Friday, March 8, 2013


Dear Query Shark,

Sophie Anderson has finally accepted her fairly large butt and somehow managed to snag the coolest, hottest guy in school.  Are the two related?  Who knows and who cares.  Sophie’s sophomore year of high school is guaranteed to be totally awesome.

This does what it needs to do: I want to find out what happens next.

Then Anthony (who?)  cheats on her with his ex-girlfriend, Chelsea.  The same one he dumped so he could be with Sophie in the first place.  Ugh.  Seriously.  The irony would probably be hilarious if it wasn’t busy ruining Sophie’s life.  Probably.

When you introduce characters in a query, you can't label them and then name them. We don't know who Anthony is. We know she's with the coolest, hottest guy in school, but we didn't learn his name.

Is a sophomore in high school going to think this is ironic? And ironic while it's ruining her life?

This feels distant, like you're observing Sophie not actually showing us what she's feeling.

Now Sophie not only has to deal with her first heartbreak, which is like, the hardest thing ever, but she also has to see that homewrecker at school every freaking day, flaunting her non-boobs, raccoon makeup, and oompa loompa tan.  Once again, ugh.

I LOVE oompa loompa tan. I love it so much I can forgive almost everything else.

Then there’s that cute new guy.  Too bad he’s full of himself and has that way of getting under Sophie’s skin… but he has the softest, nicest looking hair and all she wants to do is run her fingers through it…

Remember the oompa loompa tan? I loved it cause it was fresh and funny.  Running her fingers through his hair isn't either of those.

 At least she has her friends to get her though it all.  Sure, they’re completely insane, but they’re all she has, and for some reason they put up with her insanity, too. With them around, Sophie may just get out of this unscathed.

Ok, you've avoided character soup here, that's good. But again, this feels distant "Insane" is how I describe my friends in a throw away comment. If I was REALLY describing them, I'd be more specific: they're slithery for starters, fierce, don't suffer fools gladly (or even at all), and funny.

Then again, this is high school, so probably not.

And that's funny too, but it's ironic and distant and I'm not sure it's the right tone BUT oompa loompa tan still keeps you on the plus side of things.

 BECAUSE I’M AWESOME is a 60,000 word Young Adult novel. 

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Wait, that's all? This is only half the story.  You have things that happen but NO PLOT! 
"Wait, wait," I hear you gasp, clutching your gold ticket to the QueryShark tank. "There's plot, look at all the stuff going on!"

Plot is not what happens. Plot is how the characters react to what happen. [I know this is true cause I read it in a comment on one of my blog posts!] We need a sense of the choices Sophie has to make, and the consequences.

And right now, this feels very thin to me in terms of what does happen.  I'm not well-read in the YA category but what I have read of contemporary YA seems to always involve MORE than just a romance. Something more is at stake. You need a subplot here, or a plot with the romance element is the subplot.

This is also what editors will call "too small" a book: there's not enough story there to carry a full book.

Go back and read your 20 favorite YA novels published in the last five years. (Yes, they MUST be published within the last five years)

When you read them, map the book's plot and subplot. See how they intertwine and relate. 

It's not enough to have one great phrase, you've got to also have one great plot. And you need to have a more immediate sense of Sophie and her friends in the query. We're can't be ironic observers, we need to be right there with her.

Research. Rewrite. Revise. Resend.

Revision takes time. Not just time to write, but time to think (and in this case research.)  More good writers shoot their career in the foot with impatience than anything else.


Anonymous said...

I like the voice here a lot. And the stuff about Sophie's friends helping her pull through (love that kind of thing!) And the title is awesome! But I did have a couple of issues.

The first few paragraphs make it sound like the book is about a girl who defines her entire worth and happiness through guys. Not only that, but when Anthony cheats on her, she blames the girl and insults her appearance and calls her a homewrecker. (Which is ironic, since Anthony left Chelsea for Sophie in the first place, which could, in Chelsea's mind, make Sophie the "homewrecker"--even though, again, Anthony's the one making these choices.) I'm guessing the book becomes about more than that--maybe, through her friendships, Sophie learns to be happier with herself and her life. But I'd love to see that in the query.

The writing is definitely engaging :)

Chris Desson said...

Yes, the author should read Sarah Dessen and Susane Colasanti's books. The stories move quickly with strong voices and well-driven plots. The romance is a side note- something that happens to the main characters- which trips the MC on the way to the fork in the road; the romantic parts are more like unseen speed bumps or boulders the MC has to either climb over, dig under, or walk around to move forward (or up the proverbial climax mountain).

Dor said...

In the Query Letter Hell section of Absolute Write there's a sticky thread entitled Romance Heroines' Goals and it's about - spoiler alert! -Romance Heroines' Goals.

Briefly: the goal is not love, or a relationship, it's something outside that.

Consider the film You've Got Mail: Meg Ryan's goal is keeping her bookshop open. The Wedding Planner: J-Lo wants to plan a wedding. Never Been Kissed: Drew Barrymore is there to get her story/be the cool highschool girl she wasn't first time around. In the Shopaholic books, Becky has to find a way out of her debt.

At the moment this is just stuff happening: stuff happening is not a plot. What is the MCs goal/problem?

Lehcarjt said...

I read a lot of (and write) YA, and while the story had a strong voice, it was almost too much for me. I think this is because it's exactly like every trying-hard-to-be-teenie contemp YA (I 'heard' it in my 12 y/olds voice). So rather than get me excited, I'm more 'uh-huh, what's special about that?'

The difference between special and blah is exactly what QS said: It's not just how the protag speaks, it's what she tells us about.

sbjames said...

I hate to bust the bubble, but I heard 'oompa loompa tan' over two years ago from a teen who is an avid reader of YA book and blogs. Just saying- it may not be so original to them though it is still very funny.

Anonymous said...

I'm sad to say that "oompa loompa tan" is in fairly common use in a certain Gawker-reading set. So not sure it's that fresh/original, unfortunately!

BP said...

I love the opening. If this had read "Sophie Anderson has finally accepted her fairly large butt and IT HAS somehow managed to snag the coolest, hottest guy in school" I would've totally gone for it. ;D haha

Sounds like a writer who is going places! The jaunty, hazy writing style reminds me of my work back in the yesteryears of highschool writing, though...makes me wonder about the age of the author. I'm sure that with a little gusto and a lot more writing practice, though, they will conquer, kill and bring a story idea home for dinner that is deserving of that sprightly, original voice of theirs! :D very fresh!

Ellipsis Flood said...

Somehow I feel like the author tried to emulate their character with their voice. That can work, if done well, but it gets increasingly harder the farther away the character is from a person who can tell a story.

Kim (YA Asylum) said...

I like the voice in this, too, but there's not enough plot here for a YA contemporary. I'd also call it that -- contemporary YA instead of just a YA. It shows that you know your genre, which is always a good thing.

I'd recommend reading Gayle Forman, John Green, Sarah Dessen & other big names in the contemporary YA world. From what I've heard, contemporary is in demand. Teens want something real and this sounds pretty real.

Theresa Milstein said...

This query has excellent voice. That is really hard to pull off, and I think it means this manuscript must have it in spades. Good sign! I wonder if the lack of plot is in the manuscript, as QS said, or it's just lacking in the query. It's sometimes hard to figure out what to reveal and what to leave out from the plot.

What does your protagonist want?
What prevents her from getting it?
What does she DO (plot) to try to get around the obstacle?

pcwrites said...

I am put off by use of the term "homewrecker." Doesn't that suggest someone who breaks up a marriage and/or family? I don't think it applies to high school romances. Like others, I am also familiar with the "oompa loompa tan." It may not be original, but I do think it's an effective descriptive term.

I also like the voice here, but please be careful not to go too far. Teenagers do not like to be treated as though they are stupid or foolish, so I would think that YA writers must treat their teen characters with respect and intelligence - even while using teen-appropriate lingo.

D.R. Chisholm said...

Time and again, I hear literary editors and agents praise voice – the supposedly elusive moniker of writing that is fresh and original. Only I think that’s a crock. Anything that draws attention from the story and the characters in the story (and puts it plainly on the writer) breaks the spell fiction is meant to weave. I think voice, which I’ve noticed is not unique but usually pointed out as existing whenever a piece of writing is slightly snarky and quippy, is self-indulgent.
Yes, most readers love coming upon a spectacular turn of phrase or the perfect description. But before I was ever a writer, I was a reader, and what I want to read is a story I can disappear into. I don’t read to be impressed. I read to be transported. The moment I’m impressed, I’m tossed ass-first out of the world I’ve been living in, and it doesn’t feel the least bit respectful. And, by all means, the reader is to be respected. The only writer who has the right to do this to me is Kurt Vonnegut. Period. But his novels aren’t about immersion anyway.
So much of publishing is about pleasing the gate keepers, the agents and editors and critics. But what if these experts have become jaded? When story and character don’t matter as much as style, the art is in trouble. That’s what I see.

Lemur said...

Loved the first line and the oompa lommpa tan even if it's not original.

Besides the need to focus on the plot here, which others have abundantly delved into, my biggest challenge is with Sophie's attitude. The way she speaks of Chelsea, her obsession with looks and the fact that she's mad because a guy cheated WITH her and then cheated ON her makes me wonder if I'd like her enough to spend a whole book with her. She's finally accepted her butt, and now she's attacking someone else's looks? (And the new guy - she's focused on looks once again.) I'd think that if she really HAS accepted her butt, she might be a little less nasty about other people's alleged physical shortcomings.

Granted it's natural for teenagers to be concerned with their looks and those of others. It's natural (if misplaced) to be jealous of and snarky about the competition. Most likely this is only a problem with the query, not the story itself.

Are there other reasons why Sophie hates Chelsea? Maybe tell us about the fact that Chelsea was the one who gave Sophie the nickname Blubber Buns in the 7th grade. And give us a reason why she likes the new guy beyond just his looks.

Unknown said...

The plot reminds me of "The Duff," by Kody Keplinger. I agree the voice really stands out and the opening line was great.

Someone made a comment about being careful not to go overboard with voice- it's a good point. Too many "like totally" and "so over it" type comments can make YA characters seem one-dimensional and flaky.

Erica Eliza said...

Yes, please do the research. I'm a teenager myself. Contrary to popular belief, we are not angst-filled. We do not exist to lust after the school's designated Mr. Unattainable.
And we never talk like this:
"Now Sophie not only has to deal with her first heartbreak, which is like, the hardest thing ever."
Not unless we're obfuscating stupidity.
Sounds like your idea of high school comes from poorly written, poorly researched Disney movies.
These type of stories make me whimper. How exactly do you expect to connect with an audience while talking down to them?
Again, do the research. Don't just read books about teenagers. Talk to teenagers.
Thank you for having a sophomore protagonist. Finally, somebody who realizes we aren't all juniors.

Fatboy said...

"When you read them, map the book's plot and subplot. See how they intertwine and relate."

Do this. I wrote scene cards from ten novels I liked. Then outlined the novels to better understand their plot and structure. Read and re-read over a couple of weeks. You can learn alot relatively quickly that way.

Inkwell said...

I don't know if a teenager would like this. Her heart is broken and it's "like, the hardest thing ever"? That's so stereotypical, I would have been insulted if I picked this up in high school. I know teen drama sounds really hokey when you get older, they're invested in it. So I'd be pretty ticked off if I was a young adult and picked this up after a bad break up.

And yeah, this might be a sore spot, because I'm still young and I still have fresh memories of being a teen and being dismissed by adults. But really, who wants to read a book that stereotypes them to death?

Bethany Christiansen said...

Thank you Eliza. Very intelligent response. Perhaps you should consider writing this would be a breath of fresh air amid a locker room full of stuffy, over-used cliches and cheap-smelling dialogue.

Caitlin Carrigan said...

I have to jump on the bandwagon and say that the voice kills it! (That's a positive thing, mind you.)

I love that you can hear your character's tone in some places and despite my not being a reader of such fair, it intrigued me.

Joy Slaughter said...

'Plot is how characters relate to what happen.' Oooo.... I may write that on the wall. In Sharpie.