Aug 9, 2010

WriteOnCon Query Critique Day One

Hi everyone! ::waves::

Sorry to be a little late on this. I *just* got home after being stranded on the train outside of Jamaica station for 45 minutes (grrr).

So I picked my first query critique for the day, and I believe that WriteOnCon has posted my takeaway points on their site. But here, I'm going to go into more detail, and I hope that it not only helps the author of this query, but anyone else who is struggling with their query at the moment.

Cheers--JV

Dear Ms. Stampfel-Volpe,

I am seeking literary representation for my completed 74,735
A colleague of mine once said that a sure sign of an inexperienced querier (made up a term?) is when they put the EXACT word count or page count. It’s safe to say 75,000 words in this case. contemporary YA novel "Band Geek".BAND GEEK [or Band Geek]. Unless this is a poem or a song, it shouldn’t be in quotes. Also, completely minor note, but grammar rule: periods and commas are always to be inside the quotation mark. In this case, the quotation mark is misused anyway, but it’s just an fyi.

When Ryan Freeman, a 16 year old romantically challenged band geek and self-professed Beatles fanatic, finds himself paired for a month long World History social experiment
Social experiment? What does this mean? with the uber-popular CHELSEA HAMPTON You don’t need to cap characters names like this in queries. You don’t even need to do it in a synopsis, though if you did it there that would be fine (it’s a technique used in film synopses). Even so—if you cap everyone else, why didn’t you cap Ryan’s name?, he finds himself with a unique opportunity to strip away the high school "labels" and get to know the girl of his dreams since the second grade. This is a REALLY long opening sentence. Too many details all crammed into one, making it hard to follow. Also, the last part of the sentence is very blah. There is no tension here! In fact, he’s way too observant and articulate for a 16 yr old boy. Is this REALLY what he thought of when he was paired with her? It wasn’t more like “Holy crap. I’m paired with THE Chelsea Hampton, who I’ve been in love with since the second grade. There is NO way I can talk to her.” Or something? But there's a catch. The assignment is supposed to involve an anonymous exchange of e-mails and chatting online with the person nightly to see if the way the person has been perceived by their outward appearance matches the online persona. This is confusing—how would this even work if they know who they’re paired with? This would be no big deal if Chelsea hadn't dropped her pink glitter Hello Kitty pen in class that day and Ryan hadn't retrieved it, and the slip of paper in his hand with an anonymous e-mail address wasn't written in pink glitter ink. Ahhhh…this is how it’s answered. But you didn’t need to tell us all of this. Because you’ve already confused me and I probably would have stopped reading by the last sentence, if not sooner. In fact, the whole opening of this query can probably be boiled down to this:

Sixteen-year-old, band geek Ryan Freeman finds himself paired on a month long school project with his forever crush Chelsea Hampton…only she doesn’t know it’s him.

Or something like it.

He knows he's got her as his partner, but she has no idea she has him. It also doesn't help that Chelsea is dating the quarterback of the football team, BRODY ACKMANN, who has it in for Ryan after he overhears Brody bragging to his friends that he is cheating on Chelsea with her best friend. Now Ryan has not one but two secrets he must keep from her, or risk unraveling the trust and friendship that builds easily between them in their online chats.

Can Ryan keep his identity a secret from everyone, including his two best friends MYLES and LUCY, long enough to secure a place in Chelsea’s heart or will the friendship they build come tumbling down like a house of cards when she prematurely finds out Ryan has known who she is all along? Or will Lucy potentially change everything when she lets Ryan know she wants to take their friendship to another level? These soap opera-type posed questions feel a little over-the-top. You don’t need gimmicks to make me want to read your story—just tell me about the story! Adding to the mix is making it through marching band season in one piece, his mom’s developing relationship with her new boyfriend, and a Homecoming dance he’ll never forget where his virtual world and real life collide. What is the main focus here? What are the stakes? You state them, but I’m not really sure what the real conflict is…is it just keeping secrets from Chelsea? Making sure she falls in love with him? And the band thing feels kind of tacked on—since it’s the title of the book, I feel like it would have to play a bigger role. Overall, it feels like you’re just throwing a lot of plot detail at us without it all feeling connected.

Infused with comic banter and Beatles trivia galore, the novel aims to penetrate the social stigmas we all remember well in high school. The dialogue-driven story reaches out with hope and a healthy dose of snarky humor for those underdogs everywhere grappling with the angst of being a teenager in a world where what you see isn’t always what you get. I am a HUGE Beatles fan, but there seems no need for them in the story, and at the very least, there is no need for them in the query whatsoever. This is a minor detail and doesn't seem to add to the suspense, the conflict, or the characters in any way to entice me to read more.

I am an active member of SCBWI, and have previously written numerous outreach materials for KCTS/Seattle, including the Emmy-award winning television show
Bill Nye the Science Guy. "Bill Nye The Science Guy". Prior to that, I worked in motion picture development as a reader and Development Assistant for Amblin' Entertainment and Hollywood Pictures, soliciting manuscripts and writing coverage on multiple projects. Having spent the last year immersed in the world of marching band via my teenage son and getting to know the kids in the various band ensembles, I decided they may, in fact, be the coolest kids on the planet and deserved to have their own story. This is not a bad thing to mention, but it’s definitely not necessary. It’s not a part of the storyline that needs a particular amount of immersion research or anything, so mentioning it here is not needed.

Thank you for your consideration. I'd love to send you the manuscript and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,


27 comments:

Kelley said...

I think it's so fantastic and kind when busy agents offer their time to do things like this. It really is so helpful and refreshing for those of us stuck in this phase. Thanks for posting this!

Carolyn Mallory said...

This is such a great post. So informative about how to write a query letter. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Robin Reul said...

Thank you so much for this feedback. What you have offered me here is invaluable in helping me strengthen this query and send it out with greater confidence. I feel so honored you chose mine, and please know what you have offered me here is so spot on and just what I needed. I hope it serves to help others as well. Thanks again!!

Becca said...

This was great. Reading this, I can't believe I let some of these mistakes slip by me!

Lisa and Laura said...

Awesome critique Jo! And a huge thank you to Robin for being brave enough to post her query AND for accepting feedback with such grace!

Karen Collum said...

Thanks so much for showing us how you would pull apart this query. I always learn so much from finding out what other people did right and what could be improved. Looking forward to the next in the series :)

Dee White said...

Thanks for giving us such detailed insight into the query process from an agent's perspective.

It has made me realise how important an active voice and specifics information are in a query letter.

Jessica said...

I think it sounds like a great story, but agree that a little streamlining will make it come across better. Very straightforward critique, Joanna!

Anonymous said...

I'm a long way from the query stage, but I learn so much from seeing good examples like this. Thank you for doing this; it really helps us newer writers.

Karen said...

Thank you for taking the time and giving us a visual with explanation. This post spoke volumes to me!

~Karen

lunalila said...

So helpful! Thank you both to Robin for stepping in front and to Jo for taking the time to do this.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the great critique. I learned so much from your edits, especially how you rewrote the first sentence into a much more concise and catchy sentence.

PK said...

Very helpful! Thanks so much!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Thanks for the great critique, Joanna. I love your new first sentence. That instantly hooked me.

CL said...

Amazingly helpful! Thank you.

Steena Holmes said...

Now THAT was a critique we can all learn from! Thank you Joanne!

Kelly said...

Thank you!! I love the play by play critique of the query. Very informative!

Matthew Rush said...

It's a beautiful thing when excellent, succinct feedback like this is given and the author takes it so well! It's basically amazing to get to see someone improve their (query) craft right before your very eyes.

Thanks Joanne and Robin for letting us all bear witness (for those of you not in the know that's a Cleveland joke aimed at Lisa and Laura)!

Holly Bodger said...

Punctuation inside quotation marks? Ack! Ack! My Canadian blood is curdling in my maple-syrup filled veins! :-)

Awesome review Jo!

Carol Riggs said...

Yes! This was very helpful to get a real life agent's perspective. I saw instantly that the query was too long, but the other points were good learning material.

The UK (along with Canada, apparently) also puts their commas and periods OUTSIDE their quote marks, btw. I know this from working with a book company who had a UK as well as US site.

Hmm! I usually italicize my YA titles in a query, and was interested to see that some people cap (or prefer?) titles. I've heard some editors and agents HATE it when character names are capped, however (in a query or synopsis) so I refrain from doing that. ;o)

Katie said...

Fantastic advice, Joanna! And good luck to Robin.

Sandy Wills said...

"Also, completely minor note, but grammar rule: periods and commas are always to be inside the quotation mark."

Uh-oh. You know, I swear someone told me they go OUTSIDE the quotation marks in certain cases, like maybe if you're putting quotes around something that's not dialogue?

I'm going to blame my English teacher. :-)

*madly rushes off to search all her manuscripts for misplaced commas/periods/etc*

Holly Bodger said...

Oh, Sandy, we've opened a can of worms, haven't we? My teachers always taught us to put them outside, but I have learned to move them for Jo. Just like I've learned to delete the u's in "colour" and "favourite" and stop saying sacked and chucked. Sigh. *runs to chug some more maple syrup whilst playing Great Big Sea*

Julie Musil said...

Thanks so much for this in-depth critique.

And Robin? A big thanks to you for putting it out there.

saputnam said...

Joanna, thank you for taking time away from your busy day to give us such a detailed peek into an agent's take on a query letter.

Sandy Wills said...

LOL, Holly! See, I knew I didn't make up the outside the quotation rule! But, yep, they shall now all go inside. :-)

And maple syrup, eh? I thought it took something stronger than that to thoroughly enjoy Great Big Sea (which they FINALLY stopped playing after 4 hrs at B&N).

Anonymous said...

Robin, it's a really interesting concept. Just one thing struck me. If I was going to give such an assignment to my class I'd really worry about stuff like stalking and online bullying. Probably you cover that in the manuscript.

I think the quotation mark rule varies between British and American English.