Query #1 June 2014


Below is the first public query critique I’m offering up on the blog. This will happen once a month (as long as I get a response). I choose one query at random per month. If your query is not selected the first month, it will be in the drawing for the next month. Please do not resubmit unless you’ve made significant edits. To enter, see the rules here. If you want a guaranteed critique (plus line edit) of your query or synopsis, private ones cost $35 each.

Dear [agent],

I am submitting my contemporary young adult novel BOOK TITLE for your consideration because of your desire for international stories that deal with teen’s prevalent issues.  Focusing on bullying and ethnic hate crimes, BOOK TITLE is a simultaneous submission complete at 78,000 words.

Young Adult is an age category, not a genre. I’d prefer having the “this is why I chose you” paragraph at the bottom, but I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker for anyone. Unless an agent specifically tells you to mention if you’re simultaneously submitting, leave it out. Agents expect you to query widely. If another agent requests your full or partial manuscript, then you can mention something.

As for making each first mention of a character’s name in all-caps, I know Writer’s Digest suggests it, but it’s borrowed from screenwriting. Pros: It shows the agent at first glance how many characters you’re mentioning. Cons: It shows the agent how many characters you’re mentioning. You mention Petr once but never again. Unless they are the protagonist(s) or antagonist, don’t mention their names in the query.

For TESS, a Russian student alienated from her school’s state championship bound basketball team in suburban Ohio, forgiveness is a foreign word.  Tess’ crush on upperclassman ELLIOT, a hot upperclassman basketball player, is naïve and misguided.  Elliot struggles with his own feelings for Tess’ gay friend PETR, which complicates the strained tensions between the Russians and the basketball team.  Tess is torn between trusting Elliot—who is pressured by his friends to participate in a hate crime against the Russian Orthodox Church—or her fellow Russians who plant a bomb at the brand new basketball gymnasium in retaliation.  Forgiveness is the only way to survive the hate of high school.  Someone will die if Tess learns the lesson too late.

A breath unit is the number of syllables between two breaths. (Hint: we take breaths at punctuation marks, including parentheses.) A nice average is 8 to 15 syllables. More than 22 without a break isn’t just difficult to read aloud, it’s difficult to read, period.

That first sentence is insanely long. From “a Russian” to “Ohio,” you’ve got one breath unit that’s 30 syllables long. Twenty syllables is pushing it. Thirty, and you’ll turn a reader blue in the face. Read aloud, divide up these sentences. What’s really important? What does the reader HAVE to know? How is forgiveness a foreign word to her? The only question an agent should have from reading your query is “What happens next? I must know!” Never “But why…”

Why is her crush naive and misguided? Are there more Russians than Tess and Petr? Is there a large population of Russians in Ohio? Is she a first-generation immigrant, or is she Russian-American? Why / how could she trust Elliot if her crush on him is misguided? The “Tess is torn” sentence is also a doozy. At this point I fear the manuscript will have longwinded sentences, too.

“Someone will die if Tess learns the lesson too late.” Wait, what? THAT’s what I want to know about. 

What does Tess really want, deep down, and why should we like her? What external things get in the way of her deepest need (my guess would be, in this case, violent bombings), and what internal conflict does she have?

I am a 32 year-old avid reader, student, wife, and mom. Save personal info for the phone call from the editor, or for interviews. Query letters aren’t the place.  My poem [title redacted] won the 2014 [contest, redacted].  This spring, I will continue my education with a MFA an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

An MFA in writing says you’re serious about the craft. Since you WON the writing contest, you can include that even if it doesn’t relate to this manuscript. If this manuscript was a finalist in a contest, you could include that. But if something wholly unrelated to this manuscript got third place, I wouldn’t include it. If you won obscure awards or were published in collegiate literary magazines that no one else has ever heard of (cough, cough—me), I’d leave that out. I’d focus on more remarkable things about your character. 

Inspired by THE OUTSIDERS, BOOK TITLE depicts the fine line between love, hate, and self-loathing that is also prevalent in LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green and Sara Zarr’s STORY OF A GIRL.   The topics of violence, hate, and strained ethnic tensions are timely considering the impending threat in Ukraine and the recent discovery of pressure cooker bombs in a teen’s storage unit in Minnesota.

Don’t mention the timeliness of your book. By the time it finally sees shelves (~2 years), it won’t be timely for those reasons anymore. I’m not a huge fan of comp titles, but if your manuscript is really a good mixture of those, then you can leave it in. What I really want to see is the “love, hate, and self-loathing” IN the text of your query, though. And by that, I mean I want it to be evident that those are themes of your book without you stating them. Show, don’t tell.

Below is the first chapter of FORGIVENESS.  May I send the completed manuscript?

I don’t mind the “may I send” part because it sounds cordial to me, but I’m not sure how a New Yorker would feel about it. “Thank you for your consideration” is the standard way to finish. If they want a full or partial, they’ll request it.



I want to know what Tess is doing, what changes, why she does what she does, what’s at stake, and what’s getting in her way. I just wrote a post about Characters, Obstacles, and Goals. Read it, revise, resubmit, and I’ll take another look at it.

And do let me (and the other readers) know if you get requests for partials or fulls so we can rejoice with you!

Readers, please share any additional feedback you have, but note that comments are moderated, and if you don’t have anything constructive to say, or if you’re playing the troll, your comment will be deleted.

One thought on “Query #1 June 2014

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