Tuesday, May 18, 2010

#160-the director's cut

Many of you made comments about #160-For the Win that got me thinking. I've copied and pasted some of your comments here and replied in blue.

This isn't a "you're wrong, I'm right" recap. I think your comments are interesting and raise valid points. Think of this as Bite 2!

I didn't understand the pertinence of the first two sentences in the second paragraph. What does Beatrice's love of insects have to do with the rest of the story?

It kept niggling at me as I read the rest of the query so much so that, when there was nothing to tie back, I felt disappointed.

I think Beatrice's love of insects is less about plot than it is about character. I think it's an excellent way to show (not tell!) that Beatrice is interested in things around her, that she is curious, and she's probably pretty smart. And it says all that quite elegantly.

This is a much more useful description of a character than age, eye and hair color, and I see that a LOT in queries.

Do 15 year-olds get jobs as nannies? Is that the same as a baby sitter? I guess that's my only question? I just jump into Mary Poppins and such like.

This wasn't a problem for me. It's clear her job is taking care of James during the summer. If, after reading it, her job should be called something else, well then we'll fix it.

This is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. This is a good query despite this lack of certainty in correct job title. It's the WRITING I respond to. I can fix almost anything but voice so I'm not worried if she's a nanny or a babysitter.


I guess I'm also wondering, if they need a babysitter to watch James during the day over the summer, what chance Beatrice has to overhear. If both parents are home, why do they need her? If they're self-employed/work from home, that sounds like a more useful tidbit than her love of insects (cool as that may be).

they're not, well, why would she hang around the house once they're home?

When would she get the chance to eavesdrop? What is James in danger from? Depression? Or is his life in danger? Where did that come in? I guess it didn't all hang together so well for me as it did for some.

Actually your questions allow me to make a point: you don't need to drown us in the whys and wherefores, particularly in a query letter.

If you grab me, I'll generally go along for the ride. It's only when something really doesn't work logically at all that I'm catapulted out of the story.

Remember, I'm not reading your queries in my slush pile with an idea of critiquing them, or analyzing them, or anything for anything other than answering Do I Want To Read This Book?

Yes, these questions will need to be answered, but that can come in the novel, not the query. The only (ONLY) purpose of a query is to entice me to read pages, and have your deets so I can ask for more.

I loved it, but 44,000 words is surely more of a novella length?

This is YA and maybe even MG (middle grade) The word count isn't a problem.


I guess it's not important to mention setting? Have no idea where this story is set or even on what continent. Is it better not to mention a specific setting and just keep it general? One pitch I made last week and got a 3-chapter hit the following day, I mentioned "a small Pennsylvania town" in the first paragraph.

For my novels set in Malaysia, I clearly state that fact.

If you need setting to make the query hold together logically, then yes you need it.
If you need setting to entice me to read on, then yes you need it.

If you don't, or don't, then you don't.

There are no hard and fast rules on what you absolutely have to have. You need what works. What works can vary.

That's one of the reasons I'm so adamant about reading the Query Shark archives. If you read 160+ queries and their revisions, you'll see what works and what doesn't, and develop a sense for it in your queries.

It's a little like learning to drive. When you first started you had to run down the checklist in your head: start engine, engage gear, look in rear view mirror and so on.

Now you can do all that while texting, eating, and shouting at the idiot driver next to you. Driving is second nature.

Read enough QueryShark and you can shout at the idiot driver next to you while composting your most excellent query.

Wow, maybe this is why I can't get an agent to reply favorably to my queries. I guess I just don't get it. When I first read this query, I thought the "Win" was for worst query of the day.Sure it was direct. I'll give you that, but I thought it was all over the place.

Stephine Barr is right. So Beitris likes bugs. Big deal. How will that further the story? There is an extortion taking place. I like that, but what makes Beitris think James in danger? And if he is in danger, how could Willem be a "real problem"? All he wants to do is date her. When they fight, what's the matter with confiding in her girlfriends? They sure seem eager enough to talk to her about boys.

I'm sorry, but if this 15 year old spends so much time worrying about Darfur and climate change, maybe her plate if full enough.

At 44,000 words, I don't believe it's long enough to build, cultivate and resolve the mélange of complexities introduced in this query. I don't mean to pounce on this author, but come on QueryShark. Is this what you really want from us?


Don't over think this. A query isn't a road map for a book, it's an invitation to read one.
This one works.

This query has nothing that resembles a melange of complexities to me. I think it's actually pretty elegant writing. You are of course, free to disagree.


Sandra Cormier said...

If it's any help, the kid could be an "au paire" - a young person who helps out with the kids.

Locadora do Werneck said...

Why is everybody picking on the insect collection? I think it was the most interesting part of the query. Two of my favorite books involve insect collection somehow: "Silence of the Lambs" and, of course, "The Collector". How can you tell whether or not it's important for the story if you didn't read the whole book yet? Leave the girl alone with her coleopters.

Reena Jacobs said...

When I first read the query, I admit, it also didn't draw me in. As another commenter mentioned, I thought the query was all over the place. Yet your response was

"Oh heck yes you're sending this to me.
Right now.
In fact, why are you still reading...send! Send!"

I chalked it off as tastes being subjective. Thanks for taking the time to explain why you liked the query.

Lucas Darr said...

When I first read #160 awhile ago, I thought the voicing in the letter was good, but I admit when I got to the 44k words with a teen main character, I scratched my head. I was in Borders a month ago with their super-duper-extra-large YA section, and I don't think anything in there was less than 60k.

Now, based on your comments on the comments, I "get it." There was voice. There was enticing character and plot. The writer was not a yahoo.

(light-bulb moment)

Thank you so much for all your query help! I've gone from rejections to rejections with a side of partials and the lone full, mainly because I follow this blog with the eyes wide open.

Anonymous said...

To start: i liked the query when you first posted it and i still like it now.

As to the insect-love at the beginning of the second paragraph: i agree with the commentors who wondered at its relevance, but it didn't put me off wanting to read the story. Not at all.

But, as a tiny nit, i reckon it could still go. It felt like an afterthought, that perhaps the author figured she needed to introduce something relatively unusual (how many 15 year-olds collect insects? And before people say, 'well i did when i was 15,' let me say 'that's nice, but still uncommon') to make the character stand out above what's already been mentioned.

If, perchance, Miss Shark doesn't take the book on for representation, could i make this suggestion (and that's all it is) on how to strengthen that second paragraph:

Beatrice Thompson is fifteen, worried about Darfur and climate change, and quickly getting in over her head with her summer job.

She's working as a nanny. James Anderson, the boy she’s watching, is depressed. She wants to figure out why...


Also, the names are making me think the story is set in England. Just a hunch :)

M. Rose said...

Now I could be wrong, but this post makes me think that the more questions the better, just so long as they're logical ones.

The writing was well done, and it was interesting. All the questions I've read seem to be ones that I'd be willing to read the novel to figure out for myself, and after all isn't that what the writer needs in a query?

Taryn Kincaid said...

Beatrice's interest in insects and their behavior shows she is a keen observer who is fascinated by ecology and the environment. This helps explain why a 16-year-old who might otherwise be concerned solely with whether a boy likes her and what her friends think about that, is observant enough to notice the odd behavior of her charge and his family and seek to learn more about the cause of that behavior--the development of wetlands. It all hangs together and frames the query nicely.

Jessica Schley said...

May I speak up in favor of the bug collecting? I thought it was a fascinating detail that showed me a really important thing about the protagonist: she's an unusual and nonconformist 15-year-old (because as one commenter points out how many do collect insects? Probably only this one), which carries a LOT of implications in to how she's going to deal with the problem presented. An average 15 y/o would probably go for the guy. Beatrice's bug collecting tells me immediately she might not take that route. I thought it was a terrific detail the first time I read it, and I still do now.

Unknown said...

I'm going to be honest here as I don't think I have much to lose-- I've already queried just about everyone. I read the query you loved. I didn't think it was all that great...however, I don't read or write YA/MG. What do I know? So, I don't think I commented on it.

Here comes the honesty--I'm only human and I couldn't help thinking, 'Why her's and not mine?' I know I'm not alone with thinking that. (Come on folks, you know many of you had a similar thought flit through your mind, right? ;-)) While I didn't comment here, I saw little things to pick apart in #160s query.

I don't think you need to justify your choice though, because just like I didn't think #160 was great, you apparently thought mine wasn't great. It's subjective and,of course, I'm biased for my own novel. You might have a thing for books about kids who love insects.;-) I have a thing for reluctant, misunderstood heroes.

Speaking for myself only, it's a case of sour grapes. Maybe I'll make a little whine...er, wine.

Sara J. Henry said...

Janet, did you really say ... while composting your most excellent query?

Is that what you do with rejected queries? Compost 'em?

Robin Lemke said...

Just want to speak up and say that I've had many friends work as nannies, and if you're caring for the child while the parents are working all summer, you are definitely a nanny. Babysitters work once in a while, for an evening, not every day. And, sure, fifteen year olds do it. I wouldn't personally leave my kids with a fifteen year old, but it happens.

Also, many nannies are around while both parents are. They don't typically dismiss the nanny just because they have some time off, or even right when they get home. Often nannies watch the kids with both parents home, or one parent home (who might be on the phone with the other parent).

stephanie kuehn said...

I love the insect collecting element as well. Like Daniel Poeira, I immediately thought of "The Collector" and "The Butterfly Revolution." There are so many elements of analysis/detached understanding/unique curiosity embedded in that one quality, that it really stands out and makes me want to read the story.

Lehcarjt said...

One of the things that fascinates me about QS and keeps me coming back, is that it seems like we (the aspiring-to-be-pubbed-authors) are looking for a formula. If we can just find it, we can get an agents attention and sell our book.

But what is becoming more and more obvious to me is that there is no formula. It works or it doesn't work. There are guidelines that increase the chances of 'it works,' but that's all it does - increase the chances.

I believe strongly that query writing is a skill, but perhaps part of that skill is accepting that 'it works' can be as much about magic as it is about following rules.

(although even as I write that last bit, I want to argue that 'magic' isn't the right word. It's close enough though.)

Phyllis said...

Bugs or no bugs, is it really so difficult to see why this query works? We get a sense of the protagonist, the stakes (James' well-being), obstacles along the way (the breaking friendship with William), and the choices the protagonist faces (nosing around despite W.'s disapproval). Finally, we get a clue how all can fit together without being told too much (wetlands development).

And even though it's a query, it reads like a story. I can feel the progress as I read on, and yet, the query is short, succinct, and to the point.

As it happens, I'm not a fan of the insect sentence either, because the motive is not taken up again, but that's nit-picking. All that needs to be there actually is.

Stephanie Barr said...

I'll be honest, as one of the worst offenders, apparently, that QS addressed. The query didn't speak to me. However, I also don't ready YA as a general rule (with a few exceptions).

I mentioned the insect hunting because it was a specific sentence as opposed to being included in her description as in:

Beatrice Thompson is fifteen, worried about Darfur and climate change, and quickly getting in over her head with her summer job.

By making it a separate sentence, I expected it to have something to do with the story. Bug collecting could be about being a budding ecologist or some other scientist. It could be about loving the silent scream as one sticks them on the pin. To me, however, it didn't seem connected to anything else, including the character described. That was all.

Having said all that, I have a fifteen year old girl in the house and her ability to take the most benign news and turn it into uber drama were probably all I needed to lose interest in this personally.

Stephanie Barr said...

I also want to say that, though this didn't catch my interest and doesn't appeal to me personally, I'm not trying to second-guess the shark.

If I knew markets and trends like a pro, I would probably be published already. I don't. YA is, I believe, very big right now but it doesn't appeal to me personally.

I picked this apart largely because it didn't appeal to me personally. Not because it wasn't a marketable story.

There is a difference. And I know it.

S.D. said...

I understood the bug reference. It had to do with the title's name.

GuyStewart said...

I loved this query and when the book comes out, I'll read it and then recc it to the high school librarian. I've spent decades with teens and I have no DOUBT this book will find its fans and just possibly take off 'cause it's "weird" and unusual and it shows an INTELLIGENT teen doing something important!

I'll be looking for it!

Nancy said...

Like Guy, I'm eager for this book to be published so I can recommend it at the library. Teens will love this. Realistic fiction is a hot genre with pre-teens and teens who are tired of being pressed into the fantasy mold everyone assumes they want.

As for the nanny bit, I know a girl who was a nanny at 15. That's what her employers called it and that's what she calls it. Being a nanny is different from babysitting. She was often there when both parents were home, and she knew quite a bit about what was going on in their family.

Rebecca Hamilton said...

This was helpful!

I'm glad you took the time to explain your thoughts on this. I think it also touches on something that can be applied to other queries, and even novels in general.

When we write a novel, we don't have to "reason" everything on the first page. We need enough that we aren't feeling a "clash", but not so much that the story explains every little thing.

It's a "big picture" issue.

Great post.

Emily J said...

Actually I liked the part about her collecting bugs. It shows she is an analytical mind which ties into why she is determined to discover what is going on. It does equate people to pinned moths, but I liked that metaphor. Maybe I'm weird though...

Kay said...

I think it's pretty obvious why Beatrice's interest in bugs is relevant: the writer mentions that an issue with wetlands will be part of the story. The wetlands are full of bugs. Ergo, her knowledge of bugs is going to have something to do with the larger wetlands issue and possibly the mystery she's investigating.


Zoe said...

The plot itself didn't actually interest me that much, but the writing style and the character did. The description of the protagonist made me think of my college roommate - yes, she brought her insect collection with her to school. I think I would read the book just because -she- sounds interesting.

My novel might be categorized as YA so I did some research and they range from 40,000 words up.

Sarah Hipple said...

I think this is one of your best/most useful posts.

The greatest thing that it tells me (that I was getting so very confused about): it's perfectly fine to leave some basic questions about the plot so long as there aren't logical inconsistencies.

I have my query posted on a general forum for review & they kept wanting me to answer questions that would seriously bog down my query letter.


Anonymous said...

Like many have said before, why this query? It just doesn't seem that interesting, but that is what makes it so great. It does its job effectively BECAUSE it follows the rules and has the added bonus of voice. Most writers want to fit in all the wonderful things about their book in their query, most of which can be saved for the synopsis. If you have read all the other queries on here and the shark's advice and you can't understand why this query works, then try starting simple. Work on describing your story in a short sentence of no more than 25 words (the shorter the better), then work your way up to no more than 250 words following the rules on this blog.