Saturday, November 12, 2011


Dear Query Shark,


Wanted: Temporary housing for 6 year old female

Non-negotiable-Parents must maintain a reasonable distance from adolescent. Foster siblings must be willing to undergo counseling. All exchanges between occupants must be formal and diplomatic. The home dwelling needs to have ample technological devices. (Here's where I'd stop reading and send a form rejection)  Weekly allowance will not cover all extra-curricular activities. Family members should have a clear understanding of the phrases “doesn’t adjust well to new settings” and “loved ones should keep an open mind”. Applicants must become members of the Aspie cult also known as, Family Members of Children with Asperger’s Syndrome.

There are several problems:
1. This is a gimmick. As soon as I see something like this it says you're using a gimmick rather than voice to entice me to read on. That is not what you want in a query.

2. The opening line says the kid sister needs to go, but the next paragraph makes it sound like the brother is the one moving "foster siblings etc."  So not only is this a gimmick, it's a confusing gimmick. Very not good.

3.  It's not actually funny.  Now, humor is more subjective than love so you may think it's funny, but to me it's just confusing, and one thing  you have to have with humor: your audience needs to get the joke. 

Will make exchange for older sibling with driver’s permit or potty trained animal. Female comes with complete medical history and list of medications. All vaccines (vaccines are what the inoculation is made of; you mean vaccinations) up to date. Bonus inclusion, exchangee’s ability to retain useless facts.

Again, I'm still confused about who's coming and who's going.

* *

This temporary arrangement is being made for the preservation of exchangee’s older brother. He wishes to continue his meager existence without interference. Female need only be cared for during the next 8 years, at which point brother, James will leave parental home and younger sister (said female) may return. All interested applicants must call home phone @ #440-555-0218, as advertiser does not have his own cell phone or email.

Ok, now it's clear but it's late in the game. You don't have this much time to get an agent's attention. If I'm confused in the first paragraph, I've moved on right then. 

NOT QUITE NORMAL is a light-hearted middle grade contemporary novel about an eleven year old boy who struggles with his place in society. When his autistic sister is mainstreamed into his school, James' delicate balancing act is thrown off the high wire. He must now face the relentless twin bullies at Harwood Elementary with an additional handicap (literally).

This doesn't sound light hearted at all, which is why you want to avoid describing your novel in a query letter.  Let ME figure out the right adjective to apply.  And who exactly is going to read this?
Middle grade novels are for kids in elementary school.  They aren't struggling to find their place in society; they're trying to live through third grade.  They're reading things like Jacob Wonderbar and the Space Kapow; Zachary Ruthless; and, Vordak T. Incomprehensible

Word count of 29,000. This is my first novel.

You're focused on the wrong thing here. Tell us what happens in the book, not the premise for it. Show me it's lighthearted, don't tell me.

Thank You for your time and consideration,


Denise Covey said...

I found this helpful.


Josin L. McQuein said...

I will usually be honest, blunt even, but I normally don't bother with things that I find offensive... you've made me break my rule. Not only is this not funny; it's insulting.

1st there's "Cult Aspie", then the equating of a girl with Asperger's to a dog (hey, she's got her shots!)

If the girl "only needs care for 8 years", then she's around 10, which makes her older brother a creep. He's old enough not to write something like this (it's the sort of thing a 6 year old would write about his YOUNGER sister)

He's 11 - he's not in elementary unless he's been held back, and his personality is completely despicable.

Darci Cole said...

@Josin, The brother is 11, the sister is six. She only needs care until HE turns 18 and leaves.

I was confused as well. I'm not into books that use handicaps as plot points, so I probably wouldn't be drawn to it anyway. Regardless, the only thing I know from this is that the brother doesn't like his sister - what else is new?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was really confusing. Reading that checklist, I was imagining this was a book about a precocious 6-year-old girl looking for a new family because hers just wasn't up to snuff.

Aside from being gimmicky, this format tells us very little about what actually happens in the novel and, as Josin says, makes the boy sound like a pretty horrible kid. Maybe if the sister was a completely average kid it would come off as normal sibling annoyance, but giving her any type of disability makes his trying to pawn her off really creepy and mean.

Robin Lemke said...

Just a comment to say that, while I agree with a lot of what Josin said, I want to point out that 11 is very much elementary schools in many places. My kids' elementary school goes through 6th grade (as do most in our area) and 6th graders typically turn 12 that year.

Sorry - just a detail thing that I wanted to point out.

But the aspie cult thing bothered me, too. Probably going for funny, but it did jolt me, having seen kids and family go through so much with this diagnosis.

Unknown said...

I get what the author is trying to do with this book, I really do. And, sure, Al Capone Does My Shirts gave us the liberty to use disabilities in Middle Grade fiction. But painting your protagonist as a douche is a really, really bad idea in MG. Kids don't get irony at this stage in their development, not fully at least. You're not getting him any sympathy points by showing how much he hates his disabled sister, you're making us hate him. Not a good idea.

The Outsider said...

I know you're trying to be funny here, and I can kind of sympathize with him since I grew up with a little sister with Asperger's (I have it too, but hers is more severe). That said, I have a lot of issues with this.

Like everyone else said, "Cult Aspie" is overstepping the line a bit. Cult is a strong word, and it implies that the family is delighted with her disability, which is not going to happen.

Autism and bullying do not a lighthearted novel make. Like I said, I've been there. It was very far from amusing. Especially for boys, because their bullying tends to be more physical; mostly I've been able to tune my bullies out, but the time a gang of boys threw rocks at me was enough to make me avoid large groups of people for the rest of my life.

I understand what you're trying to do here. You're trying to write a supportive, amusing novel to let siblings of children with Asperger's know they're not alone. But I honestly don't see how you can pull it off. Because it's not going to be the brother the bullies go for first. School will be a living hell for that girl. She's going to spend a lot of her time at home breaking down and refusing to go. That's not funny, darlin'.

Theresa Milstein said...

Yes, 11-years-old is usually 5th-grade. The kids turn 11 that year.

Rules by Cynthia Lord is a wonderful book about a 6th-grade sister dealing with her brother who's autistic. If this boy is feeling burdened by his sister with Asperger's Syndrome, that's perfectly normal. But he doesn't come across as likable in this query.

While the subject isn't lighthearted, the query is trying to stick humor into it with a fake ad. I'd rather get a sense of how this humor comes across in the actual book.

I agree that what this brother wants doesn't fit for middle grade. What he wants is to figure out how to deal with his sister in school. Was it his space to feel normal and get attention, and now it's compromised like at home? Is the bigger issue that he has to come to terms with who his sister is and where he fits?

I wish you luck on the rewrite. I can't wait to see it reposted here, so I know more about the story you've written.

Anonymous said...

Well, nobody's mentioned the commas, so I'll take that.

...the Aspie cult also known as, Family Members of Children with Asperger’s Syndrome.

at which point brother, James will leave parental home

Both commas are unnecessary and awkward.

Basically, the first graf is very confusing, and had me expecting a nonfiction book for foster parents. I'd never have guessed middle grade from the POV of a character who doesn't appear till the third graf.

Why? The voice isn't middle grade and it definitely isn't 11-year-old boy. Not only is it too formal, but euphemisms like "potty-trained" just don't come out of 11-year-old boy mouths.

A lot of us grew up with handicapped siblings. Did we regard them as "an additional handicap (literally)"? I can only speak for myself, but my guess would be an overwhelming chorus of "no"... mostly, like The Outsider above, we got early lessons in sympathy. I think it would take an unusually cold and self-absorbed kid to feel otherwise.

It might be that your character only feels that way sometimes, but it's how you're presenting him to us.

Unknown said...

Everyone else has pointed out the necessary: But I need to point this out.

29,000 words? That is not a novel. It's barely a novella.

Kelly Robinson said...

While the query clearly doesn't work, I think there might be potential with this story. I can see how a boy would be frustrated with his autistic sister coming to his school, especially if (and I don't know if this is the case) the boy has a tenuous hold on popularity or being liked. At his age, it could feel as if his life is ruined. Whether that story could succeed or not is in the telling --whether there's learning and healing in a way that's satisfying.

Janet Reid said...

Caitlin, for a book aimed at middle grade readers, 29K is in the ballpark. You're thinking "novel" as in adult trade (for which 29K is indeed too short)

Unknown said...

I would like to thank all of you for your honest critism. My apologies to those I've offended.
Finding a way to balance humor and personal subject matter is tricky.

I believe in my story and feel it has its place in children's fiction.

Success requires a certain measure of vulnerabity, particularly with the craft of writing.

Thank you Query Shark for your feedback.


Anonymous said...

I write middle grade, and my stuff ranges 55-70k, and the finished books are not comparatively fat, when they sit on a library shelf among the other middle grade books.

50k is a ballpark wordcount... it's what I've had put on a contract for a middle grade novel not yet written.

29k seems like it might be young middle grade, say 3rd grade, but the protag's 11. So yeah, I'd say this is on the short side.

flibgibbet said...

I found this query confusing as well; I assumed that the 6 year old was writing a want ad.

It wasn't until I read the Shark's comments that I understood this was an older brother hoping to find a family to adopt his little sister. (If she didn't have a handicap, this would be funny).

I don't disagree with many of the comments here, but I'll bet that the story itself is much, much better/tender than the query lets on. The author has a strong voice, and the premise is both modern and classic.

I can only assume that the real story is about an 11 year old anti hero who learns an important life lesson. And if that's the case, the query doesn't do the story justice.

Theresa Milstein said...

I just looked on line and word count for Rules by Cynthia is 31,368, which sounds about right. It's geared for grades 4-7. There are many short middle grade books like A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban that hover around 30k. Sure, there are a lot of middle grade books that are higher. But there are also many that are lower, which probably appeal to kids bridging between early chapter books and longer middle grade novels.

Laura Mary said...

Ang - have you read 'The Solitude of Prime Numbers' by Paolo Giordano? Whilst not a lighthearted read, it does show a protagonist in a similar situation; a young boy desperatly embarassed by his mentally disabled sister. It might be useful in how to create a main character we can empathise with.
Or - you're novel might work fine and it's just the query that needs work! Good luck with the re-write.

Anonymous said...

I love it when you let us know "this is where I stopped reading". I read queries on and I often have this experience. Lucky for me I'm not an agent, but this must get frustrating for you!

Laura said...

Waaaaiit a sec. Basic plot problem: if the boy is 11 and the sister is 6, why is he worried about going to the same school? If anything, he should be relieved that he's escaping elementary school around the same time his autistic sister is entering it. I know I was...

Having had a kid brother with autism, I think the concerns of the protagonist are very realistic. God, my brother was embarassing...but I still got in fights with anyone who said that to my face. This kid sounds like he's just mean. This query also uses a lot of, frankly, cruel "humor" and autism stereotypes that make me blink at the description "lighthearted." Someone mentioned "Al Capone Does My Shirts" as a comparison, but it's YA, not middle grade, and it sure as heck isn't lighthearted.

Unknown said...

@laurathewise Although the ever reliable wikipedia calls Al Capone Does My Shirts a YA novel, Amazon, KidReads, and Penguin Juvenile themselves label it as Middle Grade. Given that the protagonist is 12, and the page count is 240, I think it fits.
Lighthearted, on the other hand, maybe not. Funny, yes. But, not lighthearted.

Anonymous said...

Laura, I went to a K-12 public school. Taught in not one but two K-12 public schools. Only one of these schools was in Alaska. K-12 schools are the rule rather than the exception in many areas.

Anonymous said...

I second (third, whatever) the view that this boy just sounds nasty. She's six years old - most brothers have a degree of protectiveness for a younger sibling at that age.

I also don't like the use of 'handicap'; it's dated and awkward.

From the query, it feels like this is yet another book about how hard it is to have an autist in the family. Speaking as someone on the spectrum, I'm tired of the view that it's harder to be related to someone who's autistic than it is to actually be autistic.

Anonymous said...

I hit "Aspie cult" and immediately checked out of the story. Hey you can pull anything off, sez I, if the writing is strong enough. This isn't and consequently this comes across as shockingly offensive.

Meaningless Prose said...

Okay, my memories of public school aren't the most clear, as I was home schooled from the 3rd grade on, but here goes. . .
My issue is, he really wouldn't see much of her, my little brother was in 1st when I was in 2nd and there was very little overlap in our time tables, despite the fact our classes were a few doors down from each other.
He went to lunch and recess at a different time, we maybe saw each other on the to and from, but mostly we saw each other in the morning and to go home.
So when would this 12 yr old see his 6 yr old sister?

Anonymous said...

Given that the New York Times still uses the word "crippled" (most recently on 11/14/11), "handicap" seems downright enlightened by comparison.

But yeah, the wordplay on it is icky.

Meaningless P, it really depends on the size of the town and the size of the school.

Jane Marie said...

I think it's possible, actually, that I might find some interest in this story-but I have one son with severe autism and a younger son with Asperger's. Ihave never seriously thought of finding a new home for either of them. Don't throw away the story, but get rid of the offensive query letter.

Kim (YA Asylum) said...

"Applicants must become members of the Aspie cult also known as, Family Members of Children with Asperger’s Syndrome."

That part was what confused me the most...

I didn't get a sense of the story here much. Other than I think a kid that is evil and doesn't like his foster siblings? I think of "Orphan" then the whole Asperger's Syndrome thing comes to play and I guess that wasn't it at all.

Then I started to read the critique and I realized I was REALLY wrong. Apparently this was supposed to be funny? I'm really bad with humor, so I guess that's how I missed that. But I definitely wouldn't have gotten "light hearted" from this.

Jonathan-David said...

I've just sent in a query of my own and then started reading back over some older stuff from the archives to pass the time. "Describing your novel in a query letter" is exactly what I've done. Oops. I didn't have the description in the first draft of the query either, but then I put it in, sent the email... and read this. :p