Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Triple the Query Critique, Triple the Fun

"Big ups," as the kids say, to maniacscribbler, madison and andrew carmichael for being brave of soul and quick on the trigger as they submitted their queries for a public critique. I really appreciate their willingness to put themselves out there so that we might all learn from their queries.

As always, please keep any and all comments completely polite and constructive, and anything snarky or mean will be dealt with quicker than you can say, "No really I will totally kick you in the shins."

On to the queries!

First off, I'd just like to take a look at the first paragraphs, and then I'll do a complete critique for each one.

Here are the first paragraphs:

I am currently seeking representation for my young adult fantasy, Moonstone.

I am seeking representation for my completed 80,000-word YA novel, THIS BRIEF FREEDOM.

I’m seeking representation for STARBOYS, a 60,000-word YA novel for readers who want to laugh a little, cry a little, angst a little, and look to the stars for something more.

I'm sensing a pattern.

But honestly, I'm so glad you guys all started off your query (basically) the same way, because it makes for a great illustration of what my inbox looks like. Now, I'm not saying you CAN'T start off a query with "I'm seeking representation for X," but you have a great opportunity off the bat to engage the agent with something original and interesting, whether it's getting straight into the plot (like so) or tipping me off that this is a personalized query and you're a blog reader (like so). Since you have "Query" in the subject line (and you do have "Query" in the subject line, yes?), I already know you're seeking representation, so you don't have to start off by making that clear.

Now for the more complete critiques. These are, as usual, going to be kind of ideosyncratic critiques -- I'm not going to focus on typos or word choices or anything like that, but will instead give some perspective on the things I'm thinking about as I'm reading queries.

Up to bat is maniacscribbler:

I am currently seeking representation for my young adult fantasy, Moonstone.

It begins in medias res with the death of Alita’s love, Brant. Alita is the Eci’lam, a young woman who can tap into unlimited magical powers and destroy the whole world if she so wish. She is being chased by the High King, for he is afraid of this power and the havoc that it could wreak on his totalitarian rule. Brant comes into her life when she shows up at his door mortally wounded and being pursued by the High King’s followers, the Myrmidon. Brant is a Ha’Nid, a magicmaker who is also being prosecuted by the High King. Through their adventures they both come to drop the guard that they had both wrapped themselves in and allow love into their heart. Now Alita has to fight the High King to regain what has been lost, including her lover.

Moonstone is filled with romance, action, and drama; it is 69,000 words.
(Short story publishing credits omitted to allow me to remain anonymous. ;)) I am currently in my first year of an English BA at the University of C------, and have been homeschooled since grade one. I have an avid love of books, with a special place in my heart for fantasy.

Thank you for time.

First, I'd like to focus attention on the second paragraph, which describes the plot, because I think it can be pared down to its most essential detail. Particularly in fantasy, queriers tend to overexplain what things are called in their world. For instance, do we need to know that Alita is called an "Eci'lam" and Brant is called a "Ha'Nid"? Do we need to know the Kings' followers are called the Myrmidon? These descriptions tend to break up the flow, when in fact the more important descriptions involve who these people are and what's unique about this world -- not what they're called.

The plot of this novel is archetypal -- woman has power, pursued by evil power who is threatened by her power, falls in love with man who can help her, quest ensues. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since we humans tell many of the same stories over and over in new ways, and many wonderful stories have been built around your same archetype (everything from Stephenie Meyer's books all the way back to Snow White and beyond). But when you are working in an archetype it's especially important to make sure that 1) you know what sets your novel apart, and 2) you convey this in the query. A new twist on an old archetype can turn "boy from humble background is actually from noble birth and must save his land using secret power" into Star Wars.

Next up, madison:

I am seeking representation for my completed 80,000-word YA novel, THIS BRIEF FREEDOM.

Sixteen-year-old Rosalie Clements never dreamt of leaving civilized 19th century Boston – until her father dies, leaving her alone and destitute. But he also wills her a clue that may lead to an elusive West Indian treasure. Desperate for money, Rosalie trades her skirts for breeches and heads for the Indies.

But although she can soon raise a sail, brandish a cutlass, and lie as easily as she once drank tea, all is not smooth sailing. She has to evade much more than discovery on board: her shipmates detest her incompetence and the ship is a breeding ground for mutiny. Worse, after recovering from her shock at the rough life aboard, she soon becomes as intoxicated with her new life of adventure as the other sailors are with daily grog rations. But when Rosalie discovers that Captain Beardslee, the most feared pirate of the Indies, and the crew aboard his aptly named ship, The Cutthroat, want the treasure, too, the race for the Indies becomes a race for survival.

A high school senior, I have published a short story in the magazine ‘Characters.’ I am the copy editor of my school newspaper.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

This query is in great shape, and I would definitely request a partial. I like the conflict you've built in, first by giving Rosalie a backstory (her father dying), sending her on a quest (the treasure), and setting up conflicts (with her crew, but then she has to work with them to combat the real enemy, Captain Beardslee). I particularly like this line: "But although she can soon raise a sail, brandish a cutlass, and lie as easily as she once drank tea, all is not smooth sailing." This is a nuanced line, and I particularly like the use of "smooth sailing," which has a nice pun to it given the ship theme, and displays deft writing.

Some people might be concerned that pirates are overpublished at the moment, but at the query stage I'm not generally thinking that far ahead and am just looking for good writing and an interesting idea. If it's good enough it ultimately doesn't matter what the trends of the moment are.

And batting third we have andrew carmichael:

I’m seeking representation for STARBOYS, a 60,000-word YA novel for readers who want to laugh a little, cry a little, angst a little, and look to the stars for something more.

Sixteen-year-old Nate Chiarello’s life is a collage of eccentricity. He has nothing in common with his friends, his parents are the very definition of idiosyncratic, and his starving-artist brother is neither hungry nor artistic. Nate has nothing going for him. Not until Kam arrives.

Kam claims he’s from the stars and Nate is immediately drawn to him. Kam seems interested too, when he’s not disappearing for weeks at a time. To forget his attraction, Nate tries to distract himself with Christian: a boy who is both interested and around.

But then Kam returns and warns Nate that intergalactic law enforcement is after him, ordered to destroy him because of what he knows. At the same time, Christian reveals that he has a secret that could change everything. Now, with two guys pining for his affection, Nate has to figure out how to save himself before it’s too late.

STARBOYS is an eclectic blend of light fantasy, soft sci-fi, gay romance, humor, and action. It would join books such as Perry Moore’s Hero in the growing market of LGBT genre fiction for young adults.

I must confess that while I like this query overall, I felt that the first paragraph was a tad overdone. I know there's a tendency to want to grab immediately, but I'd much rather be drawn in by the actual work than a pat description, and I just hear phrases like "laugh a little, cry a little" so often (even if you do complicate it with "angst a little.").

I really like the setup, premise, and your description of Nate, but I felt that once Kam arrived the description of the plot and world became a little scattered, and while you bring it together in the end, I think there is more of an opportunity to reveal more about what makes Kam appeal to Nate. So for instance, you write that Nate is "immediately drawn to him." You could replace "him" with a few descriptions of Kam so it becomes Nate is "immediately drawn to his X and X," to give the reader a sense of who he is and what role he could fulfill for both Nate and the plot. Is he going to take Nate away to another planet? What is he like?

This will also help distinguish him from Christian, who also could use a few nuggets of description himself. But overall, this is a unique premise, which is always hard to find, and I'm definitely intrigued.

THANK YOU again to our three brave queriers!!


Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, I too think the "I am seeking representation" is implied in the very nature of the query - no need to waste space or start with a statement of the obvious.

IMO, start the query with the one-line hook/pitch or a pithy, witty paragraph personalized to the agent.

Madison's query impressed me, but all the more so because she has the disciple to complete a novel AND she hasn't even finished high school! How many adults never finish their WIP's? How many adults can't write a tight, cohesive query?

Too darn many!

Kudos to Madison!

Josephine Damian said...

PS: Nathan? How about you make the 3-query-crit a weekly blog feature?

We are all certain to learn from the examples....

Other Lisa said...

I would have asked for #2 as well. It's fun!

superwench83 said...

:( I'm sad because I was too late to enter my query for the critique. But that second one sounded amazing! I would totally read that.

Anonymous said...

I'll second Josephine's comments. Kudos to all three who posted and thank you Nathan!

Heidi said...

The advice for these queries is both practical and personal. Thanks for giving critiques that can help not only these queries but practically any query!

I also loved Madison's. I knew it was a winner before I finished, and then was floored to see that she was a high schooler. Teenager or not, it was concise, vivid, and engaging. Well done!

Ulysses said...

I found myself stumbling over Andrew's second paragraph.

One thing I've noticed about queries I've seen posted for critique is how often the writers use vague language. Maybe they're trying to summarize quickly, to convey some overall impression, but I figure you should be as concrete as possible when you've only got one page to impress an agent. "Collage of eccentricity," is a wonderful-sounding phrase, but I have no idea what it means in the context of Nate's life. Likewise, "the very definition of idiosyncratic." Give me details. "Neither hungry nor artistic" sounds nice, but some evidence of that would bring it home to the reader.

"Sixteen-year-old Nate Chiarello's life is a mess. His mother prints up 'Save the Bolivian Weevil' brochures in the basement, his father is building a replica of the Eiffel Tower out of lawn ornaments and his starving-artist brother has gained ten pounds while waiting for yet another gallery to reject his work."

Er. . . Am I off base, here?

r.c. said...

Thank you, Nathan, this is very instructive. And thanks to the brave queriers!

I was impressed with all three and found it funny that they were all YA. Are your queries trending in that direction?

I think Madison's story sounds like a lot of fun, a sort of Sally Lockhart at sea. I would definitely pick that up.

Ulysses said...

Er. . . I neglected to mention that all 3 queries had me shortly after "Hello," and I am, therefore, terribly, terribly jealous.

Thanks for the insight, Nathan.

Luc Reid said...

I hope maniacscribbler won't mind if I point out that there are a couple of grammatical and semantic errors in the query, and I imagine some agents and editors rapidly lose confidence in a writer when these come up, so that it would be good to ensure the query is in perfect shape in this respect (not to mention the book itself!) before sending it out.

The two that jump out at me are "... destroy the whole world if she so wish." (I believe that should be "wishes") and "... a magicmaker who is also being prosecuted by the High King." (I believe that should be "persecuted," since "prosecuted" means being tried in a court of law).


Adaora A. said...

I really like Madison's. I'm such a sucker for historical, and it sounds fantastic. I wish I could be an agent for as long as it would take me to get a read.

I wish this was done more. I tried to submit one, but these three have the fastest fingers.

But we all know you have e-queries to read, partials to read, and fulls to read.

Michelle Moran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle Moran said...

Great job, Madison! I began submitting to publishers when I was in high school as well, although none of my queries EVER looked as good as yours! It's incredibly difficult to write a query for people of any age, but you really nailed it!

And it was very nice of all three writers to allow Nathan to review their queries online.

Rachel said...

I too admire the fact that Madison is a high schooler. I'm worried, though, that the plot is too derivative of Treasure Island. Aside from the fact that the protagonist is a fatherless woman and not a fatherless boy, how is the plot different (good guy trapped on a ship with mutinous pirates all on their way to an island to retrieve the same treasure ...)? Madison may need to make more clear how his/her story is more than a retelling of a classic with a twist.

Andrew Carmichael said...

Thanks for the critique Nathan! You comments were awesome and I already know how I can go about adding more details to explain Kam and Christian further and make them both more individual in the query.

Thanks again!


Andrew Carmichael said...

@ Ulysses

You made some great points and I know exactly what you mean about the vagueness of those phrases. In the early incarnations of the query I did have small anecdotes, I guess I could say, to explain what I was saying, but the query became kind of lengthy after that. So, in the end, I opted for vangueness rather than specificity.

But thank you for the comments and now that I've spent a month away from the query I might be able to go back and revise it and fit things in without adding too much to the length.

susan d said...

I can't wait to show your query to my daughter, a high school freshman who has been writing two novels, albeit not at the focused level you are demonstrating. You are an inspiration to all of us!

Margaret Yang said...

"Pirates are overpublished at the moment."

Oh, say it isn't so!

I love me some pirates, and will never tire of them.

Nathan Bransford said...


Me too -- I don't always listen to those other people. I don't think there can ever be too many pirates.

Adaora A. said...

^Agree with the both of you.

I don't think the things we love will ever get old. That would be like saying or er...Judy Blume, John Grisham, Margaret Atwood's THE EDIBLE WOMAN, and Ian McEwan will get old. Absolutely not.

Erik said...

Screw "Reality Teevee". This was worth making popcorn for!

manicscribbler said...

First off, thank you, Nathan for critiquing my query. I'm going to start working on getting it into the proper shape now.
Also, thank you to Ulysses, and Luc. I had not actually noticed the way that the statements were oddly worded.

r.c. said...

If Madison were to query her story with the line "'The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle' meets 'Treasure Island'" - would that be a bad thing? Would you think that her plot is derivative or would you think, yes, that's a clever combination?

I know that people often point to similarities between their stories and others, I just don't know how agents react to that.


Anonymous said...

I'm reading "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists" right now, and it's very, very funny.

to r.c.: I immediately thought of "The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle," too.

Anonymous said...

Even Shakespeare retold the same old stories. He just retold them better. With a few name changes, I could pretty much use that first query for my own book, and so could probably a thousand other would-be Shakespeares. I know what sets my used up old story apart from everybody else’s and makes it brilliant (Well, in my opinion, but if I don’t believe it, who else will?) And I’ll try my darnedest to convey that brilliance in my query. However, what I need to understand is what would set my story apart and make it stand out to you. You’ve already made it clear that you like interesting characters, plots and a clever turn of phrase, i.e. deft writing, etc. You give an excellent list in that regard. But explain to me what you think was the new twist on an old archetype that turned “boy from humble background is actually from noble birth and must save his land using secret power” into Star Wars.

And of course, you think there can never be too many pirates. Half the time, they’re named Nathan . . . Nate . . . Nathanial . . . And he’s always the captain, too, isn't he?

Jackie said...

hmmm, it appears to me a good query is nothing more than a hook written on the back of a book?

Jackie said...

..and a bit more of the book info

Jackie said...

I can use both Printmaster and AOL graphics in my Query, legally, because this is not a published article that turns a profit?

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm just going to assume you were joking on that last question.

Jackie said...

you implied to doll up a Query, the little mind is spinning :)

Jillian said...

May I just say that I am utterly impressed by madison's maturity and writing skills. A high school senior! Indeed, there is hope for this sorry world. :)

My question, really, is do you want to know how old a writer is in a query letter? Granted, my personal response was positive when I read that madison is in high school. I thought the query was really strong, so the mention of her age was an added "punch."

Way to go, madison. You have a beautiful career ahead of you. Keep working hard!!

Michelle Moran said...

I don't think it's necessary to includes one's age in a query letter, unless there's a specific reason to, like you're a high school senior, which is unusual, or you're the oldest person in the world and you've decided to write a memoir on how your vegan lifestyle really paid off.

I think the only other time I would mention my age in a query is if it was for a nonfiction proposal and specifically had something to do with the subject.

Michelle Moran said...

uh... make that include.

Nathan Bransford said...

Yup. I agree with Michelle.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Anyone prefer the "name, rank and serial number" approach to queries?

Just happened to be over at agent Jonathan Lyon's blog, and he's only accepting queries via his online form as of 3/31/2008:

of the Work
(no more than 500 words)
Your Biography
Your Address
Your E-mail Address
Your Phone Number

Wow, you can skip over query agony, and get straight into synopsis agony (500 words) and "Your Biography" agony - it makes me a little nervous - I mean, I imagine the "ideal" biography as 3 Guggenheims to your name, tenure, frequent travel abroad, your own cooking show, a river named after you, guest columns in the NYT, prizes and contests won...

...everything old is new again...

Adaora A. said...

That helps greatly Michelle.

I'm actually 89-years-old. Would you consider representing my non-fictional book about the struggle to find a good pair of eye glasses and an argyle sweater?

Michelle Moran said...

Hey, why not? The world is in desperate need of a book just like that. ;]

Anonymous said...

Adaora - you make the strangest comments. In a good way -- I think!

Adaora A. said...

@Annonymous - Thanks! I Appreciate it. It means I'm memorable.

@Michelle - It works very well I think.

Alison said...

Madison's novel sounds interesting, but the query itself didn't feel particularly strong to me, as there seemed to be a couple of logical flaws. It first says that she can raise a sail, etc., as easily as drinking tea, but then it goes on to say that the other pirates resent her incompetence -- I found myself unsure as to whether she was a strong pirate or a bumbling one. Also, I'm not sure why her becoming intoxicated with her new life is a bad thing.

These are nitpicky, perhaps, and the story itself does sound like fun, but I would say the query could be stronger if these two points were cleared up.

Anonymous said...

Nathan - you've thrown the entire Query Letter Critique (aka Query Hell) forum over at AbsoluteWrite into a tailspin ... :P

Anonymous said...

Good question -- what's funny about this is that I would never ask someone to send sample pages with their query, but I'm always glad when they do!

My backwardness on this topic is because if I were to ask for sample pages with their query people would send them as attachments, and I don't want attachments because I don't want to crash the server with all the queries I'm receiving. But if you were to paste in the first few pages into the actual query without sending them as an attachment I think it's always a good idea.

So yes -- paste in those sample pages after your query!

I found the above on another site where you were a guest. Bearing in mind the adage, give an inch, they take a mile, exactly how many pages do you consider to be a few? My contrary female nature is just itching to paste my entire mile long novel to my query, but I'll settle for 1 page, 5, 30???

Adaora A. said...

Madison's novel sounds interesting, but the query itself didn't feel particularly strong to me, as there seemed to be a couple of logical flaws. It first says that she can raise a sail, etc., as easily as drinking tea, but then it goes on to say that the other pirates resent her incompetence -- I found myself unsure as to whether she was a strong pirate or a bumbling one. Also, I'm not sure why her becoming intoxicated with her new life is a bad thing.

These are nitpicky, perhaps, and the story itself does sound like fun, but I would say the query could be stronger if these two points were cleared.

Good points. Perhaps she still has some 'pirate abilities' - other then the sail raising and etc - which make her unable to do things exactly like the others. Perhaps she is a pirate with her idosyncracies which we all have as people. For instance: I'm a really great cook but honestly, I'm clumsy as hell sometimes. I can trip and stumble into (and over) the stupidest things. It's mightily embarassing at times. I like to believe I'm a decent writer, but I type much faster then I write. Often my writing - longhand - can be likened to chicken scrawl.

Perhaps her becoming so use to her new life is bad because she has to deal with unresolved issues at home, or someone from her old life might come around? Perhaps she'll loose some of that 'womanly behaviour' which was so necessary back then in order to 'secure' a husband.

Remember that famous line from Jane Austen:

"It can be universally acknoledged that every man of good fortune is in want of a wife." - I think I missed a few words but threre it is.

I think those great questions you posed would only make an agent want to read on to get the answers. I would er...imagine. I'm not an agent though, I just wan't one!

Nathan Bransford said...

I think the important thing to remember is that I'm not really scrutinizing every detail of a query (unless I'm critiquing it to show what works), I'm mainly just absorbing and answering the question: "Do I want to read more?" It's more important for a query to be well written and show an interesting premise than it is to be completely airtight in terms of plot and character, particularly since I understand that a query is just a sketch of the whole thing. I'd rather answer any lingering questions I might have by reading the partial.

Adaora A. said...

That's really good information to know. I'm not saying that I'm suddenly going to write a 'not so good' format for a query and hope the plot wows, but it's brilliant to know all the same.

madison said...

sorry this is so late. thanks, nathan, for the critique, and thanks everyone for the awesome comments! I haven't been hiding...I've been without internet for a few days. I don't have time to answer all of the speculations/questions about the query and the book because I'm in a foreign country :). Read it once it's on the shelves :). thanks again!

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