Sunday, October 31, 2010


Dear QueryShark:

Tabitha’s a smart cookie, but she’s not exactly what you’d call worldly. She’s studying abroad in England on her first big trip away from home, and she thought she’d be having the time of her life. Instead, she feels dislocated and isolated. And it doesn’t help that she’s a continent away from her boyfriend Will.

you don't have to repeat the subject (she) in every clause. It's actually better if you don't.  When I keep chewing on writers to pare out every unneeded word, this is what I mean.

Back in New Jersey, Tabitha was a talented literature student, but now she’s struggling to compete. When not facing thinly veiled scorn from her classmates or being publicly humiliated for her ignorance of the vernacular, Tabitha soothes her loneliness with tea, chips, and pints of hard cider.

So far all you've done here is tell us about Tabitha. And frankly, she sounds like a sad-sack full of self-pity.

Tabitha eventually settles in with a motley assortment of British students, including a vivacious extrovert who involves her in schemes to finagle free drinks, a morose snooker aficionado who indoctrinates her into his favorite pastime, and an enigmatic aristocrat who invites her into a secret society that convenes on nights of the full moon.

This is all set up and description. What does Tabitha want? What's keeping her from it?

Then Tabitha’s precarious new serenity shatters.

Will sleeps with his best female friend back home, and Tabitha is desolate. Tabitha’s American friends Katy and Ezra find her plunged in despair, and they pull her into their European spring break travels.

This is all backstory, and you'd be lucky if I kept reading to find out where the actual story starts.

story actually begins here------>As the three friends eat and drink their way across Ireland and France, Tabitha wrestles with her conflicted emotions. She’s furious with herself for still loving Will despite his transgression. And yet she finds herself increasingly drawn to the handsome and sympathetic Ezra, who has made his interest in Tabitha evident. Torn by her dueling attractions, Tabitha makes a choice that even she doesn’t expect…

I'm sorry but this is just plain not interesting, let alone enticing. An American girl abroad with a group of students finds herself attracted to one of her merry band. This isn't a plot. It's a set up.

ABROAD is a 76,000-word new adult novel.

This is my first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Let's get some plot on the page here. What does Tabitha want? When you say she'd be having the time of her life, what did she think she'd be doing? Why isn't she doing it? What's keeping her from doing it? 

Everything up to the first place Tabitha has to make a choice is prelude to the story.  Most likely that choice is "When Tabitha hears her idiot boyfriend has taken advantage of her year away in England to sleep with all the members of Chi Omega in alphabetical order, Tabitha must decide whether to hire a hit man for revenge, or go to France with her merry band of misfit friends and drown her sorrows in good wine and cheese."

 Start over. Focus on what happens, not description.


Dear Query Shark:

Tabitha Macaulay is supposed to be having the time of her life studying abroad in England on a prestigious scholarship. But she feels out-of-place at her British university, and is a continent away from her musician boyfriend Will.

Just as Tabitha settles in with a motley assortment of British and American students, she is devastated to learn that Will has betrayed her. Fellow Americans Katy and Ezra pull Tabitha out of her dejection and into their European spring break travels.

As the three friends eat and drink their way across Ireland and France, Tabitha wrestles with her conflicted emotions: she still loves Will, but finds herself increasingly drawn to the handsome and sympathetic Ezra. Torn by her dueling attractions, Tabitha finally makes the choice that even she doesn’t expect…

She becomes a lesbian? She enters a convent? It better be something that dramatic cause the other options (she decides she doesn't need a boyfriend and/or she falls for Ezra) are pretty low-wattage resolutions.

ABROAD, a 76,000-word new adult /young adult/ novel, explores the bumpy road to cultural assimilation, (there's nothing in the query letter about that) the joy of unexpected friendships, (or that) the healing power of food, (or that) and the delicious agony of sexual tension. (or that)

You're telling me the book is about those things. What you've shown me is the book is about a girl whose boyfriend cheats on her while she's away (I could have told her that would happen) and she embarks on a road trip to ease her pain. This is the most standard of plots right now. What you're telling and what you're showing don't match. I believe what you show me.

Just a word to the commenters tempted to leap on the designation new adult: it is a legitimate category and describes books about college age people. YA is generally for protagonists of high school age; New adult is for protagonists aged 18 to about 22.

I have degrees in English and Communication from Rutgers University, and I studied literature abroad at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

Aha! I suspect a thinly disguised memoir here. What you need to remember is that real life seldom is the stuff of good novels.

There isn't enough substance here.  YA and NA has real heft to it now. I think of books like Courtney Summers' CRACKED UP TO BE; Amy Reed's BEAUTIFUL; Charles Benoit's YOU.

This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Esc said...

"YA is generally for protagonists of high school age; New adult is for people up to about 22."

Wouldn't this be designated for the reading ages rather than the protagonist ages? I know those often correlate, but not all the time. For example, I would not consider Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India to be for children despite its protagonist being a young child.

Julie Weathers said...

Rats. I wanted her to discover she was a witch who was destined to burn at the stake but escaped to America in 1691. A tragic accident caused her to lose her memories and her powers. Now that she's back, the witch hunters' descendants will finally have their justice in the IMMORTAL FIRE.

Janet Reid said...

Darryl, no, it's not reading ages. Lots of people, myself included, read YA novels. I haven't been 16 in a long time.

Theresa Milstein said...

New writers who want to write YA are really resistant to letting their novels be New Adult. I don't know why. They've made arguments to me about how the protagonists are just out of high school and the material is appropriate, and so on. When this comes up in the future, I'm sending them to this post.

This query does sound like a pretty standard coming of age story. If it's got a twist, reveal it in the query.

Lehcarjt said...

My first thought was that the 'big reveal' was the protag falling for Katy. I don't see any other hints in the query as to what the reveal could be.

Addley C. Fannin said...

There's actually a category called New Adult? Hot damn, I'd never heard of that! And here I was floundering because the story I'm working on isn't YA, but isn't really aimed at 30-somethings so much as college kids. Learn something new every day; thanks Shark! :3

Irene Troy said...

I fear I’m becoming a hardened skeptic and overly harsh critic. I read these queries, read reviews of already published work and think “oh, that tired old theme, again”. Janet noted “This is the most standard of plots right now”. And here in lies my frustration with so much of what is being presented in fiction: formulaic writing. College age woman goes to school in Europe, leaving her boyfriend back home. He cheats on her, breaking her heart. She travels around Europe seeking solace and rebirth. Yawn. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert’s successful memoir – already covered this territory. Yes, I know, memoir is truth while fiction is…well…fiction, but unless the fictional version can offer something more meaningful and less predictable, I’m not interested.

This novel may well offer much more than appears in the query. I think we can all agree writing a good, meaningful piece of fiction and writing a decent, enticing query letter to promote that fiction require different skills. Hopefully, if the novel offers something more enticing the author will wrestle the query into better shape.

Stephanie Barr said...

Only the most amazing premises/plots get me interested in a book without a real sense of the characters. I'm a character person.

For me (as I have a teenager but am not one) teenage drama isn't interesting. I'm not the target audience, but YA/NA novels are most successful if they can appeal to adults as well. I've read some good ones, but it's the character that's done it for me.

That doesn't mean these characters aren't great or this plot far more interesting than it seems here. But no one will ever know if you don't give enough to convince us it's worth the trouble.

I personally think the best way to do that is with giving us something that makes the character appeal, but it depends on the book ultimately.

I told a friend recently that whatever it was about a story that made it something worth writing for a whole novel had to be captured in his query to entice someone else. Perhaps that would apply here as well.

JS said...

This is all perfectly OK; you have to make it sparkle. The query makes me feel like I've read a hundred of this book before, so give us what makes it different.

"Betrayed her" doesn't have any punch to it. "Run off to Acapulco with her sorority-girl nemesis" or something shows a little more voice and fun.

I saw the movie Easy A the other night, and enjoyed it a lot. One of the things I marveled at was that the movie was a lot wittier than it had to be; there was a lot of delightful thrown-away fun and meta-fun, which seasoned the relatively standard "literary classic re-enacted by high school students" trope. Something to think about!

Kate said...

I don't get a sense of who Tabitha is from the query. What happens to her doesn't make her special, as the Shark lovingly pointed out. Falling in love abroad with charming, handsome strangers is not hard to do. So what it is about Tabitha that makes us want to go on this journey with her, even if it is a rather stock journey?

While there may be story/originality problems here, I think the writing is really clear. Not once did I say to myself, "Wait, what?" So props on that.

Unknown said...

I just thought I'd point out that Ezra is a boys name. It's one of those older bible names like Isaiah.

adamswrites said...

Food, sex and travel--just substitute friendship for spiritual awakening and it seams awful close to Eat, Pray, Love for college kids

Vivian said...

New Adult. I was wondering what you called a book about college-age kids. I have a half-finished novel set on a college campus, and I always wondered what category I would call it if I ever finished it. It also occurred to me that there really aren't a lot of books for that age group (unless I'm just looking in the wrong section of the bookstore). Anyway, I learn something new every time I visit this blog.

John Jack said...

What I get from the pitch is a young woman who experiences a sexual identity crisis while abroad on Wanderjarh. Great fodder for a character story but with more fully developed high concept premises.

I'd like to read a character novel where a woman's crisis is a crisis of conscience and identity unraveled by her doings. Like if Tabitha's the one who jeapordizes her relationship with Will, who she suspects and barely tolerates isn't completely faithful to her, she's in control while spinning out of control. Then her problem/ decision/outcome can be regaining control of her life while having a good time letting off steam. I feel I could read dozens of variant takes on that theme.

Kate Larkindale said...

I'm intrigued by this 'new adult' label. I've never seen it on a list of what agents are looking for, so who do you query for this kind of title? Agents who do YA, or adult books?

College Boy said...

There are things that the author could bring to this novel to make it interesting, such as a new perspective, a new voice, a compelling character, etc. It is possible that she did, but she doesn't say anything in the query to make us think that this is the case. If I were the author, I would read the manuscript closely to see what it is that makes it stand out, and then use that as the basis for the query. If nothing stands out, then rewrite it so that something does.

Jo-Ann said...

"Tabitha finally makes the choice that even she doesn’t expect…"

Shaves her head and joins a doomsday cult?

Agrees to surrogate a baby for a childless couple?

Becomes a drug mule over her continental travels?

Hatches a plot to blow up the houses of parliament?

Or... the one that would totally devastate Mr and Mrs Macaulay... drops out of her Astrophysics PhD studies and takes up hairdressing!

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

New Adult - I've never heard of that either. When did it appear on the scene? Could we perhaps invent another category - Ancient Adult, Old Adult, Delightfully Mature Adult? Guaranteed not to contain young children, teens, college kids, angst and fluffy puppies?

This query - ho hum, yep. Been there, done that. Too often.

What happened to #184? It was there - then it was not! Savaged too, if I recall correctly, as only the lovely Shark can do.

M. G. E. said...

This one was too thin on plot and doesn't differentiate itself.

And since you were going for a more literary bent your only chance is to give us a sense of character to make up for having a stock plot.

But we got no sense of unique, much less interesting, character.

Joel Brown said...

Congratulations. Good job on greeting, paragraph size, spelling, grammar, coherent sentences, logical structure, title, word count and the all important closing words.

You fell into the Target Market Debate (YA/NA/YO GABBA GABBA, etc.). It is the next great silliness since the "Courier vs. Times" horse has been smooshed into paste.

Check off this box, and we will move to something interesting.

Unfortunately, it’s all bad news.

The Story. Unless you’re a fish-out-of-water (Bridget Jones meets Meadow Soprano), it’s tough. “Coming of Age” is a tiny target (DEVIL WEARS PRADA). If you have money, you’re a Spoiled Brat (SITC 2, A GOOD YEAR, MOTHERHOOD). US class wars (Guido vs. Rutgers vs. Princeton) vs. the UK swing it into a comedy of manners. (Her roommate’s brother quotes the Sopranos. Or asks about The Wire: “Do you really treat them that way?” She retaliates and pins him and reveals every spoiler as he squeals for release. Or a pasty spindly Englishman says, “I’m still a West Coast rapper at heart.”

The Writing. Bland. We resort to ‘tell’ to squeeze everything into 250 words. You can’t. “I got a break up text. He ended with three frowny faces. He forgot I was five hours earlier. I would call it thoughtlessness, but it requires thought. It was the first and last time he woke me up at 4:00AM not wanting sex.”

Find your voice. Make us squirm. Write it like you mean it, and you’ll be fine.

(This post is 247 words.)

Katrina S. Forest said...

Did anyone else have trouble trying to figure out if Ezra is a man or a woman? I've heard the name used both ways. At first I thought woman because the query seemed to set up the group-of-girlfriends-travel-together plot. But then Ezra was described as handsome, which usually implies male to me. So I'm lost there.

In either case, though, I don't really feel like there's any threat to the MC. In a worst case scenario, she returns home from Europe without a beautiful replacement for her cheating boyfriend. She needs to have a deeper crisis than that to catch my interest.

Anonymous said...

And now for something VERY down-to-earth: But she feels out-of-place at her British university . . . Please don't hyphenate a predicate adjective. She feels out of place at her British university.

Anonymous said...

Oh well, I'll be down to earth too-- in a year abroad you can experience culture shock, but not "cultural assimilation". Cultural assimilation happens to the second generation. If she stays over there, it can happen to her kids. They'll play cricket, snog, eat bangers and mash and spotted dick, and insist that the US has 52 states.

But yeah, okay. The writing is good. The story is uninteresting. As others have said, it's a case of either

1. The story actually is interesting but the query doesn't succeed in conveying that.


2. The story is uninteresting, but can be rewritten to make it more interesting, in any of the ways people have suggested.


3. This is a trunk story, part of the million words you have to write before you're published, one of the 3.5 unpublished novels that the average first-time author has in the desk drawer.

(And yes, I know 3.5 into 1 million is a lot more than a novel. You write other stuff, too. Like query letters. Re the "new adult" category, I think St. Martin's introduced it in an online writing contest a year or so back.)

Unknown said...

Can't add anything to this one, except to advise the author to revise and resubmit. Bella, love your comments. Apparently, we have as many genres as we do hyphonated Americans or communities. Oh, and according to Stephanie, it is not appropriate to ask about or comment on a previous query as in "what happened to #184?"

Nicole said...

Huh. Learn something new every day. I have never heard of "new adult" before now. And I even work in a bookstore...makes me wonder if that someday I'll be rearranging the sections for a "New Adult" area...

Anonymous said...

I never would have seen "New Adult" coming, but in retrospect it shouldn't be surprising . . . lots of teenagers must be reading fiction, or YA wouldn't be hot right now . . . if demographics show teenagers reading more often than adults right now, publishers will naturally want to produce products that will keep these customers who already read a lot, with new products that will keep them reading throughout their adult life . . . before they slip away . . . because the current readers of YA won't stay teenagers forever

Gisele said...

As others have already mentioned, this query letter sounds like "Eat, Pray, Love" for a younger generation. It is also a story that we all have heard before many times. However, that isn't necessarily a deal breaker, as long as the plot is intriguing enough.

Talking about plot... Where is it? Mainly, there is only background disclosure from this query letter and then nearing the end we got a vague idea of what the storyline really is. I'd suggest taking all of that background noise out of the query and start it with the meat of the story - the adventures of an American student abroad - After all, that's what the story is really about, right?

"Torn by her dueling attractions, Tabitha finally makes the choice that even she doesn’t expect…"

In the context of the query, this line is being promoted as the big twist of the story. As such, I just really hope that the big twist will not end up being that Tabitha falls for Ezra and dumps her cheating boyfriend. This is the most obvious outcome. Every single reader can see it coming a mile away. In fact, it would be better to say that "Tabitha finally makes the choice that ONLY SHE doesn't expect."

This is not to say that if Tabitha and Ezra strike up romantically is a bad idea. Just don't promote it as the big twist, 'cause it ain't.

Hopefully there is more depth to the story that will make it into a fun and adventurous read.

Even though I've pointed out some rough spots with the query, I could be interested in the story. It just needs depth, development and intrigue.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, I can't really think of any sexual stuff that would qualify as being that much of a surprise here. When a character is young, travelling abroad, with little or nothing on her plate at the moment but a freshly-broken heart, well . . . that situation is tailor-made for romantic/sexual experimentation. The only thing that would surprise me would be if Tabitha somehow avoided having sex at all (and I seriously doubt that one's in the cards).

Jeff Chen said...

I'm hoping that Tabitha's unexpected choice is that she dresses her cute pugs like sharks.


Dave said...

How about:

Devastated by the news that her boyfriend's been cheating on her, Tabitha Macauley (the protagonist) flees to Ireland and enters a convent.

At first she's enchanted by the sombre rituals of the religious life. These include immersing leprechauns in boiling oil after Sunday Mass, naked cavortings with the other novitiates in the black waters of a local boghole, plus a liberal drink/drugs policy.

But something's missing.

One night, she discovers a strange machine in the basement. It's a giant teleportation device. She reads the instruction manual and other relevant documentation and realises that the evil head nun (the antagonist) plans to bring a race of alien uber-nuns to earth and take over the world.

But what does she do? (I've read that a character must make choices early on or else the novel will be crap). Does she save the planet from certain destruction or does she phone her bastard boyfriend and tell him she forgives him?

Only time will tell.

Bio: I was a feral child and grew up in the grounds of St Brenda's Home for Wayward Nuns in County Wicklow, surviving on food scraps. So the veracity of the nun stuff is guaranteed. I'm now on death row in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. I didn't do it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Anonymous said...

I gotta hand it to ya Dave, that was great!

Anonymous said...

That does sound intriguing, but your bio's got holes. Ireland, like most of the western world, has no death penalty, and stares at the U.S. in dumbfounded amazement.

(Not cuz of our death penalty, actually. Just cuz we're so good-looking.)

Joseph said...

According to Wikipedia, the death penalty wasn't OFFICIALLY abolished until 1990 (although nobody's been killed since 1954). But maybe Dave's an eternal creature of the night.

I'm surprised I don't see more queries like this one on these kinds of websites. You'd think there would be loads of college aged kids writing thinly disguised fictional versions of their lives.

blondezvous said...

Agree with the comments so far about the travel/self-discovery theme being overdone, and the lack of evident story in the query letter. There's nothing wrong with novels that are drawn from life, but there's a difference between a story with real-life elements to it, and a memoir with no story. Your life experience can be the background and setup to a story, but not the story in itself.

Anonymous said...

Good point about no Irish death penalty. But can't that be fixed by just rearranging the bio?

"I was a feral child and grew up in the grounds of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, surviving on food scraps. I'm now on death row in St Brenda's Home for Wayward Nuns. I'm guilty as sin!"

And yes, lots of young people tend to write "thinly disguised descriptions of their own lives" (quotated because it's the best description I've ever heard for this phenomenon). But I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that this was done by this particular author.

Whether it was or not, it's important to remember what Dennis Hopper said in Search and Destroy: "Just because it happened to you, doesn't make it interesting."

wizardonskis22 said...

Possibly the most exciting part of the query was that I heard of a new genre. Does anyone know any other examples of new adult fiction?
Besides that, I definitely see the Eat, Pray, Love thing, but it could also be very different. There's nothing new under the sun, so as long as it's different enough, it doesn't matter if it has a ring of similarity.
I found the query fairly confusing. I didn't get a good sense of the stories, the characters, or even completely what it was talking about. I think it's interesting that people assumed that Will's betrayal was cheating. Who knows, he could ahve given her name to a mad axe-man who was chasing after her, which is why she goes on the trip in the first place...
Also, as the Shark pointed out fairly well, the paragraph starting with "ABROAD" pops out of nowhere. Here I am with Tabitha on a trip with some friends, then voila! cultural assimilation, unexpected friendships, food, and sex?? Whoah, where did that come from? If that's important, I'd stick it in somewhere up above, preferably by showing it, not telling it. Good luck on your revision!

Dave said...

Siebendach, Alaskaravenclaw, Thomas, thanks.

Even when Ireland did have the death penalty, there wasn't a death row. There were never enough condemned prisoners to form a row.

#185, getting minced here can't be much fun, but it could save you months or years of ineffective querying. Just keep going.

As Hemingway said, all first queries are shit.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the big twist could be but I certainly hope it isn't lesbianism. It would be so offensive to turn homosexuallity into a plot gimmick. Plus if she does start discovering a new side to her sexuality it should be an important part of her self-discovery, not something left to the end as a punch line.

It might be a better idea to lay the plot out neatly in the query without obscurig anything. I remember reading somewhere that to entice readers in the same way blurbs do. queries are supposed to show how tight a plot is, interesting characters, the writer's skills.

Katrina S. Forest said...

In response to the Shark's suggestions on the revision, I think it'd be kinda cool if Tabitha hired a hit man. It would definitely add some tension.

Stephanie Barr said...

Re: Rev

You seem to have gone in the opposite direction of what QS told you for the first version. Before you send in another revision, go back, take a look at what she asked for - she's very straightforward - and fill in the blanks she's pointed out.

You don't want to sell the premise (really, it's not that original) - you want to sell it on the characters and the plot. The biggest sense we have of the main character is martyrdom and passivity as she has only reacted, not initiated anything on her own.

If there's more to the MC, you need to let us know what it is. If there's a real adventure coming, we need to know why it's worth following along. My guess is the plot is the key. Tell us what it is.

none said...

England--Ireland--France isn't so much 'across' as sideways then down :).

Teagen said...

Author: You've made your main character sound like the kind of female protagonist most people I'm familiar with hate reading about. Give her some strength, some backbone. Basically, you've made her sound like she's had an easy life until she goes abroad and then life actually gets hard for her so she about gives up, then makes an odd assortment of friends, then her boyfriend cheats on her, and she's rescued by two friends who take her traveling and starts falling in love with one of them but still loves her cheating boyfriend back home who probably could care less unless he's using her for something.

Most people I know despise weak female protags. Give her some fight. Maybe even make the spring break plans her idea. It's fine to have a vulnerable character, but it's annoying and boring if everyone else is saving her while she idly stands by and lets it happen. Make her do something.