Sunday, October 4, 2015


Question: Frankly, I'm bumfuzzled. I've attended break-outs at conferences, talked to a former-agent, read all your archives (really), and spent hours on other blogs about querying. All the advice seems conflicting. I need to make you care about the character...but not include backstory. I need to make my teenage protagonist's voice come through...but I need to write professionally. I need to follow all the rules...and know when to break the rules. I need to include biographical information...and not waste your time with my irrelevant bio. Please help me have the best chance of getting through the slush pile!

Dear Query Shark,

Ingrid’s amazing spring break trip to Rome is about to go up in fifty-foot flames.

One of the ways you convey voice is through word choice. "Amazing" is both over-used and tepid. It doesn't really tell us much about why Ingrid is looking forward to the trip. Is it the trip itself or the destination? Is there a more vivid word that will capture Ingrid's expectations about the trip?

And fifty foot flames is hyperbole. Hyperbole can be very effective, but here, it feels slightly hysterical.

How about you start with showing, rather than telling:

Her seatmates on the plane turn up dead.
All of them? Are they her travelling companions or just random strangers? Did she kill them?

She discovers she’s carrying a jump drive worth 400 billion dollars.
Does it have a price sticker?  In other words, how does she know?

And the next thing she knows, the Mafia is trying to kill her and her family.
Revenge for her killing her seatmates?

You've got too much and too little going on here. That's kind of a neat trick actually. Lots of stuff, but zero context.

Back to basics:

What does Ingrid want?

Why can't she have it? Who's getting in the way?

If  she chooses to (do something here)

she'll have to (what she'd have to give up)

If she chooses NOT to (the something from above)

she'll lose (something else)

Just when it seems things can’t get more mucked up, Ingrid meets Alessandro, the epically hot heir to the Mafia throne. If only he would stop duct taping her to chairs and stealing her stuff, they might have a future. All Ingrid wanted was to eat gelato and speak lousy Italian. Now she’s got a new spring break bucket list:

1. Save her family.
2. Thwart the crime of the century.
3. Make out with Bad Hottie.
4. Get out of Rome with her head still attached to her body.

Too bad she has zero skills to ensure any of those outcomes.

Senseless Things is a 64,000 word YA romantic suspense.

Thank you for your time.

There's a lot of conflicting advice, but I hope you'll see that getting down the basics in a query is the first step. Do that, and the rest will follow.

Start over.




Alec Breton said...

Clarity counts in a query as much as evoking a mood, creating mystery, tempting with false evidence, and all the other "tricks". Yes, let's make sure the "basics" are covered, as a foundation.

Michael said...

Wow, I am bumfuzzled too. I thought this was a really good query.

As for what she wants: It's in the bucket list.

As for how she came to know the price of the jump drive, that unknown fact makes me curious. Maybe there was a note or something.

I can see how making minor changes would help, such as: Who are the seatmates? But I'm still unclear why this query is a no go. I too have read most of your archives and learned from other sources, etc.

Although the query doesn't explain everything, it makes me curious to read the first few pages.

I thought that was the goal? Not to describe every plot detail, but to put out the important plot points and then make someone curious to read more.

Can you say anything else to clarify why this is a reject and, most importantly, suggest a few more things (or rewrites) to improve it?

Theresa Milstein said...

I can see the writer went for voice rather than clarity. There were parts I found funny, and I can see how there might be a funny manuscript. We just need more specifics about how she got into this mess. Once we have that foundation, the rest might work.

Kate Murray said...

Count me in with the OP & Michael! I thought this was a great query & wouldn't expect many changes for it to pass muster.

To me, the phrase "...turn up dead" doesn't suggest that she killed her seatmates, and the use of the word "seatmates" suggests that they are strangers, not friends.

Glynka said...

Hi all, Chum here.

First of all, no one has ever been more excited to get chewed to bits in public. When I got Ms. Reid's email that my letter had been posted, I danced around my house...then had to try to explain to my seven year old why I was glad someone was going to be mean to me.

Helpful criticism is gold. Thanks to everyone who comments, as well. I am honored.

And yeah, I want to kick my own butt for putting the word "amazing" in my hook. What was I thinking?

brevity said...

Hi Glynka,

This query has a Robin Benway vibe, which is cool. Can you connect Alessandro to the plot a bit more? For example, does Ingrid risk cozying up to him in order to get to his family and thwart their crime? If so, tell us. That creates a lot more tension than just, "Ooh, he's cute!"

Peggy Larkin said...

I'm with brevity here. I'm intrigued because I like the voice and I've got a soft spot for a hot mafia bad boy, but I'm not sure what's really going on. How did her family get involved?

I love the line "If only he would stop duct taping her to chairs and stealing her stuff, they might have a future," which really helps give voice/tone for the book. In fact, most of that paragraph worked for me... just not the intro.

But I'm still pretty sure I'd like to read this! (I know that doesn't help much, since I'm not an agent, but...)

Aria Adams said...

I'm far enough from being a literary agent (for now) and far enough from being published (for now), but to chime in with some thoughts anyway...
I actually like this part best, and it tells me almost all I need to know to make me want to read more:

All Ingrid wanted [from her spring break trip to Rome] was to eat gelato and speak lousy Italian. Now she’s got a new bucket list:

1. Save her family.
2. Thwart the crime of the century.
3. Make out with Bad Hottie.
4. Get out of Rome with her head still attached to her body.

Obviously, it misses some information -- who exactly are the bad guy(s), what's the crime about, why is she a part of any of this -- but I think it would make for a good foundation. Your query as it is, IMO, feels kinda repetitive, because this bucket list basically sums up/repeats what was already said in the rest of the letter.
Ms Shark, would you say that bending the rules a bit and starting the query with some variation of a very short intro and the bucket list would make it more interesting or more likely to get rejected?


I think your last paragraph is humorous, I like the voice, and it hooked me right away. This is where your query should start, me thinks. Maybe you can just fold in some of the "need to know" information after this.

Ali said...

For what it's worth, I loved the line "If only he'd stop duct taping her to chairs". I did think that the continuation "and stealing her stuff" took away from it though.

The Relm Eclipsed said...

This was entertaining to read. Personally I am not a fan of YA, but the humorous element of just the query letter piqued my curiosity.

abnormalalien said...

I don't know about this one. The first several lines seemed like a disjointed list of events to me. Argh, I don't really like that but I kept reading anyway and loved that last part (both the duct tape line and the bucket list).

I tend to read a lot of YA but typically avoid most of the romance-for-the-sake-of-romance novels, YA or otherwise. So, I'm not necessarily your target audience but that last part succeeded in making me want to read more. If only so I can find out if this mc is hysterically (and also tragically) another girl who can't help herself around the bad boy.