Friday, May 10, 2013

Hannah Kincade's Current Query Critiqued

Okay. Sorry I'm late this morning, I had to drop my daughter off for her AP Lit exam this morning. I'm a little nervous, but I'm sure she'll do fine.

Anyway, here we have Hannah's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:


Being a fellow fan of anything horror, I think you’ll really enjoy my supernatural, YA horror.

I don't really critique the personalization part of query letters, because they're usually changed for each specific submission, but I do think you need one more word at the end here. Maybe "supernatural, YA horror manuscript?" Do you see why I say that? I hope it makes sense.

When seventeen-year-old Zachariah Malone faces an obstacle he can’t take out with his fists, he must find out if he’s battling an evil entity or if he belongs in a straight-jacket.

Hmm. At first glance, this isn't bad. We've got character, we've got what seems to be an inciting incident, and we've got maybe even a sadistic choice. But ... this is vague. An obstacle he can't take out with his fist is awesome for characterizing your protagonist, but it's not so great for describing your conflict. I completely understand that you're probably going to get to it in the next paragraph, but you have to be very careful, because lack of specificity is the bane of all good query letters.

After years of being bullied, Zach finally learns how to defend himself. How? Like he meets a mentor who teaches him to box? Or he studies Muay Thai? Be specific. When Zach is caught fighting on school grounds (again), he makes a deal with the school counselor: stop his confrontations and attend an advanced art class instead of risking suspension. Something about this wording feels off. Maybe it's the "risking." Seems to me he would definitely get suspended for fighting, so maybe it should be "attend an advanced art class instead of serving suspension." The problem is, he doesn’t do art. But he’ll try anything that puts him in close proximity to Jennifer Drake and, most importantly, distract him from the voice in his head. This is pretty good. It's more characterization, the potential for romance, and a rising of the stakes, since we're beginning to understand a little more about the main conflict. However, again I think you can be more specific. What does the voice in Zach's head say?

Because the voice in his head has a name: Alice. She feeds his isolating thoughts with others’ secrets, as if he needed one more thing to make him an outsider. Okay. See? This is good. This is really good. The only problem is that it kind of makes everything that comes before it wasted words. I would consider working this detail into your opening hook. I'll try to share an example below. And not even Zach’s growing relationship with Jen is enough to distract him from the idea that he’s saying goodbye to his sanity. So the voice is something new to him? I think you can clear a lot of this up with a new opening hook. When he learns there might be a connection between Alice and a series of disappearances, he starts to wonder if maybe Alice is more than just his mind steering him towards a padded cell.

When Zach wakes with blood on his hands, he races to discover the truth. What does this mean? He races where? If you don't mean literally, then consider being more specific about what Zach does to investigate the missing people. Soon the police begin to suspect him in the disappearances, and Zach must decide if he’ll fight to prove his innocence, or run from a crime Alice is beginning to convince him he committed. This last sentence is pretty effing boss though. Well done.

TO FACE BENEATH is a dark, psychological YA Horror complete at 60,000 words. It would appeal to fans of Christopher Pike and The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. I don't like these simple, direct comparisons. I get why they're used, but I think people should try to be a little more subtle in their wording. Something like "I believe it would appeal to fans of the psychological questions posed in The Marbury Lens, by Andrew Smith, and (whatever is unique about) Monster, by Christopher Pike" (mention a specific book, if you can).

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Hannah Kincade

So, in summary: this query isn't bad. You've got all the elements there, you just need to re-arrange them, and bring as many specifics into the letter as you can.

Here is an example of how your opening hook could be re-written:

"Seventeen-year-old Zachariah Malone has an easy answer for most of his problems: his fists. But, when the evil entity who calls herself Alice starts feeding him other people's secrets by forcing her voice into his head, Zach must investigate a series of disappearances so that he can determine whether he’s truly battling a demonic spirit or if he simply belongs in a straight-jacket."

I know, it's way long, and I'm sure you can do better, but hopefully you see my point about how specificity can really pack more punch when it comes to your opening hook. 

Otherwise, I think the ending of this query, in particular, is quite good. You'd have to change some things in the middle, if you went with my hook, since the specifics of the voice would already be revealed, but really, that's fine. You don't want to keep secrets in a query, except for maybe withholding the very end of the book.

That's it.

What do you all think? Disagree with me on anything?


Sarah Ahiers said...

I love this query a lot. I do think adding some more specifics, especially about how he learned to defend himself, would zazz it up some.
Though i'd be careful because right now the query is set up so you can't tell if Zach is crazy or if there really is an evil entity and I think the MS is set up that way too, so i'd hesitate to come out in the query and say which one is true because that gives away the punch, so to speak, and doesn't actually represent the novel, you know?
I don't have much to add about the opening hook. I'm not great at them, so usually I leave them off my queries.

Woo! Great job Hannah!

Matthew MacNish said...

@ Sarah - that's a totally fair point. If the question is left open for the majority of the novel, you definitely don't want to mis-represent it in the query. But ... focus on what is real, and be specific about that. He definitely hears the voice, right? Whether the voice is a spirit or if he's hearing it because he's losing it can be left open.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Once she mentions Alice, it really comes alive.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I also wanted to add that your daughter is going to PWN that AP Lit test today, Matt. True story

farawayeyes said...

I am all about the 'HOOK'. I did feel that the original query took you around the block before you got to the heart of the matter. Other than the potential romance, I felt left hanging in mid air about that art class. So,I totally agree with your suggestion with respect to the opening paragraph.

Other than that. This is an interesting premise and the query gives just enough clues for me to me intrigued.

mshatch said...

I think Matt makes a great suggestion about how to change the opening. Actually, I think all his suggestions are pretty great :)

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

I would mention Alice sooner. Up until you do, Hannah, the story sounds like every other YA plot I've ever set eyes on. What makes your manuscript different is Alice. Get it higher in your lead!

Hannah said...

Thanks, Matt and everyone. I don't disagree with anything said so far.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with you, Matt. Without the revision, I was left wondering what the first paragraph had to do with the second until I read the part about Alice being in his head. This is much clearer.

And sounds like a great story, Hannah. Good luck.

Unknown said...

I feel like this is really good. When I read the query I did really get hooked when I found out about Alice. I'd agree with the suggestion of trying to introduce Alice in the hook because for me seeing the name and description of the evil entity gives it more power and makes this query, which I already thought was good, grab me even more.

Sheena-kay Graham said...

I have to agree Matt that you revising her query to being more specific packs a stronger punch. I think it's great that Hannah allowed her query to be critiqued by you and believe this will only help her on her journey.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Matt made a good point about specifics. The query letters that stand out seem to be the ones with very specific details about the character and plot. But just enough detail to tease us into wanting to read more.

I LOVE the idea of the voice in Zach's head being a girl... Very cool premise and you should definitely work that in sooner.

Nate Wilson said...

Like those before me, I feel the paragraph introducing Alice is where things really take off. I'd probably take the idea and basic structure of Matt's rewrite and put it into your own voice.

I might also suggest removing Jen from your query altogether. It's clear there's a subplot with her as the love interest, but she's just mentioned twice in passing so we know nothing else about her, and she's not tied back into the last paragraph. She's supposed to be a distraction in the book, but here in the query she's distracting from the main plot points. I'd either beef up her description enough to show why their relationship is important, or cut her out to focus on the main issue: evil braindweller or insane crazy person?

I love the concept, Hannah. Now you just need to tighten up your query and reel in an agent.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Yes -- good call, Matt! I was thinking that the second paragraph of the query letter could be ditched, and the third paragraph wasn't as interesting as the next one -- the one with Alice in it.

And if Alice is the hook, then start with her! Be specific and (I always say this) don't be afraid to give away an awesome secret. Just because you don't want the readers to know this secret too soon doesn't mean you don't want the agent to know. If there's anything about Alice that makes you think "If the agent just reads THIS far, he or she will be completely hooked!" -- state that awesome thing outright in the query!

As for opening with that line about being a fellow horror fan, my personal opinion is to cut it, too. Some people, and maybe some agents, think it's important to show you researched the agent and know what he/she likes. But I'm thinking most of them are very busy and want to get down to business in the first paragraph.

Hope this helps!

Shannon Lawrence said...

I'm afraid I don't have anything new to add. I agree with what has already been said. I think a bit more brevity, especially with that re-worded hook, would be a good idea. Changing the beginning to put Alice's information in there makes it easier to simplify the rest.


Shannon at The Warrior Muse

Elise Fallson said...

Interesting premise and I agree, Alice needs to be mentioned right off the bat like Matthew said. Good luck Hannah and thanks for sharing you query with us! (:

Tina said...

Never critiqued a query...but I for sure want to read this book!
Tina @ Life is Good

Jay Noel said...

The original query was pretty good, but you picked on some of the areas that need more clarification.

I wanted to learn how exactly he learned to defend himself. And that line about the voices in his head had so much impact, I wish it had been placed earlier to grab my attention.

Margo Berendsen said...

I loved this line too: "She feeds his isolating thoughts with others’ secrets, as if he needed one more thing to make him an outsider." Work that into the opening line/hook somehow, and you're almost there!

I don't read horror, but I wonder if this query reads to "light" for horror. Other than the mention of insanity and blood, I didn't get a "horror" feel??

dolorah said...

Great concept Hannah. Even mentioning Alice in the hook, I don't think its giving away too much about the voice as an entity. Alice could be evil or good, and finding the missing persons will answer that question.

Hi Matt :)