Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jenny Rose's Current Query Critiqued

It's kind of strange, I think, having to summarize a 500 word book in a 250 word query, but I understand that's how things work, and it's kind of fun. Well, it's fun to read queries. I'm not sure it's very fun to write them.

Anyway, today's is Jenny's Picture Book query again, this time with my thoughts, in red.

Dear Editor

Meshach has been through the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath and lived to tell about it. Meshach and his buddies Shadrach and Abednego were taken from Jerusalem to be slaves to the king of Babylon. They trusted God and proved their worth to the king and became officials. How did Meshach feel about being taken as a slave? What will happen when they refuse to bow to the king’s gold statue?

This is difficult for me to critique, because I don't know the rules regarding PB queries, so I'm just going to treat it as a normal query.

If this were a normal query it would start out pretty well with that first line, it's a great image, and even though it's probably literal and metaphorical, it makes for a pretty good hook. However, after that first sentence, this query begins to descend into synopsis territory in a kind of "this happened, and then that happened" manner. Since it's a PB, that's probably not that bad. I would be very careful about rhetorical questions, though, and not only because Nathan Bransford says to be.

The reason rhetorical questions rarely work is that you never want an agent or editor to ask themselves a question that's been written in your query, and then not have the answer, or worse, not care what it is.

Meshach’s Story is a 500 word, illustrated story based on Daniel chapters one and three. Told from Meshach’s point of view, preschoolers and grade schoolers experience Meshach’s reaction to this familiar Bible story. Throughout the story, the importance of loving and trusting God and His care for us are emphasized.

This is fine. It's all telling, no showing, but I'm sure that's okay with a PB, and besides, this is kind of just the housekeeping section.

Some Bible story books currently in bookstores are compilations such as My Everyday Bible Story Collection (Stephens Groups 2008) and Bible Heroes (Little Golden Books 2004) which provide a brief summary of several stories but cannot be expanded without a rewrite. Others highlight a particular story and can be part of a series of books but are written in third person such as Jonah and the Big Fish (Spirit Press 2006), Bible Classics: Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors (Bluewood Books 2000), Stories from the Bible: Noah’s Ark (Paragon Publishing 2004), and Arch Books: Baby Jesus Visits the Temple (Concordia Publishing 2001). However, Meshach’s Story is written as a first person account, making the story come more alive to young children and is one of several Bible stories that I have developed in first person.

Hmm. This is debatable, and I will probably have to defer to my more experienced friends, but I could see this getting you into trouble. On the one hand, it makes it clear that you know your market, which can't be a bad thing, but the problem here is that you're trying to talk an agent or editor into working with you. You don't want to sound like you're telling them how to do their job.

It's their job to be experts in the business and the market; your job is to write a great book.

I realize that in this day and age authors have to do more than just write, but I'm not sure you want to put this this way in a query.

I have a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education and I am a former preschool teacher. Currently I write a variety of scripts for my church.

Would your publishing company be interested in publishing Meshach’s Story? I can have a copy ready for you by May 9, 2011.

For novels you don't query until the manuscript is finished, and hopefully has made it through several rounds of revisions with the assistance of a critique group. I know that non-fiction is different, and can be submitted before completion. I'm not sure about Picture Books.


Jenny Rose

What do you all think? This was one of the hardest queries I've ever critiqued, and I'm not sure I'll be much help, but I know a few of you know more about this than I do, so hopefully together we can get this thing to shine!


JE said...

I can see why this one was tought for you, Matt. I had a hard time from the first paragraph.

I'm not sure about pictures books, but you've got 6 people named in the first paragraph, which is confusing. I had no idea what was going on. I had to read it three times (which is always a bad thing) in order to understand it. The name tripped me up more than anything. Your query should generally only include the MC and one (or maybe two) other people. Not six.

I agree with Matt on everything else. In the paragraph were you mention other books like yours, you need to shorten it. Make it easy to follow. Simplicity, at times, is the best. Like this: MESHACH'S STORY would be similar to (list those other books here). And leave out the part about your story being in first person. I doubt that is a big deal.

I would also cut the last two lines of your query (and like Matt said, make sure the book is done before you query). Just add a 'the book is available for your review upon request. thank you for you time and consideration.'

And I also find it funny that a 500 word book requires a 250 word query. At first I though Matt had a typo. LoL. ;-)


JE said...

Oh, sorry about the typos. LoL. I was in a hurry! ;-)

Jessica Bell said...

I've never read a picture book query before and found this really interesting.

I agree with you, Matt, about pretty much everything, but thinking about that 3rd paragraph, I think the content is fine, but it would work better written differently.

I think it's great that Jenny knows her market, and I think it is a strong attribute to have. If this paragraph were rewritten in a way which sounds like Jenny is comparing her work with others' to show how it's different and unique and something which the market needs, rather than comparing to explain why it's 'BETTER,' I think it would work well.

Jessica Bell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

I think that a first person account of a Bible story like the fiery furnace is an interesting idea. :) Not a fun situation, and something I'm sure Meshach had strong feelings about. It's exactly because you've identified this narrative as first person that I expected to see more emphasis on Meshach in particular.

What was his experience of the fiery furnace? Is it different than we might expect from reading the book of Daniel? Did he have any doubts about jumping on the train to the furnace to prove the king wrong?

These are all things that, as a reader, I would love to know!

As for the final paragraph, I see that you're trying to differentiate your particular book's style from those already available in the market; however, the information about your story comes after all of the other examples, which can make it seem like an afterthought. Have you thought about discussing why your book is different than traditional versions without making the comparison to exact publications?

Overall, an interesting idea and one that I think could really connect with kids. :)

Karen Baldwin said...

You're a brave man, Matt. But you walk on water here. I think your critique is spot on.

Unknown said...

All I know is that you usually include (but not always) the ms when you sent the query. This is mostly because the first five pages of a novel = the full PB ms.

I'm not sure if anyone mentioned it, but the voice seems a little old for a PB. Is this the same voice in the book?

Ishta Mercurio said...

Can I just say that Blogger is evil? It ate my comment!

Trying again:

Jenny, you have a neat-sounding story here. I think writing it in first person is a good idea, and that there's potentially a good market for this. I do have a few comments, though. (And Matt, you didn't do a bad job; I agree with much of what you said.)

First, some general comments:

Never ever EVER query an unfinished picture book, unless it's classed as non-fiction, which this isn't. Also, you usually enclose a copy of the manuscript when you query, so while a PB query still needs to entice, it actually functions more like a cover letter. A good PB query can do both. Also: a first PB, whether fiction or non-fiction, should always be finished before you query.

Secondly, you'll want to brush up on your industry terminology a bit. An "illustrated story" is much longer than what you've written, and they're usually too expensive to publish. What you've written is called a 500-word picture book. It's not a huge deal, but you want to sound professional and like you know the business.

Thirdly, this is too long. You actually have less than 250 words with a PB query.

Line edit to follow...

storyqueen said...

I can't speak for all picture book authors here, but when I was trying to get a picture book published, most agents/editors wanted the whole manuscript enclosed with the query. I mean, you are right. It's kind of difficult to write a 250 word query about a 500 word book!

Because the work is so short, it has to speak for itself.

With that in mind, I wrote my queries as short cover letters...just giving enough information to get the agent/editor to turn the page and read the actual book.

So, for me, I would totally cut the third paragraph in your query. (Too many words and too bulky looking. Never forget how the words on the page actually "look". If it appears that you use too many words in the query, agents/editors might worry that you do the same with the book. In a picture book, every word is precious!)

And I have to agree with Matthew: The manuscript MUST be finished before you query.

Tone, voice, vocabulary and word choice are so important in picture books. It might be a good idea to play with the first paragraph and see how you can make your voice shine through a bit more.

For a picture book, you have mere seconds to get the person to turn the page and start reading the story. Use those seconds wisely!

All in all, you have an original idea that is worth pursuing. Good luck to you!


Ishta Mercurio said...

First paragraph: I like the opening line, but think about "fiery furnace of wrath" and whether your preschool audience will get it. When you can, you want to make the language in your query mesh with the language in your manuscript; in this case, seeing that phrase in your query makes me wonder if it's also in your MS (some very good PB queries use a one-line quote from the manuscript as the opening hook), which gives me cause for concern because it's not really geared toward your audience.

Skip the buddies, and the part about trusting God and becoming officials, etc. It's too complicated and synopsis-y, and if I know how it ends, why would I read it? Matt's right about the rhetorical questions.

Second paragraph:

It's a 500-word picture book. Also: the title of your manuscript (Meshach's Story?) should be in ALL CAPS, like that. The rest of this is good, although I wonder about calling it a familiar story, since it's not familiar to me. However, you'll be sending this to someone who specializes in Bible stories (which I don't), so if it really is a familiar story, this is fine.

Third paragraph: this is a good idea, but it's too long. Also, I agree with Matt that you've kind of approached this from the wrong end. The main point of this paragraph is to highlight both how your story stands out, and who it's for. My advice is to shorten it considerably: something like, "Unlike typical books which are written in third person, the first-person narration of my story makes it much more accessible and appealing to young children." If you give examples, limit it to two. I'd skip the part about other stories that you've written. If they think you did a good job on this one and they want to work with you on more, they'll ask you.

Closing two paragraphs: Skip the part about your degree and your preschool teaching. I know it sounds like it would be relevant, but lots and lots of amazing preschool teachers don't know jack about writing, and lots of amazing picture book writers would make crummy preschool teachers. One doesn't really have any bearing on the other. You could keep the part about writing for your church, because it's relevant. This is also where you would put any professional memberships you may have: SCBWI, writers' unions, etc. Those are good to put in if you have them.

Instead of the last part, put that you've enclosed a copy of the manuscript and that you hope they enjoy reading it, and you look forward to hearing from them.

And good luck!

Unknown said...

I've submitted picture books before and it does seem like publishers accepting pb submissions want the whole manuscript.
Shorter is better for picture books.
If this was going to be serve as a cover letter I would keep the first sentence then skip to the second paragraph.
List your writing credentials- published pieces, SCBWI membership, Christian writers association, but if you don't have those skip this paragraph. I think it is better to leave this paragraph out than to list work experience and church scripts.
I usually close with a thank you and say that I look forward to hearing from.

Michael G-G said...

Blogger is mean and just ate my lovely long comment. I'll get back to it once the kiddos are off to school!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt asked most the questions i had. I was especially concerned with the "i can have a copy ready for you by May 9th" bit. I think your best bet would be not to Query until after May 9th and then send the whole MS along with the Query. I'm almost positive that's standard with PBs

I would also think about ditching the Nebuchadnezzar bit, since he's not mentioned again, and you want to limit your character names in a query to really no more than 2, maaaaybe 3.

Otherwise i agree with everyone else. I'd actually really like to read a 1st POV picture book about this subject matter.

Kristen Hilty said...

Everyone gave great comments. Ditto on having it finished before submitting, and ditto on enclosing the whole manuscript with the letter.

I too see pb letters more as a cover than a query...the manuscript does the talking for you. Keep it short. I've heard three paragraphs at the most for pb covers.

And that first paragraph is key. It's the hook. Grab the interest of the editor right away. One thing I might add that others did not mention (I think!) is your research of the particular editor. You might want to mention why it would be a good fit for them, basing it on the research you have presumably done on that publishing house.

Good luck!

Old Kitty said...

Wow - great query critique, Matt and fantastic comments from everyone! For me it was the difficulty of all the names in the first para - I was just thinking of the children - but of course we are talking biblical names and they are never that straighforward but these were like 5 names I needed to read very carefully to get them phonetically right.

Also, this is just a general question really but who actually illustrates the stories?

I can't add anymore to the very helpful and useful stuff already said here! Good luck with this query and with your books.

Take care

Michael G-G said...

I’m no PB expert, so I scooted off to the great oracle of Google and came up with just the right person: the very talented agent, Mary Kole. Check out her kidlit blog for pointers on how a good PB query is done.

Here are my opinions, based on what Mary wrote: It seems as if, in your quest for the hook, the story isn’t told in the right order. I agree with Matt that this paragraph shouldn’t end in questions. I give you one way to rephrase things—not brilliant, but I hope you get where I’m going and put your own magic spin on it. [I didn't have any prob. with the names, as I believe this will be submitted to Christian publishers, and they had better know who Jenny is talking about!]

Snatched from Jerusalem to be slaves to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, Meshach and his buddies Shadrach and Abednego trusted God and won the king’s favor. But when they refused to worship the king’s golden idol, they were thrown into a fiery furnace. To the amazement of all, they survived. Once again, trust in God proved mightier than the wrath of an earthly king.

I like the fact you did market research, but the comparison paragraph is too detailed. I would merely say something like: "In my research, I noticed that most biblical retellings are told in the third person. MESHACH’S STORY differs in having the immediacy of first person narration." (Again, you can do way better than me in wording this, I’m sure.)

Are you the illustrator too? (I guess most agents want to represent author-illustrators.) If so, perhaps you could talk a little about the illustrations (see Mary Kole’s example for this.)

And, for your bio, are you a member of any writers’ organizations? “I am a member of Christian Writers of America (I don’t know if there is such an org., but I’m sure the all-powerful Google would know), and SCBWI.” That shows you’re clued into the industry.

Finally, don’t mention when the story will be ready. Only start querying after it’s ready to go.

Thanks for being brave and sharing this with us, Jenny. I hope you find the comments helpful (as I did last week when I got such good advice here on my own query.) I wish you the best of luck with your submissions.

Robyn Lucas said...

I agree with the rhetorical questions. They're not needed.

Great critique, Matthew and best of luck Jenny! Picture books are tough.

Elana Johnson said...

Okay, I didn't read the comments, so I'm fresh. (Yeah, right.)

Here's my opinion on picture books: they're books. You're trying to get the agent to read more of your book. So a PB query is exactly the same as a novel query. Exactly the same.

It should have a hook, a setup, a conflict, and a consequence. And there should be no questions. :)

And yes, you can include the entire PB manuscript below the email, so you should state that it's there, not invite the agent to request it. They don't have to read any further than they want though, so your job is to compel them through the query, and make them go, "Good thing this is included below the query, because I can't wait to read it!"

If they don't do that, you'll just get rejected.

And yeah, you shouldn't query until the MS is ready, no matter if it's a novel or a PB. (Non-fiction is a complete, submission-ready, edited proposal.)

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I think the basic thing here is that nothing should be queried until it's finished. However, I did like the second paragraph, it wrapped things up nicely and emphasized why Jenny wrote the book. It sums it up so nicely, as a matter of fact, that I'd recommend dropping the next paragraph about the other published books. For 1, it's a huge block of text and queries need white space. 2, hopefully Jenny's querying someone with experience in the market, and hopefully they know it better than she does.
Also,I feel like the questions in the first paragraph are okay. They may be rhetorical, but they're books that are directly answered in the book, not 'how would YOU feel if...' questions. Still, I'm not exactly an expert in this area.
I hope that helps!

Christina Lee said...

Wow this is an interesting idea. I am going to ask about the voice and whether the first para should reflect that more? Also agree about the retorical questions. And then, that's all I've got! :-)

Arlee Bird said...

This especially caught my attention because a friend of mine self-published a very similar type book also taken from the book of Daniel, though using a different story.

He sent me a copy of the book, which by the way looks very nice, because we wasn't sure what to do next. And unfortunately I'm not sure how to direct him.

If he has a finished product that appears to have great potential, can he still query an agent or publisher and use the copy he has ready as his sample copy?

I'm going to check out some of the links shown above. My friend has a great looking product with artwork by an award-winning Disney artist, but he doesn't know anything about the publishing industry and I know nothing about children's books.

By the way I think you gave Jenny great advice as did many of the commenters. Good luck to Jenny.

Tossing It Out

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Matt and Ishta. The first paragraph sounds too adult. I think you want to focus on showing the first person voice which is sounds like is unique and more appealing to kids than some books in this genre.

And your third paragraph would be okay if shorter.

I think you do submit the entire PB manuscript most of the time though I've read a few agent/publisher requirements that you query it.

Good luck.

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Definitely a tough one. I know very little about the PB market or how to query a PB. I'd say though to eliminate the rhetorical questions at the beginning. And I'd wait to query until the book is ready. I'm not sure that the paragraph comparing it to other books in the market is that bad, though. It's interesting for me (not knowing anything about the market) to see how it compares. The question is, of course, if the agent will know. If you're querying an agent who has dealt with these sorts of books before, then I think your best bet is just to have the line about the first person account and let the agents make the connections themselves.

Sounds like an intriguing idea, though.

Sarah said...

I agree with Mike--I'd check out Mary Kole's incredibly useful blog if you haven't already. She reps pbs and offers lots of guidance. I do believe she once said you should include the PB for this type of query. Apart from that, I don't really feel able to crit this query, except to say that Matt's advice seems sound.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Yeah, I'd delete that list of other books as well.

Suzie F. said...

I don't have anything to add except a thank you to Matt and Ishta. I'm not a PB writer but I learned so much about the submission process through this query and the comments.

Thanks again!

Lydia Kang said...

Okay, I think I learned way more reading this post and the comments and have very little to contribute except...thanks to Jenny and Matt for doing this!

LTM said...

Hi, Jenny!

First, as a novelist, I have to go w/Matt and say, I'm not the greatest PB querier. :D

But! As a querier, I'd go w/Elana's advice down the line. Hook, consequence, full MS after letter. No questions.

As a post-script, however, I will say this. I teach VBS at my little Baptist church AND I've bought Christian PBs for my daughters. I think this is a fantastic approach, and I think that 'graph where you go into how your book is distinctive is EXCELLENT. Perhaps Matt's right and you could soften the tone slightly, but I wouldn't lose it. And I do hope you're planning to target your query to the agents who are going to appreciate what you're saying there. First-person narratives for kids? I like it.

I'm hoping all the best for you b/c I think you've got a great idea here! :o) <3