Wednesday, September 17, 2014

DL Hammons' Current Query Critiqued

Today we have DL's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Agent Name
Agency Name

Agent personal paragraph.

The word on a sixteen-year-old Knox Gidden is that he's nothing but military-brat, emphasis on brat. THIS is great. Query writers out there: READ THIS opening line. THIS is how you introduce a character in a query and make us care from the get go. If I had to nitpick this line, I would say that using "The word on," weakens it a tiny bit, but it also gives it nuance, because it means a lot of people see Knox that way, but it's not really true. Until recently he was fine with that. I'm not sure you need this. On the one hand, it's good, because it speaks of a call to action, but on the other, in the next sentence, you move on to something else. He's lost count of how many times his family has relocated (not really) and it's left him withdrawn, bitter, a loner with a tendency to act out by playing nasty tricks on moving day. I almost want to see "moving day" capitalized. Like it's this big thing, that happens so often, it's become a proper noun for Knox. "Moving Day." But after his mother died of cancer and a tragic prank-gone-wrong that put his brother in a wheelchair, a guilt-ridden Knox wants to clean up his act. The family's transfer to Ox-Bow, deemed their "final move", is supposed to be a fresh-start for everyone. Unbeknownst to them, something else has moved in with them.

Okay. So this is really good. It's very specific, it has a strong sense of character, who we can sympathize with not only because of his suffering, but because of how he chooses to react to it. That said, it's a little long, and we haven't gotten to an inciting incident just yet. I'm guessing you're about to, and if so that's probably fine, but I just wanted to point it out because that kind of one-two punch of CHARACTER-HOOK(Inciting Incident) is usually what bookends the opening paragraph in a good query.

After all the empty cartons have been dragged to the curb, one more box mysteriously appears. It's a dark, ominous box with curious etchings covering its surface. Don't get me wrong, it's a great line, but this is a query, not pages. You really don't need to describe anything this way. The box is already mysterious just for showing up. Unless the etchings are somehow completely integral to the plot, you don't need to bring them up. Of course all fingers point to Knox, which only gets worse when the box keeps showing up in his room. It's not long before Knox realizes he's on a collision course with something unnatural, an ancient evil that has chosen his step-mother at its next vessel to toy with. His only allies in this battle are Lewis, a kleptomaniac neighbor, Brodie, the beautiful girl who watches over Lewis, and Wilfred, a white-haired stranger who shows up claiming to know everything about the box and its purpose.

Hmm. This is a lot of named characters for a query, but I kind of think you make it work. It's four characters in all, which is a lot, but you give them each at least one uniquely identifying characteristic, and the way you bundle everyone together at the end except for Knox makes it work. Others may disagree.

Time is short for Knox and his friends. Can they find a way to save his step-mom before the malevolent force draws closer to ending the game and obtaining the two things it desires the most -- mortal fear, and fresh souls? Unfortunately, history says otherwise.

This, unfortunately, is vague. In fact, the second paragraph really doesn't give us a clear sense of the conflict either, which is where that usually takes place. I'll write more about this in my summary.

MOVING FEAR (an 80,000 word YA Horror) is a standalone with series potential which combines the type of haunting plot of Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood Anna Dressed in Blood with the creepy atmosphere of Gretchen McNeil's Possess Possess. In my day job, I write procedure manuals, but when the sun goes down, I maintain a popular blog that hosts a yearly writing contest judged by industry professionals. Link to it. Write Club is a big deal, and a lot of people know about it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

DL Hammons

Okay, so in summary, I think this query is in great shape. To be perfectly honest, if I was an agent looking for this kind of story, I would probably skip from the end of the first paragraph, down to the housekeeping, and then jump right into the pages.

I think you'll get a lot of requests if you send this query out as is. That said, there is still room for improvement (there almost always is). The main thing missing here is a better and more specific sense of exactly what the conflict is. Now, we have a vague sense of a spirit that lives in a box (or something) who may want to steal Knox's stepmother's soul (probably).

I get that you want to keep things a bit mysterious, and you certainly don't want to give away an ending in a query letter, but it might help to know a bit more about exactly what the malevolent force wants, how it accomplishes its goals, and what Knox and team can do to stop it.

One thing that comes to mind (and this may not work in a query unless it works in the story) is that what if Knox struggles about whether or not he wants to save his step mom? That would leave him a pretty nice sadistic choice, which is a great way to end a query and entice readers to want pages.

That's it!

What do you all think? Anything you would add?


mshatch said...

Yup, I think Matt pretty much nailed it. The only thing I'd add is a small nit-picky thing:

Instead of : The word on a sixteen-year-old Knox Gidden is that he's nothing but military-brat, emphasis on brat.

The word on sixteen-year-old Knox Gidden is that he's nothing but military-brat, emphasis on brat.

Great query DL, and excellent critique, Matt :)

Miranda Hardy said...

I'm not a query professional, especially having never written one, but I enjoyed the intrigue it offers. Matt has some great suggestions.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Great critique, Matt! And since I beta-read DL's manuscript, I know what the central conflict is and exactly what this malignant spirit wants to do to Knox's family, so I agree -- he ought to get it in there. No sense holding back the sinister truth from an agent!

I have a grammar issue with this sentence: But after his mother died of cancer and a tragic prank-gone-wrong that put his brother in a wheelchair...

"his mother died of cancer" is a clause, so the second event should be phrased as a clause too: "a tragic prank-gone-wrong put his brother in a wheelchair." Remove the word "that."

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Agree with your suggestions. He cuts a couple minor things and it will be set. Also, describing those people is enough - I don't think he needs to name his allies.

Elise Fallson said...

Yeah DL!!! I'm just here to cheer on Don. I'm terrible at queries so I'll leave the suggestions on this to the adults. ;) Thanks Matt for continuing to be Mr. Query King and giving so many folks such great critiques. :)

Shaun Hutchinson said...

"The word on a sixteen-year-old Knox Gidden is that he's nothing but military-brat, emphasis on brat."

I feel like this is missing an "a" between "but" and "military-brat." Also, and I could be wrong (it's early and I haven't had all my coffee yet), I don't think you need the hyphen in "military brat" since there's no noun following them.

That said, I love this opening line. I actually think the "The word on" usage offers a great sense of voice. Others may disagree.

Technically, I think this query is pretty great. I think you've nailed all the right elements. My problem is more about the feel of how you're presenting the story. So it starts off with a drama about a kid whose mother dies and who feels responsible for his brother's accident (because I'm assuming he IS responsible). So by the end of the first paragraph, I'm thinking it's going to be a story about a kid dealing with grief and guilt. Then it veers into near-horror territory with the introduction of the box. So, for me, there's a disconnect between the grief/guilt in the first paragraph and the horror/supernatural elements in the second paragraph.

You might consider either omitting the part about his guilt over causing his brother's accident, or find some way to tie it to the supernatural section in the second paragraph. Is Knox trying to change his ways but the box keeps doing bad things that his family is attributing to Knox, therefore undermining his reputation rehabilitation? Is Knox afraid the box is going to kill his step mother, piling more grief on him? To me, the paragraphs read like two different stories, and I think if you can tie them together, you'll have a much stronger query.

Good luck!

Kim Van Sickler said...

Sounds like a great story, DL. I agree with Dianne Salerni's suggestion. Looking forward to following your well-deserved path to publication.

Heather M. Gardner said...

Excellent points, Mr. Matt! I agree that it may be a little long, but its so enticing!
DL, I wish you the best of luck!
I know I'm going to read it when it comes out!

Jay Noel said...

It's overall a great query! In fact, I want to read it now.

But for length's sake, I'm not sure you even need to go into detail about Knox's friends.

Great job!

Patchi said...

Matt's trimming suggestions will leave room for the specifics in the last paragraph that I agree are missing. Also, I don't think the names of the friends are needed:

His only allies in this battle are a kleptomaniac neighbor, the beautiful girl who watches over the boy, and a white-haired stranger who shows up claiming to know everything about the box and its purpose.

Good luck!

Tyrean Martinson said...

I think you nailed it! I'm a huge fan of "short and sweet" so I would even say that the first paragraph might work for the hook synopsis and jump right to the "and the book is so many words" paragraph, but I'm not a professional agent/editor person.

Sarah Ahiers said...


The others already mentioned the little typos i was going to comment on (getting rid of the THAT in the wheelchair sentence and adding an A before military brat)

I think matt's right in regards to the conflict. I wish i knew more what his internal conflict is. Like, yes i know he's going to struggle against some ancient evil, but was is he struggling with inside? This is similar to what Matty said regarding his step-mom, etc.

Is it like a cry-wolf situation? Where because he's always pulled pranks before, he's getting blamed for the sinister things that are happening now? I THINK that's what it is, but it's a little unclear just because the end of the query is a bit vague.

So knox has to struggle against the evil and, what? People's base assumptions of who he is? The reputation he's built up that he's realizing may not be the one he wants after all?

I think that's what this query is missing.

Otherwise, though, great job! Like Matty said, i think you'd get bites off it as is.

DL Hammons said...

This truly awesome feedback. Matt - You are 100% correct in that Knox does wonder if he should worry about saving his step-mom, or just saving the rest of his family. And it is a boy who cries wolf scenario where all the strange things happening to their family is blamed on Knox. So while he is struggling to earn back the trust of his family, he's having to deal with the consequences of his past actions as well as a demon who plans to kill them all.

I will be incorporating all of this feedback into my next revision - which will begin immediately!

Thanks again Matt!! :)

A. B. Keuser said...

The only thing I'd add is removing the "a" from the first sentence.

Great query and great crit!

Arlee Bird said...

No quibble from me. You are the Query Master, Matthew. Don will have good guidance from your advice.

Tossing It Out

DL Hammons said...

Just wanted to follow up with everyone. I sent off my revised query letter to my number #1 agent and received a full ms request two days later! Bazinga!!

Thank you everyone!!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Dude, it's October. You need to post some more wisdom.