This week JJ and Kelly do their second ever QUERY CRITIQUE! 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. However, even if we didn't get to your query, we hope that you will find something useful and helpful in the ones we did get to.
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The last query critique we did.
Please bear in mind that we are aware that query writing requires a different sort of skill from novel writing, and we critique because we see potential and we want you to succeed. If we are giving a lot of tough love, it's not because we want to be mean, but because we want to be constructive.
In a world where your name means everything, a boy receives the name of an ancient evil.
All his life, Sy has struggled to fit in to a village that keeps him at arms length. Constantly bullied and met with suspicion, his only real solace is at him with his adoptive parents. He is certain that he will be accepted once he receives his true name, but when his name turns out to be that of a centuries old warlord still rumored to return, he is driven out of the only home he has ever known.
With the help of those he meets along the way, Sy makes a new life and name for himself in the army, and quickly garners the attention of the King. But when the king is murdered by someone possibly connected to his own past, Sy finds himself in the midst of a battle for the kingdom and his soul, and he must decide if he will face his name or run.
TOO SHORT: This query has the bones of a good query, but we don't quite have enough information. We said in our last query critique that the sweet spot for queries is between 250 and 400 words, and this one is only 167. Because of its length, there aren't enough details to give us a good idea of what makes this story specific and stand out from the other fantasies out there. You don't want to sacrifice specificity for brevity.
In the wake of the Great Calamity, the world of Etherea stood divided. Three distinct realms, one forever shadowed, one drenched in light, and one caught in the grey in between, battled with magic and blades for supremacy. A fragile truce now exists. To preserve it, two emissaries from Komor, Sondrine, and Heathstrӧm are chosen to partake in an epic quest: the Trials of the Innermost, composed of three tasks that embody the culture of each realm.
Tensions flare when the Truthseekers convene in Waverling, capitol of the middle realm and the starting point of their journey, as Komor presents a seemingly disingenuous offer of peace. The six young men and women then brave a wall of storms to reach Sondrine, site of their first trial, while the representatives from the land of light clash over their betrothal. Idrilia never asked her family to choose a partner for her, even if it is her best childhood friend. Her discontent boils over in her homeland, where she launches an unprovoked attack on the Komorese delegates and faces the prospect of being stripped of magic.
In the midst of these events lurks an ancient threat called the Penumbra, a hostile force from an alternate universe that has already inhabited one of the group. Zinvar, priest of Komor, senses the darkness in his warrior companion, who is using the Trials to find weaknesses in the other realms—weaknesses that Komor will use to its advantage when it invades. Guided by visions of ships that navigate the stars and a woman with grey eyes, Zinvar begins to piece together the awful truth: the Penumbra will destroy all life on Etherea if it succeeds in opening a door to its home. Only united can the seekers hope to stop it.
TITLE is the first novel in AUTHOR 1 and AUTHOR 2's SERIES TITLE, a fantasy and science fiction adventure series written for young adults and adults. It is complete at 97,000 words. Readers who enjoy R. A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt series and Peter F. Hamilton's Void Trilogy will feel right at home in Etherea.
AUTHOR 1 has a BA in English and AUTHOR 2 has a BS in Psychology. This is our first novel. Thank you for your consideration.
WORD SALAD: This query has a bit of the opposite problem as the previous one; it has too many details. We have a lot of information without context, and context is what makes us care. You don't have a lot of real estate to get an agent interested, so finding the core of your story, and getting to it as quickly as possible.
Nyoran and his friends love to make mischief. So, naturally, when the Council of Elders begins to make alarming new rules, Nyoran and his friends eavesdrop on a Council meeting to find out why. Minutes into the meeting they realize that they are deeply entangled in the Elder’s plots- and they find themselves fleeing for their lives.
They escape into an unknown world.
At last they find asylum in a place they believe the Elders are not powerful enough to breach. As they settle into their new life, they learn unsettling truths about their homeland. And they discover why the Elders are chasing them down so desperately.
Far away, Kyra awakens one night to find her village in flames. She joins a few other survivors to track down whoever destroyed their homes. However, the truth is not only unexpected, it is strong enough to shake the foundations of Nyoran’s and Kyra’s lives.
TITLE is a middle grade fantasy novel (about 56,000 words) that focuses on discovery and leadership. At first Nyoran struggles with cowardice, but he learns how to lead, even if all that means is stepping forward first. Kyra must face the brutal fact that she cannot always protect everyone she loves. Fans of Sage Blackwood’s Jinx will love this funny and heartbreaking story.
I’m just a book lover, but I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was eleven. I am not on any sort of social media, blogs, or websites, so if you choose to Google me (I know many agents search potential clients) it is unlikely you will get many good results. Sorry, but social media and I are not compatible.
Would you like to read the rest of TITLE? Please be aware that I have queried a handful of other agents. Thank you for your time.
TELLING, NOT SHOWING: This one is a little too vague because it tells us what we should be taking away from the story rather than showing us. We are told the who, the what, and the where, but not the how or why. The concluding paragraph informs the reader what the emotional arc is without explaining how the story contributes to it. What we are missing is cause and effect. Cause and effect is what makes a story; we have causes, but no effects.
Maeve Lilly Morgan and her little brother get dragged halfway across the country to live with her Grandmother, and finds out her so-called heroic ancestor might be a murderer. With the help of Juan, whom she reluctantly befriends over a spit-swear, Mae starts volunteering at the museum to discover the truth her family hid from her. Together they break into the museum, and accidentally unearth a letter written to Mae from 150 years ago. That letter leads them on a journey to find out who her family really was, what the danger lurking in her yard is, and why it is hunting her family.
When Mae has to leave her old life, and start a new one in rural Kansas she thinks she is going to hold up their proud family traditions. Then she finds their reputation may not be what she was told. Juan is confident Mae’s family heritage is hiding a deeper secret, including stashed gold and extortion. But he needs Mae’s help to find it. When they discover a prophetic letter that reveals what Juan thought was gold is actually a journal full of clues, their whole journey transforms. Instead of trying to discover if Mae’s ancestral grandfather is an extortionist and murderer, they have to figure how to avoid an evil fey he negotiated with for luxury and prestige, preferably before it enslaves or kills them all.
This young adult novel, TITLE, has a contemporary setting with a fantastical back world. It is quirky, fun, with a touch of darkness, and is complete at 75,000 words.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
STRUCTURELESS: This query is a little confusing. Information is parceled out what seems to be at random, and the magical element is brought in at the last minute, without any telegraphing that it is fantasy. We also appear to get told what the setup is twice, but from two different points of view, leading to some slight confusion as to whose story it is.
Dear [Agent Name]: TITLE is a YA fantasy retelling of Hades and Persephone, steeped in Indian and Welsh mythos. Eighteen-year-old Levana would be dead if the Chosen Ruler knew of her existence – for she is the last living heir to a conquered Fae kingdom. She has been cloistered away by her fiancé, who wants to keep her hidden from sight and safe. Her fiancé calls it protection. She calls it a pretty, gilded prison. On the Autumn Equinox, Prince Consort Kieran of the Fae steals her away from her fiancé and makes a bargain with her. She will work for him in his City of Dreams, hone her magic, and help him overthrow both the Fae Queen that he services and the Chosen Ruler who ruined her life. But Kieran and his beloved realm have their own secrets – a seamy forest where thoughts manifest into reality, garbled languages and dream-creatures, corpse roads and ley lines. As she navigates the Fae world, she will become a weapon to save her kingdom; but only if she can harness her firebending, heal her fractured soul, and learn what game Kieran is playing with her. TITLE is The Raven Boys meets The Star Touched Queen, and is a #ownvoice manuscript complete at 110,000 words. I am an eighteen-year-old Indian American writer from Texas who will be majoring in Neuroscience at SCHOOL this fall. Thank you for your consideration.
GENERIC: The issue with this query is that it is extremely reminiscent of bestselling YA fantasies on the market at the moment. There is a lot of what we call Capital Letter Worldbuilding, and without specifics to make this unique, it comes across as derivative. There is a really interesting hook here about being steeped in Indian and Welsh mythology, but none of that comes in the query, therefore the #ownvoices claim seems a bit dubious here.
Twelve-year-old Emma Montgomery lives for afternoons spent watching her Aunt Alice make Fix-It-All Hot Chocolate for the residents of Frog Hollow. She yearns for the secrets of her aunt’s magical recipe, but when Alice dies and bequeaths Emma the family book of magic, all Emma wants is her aunt back.
Emma experiments with the Montgomery Book of Mostly Useful Magic and even the smallest spells cause big trouble. Her first attempt at magic ends in a flying brooch destroying the living room. Another attempt ends with a cloud of crows cawing secrets after her wherever she goes. In a last, desperate attempt to get magic right, Emma does her best to keep the town restaurateur from cooking the last of the Frog Hollow frogs in a stew. She conjures tornadoes of worms and waterproof pots. When this too fails, Emma decides she’s too useless for her own book of magic.
In a stroke of good fortune, Glenda Grey, a mysterious newcomer to Frog Hollow, offers to bring Aunt Alice back to life in return for the book. It's a solution to all of Emma's problems. While Emma waits for Glenda to gather the ingredients necessary to bring Alice back, rumors of Emma’s book spread. Frog Hollow fills with strangers looking to steal the book before Emma and Glenda’s deal can be completed.
In the ensuing chaos, Emma must prove that she might not be so useless after all.
TITLE is a standalone middle grade fantasy novel, complete at 60,000 words. It is a story of both magic and community in the vein of The Graveyard Book and Chocolat.
I have a BA in Creative Writing from SCHOOL and an MA in Writing for Young People from SCHOOL. Although I was born and raised in New Orleans, a city with its own history of magic and mayhem, I currently reside in the English countryside, where I am working on my next novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
GREAT VOICE, BUT NEEDS TRIMMING: This query has an incredibly charming voice, spot on for middle grade, and a fairly decent query on its own. The second paragraph has a lot of adorable details that shows us the character, but we don't have the story. The story begins when Glenda Grey comes to town: why is she in town, why do things go wrong while she's there? Trim the unnecessary details, expand on the consequences of the third paragraph, and good luck with this one!
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That's all for this week! Next week we'll be starting another series on AUTHOR CAREER, starting with just what an author career and how that is different from writing. As always, if you have any further questions, suggestions, or comments, let us know!