Query #2 July 2014


Below is the second 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 one 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 Lara,

Sending to me might be practice, but any initial email to someone in this business needs to be addressed “Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name],” and if you are not sure on whether to use Mr. or Ms., look at their website and see which pronoun is used there. Some people say it’s okay to use Dear [First name Last name] if you aren’t sure of gender. I say do your research.

Melissa Stratten puked on a senior basketball player while hooking up, and nobody will stop whispering about it.  Even worse[,] her mom’s ex-boyfriend stole her college money.  Now she has to find a way to pay for college or else she’ll never get out of Valley Pines.

There’s an extra space after your first sentence. Yes, I notice these things. No, you won’t get in trouble for it. But I see a couple of other double spaces, too. Find and replace. Agents skim hundreds of queries each day. You don’t want to include any annoyances if you can help it. Using “even worse” is another one of those annoyances I just saw an agent tweet about today, actually. (Update: I can’t seem to find that tweet ANYWHERE, even using the search function. Keep it if you want, but use a comma if you do!)

That aside, how old is Melissa? Is she a junior? If she’s a senior, then why mention that her hook-up was a senior?

So these things happened to Melissa. What I want to know is how she feels about it. Is she angry? Secretly upset but trying to play cool?

When her best friend Jack, the school drug dealer, suggests they create an app based on school scandals, an ostracized Melissa is all for exacting revenge on her classmates. Chaos, anonymously unveils the hottest dirt to everyone at school, gives Melissa a way to make some cash, and shows off her design skills to colleges.  It’s epic. 

“Epic” is one of the most overused words in the English language. I’d like to see voice in a YA query, but done seamlessly, not tacked to the end. How does this make Melissa cash? Is the information unveiled only to paid subscribers? Or do people have to pay to submit the dirt?

Commas don’t follow titles. It’s not clear on first glance that “Chaos” is the title. Be clear. Also, the app isn’t anonymously doing anything, it’s the users that are anonymously posting. Try something like “Students are eager to purchase the app, Chaos, which lets users upload dirt on their classmates anonymously.” It’s not great, but at least it’s clear.

Then Melissa finds out Jack wants to use Chaos to release a sex tape of a student and a teacher, a teacher who knows about his dealing. If Melissa doesn’t go along with Jack, she can spare a girl’s reputation–like she wishes someone spared hers.

So the teacher knows about Jack’s dealing? Is the teacher also threatening to get Jack expelled? Why doesn’t Jack just blackmail the teacher? This makes no sense to me.

But, tThe more Melissa pushes Jack to kill Chaos, the more paranoid and threatening he becomes, pinning the entire app, and the video[,] on her. Melissa has to stop Jack before she ends up expelled, in jail, and kissing her college dreams goodbye.

Why is Jack getting paranoid? Why won’t he just kill it? If he has already pinned it on her, how can she stop him? And why would she be put in jail?

BOOK TITLE, no comma after the title is a 60,000 word YA contemporary novel.  It will appeal to fans of ABC’s Revenge and The Social Network.   Thank you for your consideration.

Most agents are fine with TV or movie comp titles, but some might consider it bad taste to compare books only to television shows. It has subtext that says “My book will get even people who watch TV to read.” Consider adding a book as a comparative title too.

While the premise is interesting, it’s a Veronica Mars episode. If you want to compete with a cult classic, you’ll have to show me what makes this story different, and show me that Melissa is a Veronica Mars for the next generation, interesting enough for me to pick up a book instead of watching reruns.



Sent from my iPhone

I have too many questions and this had enough minor annoyances to add up to one major annoyance—that this doesn’t seem professional. As soon as I opened this email, this is what I saw:

It tells me that I’m at least the fourth person to read this query. The signature was “Sent from my iPhone.”

Be professional, be clear. Make the agent want to read your book, and make him or her want to work with you.

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.