think the query as is shows that enough. I think Matt pretty much covered all the ways to improve it and the only thing I'd add are the three Cs: character, conflict, and choice. The character part is good but if I were an agent I'd want to know specifically where the conflict is. I assume it comes after the terrible moment but I want to know more and I really want to know what choice the mc has to make in order to get his life back.

Great crit, Matt - as always.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yeah Matt said everything i said. It does read a little dry and i think that's due to word choice like Matt said.

I'm also not getting as much conflict as i'd like. Yes his life is tough, adn yes there's one day where maybe he can get out of it, but that one day just pops up at the end. And if it's a novel about bullying, i really feel like the bullying, then, should be present much sooner in the query, as opposed to the second to last sentence, which makes it seem more like an afterthought.

Good luck!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Yeah, it needs more voice and personality. Agree it was a dry read.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I agree with the comments above. Try to get more of your writing style into the query, and be very specific about the conflict and the stakes. Don't worry about giving away spoilers. The agent WANTS to know those spoilers, so he/she will know whether or not the book is something to request. Remember, they might read 100 queries in one day. Whatever makes your book stand out -- put it in the query! Stand out!

I would also caution you about using the words "a cautionary tale." (Ha!) You don't want your work to sound like a book that teaches a lesson. You want to make it sound like a book that's a wonderful and engaging read.

Steve MC said...

From reading it yesterday:

A couple things seemed off, like how it all comes down to one event on one day (or at least that's all we're told about). As an agent, I'd want more build-up over time, or else it sounds like a short story.

It's not the writer's job to say how good their writing is, as in "deeply moving."

I do really like this part, though: "those moments in the day of a life forever altered by the actions we do and do not take; and the story of a person turned away from his natural path, turned to a new way of being." That sounded cool.

Just read your comments, and yep on them all. And agree with Dianne on the "cautionary tale."

Augustine Chan said...


Dear [ ],
[I am querying you because you are the author of my favorite books. (xx)]
I am seeking representation for THINK OF THE CHILDREN, which is told over the span of a single, pivotal day. Daniel Hoover, a twelve-year old latch-key kid who lives in a rural Midwestern town, has a special bond with his single mother, but she holds down three part-time jobs and he never sees her. In her absence, he looks after his mentally-challenged younger, he keeps the household running, and he balances his mother’s checkbook. In spite of this, he has never been in trouble at school and manages to become a division-level wrestling champion with an unblemished academic record.

Daniel has everything going for him. Except that he trips over words when he talks, rendering him awkward during conversations despite his large vocabulary. And except for no parental supervision, which he craves. Look beyond it. His life will change completely if he wins a sports scholarship to the elite Fieldstone Place Academy. Then he’ll be able to rise above his family’s staggering poverty and the weight of his mother’s expectations. Today, a recruiter plans to visit to watch him during practice and to informally interviewing him after. But the school bully, Sammy, makes do on his threat that he’ll ruin the interview, resulting in Daniel and Sammy fighting during practice and Daniel striking Sammy so hard by accident that Sammy has to go to the hospital.
All of a sudden, Daniel’s fists become a way to express himself. He uses them to destroy school property. He uses them to take his aggression out on his brother. And he uses them to punch a glass door so hard that it renders his entire wrestling career over. By the end of the day, Daniel is kicked off the team and expelled from school
Do it again. Look beyond it. With the deepest sorrow, Daniel knows he has to face and accept this new life that’s been dealt to him. When the pain over his losses is so acute that you have to say that. When he has lost everything for which he holds dear. When he has lost everything that he has fought so hard to attain.
THINK OF THE CHILDREN, an adult coming-of-age debut that’s complete at 97,000 words, is a critical dissection of a child’s indomitable spirit and fire against all odds, a story of hardship and hard-won triumph, and a tale about how school bullying can irrevocably alter one’s entire being. The book captures, without flinching, those moments in the day of a life forever altered by the actions we do and do not take; and the story of a person turned away from his natural path, turned to a new way of being. It will appeal to fans of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and, more recently, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, as well as the character ‘Mick’ from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

I received my MFA from Columbia and for three years I was the assistant to the editor of Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Twice I was a writing fellow at the writer’s colony, Artcroft.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my work, and look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Augustine Reyes Chan

JeffO said...

My initial reactions, without reading everyone else's comments:

First, and I hate myself for saying this, but I'm not picking up adult vibe from the query. I understand that having a 12-year-old protagonist doesn't make this a kids' book, but it really doesn't feel like an adult book, either.

Second, there's a curious part of the query where you tell us that Daniel has everything going for him, after telling us how hard life is for him. It's a little at odds. I think you've got a good story in here, and you write well, but the query lacks...urgency, I think. It needs a little more 'pop' to it, in my opinion. It feels a little too remote.

Thanks for sharing, and best of luck!