Monday, December 14, 2020

Michael Guevara's Query - Critiqued

Here is Michael's query for THE CLOSEST THING TO A NORMAL LIFE, with my feedback, in red.

The letter:

Ethan-Matthew Cruz Canton Cruz Canton is not hyphenated. Is that because Cruz is his middle name? If so, I'm not sure that's necessary in the query unless it has signifgance. has lived a charmed life straddling two countries (Spain and Texas—because Texas thinks of itself as way more than a state), Haha great line. two cultures (Mexican-American and good ol’ White privileged boy privileged white boy), If he's spending so much time in Spain, why it is Mexican-American and not Spanish-American? and life with two of the coolest foreign correspondent parents known to parentdom, I like this. Kidlit has so few books with cool, present parents. but when everything—and we’re talking absolutely everything— Cut this. There's no need to be redudent, even for emphasis, in a query. changes in his life, he finds himself living in his dad’s childhood bedroom in the community his father so desperately wanted to leave behind. This is a little confusing. And vague. Vagueness is the worst enemy of a good query. Remember, you're not writing prose here, you're trying to get an agent to want to read your pages. Don't hold anything back. 

At least that’s what Ethan-Matthew thinks.

After both his parents are killed in a terrorist attack, Ouch. But also, vague. Where? What kind of attack? Was he there and survived, or he was elsewhere? Ethan-Matthew is thrown By whom? into a life he never wanted in a bubble-community so rooted in tradition he can’t possibly hope to fit in, which is fine with him because he wants nothing more than to keep his head down and make it to the end of senior year and just move on to the next chapter of life. This sounds like an excellent plot, but again, it's a bit vague for a query. If his parents died, someone decided to send him ... somewhere. If it's his next of kin who are his legal guardians then say that. If they send him to some stuff prep boarding school in Texas, then say that. 

But that’s not what he gets.

When the old guard at his new school keeps him from the only normal he knows, writing as a student journalist, Ethan-Matthew starts an alternative online student newspaper to tell the stories of students who rarely get their stories told. Okay, this is cool.

Set against the roiling tensions of the 2016 election that gave new bravado to bigotry and fomented racial divisions, Ethan-Matthew, along with confronting issues of bi-culturalism, colorism, racial identity, and how we know whom to love and whom to let go of, is forced to choose how much of a stand to take when he knows exactly what a free press can cost. This whole paragraph is pretty excellent. It sets up an great choice he will have to make about how to overcome this conflict.

THE CLOSEST THING TO A NORMAL LIFE (83,700 words complete) Just round up to 84,000 is a coming-of-age YA novel that will appeal to readers drawn to the work of Jeff Zentner, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Adi Alsaid, and Bill Konigsberg, DANG! You have excellent taste. whose novels have become the standard in my high school English classroom where young adult novels are our curriculum. Also, Andrew Smith thought you might be a good fit for my work. This last line you can include for the agents that Andrew suggested to you, but you can obviously cut it when querying other agents.

Thank you for your time.

So, Michael, this is a pretty strong query, first of all. It makes pretty clear what the setting is going to be, what the conflict will be, and what difficult choice Ethen-Mathew will have to make as he decides what to do to achieve his goals. The ending, in particular, is pretty strong.

When I help people with queries, I stress three things: CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and CHOICE, in that order. Nothing (in queries, but also in stories in general) is more important than CHARACTER. Readers need to have someone to identify with, and to feel sympathy for. There is quite literally nothing more important in creative writing than coming up with compelling characters. Ethan-Matthew has an interesting past, and I love that he's interested in journalism and the truth, but we don't really get a good feeling for who he IS, as a CHARACTER, if that makes sense. Is he nerdy? Is he popular? Is he athletic? You certainly don't need to include all those details in a query letter, but some sense of his personality would go a long way in hooking agents up front.

As for CONFLICT, you have a much better sense of that here. Some of the details of the backstory are a little vague, but that's probably okay if you can clarify the actual plot a bit more. We need a little more detail about this bubble community, and what that means. It sounds to me like maybe after his parents died, he was sent to a prep school, maybe even a boarding school, where his bi-cultural background makes him stand out and not fit in, and if that's correct, just make that clear. If it's something else, slightly different, that's fine, but just make it clear. One of the most important things in queries is specificity. It's a very difficult thing to do, to distill an 84,000 manuscript into a 250 word query letter, but keep in mind that a query is not creative writing, I mean, it is, but it also isn't. There is no need to keep anything secret, or vague, just make it clear exactly what happens, and the tone of the story, and you'll be good to go.

On CHOICE, I think you pretty much nail that here, so well done.

One question: you name Benjamin Alire 
Sáenz and Bill Koningsberg in your comparative titles. Is this queer fiction? If so, I would recommend you make that explicit.

Other than that, I think you're off to a great start here! Please let me know if you have any questions.

That's it!

Please thank Michael for sharing with us, and let us know what you think in the comments.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Matthew! Good to hear from you. Been a while.

mshatch said...

I always like reading these :)