This is a momentous day. It is the culmination of months of anticipation, a time for which people all across this great land of America have been marking their calendars, setting their timers, and readying their homeboy phones.
Yes. The Hills is back tonight. I’m more excited than a publishing employee with a free bagel. Which is to say: astoudningly excited.
But enough about my obsession with scripted/unscripted/ah-who-the-heck-cares-isn’t-Spencer-insane? reality television. Today another kind soul has offered up a query for critiquing. As always, please be astoundingly (yes, I have so far used that word twice and am not afraid to use it again) polite in your comments, or else I will say “Sweet, my answer is get out of my car” and delete your comment.
As always, I prefer to print the whole letter so you get a sense of the flow and then my comments are below. Here goes:
I decided to send you a query soon after discovering your blog. Thanks to you, I know not to start queries with rhetorical questions, to avoid evil albinos, and to always Google search an agent. I appreciate your fairness and work ethic, but I keep coming back for the funny. Plus you’ve got great hair, and call me shallow, but that counts for me.
As a kid growing up on a farm, I related best to stories set in the country. In my 95,000 word Young Adult Novel, TROUBLE WILL FIND US, a group of teenagers are growing up rural at a time when friends must wait to call each other on their rotary phones until the long distance rates go down in the evening.
For Jenny Hofstetter and Katie Kipfer, proving that they aren’t just two nice little Mennonite girls is the most important goal of the 1988/89 school year. They want to be more than the farmer’s daughter, or the accidental child of a repented black sheep mother. They’re going in with a plan, “unaffected with an edge of tough for unpredictability,” and to do that they’ll have to get some distance from their sheltered, church-going roots.
Quiet, sensitive Katie and her best friend, tiny volatile Jenny, are going to stand out from the crowd and surprise everybody who ever thought they knew them. Soon after Jenny starts going out with the most notorious bad boy around, Katie is swept off her feet by a new kid in town with a troubled past. It’s the perfect way to make jaws drop, teachers steam and parents tear their hair out. Everybody’s talking about them, exactly as planned.
But plans can fall apart. Katie’s boyfriend has some serious problems that she refuses to recognize, while Jenny, still heartbroken over the death of a friend two years earlier, begins a rapid emotional unravelling. All they want is to be cool, but when hanging around with the bad boys means crime and hard drugs, they realize that they are not prepared for it. Jenny and Katie wanted to change the way people thought of them, but couldn’t have guessed that by the end of the school year, everything will change.
When I was a teenager twenty years ago, I knew a few kids like these. Fortunately, I came out the other side relatively unscathed.
This query falls into the “fine” category that I discussed in the last query critique (summary for the link averse: fine is good, but not, I’m afraid, good enough). The query is just a tad long but is competently written, there seems to be a plot, and it’s personalized and it’s a blog reader (bonus points). It’s all fine.
But here’s the thing. Just like most of you all, I read a lot of books, I watch a lot of movies, I watch a lot of TV, I read the Internet… you get the idea. We live in an incredibly story-saturated age, to the point that we are all intimately and intensely familiar with archetypes and conventions. And most queries I receive fall squarely into a certain familiar archetype.
This isn’t the kiss of death — the coming of age archetype, for instance, has been the backbone of stories as disparate as Star Wars, The Graduate, and HARRY POTTER. Archetypes stick around for a reason — we love them. But you must must must recognize when your work falls into an archetype. It is astoundingly important (told you I’d use it again). And then you must know what makes your take on that archetype unique.
So let’s take a look at this query. Two girls decide to rebel while they’re in high school and they flirt with danger before coming to some sort of new understanding of themselves. It’s a very familiar plot.
But wait — look deeper there is something different about these characters. They are Mennonites in rural America (or Canada, as the case my be, eh?), which has the makings of a very unique spin on a standard genre. How many coming of age novels feature rural Mennonites? I’m sure there are some, but with a conventional setup, that is what is going to make this story stand out — the setting and an unfamiliar (to most people) religion.
It is sooo essential to know what is going to make your story stand out in the marketplace and to then make those selling points the centerpiece of your query. The author here made a stab at mentioning these elements, but I don’t feel that they went far enough. The rotary telephone detail was a nice attempt, but that evokes a time period that most people experienced more than a specific time and a specific place. Details are crucial in queries because they have to connote so much in such a little space.
And then it was more or less mentioned in passing that the characters were Mennonite. I was reading reading reading, then thought, “Huh, that’s interesting, they’re Mennonite?,” but then it never really reappeared. After a follow-up with the author I learned that she wanted to downplay the Mennonite angle because they are not the old-order Mennonites but rather new-order. Another great detail that could have been mentioned in the query! So you have a conflict here not only in that these are rural religious girls in a modern world but they are also departures from an older more traditional faith. Not quite modern but not quite traditional is a fascinating gray area that could really be mined for some good conflict.
And then the details of the plot and relationships that make up the rest of the query really could have happened anywhere. They aren’t infused with the uniqueness of the setting, which they could have been if they were attached to details that convey that uniqueness. If your selling point is your setting, nearly every event you describe should build on that selling point.
After writing a whole book and thinking about it for so long it can be hard to see the selling point forest from the plot point trees. But you have to arm yourself with an ironclad sense of what makes your book different and then hammer it home in the query.