Saturday, February 21, 2015

#268-revised 1x

Revision #1

Dear Query Shark:

Michael is a problem solver – a 12-year-old brainiac who finds creative solutions where when others throw up their hands. But keeping him and his sisters under the State’s radar – even keeping them alive? This time, he just might be in over his head.

One of those tricky little mistakes that you catch only when you think about each word in a sentence. It's when (not where) because Michael finds solutions when other people give up, not where other people give up. See the difference?

Orphaned and determined not to be parceled out to foster families, Michael, Cassandra (16), and Kendra (5) disguise themselves and run away. The ‘missing children’ hide out, first, in a rustic campground - where all that stands between them and starvation is Michael’s ingenuity (Just don’t ask him what’s for dinner!) - and then in a vacant house where they try to ‘look normal,’ to hide in plain sight. But, normal people form relationships. And relationships are dangerous when you’re a fugitive. The Kindergarten teacher sees through Kendra’s boy disguise. The nice old lady Michael does chores for is oddly uninterested in his parents. And Cassandra’s police cadet boyfriend is asking way too many questions.

The rhythm of that second sentence improves if you leave out "to look normal." Again, that's something you'll catch only if you read the query out loud. 

These are all things you only catch after multiple revisions. It's WHY you make sure you do multiple revisions. 

Is there any chance the children can pull this off until Cassandra is old enough to be their legal guardian? Dare they trust that there might be another way to remain a family?

Middle Grade readers who loved Jack’s adventure and resourcefulness in Small Like an Elephant will enjoy BACKDOOR KIDS.

I have a BS in Journalism from the (University.) As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines. BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel and complete at 43,000 words.

We don't really call books for middle grade readers novels. I think it's safe to say this is your first book, or your first book for middle grade readers. (A chapter book has a lot of illustrations, and while this may become that, it isn't now.)

Leave out all that stuff about good editing and deadlines. I just assume you are all of those things until proven wrong. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is so much better than the first version! Congrats on some really hard work.

Revise, resend.

Dear Query Shark,

The orphaned Robinson children are in deep cow dung - Children's Services is set to parcel them out to foster families.  Except for Cassandra, 16; it's hard to find foster families for teenagers. She’s likely to end up in a juvenile facility.  

 This is a good opening for a query. Right away I have a sense of what's at stake: the kids being separated. Moreover I care about this because the idea of a regular 16 year old kid being put in a juvenile facility is just awful. I'm enticed to read on to find out what happens next. This is EXACTLY what you want in a query.

Cassandra will do anything to keep her family together.  Destroy her hair.  Lie. Get a job. Even eat nasty crustaceans and commit a crime (break into a house).  It’s a real pain to be in charge.  Things get extra complicated when she befriends a young police cadet with a good reason for being suspicious.  Maybe dating him isn't such a good idea.

And then splat. What does "destroy her hair" mean? Cut it and dye it mouse brown for a job? And "nasty crustaceans"? Like lobster?  

Then you say commit a crime (break into a house)--you only need ONE of those phrases, two is awkward. 

And then comes the romantic entanglement.  Except what's he suspicious of? Her loathing for lobster?

What you're NOT doing here is moving the story along. You've got a good set up in the first paragraph. How is Cassandra holding off Children's Services? Be specific.

12 year old Odd Duck Michael is observant and reads everything.  He also has a better than average memory.  He can build a shelter and safely feed his sisters worms and wild plants.  He’s why the children survive the campground.  Then his family holes up in a small town and, even before school starts, he’s more popular than he ever was at his old school.  The guys even want him on their football team.  Him, Michael the brainiac!  He doesn't want to leave his new life in Applegate. But staying requires remaining undercover in plain sight.  Easier said than done.

And if you could splat more you have just done it here. What campground? Are the children on the run? None of that is clear here. Not Clear is a BAD thing in a query.

Little Kendra is living her fantasy – she gets to be a boy.  But it isn't any fun to be hungry.  And she’s hungry enough to eat a bear.  Well, maybe not Bear, the dog.  But hungry enough to eat whatever Michael cooks on his tin can pan.  (As long as it isn't peas!)  The problem is, Kendra’s disguise is slipping. Her soon-to-be kindergarten teacher isn't fooled for a minute.  And Michael went and called Kendra ‘her’ in front of the old woman down the street. How much longer before all of their secrets get out?

What secret?  You've got a nice set up in paragraph one, but you've failed to tell us what the children are doing. Thus all this other stuff is confusing.

You've sacrificed clarity for telling us about the three characters. Don't do that. Tell us about the story, more specifically the plot.

Who is the antagonist? I'm assuming Children's Services but that's not clear here. I don't think Children's Services tracks kids down like bounty hunters, so we'll need something that gives some urgency to the plot.

Tweens who daydreamed in younger years of being as independent as The Boxcar Children will enjoy  BACKDOOR KIDS, complete at 43,000 words.

The Boxcar Children is a really difficult comp title because 1. The first one was published in 1924 and 2. It's gone on to become a classic.

Comp titles are generally used to show who the audience is for a book which means using a classic is statistically improbable.  You want book/s that are new, generally acquired within the last two years or so.

I have a BS in Journalism from the [University]  As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines.  BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Question:  In QS critique #199-FTW, a query for a multi-perspective novel, you praised the writer for her restraint in not presenting each party’s perspective in her query.  I just violated that concept.  Do I need to rethink this? 

What you've given us here is essentially three versions of the same perspective: that of the kids. QS #199 had viewpoints from three different perspectives: the kidnapper, the kidnap victim, and the people left behind.   If you want to do three perspectives here you'd need the kids (whichever kid you chose), the people looking for them (Children's Services) and maybe the teacher.  

There's no way to do that in 43K words. There just isn't.  Also, if  you're writing for middle grade, I'm not sure you'd want to.

Your problem here is that the query doesn't work, not the number of perspectives. You've got one: 3rd person omniscient.  What you need now is a query that is a lot more specific and plot-centric.

Revise, resend.



Erica Eliza said...

The more queries I read, the more I see Not Clear is a garnish that makes Character Soup harder to choke down.

JeffO said...

I agree about paragraph one--very strong way to open. When I read paragraph two, I thought we were looking at a Frankenquery, where the author accidentally pasted in a piece from a different query. It totally threw me.

Colin Smith said...

I think the second paragraph started well. If the things Cassandra is prepared to do provide drama and up the crisis, then that would be a good direction to go. But what we end up with are three character cameos that don't build upon the first paragraph. As Janet said, what's the story? Three unique children in danger of being separated, one potentially going to juvie. That's the situation. But that's not enough.

Perhaps another way to look at it is using the "What if...?" Your story isn't "What if three orphaned siblings were in danger of being split up?" Sad as it is, that could be a hundred stories. Rather, the "What if...?" is: "What if three soon-to-be-separated orphans...?" Fill in the blank. There's your story.

I hope that helps.

nightsmusic said...

I read every query though I rarely comment, but I need to this time. Your first paragraph was compelling. Not my normal read, but I'd have read this one. Until I got past that first paragraph. My thought on the rest were, "Huh? Where'd the story go?" Suddenly there was mass confusion for me. If I have to work that hard to make sense, my eyes glaze over and the whole thing gets set aside.

Find ONE plot, not a dozen and follow it from start to finish. Don't make anyone work at what your story is. Not at this stage. You want the agent to love it, not scratch her/his head and go, "wha?"

JeffO said...

Oops. Looking again, I realize I meant to say, when I read paragraph 3--Odd Duck Michael totally confused me.

Theresa Milstein said...

This premise sounds like it's the G version of the TV show Shameless--especially because of the gender bending from the small one and the oldest trying to keep everything together. It will seem less so if you stick to one POV. I don't think kids today are looking for another type of Boxcar Children, so I wouldn't mention it.

I think this is set up to be an interesting read in paragraph one. It's a given to tell queries from one POV. I only recall one ore two exception on this site, and they were only two POVs.

I'm wondering how you can have a 16-year-old with a romance going on in middle grade. Even though you only use the word tweens, that's what you manuscript is--MG--right? (Make sure you say it.) If the romance isn't really shown to the kids, I'd say it could stay MG. But then I'd probably stick to the 12-year-old's POV. Regardless, what's at stake for all must be through one character's POV. Sounds like the middle kid would know what both the older and younger were up to + what's at stake.

Unknown said...

#268--Loved the opening paragraph. "Cow Dung" gives me the perception of a backwoods or rural setting all of which could be quite funny w/an older sister if that's how you're leaning--or gritty if you're going for more of Winter's Bones thing. Chin up. Tuck in. And let's see what happens next to the Robinsons.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Willing to do anything, hiding in plain sight and pretending to be a boy.

Who or what is the antagonist? Why are the kids going to be sent off? Where did they go? What did they leave? Why are these three characters together or how do they come together?

It almost sounds like a series of short stories.

I agree, the first paragraph is a very good premis.

Unknown said...

Seems to me that 16-year-old Cassandra struggling to balance taking care of younger siblings along with an illicit romance with a police officer moves your book into YA, which would allow you more words to really tell your story. If you want to leave it as MG I agree with another comment that said the 12 year-old should be the main POV. The book WONDER did have a few chapters with the older, teen sister's POV and I though that worked fine. I'd re-write the query with the 12 year old as the main character, highlighting what he wants and who is trying to take it all away. He sounds like a great character. Good luck!

Karen McCoy said...

So extremely helpful. I had a query draft similar to this one, and now I see why it didn't work.

Thanks, Miz Shark!

Mouse said...

I kind of agree on leaving out the Boxcar Children comparison. I'm not saying the books aren't still read and in print, but they probably won't be on the tip of your average kid's tongue. Plus, y'know there's stuff in that series that only makes sense in the era it was published in. Like the beginning where they're at the bakery and the owners decide, "Y'know let's keep the older two and send the younger ones to an orphanage," and they decide this without contacting any outside social services?!

But yeah, I agree with the general sentiment. Promising start but goes splat in the next few paragraphs. Are all these children related somehow? I thought they might be the siblings Cassandra's trying to protect, but I'm still confused and I shouldn't be.

Unknown said...

Maybe it's just me, but when I read the opening to the query I immediately was reminded of the memoir "Etched in Sand" by Regina Calcaterra. I'm aware that this query is for MG, but the author may want to read that book to get an idea of what a girl did to keep her family together in real life. (The story is remarkable to say the least, but not for the faint of heart. It does contain references to child abuse.) Here's a quote from the jacket copy...

In this story of perseverance in the face of adversity, Regina Calcaterra recounts her childhood in foster care and on the streets—and how she and her savvy crew of homeless siblings managed to survive years of homelessness, abandonment, and abuse

Regina Calcaterra's emotionally powerful memoir reveals how she endured a series of foster homes and intermittent homelessness in the shadow of the Hamptons, and how she rose above her past while fighting to keep her brother and three sisters together.

If anything it may be wise to read it over to see what Child Protective Services actually did in this case. A good read, even if for nothing more than research.

Unknown said...

I think making your tone as clear as possible as well will be key for your query when youre dealing with this kind of subject matter.

As the daughter of two social workers, it's really difficult for me to get on board with a sweet romaticization of children running away. That tone works for The Boxcar Children because it was A Different Time Back Then, before there were drugs and child abusers and serial killers on the loose, and in the end they're rescued by a kindly, rich old relative (so basically, very little semblance to reality.) But that story modernized with the same tone... that presents problems.

It would be much easier in a way if you were going for a gritty YA feel, where life on the streets isn't all it's cracked up to be. But if it's fun and cozy romp through the woods... I mean, I hate moralizing in children's stories, but is that really the message we want to tell kids? That it's better to run away from Children Protection Services?

Just to give you an example, in my city, the average age that sex trade workers first get sucked into prostitution is between 13 and 14 years olf. Most of them are runaways from foster homes. Not that Child Services can't be the antagonist but for me, it's a tough story to read about in modern times without a narrative that recognizes that a lot of it is going to suck, and that maybe there aren't going to be a lot of good answers.

Not meaning to pooh-pooh your efforts, author. I just hope to give you a little of a different reaction. If sweet and nostalgic is really whhere your heart is with this story, just be sure to keep that clear as well so people like me know that we're not the target audience.

Good luck!

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

I thought a book with a 12yo MC, and a 43k word count would be considered a middle grade novel. Aren't chapter books much shorter? (And illustrated, as you said. As where MG novels aren't necessarily.) Could someone clarify for me? Thanks!

Unknown said...

Hi Author,

I just wanted to say I also think this is a great improvement! You've done a much better job of capturing the tone of the story. (My brain goes: Oh, they're in a house! Thank goodness. They are not wandering the nighttime alleys of The Wrong Side of Town.)

I like how you present Michael's skills, but I do find it confusing that the 16-year-old isn't the one taking on the responsibilility for keeping the family together. I understand that for middle grade you need a younger hero, but it makes it very hard for me to see the older sister as a sympathetic character. Maybe it's more of a partnership, to-each-their-own-skill kind of thing?

Good luck!

Sara said...

So now we have Michael as the sole protagonist, at least for the purposes of the query. He's a problem solver and the problem he has to solve is how to keep his family under the radar and alive until his sister is older enough to be their legal guardian. Solid start. You've got the protagonist, his problem, and one reason why he's potentially equipped to deal with it.

What will help the next draft is continuing the "problem solver" concept into the next paragraph. It's there a little, but it could easily be stronger. Does Michael suggest or find the rustic campground? Is he identifying the edible crustaceans of building clever traps to catch them? Anything you can add that shows him problem solving will strengthen the idea that he's the main force keeping the family alive and together.

I'm not clear on whether the move to the vacant house is a step up - something Michael discovers and realizes would make a much better home and hideout for his family, or if something happens and the campground is no longer a viable option. Either way, that sentence is too long and has too much going on. Break it up, clarify why they move, and keep hitting the details of how Michael is figuring out the creative ways to keep them afloat.

Even if Cassandra and Kendra aren't equal partners with Michael in the query anymore, it'd be nice to get a little info about them beyond their ages. Kendra's boy disguise should probably be mentioned before it starts to become a liability and we're probably going to need a reason why Michael has to take the lead instead of Cassandra. He may be the smart one, but she's still four years his senior and theoretically more capable of running a family.

I don't get why the nice old lady not caring about Michael's parents is a problem.

How old does Cassandra have to be to become her siblings' legal guardian? I would guess 18, but two years or so seems like a long period of time for the book to cover or for the kids to be feeling like they're constantly in danger of being discovered.

I don't like the last sentence of story. "Dare they trust" sound forced to me, plus I don't know who or what they're supposed to be trusting to offer an alternate way of staying a family. It's suggesting a vague possibility for a happy ending instead of giving the kids a choice to make or restating the consequences for success or failure. And it's making me worry that there's a story problem. You've set it up so the children had exactly two options: run away and go into hiding so they could stay together or go into the foster care system and end up being separated. If there turns out to be a third option, then there needs to be a really convincing reason why that wasn't on the table to begin with. If the kids were just confused and the foster care system never intended to separate them, or there's a nice family all set to adopt all three of them, or a long lost relative suddenly shows up to claim them, it's going to be a tough sell.

Day and Diet said...

I'm still on #48 of Query Shark's attacks--and loving all the feedback and comments! At the same time though, I now know I have loads of work to do on my manuscript--lots of cutting--before I even think about a query letter. Thanks everyone!