Sunday, May 20, 2018

#310

Question: The query focuses largely on an act 1 subplot involving the MC's female best friend and ignores the main romance interest, whose plot doesn't rev up until late in act 2 (not good for a query). My one page synopsis (not included) is the exact opposite. It ignores the best friend entirely so it can focus on the main romance interest, whose plot structure largely parallels the main plot with the villains. I know you might not be able to answer without the synopsis, but will agents have a problem with this? I'm afraid it will feel too disconnected or misleading.


Dear Query Shark:

Seventh grader Scott Winters doesn't know he has super powers. He just knows he has problems. A bear in his school, a classmate with amnesia, a random rat infestation. Crazy things tend to happen around Scott, and he always gets the blame. So when seven of his classmates mysteriously fall into a lion habitat, Scott knows he's in trouble again. What he doesn't know is that someone just tried to kill him.


This lead paragraph is 72 words, or about 25% of your query. The ONLY information you need here is the first and last sentence.

The paragraph is well-written, and it's pretty funny, BUT it makes me think the book is about Scott getting his friends out of trouble. You don't want me to think the book is one thing when it's really something else.

So revising:


Seventh grader Scott Winters doesn't know he has super powers. He just knows he has problems. A bear in his school, a classmate with amnesia, a random rat infestation. Crazy things tend to happen around Scott, and he always gets the blame. So when seven of his classmates mysteriously fall into a lion habitat, Scott knows he's in trouble again. What he doesn't does know is that someone just tried to kill him.


Meanwhile, Scott's best friend is also in danger. Schv√§rtzmurgel Hoffman is three parts tomboy, two parts snark. Just don't try using her first name — she'll punch you. Schizophrenia and a terrible fashion sense earn her plenty of ridicule at school, but Hoffman's real trouble lies at home. Scott finds her with a black eye the next day. Her mother's hitting her again.

Wait. Schizophrenia? Where did that come from? And equating a debilitating mental illness with terrible fashion sense is both tone deaf and weird.

In addition, this paragraph does not relate in any way to the first paragraph. You left me wondering who's trying to kill Scott in paragraph one. Paragraph two should be something about that, not this odd curveball.



Scott already tried contacting the authorities about Hoffman's situation, but they don't believe him. Somehow Hoffman's mother always convinces the other adults that nothing's wrong. Scott settles for inviting Hoffman over as often as possible, but even this plan is jeopardized when another attempt is made on Scott's life. This time the villain reveals himself — a tall man with telekinetic abilities.

Ok so now we have the villain. You'll have to cut out all the stuff about Miss Hoffman (notice you've told us what NOT to call her, but not what her preferred name is) cause it doesn't relate AT ALL to what you've said is the main plot: someone trying to kill Scott.


Running for their lives, Scott and Hoffman are thrust into the hidden world of superpowers. Scott soon discovers his own unique power, immunity to other superpowers and the ability to suppress them temporarily. He also meets three empowered FBI agents. They take Scott and Hoffman into protective custody, which shines a spotlight on Hoffman's home life.


At this point I'm too confused to read on. What is "the hidden world of superpowers?" Where did the FBI come from? 


Scott doesn't have high hopes, but the superpowered branch of the FBI is better equipped than the local authorities. They identify Hoffman's mom as a psychic, able to manipulate the thoughts of others. It's such a dangerous power that the FBI asks Scott for help. His ability to suppress superpowers is ideal for shutting down psychics, but the telekinetic man is still at large. Scott now faces a difficult choice. Keep hiding for his own safety, or risk another attack to protect his friend.

If Hoffman's mom is a key part of the plot, you can still leave out all the abuse stuff in your query. A query needs to be sleek, not stuffed.


Written by a physicist who picked up creative writing as a way to stay sane in graduate school, HOW TO SAVE THE GIRL is a fast-paced tale full of quirky characters and superheroic hijinks. The work is 68,500 words, with a narrative style inspired by the Percy Jackson novels and Stuart Gibbs' "Spy School" series. While there is scattered humor throughout, the story does not make light of child abuse.

Doesn't make light of child abuse? Why on earth would I even think you'd do that? Don't defend yourself against accusations that haven't been made.

I don't care why you want to be a writer.

I hope there is more than scattered humor cause this is a middle grade book about superpowers. Funny is the ONLY way its going to work.

Right now this query is over stuffed. Focus on the MAIN plot.

I'm totally put off by the idea there's a romance in a middle grade novel but that's probably cause I'm thinking of romance novels. Middle grade novels are read by 4th-6th graders. I'm absolutely sure that a strong romantic element is out of place here. Boys and girls being friends is about the max on this kind of thing.


That the plot doesn't rev up until "late in Act 2" is a HUGE problem, in that when I request a full manuscript, the plot better be revved up and running by the end of Act 1 and preferably a lot sooner.

If not, I stop reading.

Middle grade readers aren't going to sit around and wait for the good stuff either.


Thank you for your time and consideration,

To answer your question: a query that doesn't match the synopsis IS confusing. The fact that they don't means you have a problem WITH THE BOOK. 

This means, before you revise the query, make sure the plot of your book is front and center in the very first pages.  

Then revise your query.

I also suspect you would benefit from reading more middle grade books. Your librarian can help you with that. She's superpowered that way.

9 comments:

LynnRodz said...

Unless you address schizophrenia for the illness it is and not just something you throw in there, I'm not sure it belongs in this story. I think Hoffman has enough problems of physical abuse by her mother to add a severe mental illness to her situation where she has trouble distinquishing reality or relating to others.

As you said, this query seems to focus more on Scott helping his friend than someone trying to kill him. I have to agree with the Sharque, you don't have 12 or 13 year olds with a "main romance interest" as the story. There's just too much going on for that to be the focal point.

Yes, you can allude to them liking one another, but be careful when you talk about schizophrenia and physical abuse. If you have a message for young readers about these important issues that's fine, and using humor and super powers may be a way to deal with them, but you must tread carefully.

Good luck, OP.

nightsmusic said...

They identify Hoffman's mom as a psychic, able to manipulate the thoughts of others. It's such a dangerous power that the FBI asks Scott for help. His ability to suppress superpowers is ideal for shutting down psychics, but the telekinetic man is still at large. Scott now faces a difficult choice. Keep hiding for his own safety, or risk another attack to protect his friend.

I think this is your plot. And it's in paragraph five! You've lost any agent long before they get to the gist of the book. If you can't get your plot in the first two short paragraphs, or an idea of the plot, you've lost your advantage. So, other than a couple of lines, and I'm being specific with a couple, to clean this up a bit, you need to get rid of everything else and this needs to be front and center. I was totally confused. I'm really hoping your book is more concise because middle grade readers won't bother to sift through the flotsam to get to the story.

And please! No romance. Middle graders are still coming into their own. My girls at the time still thought kissing was "oogie". Few kids around that age group won't. A deeper friendship, sure. No romance.

Francesca Strada said...

The confusing thing for me is that you mentioned someone tried to kill Scott, and then you jumped into what I would call a sub plot. To me the main plot is Scott, the fact someone is trying to kill him because of his superpowers (I guess).
You should really focus both query and synopsis on the main plot. Agents know there's always more in a novel.
Having a sub plot is a good thing, it helps you create tension and conflict, which in my opinion is a good things.

As already suggested, I would really avoid the mention of any type of romance. Middle graders are not really into that sort of theme.
What emerges from the query is a strong friendship.

Mark Richmond said...

I found this query a bit jarring in the sense that the opening paragraph lays out a fun, lighthearted adventure story full of whimsy and zany events, followed by the second paragraph which lays out a girl with schizophrenia who gets abused by her mother. The tone shifted from quirky and upbeat to dark and weird in an instant.

Also, in terms of plot construction, the telekinetic man is introduced as the main villain, but later it seems as if Hoffman's mother is the true villain. By the end of the query, I got the feeling that the telekinetic man might be a plot contrivance to keep the kids away from Hoffman's mother and to force Scott to make a big "choice" because the telekinetic man seems to have zero motivation for attacking Scott. And I see a major plot hole - if Scott's power is perfect for shutting down psychics, such that he could stop Hoffman's mother, why couldn't he stop the telekinetic man as well?

Perhaps the telekinetic man isn't a necessary character. I imagine Hoffman's mother could potentially be the one who tries to kill Scott because she would have the power to understand that only Scott could stop her.

Also, just so you know, schizophrenia is a disease that typically manifests itself later in life. A quick Google search will show you that the average age of onset for men is eighteen, whereas onset with women tends to be later in life, around the age of twenty five. It's not outside the realm of possibility for Hoffman to be dealing with this illness, but it seems improbable and an odd character choice given that being a sixth grader whose mother punches her in the face is enough for me to garner sympathy for the character. Again, as other commenters posted, be aware of the very serious tone that physical child abuse sets in your story, and maybe consider going with a different approach for Hoffman's mother. And what is the mother's motivation for beating her own child? If it's only to show that she's comically evil, you might consider going a different direction.

For the query, I would focus on the main characters - Scott, Hoffman, and the evil mother - and their conflict. Make sure you show us why it's vital that Scott confronts Hoffman's mother, why he HAS to make the choice of risking his life and not the FBI, whose job is to deal with these kinds of problems. Just because Scott happens to have a superpower that makes it convenient, doesn't mean he has to use it - unless something huge is at stake.

For example: maybe we find out that Hoffman's mother is holding her lovely father captive, and the only way to free him and ensure Hoffman can lead a great life is by extracting that information. That would give Scott a reason to risk his life for his best friend. Otherwise, Scott could just wait for the FBI to do their job and arrest Hoffman's mother. Even if Scott is literally the only person who could possibly defeat the mother, there still needs to be something compelling him to do so.

I feel like you could really ramp up this query by showing us Scott's need to stop Hoffman's mother and protect his friend. Consider:

"Scott didn't know he had superpowers until someone tried to kill him. But that turned out to be a great thing - the superpowers, not the murderous supervillain - because he's been searching for a way to help his best friend, Hoffman, escape from the tyrannical mother who..."

Just an idea (which might get shark chomped). But then again, by your own admission, perhaps all of this is just a subplot - and the heart of the story is actually a romance. If so, focus on the true heart of the story for your query, and like the Query Shark said, don't allow the real story to start picking up halfway through the second act. You might find that the subplot at the beginning of your novel needs to be trimmed down or removed completely, or it needs to become the main story, because it is an interesting premise.

Best of luck!

Zaq said...

Author here. I did not expect this up on the blog so fast. It's only been a week. Thank's Query Shark.

This query is clearly confusing and I need to go back to the drawing board. The guy trying to kill Scott is the main villain (or close enough). The stuff with Hoffman's mom is a sublplot. By the halfway point the mom is out of the story and not coming back.

The so-called "romance" is presented very similarly to the Spy School series I comped. The main character there is 12 and he's clearly developing feelings for the lead girl. The same kind of thing happens in my book. MC is 13 and develops a crush. There's some hand-holding and a single sort-of-kiss near the end, but it's definitely nothing like a romance novel or even a young adult romance plot. I have no intention of mentioning "romance" in the query.

My first query draft focused on the main plot, but I scrapped it because I had to go way too far into the novel before Scott makes an active choice. The main plot is largely the villain attacking Scott and Scott re-acting, trying to stay alive while figuring out why the villain's after him. That's part of why I have this sub-plot. Scott starts as a passive, non-confrontational character who has to learn to take action, and confronting Hoffman's mom is the first time he does so. I also wanted to find a way to work Hoffman into the query. She's the most popular character among my test readers and she has the second highest page-time next to Scott. I see a lot of agents asking for under-represented characters on their websites too. Trying to bring her into a query that's focused on the "romance interest" wasn't working working out, so I figured I'd focus one on her subplot. Obviously a bad idea.

To the shark herself: I thought it was clear that Hoffman just goes by Hoffman. That's how the rest of the query refers to her. I am also confused by the fact that your edit to my first paragraph changes Scott from NOT knowing that someone just tried to kill him to knowing it. He doesn't know he's been attacked at this point. He just thinks it's another one of those weird things that happens in his life. He doesn't realize it was an attack until he's attacked again.

I will try reverting to a query that focuses on the main plot and resend.

Anonymous said...

One seemingly small thing that I'm approaching as a reader, not as an agent, and something much easier to fix than a whole book: that title, man.

You introduce Hoffman as pretty self-reliant, a complex character with issues and spunk. And then your title is ... [i]How to Save the Girl[/i]. I look at a title like that, and my immediate thought is, "well, this book has no interest in giving the main female lead any agency at all."

And that's a book I am never, ever going to even pick up to read the blurb, let alone spend money on. [i]Especially[/i] if I am a parent shopping for books for my kids. The last thing I want to do is give a book to a boy that teaches him girls need to be protected and saved, or to a girl that teaches her she needs to be protected and saved.

Jen said...

Great comments here. As a writer who has gone from adult to MG fiction, nailing that MG voice is HARD. Getting the plot to be a page-turner for kids my son's age is almost as difficult. I can't agree enough with QueryShark: Read a TON of MG fiction. Even MG that's outside the fantasy/ paranormal sub-genre that seems to be your story.

Best of luck OP!

Patricia Tavormina said...

Hi Zaq, Your male lead *learns* the villain is trying to kill him. So, it is arguably fair to say that he knows someone is trying to kill him. By doing so, you have the main character and stakes in two sentences. Yes, QS's suggested edit is out of order with how you set up the plot, but for an agent (in my understanding as someone trying to write QL) that's OK. The agent needs to have a sense of the book, not a blow-by-blow. I might be wrong ...

Jenny Milchman said...

This is somewhat tangential to the query process, but as an FYI, schizophrenia isn't typically a diagnosis made in childhood. It tends to have an onset in the early twenties, late adolescence occasionally. I'm sure you could find a case or two in a younger age bracket, but it's so far out of the norm that unless that is the subject of your novel (especially early onset of sz), you probably want a different diagnosis, if you intend to focus on mental illness in children. Anxiety disorders, depression, spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, intermittent explosive disorder can all be diagnosed in childhood--each having a different symptom profile and changing the type of character you're writing.