Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Elaine Vickers' Current Query Critiqued

Welcome back for hump day. This is going to be a tough one, so let's just crack right on. My feedback will be in red.

The query:


Eleven-year-old Isaac Sanchez has never belonged anywhere or mattered to anyone. But he’s only a little bitter—like dark chocolate, not like Brussels sprouts. THIS is how you open a query. Not only does it tell us loads about our character (and why we should care about his story), but it does so in very few words, and is full of voice. As most of you know, I do suggest avoiding em-dashes in queries, because of what email clients can do to the formatting, but this hook is so good I don't think it matters. Mostly he’s just lonely and lost. When the mom who abandoned him as a baby comes back and begs for another chance, Isaac struggles to adapt to a whole new life with a whole new family. The rest of this opening is good, I mean the content is certainly full of stakes and conflict, but I feel like it's missing the execution of the previous two sentences. Surely Isaac's mother isn't begging him? Does he not have some new guardians of some kind? It may not be that important to the plot, but it gave me pause, and left me wondering exactly what the conflict is here, and who all is involved.

Then Isaac receives an old copy of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica and discovers that he has more in common with the greatest scientist in history than just first names: a father who died before he was born (check), a mother who left him with his grandparents and started another family (check), and a crummy history of being the smallest, most picked-on kid in the neighborhood (check and check). I don't know if you can follow up an opening hook any better than this. It's fun, it's full of voice and cheek, and it introduces so much important info you can basically ignore my note above about Isaac's guardians. All of the things that made him feel insignificant now convince Isaac that he is destined to become super rich, rock-star famous, and one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Why? I like the concept, but why does he come to that conclusion? If it's because he seems himself as being like Newton, I think you can say that. If it's something else, well ...

Isaac decides to follow in Newton’s footsteps. He gets pet mice, wears red every day, shuns his new family, tries to spook the neighbors by flying glowing kites after dark, and uses Newton's favorite fruit (apples, of course) for a projectile experiment that goes horribly wrong. He even solves the secret code his dad wrote in the margins of Principia. But his most surprising discovery of all is that he may be able to forgive his mom and care about his sisters, and they might care about him too. When Isaac's experiments cause a life-threatening accident, he must decide whether his "destiny" is worth the price. Does he really want to turn out like Newton anyway? This is still very good, but this ending is the weakest part of your query. It's not bad at all, but it lacks the strength of your first two paragraphs. There are several ways you could do this differently, and I'm not sure which is best. For one thing, I would suggest not ending with a question. For another, I would suggest you could be more specific about what his experiment is, and how exactly it threatens someone's life. If this is the absolute climax of your novel, that doesn't belong in a query, but if it isn't, you don't want to be vague at all.

DISCOVERING ISAAC (42,000 words) I'm not sure how I feel about this word count in parentheses bit. It's not a huge deal, but you could easily word it to remove them. is a contemporary middle grade novel this should all be capitalized, and technically, it's not a novel until it's published. Call it a manuscript in your query, or just leave the word novel out. that contains sneaky bits of physics, history, and biology. I heart this part so hard. I am querying you with this project because [agent personalization here].

My previous publications include a story in the children’s magazine The Friend published works should be italicized (February 2011) and a collaboration with [author's name and bestselling novel title] (The Moms’ Club Diaries, Spring Creek Book Company, 2008 again, italicize) as well as several scientific papers in some of the nation’s top chemistry journals. (These are every bit as riveting as you’d imagine.) I love this too, but the period should go outside the parenthesis, and the parenthetical aside should not be separated from the sentence it modifies. I currently teach chemistry at Southern Utah University and am a member of SCBWI.

Thank you for your time and your consideration.


Elaine Vickers

Well. This query is about as close to perfect as you can get. I don't know who told you you needed help with this, but they were trippin (just kidding, CPs).

Your opening two paragraphs - I'm not sure I would change a thing. I know I complained about the final sentence of your opening hook during the post, but you explain it so well in the next paragraph, I think it works. Maybe just the final line of your second paragraph. See if you can re-word it for just a bit more clarity.

Your final summary paragraph is also still really good. The problems in it wouldn't have stood out at all if the rest of your query wasn't so amazing. The only problem I have is the vagueness of your final summary of the conflict. Isaac experiments with something, we don't know what it is (unless it's the same experiment as the apples, which isn't clear), but we have a vague sense that it somehow threatens someone's life. Clarify. Also, instead of closing with a question, word it like this: "Isaac must decide whether he really wants to follow in his hero's footsteps, or if the lives of the people he's come to care about are more important." Or something like that. The problem with that choice is that it seems like an easy one. We need to know why giving up on his hero is so tough (we can infer from his backstory that it's important enough to him, but is it worth risking lives?).

That's it.

Man. This is the hardest one I've done in a while. It's so much easier when they need more work. What do you guys think? Is there still room for a little improvement?


.jessica. said...

Ohhhhh, I wish I was an agent so I could request the crap out of this. :) I agree that the beginning is stronger than the end, and of course Matt (as always) gives some great advice. But wow. Love it. Want to read it. Excellent work!!

mshatch said...

This WAS a good query and I totally loved the opening line. I can only agree with what Matt said in the few places he made suggestions:
1. Instead of Isaac's mom begging, just have her come back, that way, Issac has more incentive to withdraw from his new family rather than be a part of it.
2. show/tell why Isaac wants to be rich/famous/rockstar; it's a common enough desire, but what makes Isaac think this is going to make his life better?

let me know when this comes out so I can get it for my nephew!

farawayeyes said...

I must be learning something, because I too thought this query sounded really good from the get go.

JeffO said...

Love the story. Love the voice. I think this would probably be a really fun story to read. My quibbles are few. Just two places where I might suggest connecting sentences/ideas together a little more strongly.

-Newton's Principia. When I got to the line about Isaac's father's secret code, I said, "huh?" Maybe state in the previous paragraph that the book once belonged to his dead father.

-The experiment. I assume the 'projectile experiment gone horribly wrong' (love that, btw) is the same one that caused a 'life-threatening accident'-you might want to connect them more strongly in that paragraph, because it starts to feel a little jumpy there.

Great stuff!

Jess said...

I love this one! The only thing that gave me pause was that you said in your opening that Isaac "never belonged anywhere or mattered to anyone," and then you tell us that he was left with his grandparents.

Are we to assume that his grandparents are really crappy caregivers who don't love him at all or give him ANY sense of belonging? I realize that his mom left him, but to me, children being raised by their grandparents isn't unheard of, and usually the grandparents love the heck out of the kid. Just something that made me wonder :)

Awesome job~ I expect to see this on the shelves!

Tasha Seegmiller said...

Just lots of love. Great job Elaine.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I just wanted to chime in and say that I think this sounds like a wonderful book. It has a similar vibe to The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, which was a fantastic book.

Your query is really strong, like Matthew said. It's got great voice without being gimmicky. My only advice would be to drop that question at the end or to make it rhetorical sounding like, "Who really wants to be like Newton anyway?" That gives it a cheeky sort of edge and avoids sounding like you're actually asking the agent the question.

Great query though. Hope to see some lucky agent snatch that up someday soon!

Elaine said...

Thank you so much, everybody! I'm so thrilled that you like it! I will absolutely incorporate all of this feedback. (And I'll keep checking in for more.) Shaun, I really liked The Reinvention of Edison Thomas but had forgotten about it as a comparable title. Thanks for reminding me!

Nancy Thompson said...

I think this is a solid query. I agree that the last paragraph could be strengthened though. I disagree about the period outside of the parentheses. Since it is a complete sentence, the period belongs inside the parentheses & it's fine as is, a separate complete sentence starting with a capped first word. I also disagree about capping the genre. Only the title of the manuscript should be capped. I think a query this good is just plain difficult to critique. It speaks volumes to the author's talent as a writer which will certainly be noticed by any agent.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

It is a great query so I agree with Matt. He highlights the parenthesis use to bracket in word count, and I just wanted to say that this is the problem with queries. It is going to piss some agents off and not bother others. It's completely subjective. And they are so frickin' nitpicky that you are going to need a little luck in finding the right ones who will be indifferent toward that (which I assume is probably most agents). I love the opening line. As usual, great commentary by Matt.

Steve MC said...

Great story - especially with the focus on Newton. He wasn't a very happy camper, but he'd be pleased to inspire a kid to discover his gifts in this way. And like the old Henry Reed books, I'm sure it'll make for interesting mischief.

Only line I didn't like was the brussel sprouts, but it seems that's just me, and the parenthesis at the end is totally fine as it is, since it's a separate sentence.

storyqueen said...

Love this.

I think it is okay for the mother to be begging. It give me a bit of insight into her character. Heck, I see parents begging their kids to do stuff all the time--"Honey, put that toy down. We're not buying it today. Sweetie, mommy said to put it down. Come on, darling, if you put the toy down, mommy will buy you some candy. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Anyway, you get the idea.

I would expect that a lot of folks would ask to see pages of this. If I were an agent, I would!


Matthew MacNish said...

Perhaps I should clarify?

I didn't mean to say that the use of the period within the parentheses was grammatically incorrect - it's not. I should have said I think it would flow better written in such a way that the parenthetical aside (which is funny, and which I like) is a part of the sentence, rather than its own entity, which really gave me pause while reading.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

This one definitely has character! A query should never read like a thesis.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yeah i mean, i don't know that you need to change anything if you don't want. Certainly feel free to tweak some of the things matt said, but i also think you could send it out as is and get some bites with it.
Good luck!

DL Hammons said...

I feel this is an awesome book, but I had a bigger problem with the end of the first paragraph then Matt did. I almost checked out with that last sentence....thinking just another run-of-the-mill family drama.

I pushed into the second paragraph and the story was redeemed in my eyes, but how many agents will do what I almost did and punch out too early.

Just a thought.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I love this query!

But I still have some tweaks to suggest. In the second and third sentences, you use the words "just" and "only." I know they aren't the same word, but it still sounds repetitive to me. I would delete one of them.

The second paragraph is wonderful. I can't complain about a thing. But in the third paragraph I would cut *something* about his quest to become another Newton and instead get in at least one more line about his new sisters -- or rather, the sisters he never knew he had. They are mentioned only once, at the very end, and it seems that trying to fit into an already complete family might play a big role in Isaac's story -- and also be part of the conflict. So, it would be best to get that in there.

The only other thing I have to say is that I wish I were an agent, so I could request the manuscript! Good luck!

Jemi Fraser said...

If I were an agent, I'd request it based on the dark choc/brussel sprouts line alone! :)

Stina said...

I'm with Jemi. I was sold at that part. Great feedback as always, Matt. Elaine, I hope you're querying the book soon.

Arlee Bird said...

This one was a pleasure to read--both query and comments. I think I'll keep this on file for when I put a query together so I can use it (and your suggestions)as a model.

Tossing It Out

jerichas said...

I'm with Arlee on wanting this as a model! I think the feedback on here is great. My one quibble: in your last paragraph, you've got "But his most surprising discovery of all is that he may be able to forgive his mom and care about his sisters, and they might care about him too. When Isaac's experiments cause a life-threatening accident, he must decide whether his "destiny" is worth the price." That feels VERY out of order to me - not least because the sentence preceding this mentions the accident. Going horrible accident! - happy family maybe hurray! - horrible accident! in the course of three sentences feels scrambled to me.

Also, it contradicts itself: what's the hook at the end here? Is it the possibility of Isaac finding love from his family, or is it the risks of following Newton? Those sound like different things to me - one is suspenseful and one is heartwarming, both are compelling, but they don't belong in the same three sentences.

Honestly, I'd drop the line about his mom and sisters. I assume that's part of the story of Isaac finding himself, and the suspense of him following his quest for identity feels much more interesting and unusual to me.

Great query and good luck! I'll read it :)

Sarah said...

I thought this was a very good query. I do agree with Matt that some specificity with regard to the final conflict/peril might be good, because you want the query to be consistently strong. The beginning is awesome ... so you don't want the ending to disappoint in comparison!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the great critique Matt. I'll keep this in mind as a good sample of what to do when I start working on my query again.