Dear [ ],
[THIS PARAGRAPH WOULD BE TAILORED TO AN AGENT]
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.
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.
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.
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: