Friday, January 27, 2012

Barbara Watson's Current Query Critiqued

Here we are, it's Friday morning, thank goodness, and we've got Barbara's query letter again, this time with my feedback, which will be in red.

You guys all went and followed her yesterday, so let's just get to work.

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent,

Twelve-year-old Mitch Brooks is a rule-follower but he’s disgusted with his parents about moving. So maybe that’s why he peeks inside a strangely labeled box on moving day.

This hook has all the key elements we've come to expect from good queries, but I can't help feel like it's missing a little something. You've got good characterization for Mitch, and the inciting incident seems pretty clear, but I think perhaps what's missing is voice. I can't come up with a better term or phrase, and although "rule-follower" certainly makes sense, and provides a good bit of his character, I wonder whether Mitch would put it that way. How would a kid describe himself in this situation? I'm not sure, I might have to ask my daughter.

The second sentence is better. It's a clear progression and contradiction of the first, which I think works well. One thing I think you could add here is a more specific description. "Strangely labeled" is a bit vague. How would Mitch describe it? A box with a goofy drawing on it? A package with wonky lettering on the side? A carton that looked like someone spilled hieroglyphs on the label?

Deep inside the box, Mitch unearths his mom's journal from 1967, the year before he was born. So we're in 1979/80? I like this setting very much. He knows he shouldn’t read it (especially the way his mom feels about “privacy invasion”), but come on now, who wouldn’t? So perhaps Mitch isn't the rule-follower he thought he was? I like the contradiction in character, and clearly this is probably the first time he's really stepped out of line, but you might want to figure out a way to allude to that in the query. And as Mitch reads, he discovers secrets. His mom got kicked out of her house when she became a hippie war protester. Mitch’s parents have these cut two best friends he’s never even heard of but who were drafted into the Vietnam War. And his grandparents might not be dead after all.

Okay, in many ways I really like this paragraph. It sets up some interesting possible conflicts (although we don't know which will play out), and it sets a great tone for the kind of period related topics Mitch discovers in his mom's journal, but as someone mentioned yesterday, I'm concerned how all this fits into your story. In the next paragraph, we jump back into the present. Does that make this paragraph backstory? I'll expand on that after this next paragraph.

For Mitch, even though moving really, really stinks, at least it’s interesting. Motivated by a story he hears from his new neighbors, this is too vague Mitch enlists his best friend Brian and a librarian love librarians! he just met in his new town to assist him with a secret history project designed to find answers and people.

Okay, so here's the problem. I get the feeling that the previous paragraph is not really backstory, and that perhaps your novel kind of jumps back and forth between the two time periods (which you basically say below), but that's not clear enough in the part of your query that describes the plot. We need to have a better idea of what happens, and what is the main conflict Mitch has to overcome. Does he actually travel back to 1967? Or is the story told from some other POV during those parts? Do the conflicts from the past directly effect the conflict in the present? How? What is the secret history project, and why is it going to be difficult for Mitch to complete? What tough choice will he have to make to achieve his goals?

MOVING SECRETS, my middle grade historical fiction novels are always fiction novel, shifts back and forth in time between 1967 San Francisco and 1980 Cambria, California. It is complete at 52,000 words. Otherwise, good.

Although my My background lies in teaching literature, I am new to writing it. MOVING SECRETS is my first novel, and I am querying you because [personalize with reasons I chose this agent]. If you've never been published, that's fine, no need to explain. Every writer starts somewhere, but I wouldn't mention that you're new to writing.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Barbara Watson

In summary, my biggest problem with this query is the disconnect between the two halves of the plot. I'm not sure the novel works the way I think it does, but the query does not make it clear how the past is connected to the present, or what the main conflict really is. You don't want to give away too much, like the ending or anything, but we do need a better sense of what kind of adversity Mitch has to overcome.

The only other thing I would like to see more of is MG voice. Try re-writing the query from the first person POV of Mitch, describing things how he would describe them, and then switch it back into third person, see if that helps. Unless the novel is written in third person, with a very adult sounding narrator, you want the query to match the tone.

That's not to say this isn't a good starting point for a query letter. You've clearly got an interesting character, and the premise sounds like one that would definitely entertain. You just need to make it more clear how it all works together.

That's it.

What do you guys think, dear readers? Anything I missed? Anything you'd like to add? Anything you disagree with?


Karen Baldwin said...

You covered it all, Matt and I agree most that Mitch's "voice" needs to be stronger, especially since this is YA.

Steve MC said...

Except for the parts Matt pointed out, I really like the casual voice here, which gives a glimpse of how the book will have the same.

For a minor edit, you’ve already said 1967 and hippie war protester, so you don’t have to say “drafted into the Vietnam War,” but simply “drafted into the war” or simply “who were drafted.”

I love the part about librarians, but “a secret history project designed to find answers and people” is a little dry. Maybe something like “designed to find his mother’s past and people who don’t exist.” Or however he'd say it.

And about the two times it takes place in, I’m thinking that we might get his mother’s story told by her journal, but it’s not clear if it’s that or we see it unfold in regular fiction. I’m thinking the journal voice would be best, since it keeps us in the kid’s head and let’s us discover the answers along with him, but that should be clear.

Old Kitty said...

I like the inclusion of a librarian to help Mitch and friend with research!! Ten gazillion gold stars from me!


I think for me - the story seems loose? Does that make sense? What's the hook?

Does he have to race against time to discover the truth behind these secrets before they move out? Why is it important to discover the truth behind these secrets - the best being his grandparents might be still alive? Would it save his parents' marriage? Sorry just fishing there!

Good luck with your query Barbara! Take care

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

For me, the main issue was the vagueness of the entire query. Think you've addressed it well though.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Love your story Barbara. And your first paragraph, which for me is the hardest to get right. So good for you!

I agree with Matt that we need to see the plot more and how discovering the secrets will change his life, his families life or whatever the stakes are.

I know you can do it. And I have 40 pages of queries no lie. So I haven't nailed mine yet either.

Stina said...

Great comments, Matt. The story sounds intriguing.

You right about the voice. It lacks a MG voice. If the agent only requests queries (with no sample pages), she might be incline the think that's the same voice in the novel, which will mean she won't request the ms.

In this line: 'MOVING SECRETS, my middle grade historical fiction novels are always fiction novel, shifts back . . . ' I would only say that your middle grade historical novel shifts back . . .' Novels are fiction, so it's redundant to say fiction novel.

Slamdunk said...

Nicely done Barbara and Matthew.

It sounds like an interesting story, and nice catch Matthew with the MC's age and then the 1967 reference in discerning that the setting is around 1980. I completely whiffed on that when I just read the intro to the letter.

A Daft Scots Lass said...

I can't look. That red pen burns my eyes.

Tonja said...

I think the first sentence needs a comma before the 'but' - I also like the way you gave the setting without stating the year explicitly. Good luck!

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

I thought this sounded really interesting, but I was a bit confused at the beginning. He's so upset that he breaks the rules and opens a box? Why was he not supposed to open it? It seems the real rule-breaking is reading the journal. Could you get to that sooner and just say that he found it in an oddly labeled box?

Bryan Russell said...

I love the elements and the premise, and it's well written, but what's missing is the essential element: conflict.

I think every query has to be built around conflict, as this is what drives the story. What does the main character want/need, and (even more importantly) what is preventing him from getting it?

This query sort of has the first (finding out about his family's past), though why he needs or wants this information would help make it seem more important (that is, what is the motivation for his actions?). What is missing, however, is the obstacles he faces. A need, plus obstacles, equals conflict. This is what will drive the plot, and this is what I don't get a feeling for in this query.

So, the key things for me:
1) What is his motivation?
2) What obstacles does he face? (for example, there's no sign of antagonist in the query)
3) What conflict arises from these obstacles?
4) What choice/action is necessary to resolve this conflict?

Again, I love the elements (particularly the Vietnam element, which I find fascinating, but which is also socially significant in its comparisons with Iraq/Afghanistan), I just feel like I need to see how they fit together - I want to feel the movement of the story. And agents, I think, want to see that the story is functional, that it works as a story. And that means conflict and choices, usually.

I'd love to see the eventual revision of this.

Brinda said...

When I read it yesterday, I was hooked into the premise and like most of what I saw. I did feel that last paragraph of writing credits (or lack of) was the weakest part.

Sarah said...

Really excellent critique, Matt. Queries that intrigue present a clear conflict and lay out the choices the MC must make(and the possible serious consequences). This query hints at something--grandparents who might not really be dead--but thats as far as it goes. Agents need more than a hint. They need something that's going to make them sit up and shout, "I must read this RIGHT NOW!" This premise sounds like it could be truly fascinating, but it's not coming out in the query. Yet. Best of luck with this, Barbara!

farawayeyes said...

Hi Barbara. I read the query yesterday, but flaked on a comment.

I have to agree with other comments here. This is a great premise with an interesting character. It seems to lack voice and conflict. I'm sure the novel has both. They need to be fit into the query. I would be interest to see (learn) how you do that.

DL Hammons said...

I loved the premise, but like Matt I became confused in the 3rd paragraph about how things were going to play out. Everything else could be easily fixed, but I suspect you need to be spending the majority of your time there.

Good luck! :)

Barbara Watson said...

I'm lurking (and jotting notes--have several pages already). Thank you, Matthew and those that have commented, I need this. I have answers about plot and how the time shift works and other questions, but I don't think this is the place to answer those, so I'm just gleaning ideas. Thanks again. This is TERRIFIC!

Michael G-G said...

Barbara's a great writer and a definite blogging friend. I think this story may be "quieter" than some in the marketplace, but that's okay. Uncovering secrets is huge for adolescents (okay, for everyone!) and I think that's what this novel is about. I also think that with just a sprinkle of voice, it will come into its own.

I totally didn't catch "fiction novel" in my reading of the query yesterday--and I know agents make a big fuss over that phrase and what a no-no it is. I also believe a writer should not talk about being "new to writing." You want an agent to think you are a professional, and someone who has been honing his/her skills for a while. Hey, if they take you on, they usually ask what else you have in the pipeline.

Thanks for sharing this, Barbara. I think you've got a great story here, and Matt's critique will only make the query that much stronger. Best of luck!

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I found I went back two or three times to verify the stated age of the character. Some of the language made him feel older than he is. I LOVE the idea - reminds me a bit of I Am the Cheese.

Kittie Howard said...

Nicely done, Matt. Yes, Mitch's voice needs to be brought out (was a bit confused at first where this was going.) And, hmm, the years have passed - many don't realize Vietnam was the last war the draft was implemented, so think that should be mentioned.

BTW, it's really picky but sticks out to those who know: officers usually write Vietnam; enlisted usually write Viet Nam. The use of Nam often implies swagger, perhaps problems. Again, this is VERY generalized. (I got this from a NYT review.)

Bluestocking said...

This is only my second visit, but I must say how valuable these deep readings of queries is. I learn so much by seeing how others present their books and Matt's analysis of it.

JE said...

Again, excellent advice, Matt!

This query has some serious potentional if the it can be focused more on the storyline and exactly who Mitch is, what he is doing, and what he has to overcome. And I think it's WAY cool to have a book written in 1980. I LOVE the 80's.

storyqueen said...

Spot on, again, Matthew. There are lots of intriguing things in this query...I think I just want more specifics.

But I would want to read pages of this..if I were an agent, which I am not, but still...


Nicole Zoltack said...

I definitely think you covered everything, Matt. And with MG, voice is so important, the query has to show it.

Eric W. Trant said...

I would pick ~the~ secret that Mitch wants to answer. For instance:

And as Mitch reads, he discovers his grandparents might not be dead after all.

You might pepper one more detail in, but the list was unsettling and confusing.

I had no issues with the tone or voice. If you spice it up, be careful not to over-voice it. Keep it professional, concise, and informative.

- Eric

Sarah Ahiers said...

For me, voice was definitely an issue. I just did not believe this sounded like a query for a MG novel.
My suggestion would be to write it in first person, from the MCs POV, then change that version to 3rd. It will give your query the same MG voice of your novel

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Agree with you about the voice. With a book aimed at kids, the voice really needs to be strong in the query.

Weaver said...

Interesting story and another great critique, Matt. You picked up on the period piece nature of the story before I did. It really set me back. I need to deal with the fact that books set in the late 60s and early 70s are now period pieces. *sigh*

Johanna Garth said...

Based on a quick read, I was expecting the mystery to involve the mom's friends. Which is probably covered by your comments about disconnect, Matt.

But overall, I think this is a great effort. Especially when pitches are so painful to write.

Anonymous said...

The "strangely labeled" box trips me up. I'm wondering if it's possible that all the boxes are precisely labeled...but there's one box that isn't marked at all, and that's what makes it stand out.

Tara Tyler said...

great advice! suggestion for hook

Twelve-year-old Mitch Brooks is (usually a good kid), but disgusted with his parents about moving, he snoops inside a strangely labeled box on moving day.

and a little more organization will make the query flow, like you basically said

you must have a wait list of queries to crit!

Matthew MacNish said...

You might be surprised, Tara, but I'm up to date. Currently: no one waiting.

Colene Murphy said...

very thorough and spot on. Doesn't seem to need too much though!

Unknown said...

I love the idea of this story. I agree with adding more of Mitch's "voice" to the letter.
Your first paragraph does a good job of hooking me into the story and I think it would shine even more with some Mitch language in it. How do you describe the box in the book?
I love the idea that he uncovers so many secrets in this journal.

I found the third paragraph a little confusing because in the opening it felt like moving is Mitch's problem but now moving becomes interesting instead. Interesting = good. I feel like I'm super interested in the journal and all these people Mitch has to learn about that I've forgotten about the moving and it seems like Mitch has too.

Does researching all these people make him too busy to be upset about moving or do the new connections he makes help him with his feeling about moving? Does he find some common ground with mom and dad?

Sounds like such a great story. Excited to hear more about it.

Lydia Kang said...

I love the inclusion of the librarian too! Agree that there needs to be a bit more voice, though.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! I might only suggest a smoother transition in the, 'For Mitch...' paragraph. Sounds like a great story you've got here! :)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Matt has some great advice here, and I concur with it.

My overall concerns were that I didn't quite catch Mitch's motivation for digging into the past. What's in it for him? What are his stakes?

Secondly, when the query states that the novel shifts back and forth in time, I wasn't certain if the writer meant shift in a time traveling sense -- or shift in a more conventional narrative sense. I'm guessing the latter, since the novel is designated as historical. But if that's the case, perhaps "shift" isn't the right word.

Good luck, Barbara, with your interesting story!

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Barbara, I'm coming in at the end of the day, so I don't have much to add, except to thank you for sharing your process. I'd buy this book--I like the plot. And I love Cambria. I'm hooked!

Barbara Watson said...

Again, I appreciate your time, Matthew and those who have commented. I already wrote a new query that's stronger, more polished, doesn't use fiction novel (how did I not see that one?), and fuses Mitch's voice with the story's conflict. It's not there yet, but it's closer--thanks to all of you.

alexia said...

I really like the premise of this book, Barbara. And great crit as usual, Matt!

I agree that I want to hear more detail about what's at stake and how the past ties in with what's at stake in the present. There needs to be some reason he HAS to figure this out. The grandparents possibly being alive is good. Or maybe there's a tie-in with the parents' friends.

I also agree with Matt's comments about the first para. I think it needs a pinch more voice. Maybe something like:

Maybe it was disgust with his parents for moving again, or the fact that he had always been such a rule-follower. Or maybe it was just simple curiosity that made Mitch open up the strangely-labeled box on moving day.

Although yes, I would love to know what is strange about the box. Good luck with this!

Raquel Byrnes said...

I always learn so much when I stop by here. Great points, Matt. :)

Jade Hart said...

Hey. I've just found your blog and I'm a new follower. I wished I'd found you sooner. I queried a previous MS that was dreadful with a query letter that was rambling and completely naff. I also sent it to my top dream agents - needless to say, I shot myself in the foot. I have since written a new MS and have a new query letter that I would LOVE your opinion on. How can I submit to you or get on your waiting list for some advise?
Thanks so much for your help to the little people striving to be published, you're awesome :)