If you’d like to nominate your own page or query for a public critique, kindly post them here in the discussion forums:
Also, if you’d like to test your editing chops, keep your eye on this area or this area! I’ll post the pages and queries a few days before a critique so you can see how your redline compares to mine.
And, of course, if you need help more urgently or privately, I’m available for edits and consultations!
Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I’ll present the query without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.
Random numbers were generated, and thanks to Dan Thompson, whose query is below.
14-year-old Soek is bland. She dreams of becoming talented at, well anything – until light starts shooting from her eyes and hands. Having that sort of gift is rare and increasingly criminal. Now, she’s getting attention but not exactly the type she craved.
Soek takes it upon herself to guide her fate by surrendering to the military, to embrace powers other seek to coerce from her, and to pay the price fame carries in a city divided against the gifted. As the cost of her choices escalate, Soek must make one more. Will she play by the unscrupulous, high-society rules to protect her loved ones and new found prestige, or fight against the corrupt woman ruling over the city and put everyone she loves in danger?
LUMINOUS tells the story of a daughter yearning for a spot at the top and a family who will do anything to stop the world from dragging her to the bottom. This YA Fantasy novel, complete at 121,000 words, has an original magic system and potential as a series. Comps fit a younger Fitz and the Fool vibe with a splash of Six of Crows cheekiness and magic while in a Sanderson style of clean.
I graduated from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in 2010 and have toiled in the pits as a middle/high school English teacher ever since. Educator by day and family man by night, I’m currently drafting my next novel, an untitled MG Contemporary. My short-term goal is to find an agent that will champion my books and whip me into even better writing shape, and my long-term goal is to transition into writing as my full-time career and to make my agent tons of money.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
It’s totally fine to start off with a character who has room to grow. You always want to construct a novel around someone who changes and evolves over the course of the novel, and this may mean showing some flaws in the beginning (even if they are relatable on the whole).
But a character can never be bland. Bland is flat. Bland is boring. Do people pick up a novel to read about someone who’s bland?
And bland isn’t even a real thing! I’ve never met a single person in my entire life who is actually bland once you peel back a few layers.
Even if you did want to start with a character who’s bland, it’s so much better to show us very specifically how they’re bland rather than just telling us they’re bland.
Which one is the more engaging opening?
- 14-year-old Soek is bland.
- 14-year-old Soek fades into the background so much her teacher has stopped calling her name during roll call.
Aside from that opening, as with so many queries I worry there isn’t enough specificity to help me wrap my head around the plot. This sounds like an interesting premise, but I just am not sure it feels wholly unique because so many key details are brushed over.
What family? What evil lady? What dangers does Soek face? Who wants her magic and why? What do her powers even do in the first place?
There are also several things in the summary/bio section that I have grave concerns about:
- 121,000 words is very, very long for a YA debut and I’d highly recommend paring that down.
- I wouldn’t mention the next novel you’re working on in a query letter, particularly if it’s a different genre. Genre hopping should only be done with extreme care in consultation with your agent. If an agent thinks it’s best to write another YA fantasy, they’re going to want you to be flexible. And they always assume you’re working on something else while you’re querying, no need to mention it until you’re farther along.
- You should never signal to an agent that you’re hoping for them to improve your writing. This signals to them: a) this book is in rough shape and b) you’re expecting more out of them than is customary. Agents may well help you improve your manuscript, but you should always start with a manuscript that is as perfect as you can make it on your own. And some agents don’t edit, so you’re constraining yourself right off the bat.
- This is almost a textbook example of what not to include in query letter: “my long-term goal is to transition into writing as my full-time career and to make my agent tons of money.” Of course every writer dreams of writing full time and, sure, it would be great to make a lot of money too. Putting it in a query letter signals a) you don’t understand the realities of the business, which is that very few authors make that kind of money and b) you think that the agent is in this business for the money. Trust me, there are easier ways of making money than being a literary agent.
Here’s my redline:
is bland. Shedreams of becoming talented at, well anything –until light starts shooting from her eyes and hands [Be more specific about the circumstances where light starts shooting. Where is she, what is she doing?]. Having that sort of gift is rare and increasingly criminal [This feels abrupt. Where are we? Why is it criminal? What is she risking?]. Now, she’s getting attention [from whom?] but not exactly the type she craved.
takes it upon herself to guide her fate by surrenderingsurrenders to the military , toand embraces the powers other [other what?] seek to coerce from her, andforcing her to pay the price [what price?] fame carries in a city divided against the gifted. As the cost of her choices escalate [How does the cost escalate? Be more specific], Soek must make one more decision. Will she play by the unscrupulous, high-society rules to protect her loved ones [Who are they?] and new foundnewfound prestige, or fight against the corrupt woman [Who is she?] ruling over the city and put everyone she loves in danger [Why are they in danger? What risk are they facing]?
tells the story of a daughter yearning for a spot at the top and a family who will do anything to stop the world from dragging her to the bottom. This[Anything important here should be woven into the query letter itself] is a YA Fantasy novel, complete at 121,000 words [This is very long for a debut YA novel] , has an original magic systemand has potential asfor a series. Comps fitIt’s similar to a younger Fitz and the Fool [Capitalize or italicize] vibe with a splash of Six of Crows cheekiness and magic whilein a Sanderson style of clean [I don’t understand what you mean by clean, the other comps aren’t really unclean?].
I graduated from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in 2010 and have toiled in the pits as a middle/high school English teacher ever since.
Educator by day and family man by night, I’m currently drafting my next novel, an untitled MG Contemporary. My short-term goal is to find an agent that will champion my books and whip me into even better writing shape, and my long-term goal is to transition into writing as my full-time career and to make my agent tons of money.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Thanks again to Dan Thompson!
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Art: Frans Verbeeck – Witches’ Sabbath
I like the energy of this query and the playful tone/attitude towards the agent. It made the author sound like a fun and confident person to deal with professionally. However, I’m not sure about the statement that the agent could whip them into an even better writing shape. I recently read on an agent’s blog they were looking for someone who wanted to be a career author so their relationship would be ongoing and something the agent could build on over the years, so I think it helpful the author mentioning other projects and future aspirations.
About beginning with the descriptive term ‘bland’. Perhaps if the character is described as feeling this way about herself and with a specific example it would be more endearing and revealing. Showing vulnerability is always endearing for the reader and, especially, how the character overcomes this fear/weakness.
I agree with Nathan that there could be more specific detail given so the agent could perceive more flavour and focus of the world the author has created.. It sounds like an interesting political situation that could be described in more detail. How does this political situation impact Soek’s life and what is her attitude towards it? The author has mentioned some things, but I felt they’re a little too vague to give a clear idea of this aspect. I’m expecting an extreme system like that in THE HUNGER GAMES.
I think the story premise has terrific potential. I’d like to see more flavour and detail in the query. Something that reveals the uniqueness of the story and the main thread that unites each facet together. Something that helps me to understand the balance (or the forces) of good and evil and the part Soek will play in changing this balance.
Nathan Bransford says
I get where the sentiment is coming from in the agent section but it strikes an entirely wrong note. Please trust me on this one.
The best way to show you are someone who wants to be a career author is to demonstrate that you have done your research and understand the realities of the business. Armed with that research, you would know that a life as a full time author is not something that even many massively talented authors are able to pull off, and you would also know that agents are not mercenaries.
Also, agents know and trust you have more books in you. You should also know that you need to keep the focus on the book at hand. There will be plenty of time to talk about new books down the line.
Don’t tell the agent you get it. Show them you get it. And that’s by keeping the focus on the work you’re querying about.
Do you think this query seems to cross a line between playfulness and professionalism, Nathan?
Nathan Bransford says
There’s no line between playfulness and professionalism because you can be both playful and professional. The *substance* is what’s the issue. I don’t recommend mentioning genre-hopping WIPs and never, ever imply that you don’t understand the realities of the business.
Right, I get you. Thanks, Nathan.