Monday, September 17, 2012

Query Critique #2

Happy Monday y'all! To kick off the week, another query is up for fresh eyes.

I read queries like a book flap, looking for simplicity and punch. Do I want to keep reading? Am I confused? And most of all, do I want to read this book?! :)

We all know each query should start with a "hook," then flesh it out--detailing the conflict--and end with a bang. You want the agent to think "I want to read more" when s/he finishes the query.

So without further ado, here's the query (and thank you Chris! :D) My comments are in blue. 

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent: (always personalize, so good start :D)

We live in a society that is infatuated with and glorifies sex. It is plastered on magazines, dominates the book shelves (50 Shades), and writhes all over the television screen. We’ve turned something God gave us as a precious gift into something that that omit extra "that" is freely given away with no strings attached. While this phenomenon isn’t new, its acceptability is growing exponentially, and it is distorting relationships and wreaking havoc on the self worth of the under thirty generations. This intro paragraph presents a well-written stance on shifting societal mores, but tells me nothing about the book. No character is mentioned, no inciting incident. No hook. 

Sex was something the main character need a character name and age to orient reader in Life in the Happy House was desperately looking forward to in my my? late teens, but something he was withholding until the right person came along to marry. Then he met Amy, a girl who challenged everything he knew to be real, including his faith in God. He lived in a home with six gung-ho weirdo Christian boys who were dumpster diving, head-banging, homeless befriending, and counter-culture-ly weaving God into the lives of people all over Eugene, Oregon (a notoriously Godless city). They were also annoying the heck out of the straight laced, pastor’s kid, is the MC a pastor's kid? Still don't have a name for there MC...and wondering if this is fiction or an autobiography who just wanted to go to school, be involved in a normal church, and live a happy, carefree life.

Because of these factors, my character is constantly being pushed too typo and fro by forces he can’t control. A girl who pushes him to his logical and emotional limits, a home that frustrates him with eccentricities, and a morality code that doesn’t seem as important as it did when he was younger and more idealistic. As life greys, the character strays, and “it” finally happens. it? it what?

The spiral of life, a near fatal accident, innocence lost, and disillusionment with reality leave the character lost and hopeless. Very general. Need specific conflict and stakes. Yet God finds him in his brokenness and speaks to him. And despite the sin, the failed relationships, the destroyed ministry, the guilt and shame, none of it matters to a God who forgives and loves. And for the first time in his life, the character realizes his worth to the world, to himself, to his friends, to his future spouse, and to his God.

Life in the Happy House is this is where you put your word count and genre about redemption and maturing in our relationship with God. How young idealism can be destroyed by one mistake, and how to overcome our realized deficiencies. It also is an amazingly human and Christian portrayal of intimacy, and what we expect vs. what God has given. The story is not afraid to step outside what is considered “safe” in Christian crowds, by daring to challenge what we know about God, and how we look at “sinners.” Anyone who is a virgin or didn’t necessarily want or enjoy their first sexual experience will find/see themselves, and see how one person, overcame his lost innocence in a gut wrenching, but often hilarious way with help from God.

Here add a line: "Thank you for your time and consideration." or whatever feels right to you. :) 

Thanks again,

Chris Plumb


Your writing is lovely. Truly lovely. But a query is what gets the agent's attention, and as yours is written, I'm concerned you may have a form rejection on your hands (which has nothing to do with your novel; it's about how you're presenting it in the query.)

First, this query is long. Over 500 words. Generally queries run around 300 words, with the guts being about 250 (according to Janet Reid of QueryShark fame. :D)

Second, you need the name and age of the MC. A name personalizes the character and helps the agent get invested. You want to make the agent (and reader) care about what happens to (for the purpose of this crit, let's call your MC "Joe") Joe. Plus, the agent needs to know where this book would be shelved, and Joe's age will help them figure out where it fits. Likewise, you need genre and word-count. Is is inspirational fiction? YA? (Doesn't feel like YA to me FWIW). 

Third, after reading this query, I wasn't sure if Joe's story is fiction or auto-biographical. Fiction can be based on a true story, but it must read like fiction with an appropriate pace. If it's fiction, you need to clearly state the hook (the inciting incident), set up the conflict Joe faces, and give the reader stakes. What happens if Joe makes choice A? What will he lose/gain? Same for option B. Writing in present tense helps the sense of urgency. :) Also, if it is a memoir rather than fiction, the query can still be punchy. (See Jeanette Walls memoir, THE GLASS CASTLE. Amazing.) You have words to pare, so use that to your advantage. :)

Chris, I hope this helps. I really feel you have a story here; use the query to pull it out for the reader/agent. :) You can do this! Feel free to email me with any follow up questions. :) 

Readers, any other thoughts to help Chris?


  1. Wow, a nice dose of reality here. I think you hit on the fundamental flaw of many unpublished authors; in that, we don't know how to switch mode from author/writer to marketer/advertiser. While I know my book is quality, I just can't seem to portray that in one page.

    I probably should have just refined my original letter, rather than rewrite the whole thing the day you offered this critique. There are some obvious problems with this letter, and it's almost embarrassing that I sent it out with so little editing. But you also touched on some aspects that will really get me back to the grindstone. How to repackage a story that isn't very plot heavy, but is very emotionally/spiritually heavy, without saying something as dumb as "boy meets imbalanced girl, sexual debauchery and hilarity ensue until girl breaks his heart, boy then finds himself."

    And yes, you found me out...this is partially autobiographical. I like it better as fiction, but the main characters name is "Chris." It used to be Michael. I'm thinking about changing it again.

    Thanks for all the advice. I knew I had some problems with it, but you helped me see from an outside perspective what is needed. Thanks, again, Chris

    1. Chris,

      I'm glad you felt like it was helpful.:) Do NOT feel embarrassed; putting yourself (and your work) out there was brave. Like the Gide quote says (I'm paraphrasing from memory here!:D) "You can't discover new lands until you lose sight of the shore." Risks lead to go Chris!!:)

      Keep writing, and best of luck to you!

  2. Chris,
    It sounds like you have a great character driven inspirational. I suggest taking a look at queryshark & Nathan Branford's blog for ideas on how to organize your query letter.
    A super easy example Nathan gives is:
    Dear [Agent name],

    I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].

    [protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal].

    [title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author's credits (optional)], and this is my first novel.

    Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Best wishes,
    [your name]

    I'd leave out if it is your first novel or not. You really need to whittle your novel down to it's bare bones. I'm sad to say the agents really don't want to hear about WHY you wrote the novel.

    Best wishes to you in your publishing endeavors!

  3. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for sharing your query with us. This read more like a nonfiction book proposal/memoir than a fiction book to me.

    Fiction is the story of what happens, only. Any type of moral or lesson is accidental. That doesn't mean you can't write a story that has a moral to it, but a writer needs to tell a story first and foremost.

    You have a story of boy meets girl - what's missing is how this story is different from the others we have read. Your spin on the story is good, just go a bit lighter on the morality parts. Nobody likes being lectured to, especially teenagers.

    Good luck!