Pub(lishing) Crawl
PubCrawl Podcast
22. Query Critique I

22. Query Critique I

This week Kelly and JJ live-critique five queries submitted for review. Thank you to everyone who sent us their queries! We would love nothing more than to be able to provide personalized critique to each and every one of you, but unfortunately we don't have all the time in the world.

Show Notes

We had more than five queries submitted to us, and unfortunately we were unable to get to them all. However, if you guys find this sort of thing helpful, we are thinking of keeping this query critique thing going and maybe doing a critique podcast every quarter or so. Let us know your thoughts!

  • We received about 15 queries, so we picked five that we thought demonstrated a breadth of concerns.

  • Across the board, we saw a lot of telling, not showing.

  • We also saw queries that told us "My book is about [insert theme here]." That's all fine, but it's necessary in a query, and it's wasting space. The story is more important than what the book is about.

  • Specifics always make us care more. Don't be afraid to give us specific details. Vagueness is confusing, not enticing.

Query #1

According to your profile you are actively seeking children's books that feature "adorakble" protagonists, and I think my story picturebook, TITLE, fits the kind of text you hope to market. My intent for the book is to broaden children's exposure to music and encourage mixing different styles, while developing a sense of empathy. Each book in the TITLE series would include a brief history of the instruments featured alongside a bar of simple music that could be played with a recorder. The nonfiction and interactive elements would especially appeal to gifted elementary readers. What happens when you’re the Captain of the Watch’s son returning home from a summer at Hero Camp, but you never mastered Highly Stylized Defenestration? Billy McDougal knows he doesn’t have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of his father and brothers, who are already considered heroes in the community. All of this changes when he finds an old bugle in the attic. His best friend, Claire Annette, encourages him to harness its power to help protect the town of Crescendo from a series of attacks by wild beasts who are in thrall to a mysterious figure with an enchanted Theremin. TITLE stories are set to feature a cast of multicultural characters who each represent different genres of music, from strings and percussion to beatboxing, and use their talents to protect their hometown from a mysterious and vengeful villain. One of my overarching themes is that "villains" are typically only lashing out after having been hurt themselves. The antagonist of the series, Leo, believes himself to be a hero avenging his sister, a musical prodigy who was left deaf after an accident. She is unaware of Leo’s actions and the climax of the series involves her mediating an alliance between her brother and the band. I have a BA in creative writing from SCHOOL and have been teaching Language Arts for nearly a decade. During the summer I am an instructor at NAME OF CENTER where I work with gifted fourth and fifth graders in the Writing Workshop: Modern Fantasy course. I have seen firsthand how kids can channel their energy into creative outlets, and the results are amazing. I think Billy’s story can inspire the next generation and inform them of music’s historical relevance with hands-on application.

Thank you very much for your time and I hope you enjoy my submission!

Talking about your book doesn't tell us what the story is. There's a lot here we like, but we can't really figure out what's happening: we get a lot about what the book is trying to do, but the query doesn't prove any of it. Similarly, is this a picture book? Nonfiction? A novel? Without a clear idea of what this book is, an agent will not know how or where to sell it.

Query #2

When Nora’s research leads her to a secret world of time travel, she becomes a marked woman and experiences a love that could change the past and destroy the present. Her story is TITLE, a 76,000-word contemporary fantasy. 

When Nora travels to France to dig deeper into her late mother’s time travel theories, she meets Henri, a man who claims to be a twelfth-century prince and the man she knows will one day become King Henry II of England.

Henri’s struggle for the throne brings him to the twenty-first century to find a relic from a 900-year-old shipwreck, recently recovered from the bottom of the English Channel. Nora joins his quest, thrilled to find living proof of time travel and eager to uncover more details about her mother's research. But in her growing attraction to the prince, Nora ignores important signs that Henri is not being completely honest with her.

Helping Henri sets Nora firmly in the crosshairs of a dangerous group, the Guardians, who will stop at nothing to prevent time travel. Nora and Henri race across France to find the relic that will secure Henri’s kingdom before the Guardians silence them forever. When the Guardians finally abduct her and expose Henri’s lies, a shattered Nora realizes that her decision to trust him and ultimately love him could change the past and the present.   

TITLE combines historical intrigue in the spirit of Anne Forstier’s The Lost Sisterhood with the lighthearted romantic feel of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. This novel, along with most of my writing, is inspired by the piles of research I did for my Master of Arts in History. My short stories have been finalists for the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the Writer’s Workshop Fiction Contest and have been published in online literary magazines and several small press anthologies, including Copperfield Review. I live in Charlotte, NC, where I’m plotting more adventures for Nora and spinning non-magical historical tales.

The first [insert number] of pages are pasted below, and the complete manuscript is available upon request. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope to hear from you soon.

This query has a lot of potential, but it is unfortunately a bit too vague. Lots of exciting things are happening—time travel, historical figures, romance, intrigue—but we have no specifics. Without specifics, we don't have stakes. What exactly is the relic that will help cement Henri's claim to the throne? Why are the Guardians trying to prevent time travel? What is Henri's secret? Also, protip: We would pick Susanna Kearsley as your comp.

Query #3

Dear [Agent],

Yesterday, Jordan’s biggest fear was being outed as genderqueer. Today, he’s trying to stop the world’s largest video game company from becoming the next Big Brother before they kill him and his friends.

Jordan and his two gaming partners just won tickets for Cruise Con, a convention-at-sea hosted by the company that produces their favorite MMORPG. All they have to do is beta test a new game world with the other contest winners. But after the trial, an anonymous gamer tells them they missed something, and threatens their families if they don’t find it. Jordan wants to go to the police, but cops won’t reach the ship in time, and the security officers on board may not be trustworthy.

Then another curious gamer is killed, and Jordan and his friends get caught in a race to expose a lethal technology hidden in the game’s code before the tech is used against them.

TITLE is a 62,000-word young adult thriller with LGBTQ characters that will appeal to fans of Ernest Cline and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

I have a B.A. in Classics from SCHOOL and an M.S. in library and information sciences from the OTHER SCHOOL. When not writing, I work as a public librarian, connecting readers with books they will love.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

We love this! We just want more! Where we need a little bit of expansion is "But after the trial, an anonymous gamer tells them they missed something, and threatens their families if they don't find it." There is a lot in that one sentence that we need clarification on: what did they miss? Is it lethal? (As we find out in a later paragraph.) What are the consequences? How does it kill people? How does the anonymous gamer threaten their families? Who is the villain of this story?

Query #4

Dear __________,

Eleven-year-old twins Seamus and Grady lead a life most boys can only dream of. They have rich, doting parents who never scold them, chuckle when they play hooky from school and give them whatever they want. They accidentally find out why. Turns out, they’re not Americans - heck, they’re not even human. They are twenty-first century, ex-pat leprechauns soon to possess awesome powers … if they can acquire a pot of gold each.

Unfortunately, pots of gold don’t come easy in their hometown of Boston, so they have to look elsewhere. The twins end up in Africa with an ancient map and a plan to find the lost treasure of Prester John, a mighty king who stashed his loot somewhere in Ethiopia. No quest comes without peril and standing in their way is the undead spirit of a giant African chief who guards the hoard and believes that by sacrificing the boys, he can return to the world of the living … and rule it. Can the twins outsmart a wily specter plus a few other sundry obstacles, acquire their pot of gold and live to ride the rainbow back home?

TITLE is my debut novel. It is a 45,000-word fun adventure aimed at children aged 9-12. It will appeal to readers who enjoy imaginative and fast-paced action books. With a hefty dollop of magic, of course.

I have a BA in Journalism SCHOOL in Montreal and work as a freelance writer to support my creative writing addiction. As per your submission guidelines, I am attaching a synopsis of my story and my manuscript.

Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

This is clever and cute, and as a middle grade story, it's right in the sweet spot of adventure and whimsy. However, we do want to caution you about the potential for appropriation in a story where two white boys go on an adventure in a monolithic "Africa".

Query #5

The Crummett siblings have each adapted their lives to fit within the oppressive boundaries of their parents’ expectations. Whether it’s for money, approval, respect, or love, all the children have manipulated their lives conform to the family standards. But when Olive, the youngest and most beloved sister, ends up pregnant outside of wedlock and dares to be happy about it everything changes. Seeing Olive boldly step outside the shadow of their parents ridged expectations forces each of the siblings to question the fundamental motivations on which they have built their lives. This new perspective sends them each on their own unique journey.  

Olive’s closest sister, Sam, goes through a heartrending non-surgical abortion the day before she finds out about Olive’s pregnancy and now has to negotiate an emotional landscape scattered with the question “what if.” The oldest brother, William, a gay man whose parents refer to his long-time partner as his “black friend,” realizes that the only thing holding him back from fully engaging in life is fear of his parents’ disapproval. The oldest “perfect daughter,” Vivian, reignites a relationship she’d sabotaged with too much drinking and unexamined anger over events from her past. And the youngest sibling, twenty-one-year-old Mark, responds in typical fashion by pretending not to give a shit while actually feeling even more disgruntled with and disconnected from his siblings than before.

During this tumultuous time, a new family dynamic begins to take shape: bonds are formed between once distant siblings, close relationships are put to the test, and Mark’s bitter resentment towards his siblings turns dangerous. When the siblings find themselves face to face for the first time since Olive’s announcement tensions run high, and a final act of selfish rage sets off a series of events which end in a tragedy that threatens to destroy them all.

The Crummett siblings live up and down the West Coast in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but their lives are intimately woven together as the point of view shifts from one sibling to the next after each phone call or in-person interaction between siblings. This flow of perspective creates the experience of a natural sibling dynamic while also giving readers the opportunity to learn about each character through their own thoughts as well as the observations and judgments of their siblings.

TITLE  is upmarket women's fiction and is complete at 100,300 words.

This is pretty much ready to go. It's a little wordy; we would cut the last sentence of the first paragraph and excise the last paragraph entirely, but otherwise, this is gold. Query away, and good luck!

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What We're Working On

  • Kelly and JJ aren't working on creative projects at the moment.

Off Menu Recommendations

That's all for this week! Next week we'll return to our Publishing 201 series with SALES CONFERENCE. Thanks for listening!

Pub(lishing) Crawl
PubCrawl Podcast
A publishing podcast about reading, writings, books, and occasionally booze.