Friday, May 9, 2014

Marlene Moss' Current Query Critiqued

Okay. This god-forsaken penny-ante soul-sucking day job is trying to swallow my morning like an Arrakian Shai-Hulud.

Ahem. Sorry.

Let's get to work. Here is Marlene's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The query:

Dear Ms. Agent,

This is good. I mean, I know, pretty obvious, right? But I do think it's professional, especially in a cold query, to address an agent as Mister or Miz. Even if you've met them at a conference or something, this is a professional letter. Once you've communicated a few times, if they sign their replies with their first name, it's probably okay to start calling them that.

Eleven-year-old Mike loves all things science and science fiction and is determined to become an astronaut—assuming he can escape fifth grade with all the body parts required by NASA.

This is pretty great. CHARACTER. Voice. Humor. 

If I must nitpick? That's what we're here for, right? I would say we could always use even more characterization for Mike. I mean, he's the most important element of the query. We do know he's a science geek, (and an SF geek at that), and we can love that and sympathize with him right away, but even one more word or phrase about his personality would help even more. Is he shy? Precocious? A lover of all things geek, but maybe not the greatest student in the world?

Other than that, I would recommend not using em-dashes in query letter. I love em-dashes myself, since what they do to the rhythm and cadence of a sentence is unparalleled in the universe of punctuation, and they just look so bold and brash and daring on the page, but in query letters? Where the formatting per email client is a bit of a crap shoot? They can get garbled pretty quickly. If you must use them, I would recommend replacing them with the double-hyphen/dash, like this--see?

While hiding from the school bully, he meets an alien who tells him Earth will be surrounded by an anti-flight field unless humans are defined by which planets they can safely visit. This sounds really cool, except for one thing. Defined? What does that mean? I think you can word this better so it's clearer. You mean something like they'll be prohibited from visiting certain planets or something, right? On top of saving space flight, Mike figures he’ll gain scientific experience as he records the effects of candies from an intergalactic test dispenser. I love this, because it's so Middle Grade, but the effects candies have on what? But the sprinkles on the sundae? Great line! Temporary bully-stomping, superhero side-effects. Is that the effects the candies have? Because that is awesome.

This is pretty good. The exact nature of the conflict is maybe a little fuzzy, but you've got so much style, I'm thinking a lot of agents would want pages anyway. 

If you do want to get nitpicked, you could definitely try rewording to make the CONFLICT clearer. I mean Mike is the only one who knows about the alien, right? So what exactly does he have to do? See the president? Work with NASA? Fix it himself? Lots of excellent possibilities here, ripe for conflict, but try to be as specific as possible.

Mike’s ordered not to tell anyone, but how could he hide something as cool as first alien contact from his best friend? Good thing he spilled the Jellybeans because he needs his friends to save him from a fish transformation—complete with gills, webbed fingers, and flipper feet.

Again, this is great details, and a lot of fun and pitch-perfect MG voice, but it's still a little muddy as to specifics, and how the plot moves forward.

It’s all flying and invisibility games until fake federal agents invade town. Whoa. Fake eh? Cool twist. Forget bullies, Mike must save himself and his friends from alien Interstellar Enforcers determined to leave them in permanent stasis at the bottom of a mine so they can’t tell the world aliens exist.

Not bad, but one way to make a good query great is to end on an excellent sadistic choice. It's a little less necessary in MG, because a lot of times you wouldn't picture a kid that young ditching his friends to save himself (or whatever), but maybe Mike has to choose between going to the authorities and fixing things himself.

MIGHTY MIKE AND THE INTERGALACTIC CANDY DISPENSER is an MG sci-fi/adventure Science-Fiction Adventure complete at 49,000 words. You could really just say 50,000. It should appeal to those who enjoy the quirky characters in Nathan Bransford’s Jacob Wonderbar Jacob Wonderbar series or the problem solving skills of Marcia Wells’s Eddie Red Eddie Red.

Working titles go in ALL CAPS in queries. Published works go in italics.

I live in Colorado and train endurance horses while trying not to use my physics degree to calculate trajectories of unplanned dismounts.

This is a good example of how to bio when you have no real publishing credits. Just share something a little personal that has tons of flavor, voice, and personality!

Okay, so to summarize. I really think this query is already in great shape, Marlene. You've got so much voice and such a clear sense of the tastes of Middle Grade readers, I think you'd do pretty well with agents if you sent this out as is.

That said, it does lack a little structure and specificity. Try to really focus on CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and CHOICE, and if you can narrow things down so that you really strike those key elements as high points, the wonderful voice and personality that already shine through would glow the brighter.

I think the biggest thing you're lacking here is a clear sense of exactly how the conflict plays out. We know what it is (save space flight for Earth from the Aliens trying to restrict it) but it's really a bit unclear how Mike could possibly go about that, other than hiding from Aliens masquerading as Feds in a cave.

I hope that all makes sense.

That's it!

What do you all think? Anything I missed? Anything you disagree with? Please share your feedback in the comments, and have a great weekend!


Dianne K. Salerni said...

Yesterday when I read this query, I was totally WOW-ed by the opening line. What voice!

But sadly after that, I was totally lost. The rest of the query that was supposed to describe the plot and conflict was ALL voice and not very informative. I couldn't really tell what the story was about -- and you don't want the agent to think your manuscript reads the same way!

So, after that fabulous first line, I suggest toning down the voice a bit in favor of clarity. For example:

What does "defined by which planets they can visit" mean?

How is Mike supposed to help these aliens classify the earth and what does that have to do with a candy dispenser?

What gives him superhero side-effects?

Fish transformation? Flying and invisibility games? By now I had absolutely no idea what Mike is doing. Why did the aliens give him powers? What is Mike's ROLE, as far as the aliens are concerned?

As for the fake federal agents, are they on the same side as the aliens who recruited Mike? Or a different side?

If you can answer these questions while still retaining the best parts of your voice, this would be a wonderful query!

mshatch said...

I can't really add anything to what's been said. Loved the voice here!

Sarah Ahiers said...

I think in general this is really good, with a few moments of confusion that can be cleared up with some careful writing.

This line in particular i just don't follow:

unless humans are defined by which planets they can safely visit

I have no real understanding of what this means.

Same with the candy effects. I had to read it twice to understand what you're getting at and what was going on.

But if you can add clarity to these moments of plot, i think you'll be in a good place

Steve MC said...

What's already been said - that one line had me scratching my head.

Also, the beginning pages would tell me, but I'm curious how he meet the alien and why he was chosen. Were they fighting over the latest copy of Aliens Digest?

Besides that, fun and quirky.

GSMarlene said...

Thank you Matthew! Great advice from you and the commenters. I'm working on some improvements, hopefully this will be it. Queries are so hard for your own books!

Margo Berendsen said...

I learn so, so, so much reading these queries and the comments about them. Don't have anything to add, comments are spot on, loved the example of the bio with the trajectory of dismounts! Still grinning.

Traci Kenworth said...

I have to say, this one really impressed me. The voice is so flavorful, just really good. I would like a little more detail as well about the conflict. More character as Matt said would be extra gravy.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think you just used the best simile I've ever seen. "Shai-Halud?" Damn...that's just nerdy and wonderful at the same time.