Query Critique: Contemporary YA

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 07 2015

I agree that the material in this email can be posted and critiqued on the BookEnds Literary Agency blog. I give permission for it to be archived for the life of the blog.

Dear Query Queen,
A text message leads seventeen-year-old Shaun Daley to question what everyone else has taken at face value—that his gifted twin committed suicide.
Torn apart already by grief and his parents’ crumbling marriage, Shaun turns to his brother’s best friend—nerdy, introverted Mira Patel—to help decipher the message.
Mira has her own problems, struggling between unrealistic parental expectations and a sister who breaks every rule in their traditional Indian household. But she helps Shaun track down the ex-classmate who sent the text, only to witness the guy’s death in a freak hit-and-run. Then her sister dies of a drug overdose.
Three deaths—a hit-and-run, a suicide, and the overdose—that share a common link. And, in order to stop a killer clever enough to mask his murders as accidental, Mira and Shaun must find that link and trap him before he finishes them off, too.
My Young Adult contemporary, IMPERFECT LIVES, is told in dual POV and is complete at 56,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.
JHF: Thank you for submitting your query. I think this this one, since it’s short, I’m going to give my overall impressions.
My biggest concern is that this doesn’t feel like anything special or different. The entire query feels like it falls a little short to me. I know you meant your opening line to be dramatic, but it wasn’t. It’s a common YA trope (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but because of that it doesn’t have the in-your-face factor that I think you were looking for.
In fact, that’s one of my concerns with the entire query and, therefore, the novel. It feels sort of familiar. It doesn’t have the special oomph or hook that makes it really stand out. I think what this book really is about is, “a killer clever enough to mask his murders as accidental.” While that’s not entirely different, it feels like that’s what is supposed to make this book stand out.
You label this as YA contemporary which disappointed me a little because what I was most excited about was this killer. For that reason I would want it to be suspense, which I assume its not.

10 responses to “Query Critique: Contemporary YA”

  1. Avatar Colin Smith says:

    Maybe it is suspense or mystery, but the the querier isn't sure so s/he's calling it YA Contemporary. When I think of YA Contemporary, I think of writers like John Green and Kirsten Hubbard, where the stories are anchored in contemporary times dealing with teens and the issues teens deal with (relationships, authority, desire vs. duty/loyalty, etc.). As soon as you throw a murder to solve in the mix, I think you've stepped into suspense or mystery. I think a lot of these genres have fluidity to them, so I can see how this might be VERY broadly YA Contemporary. But you have to think about what that means to an agent. As Jessica has said, when you say "YA Contemporary" that means X to her, so she's reading the query expecting X, only to find it's Y. It may be a great Y, but it's hard to shake that feeling of "Awww… I thought this was going to be X!"

    That's my 2c for what it's worth.

  2. Avatar Elissa M says:

    I, too, think this is suspense and the author just didn't know what to label it.

    I like the sound of the story, but I'm not an agent who gets dozens of queries a day. It's hard to sound "unique" when you don't even know what else is out there in query land.

    You might try starting with a variation of your fourth paragraph: "Three teen deaths–a hit-and-run, a suicide, and an overdose–have links that make Shaun Daley and his friend Mira Patel suspect murder. Now they have to find a killer clever enough to disguise his murders as accidents before they become the next victims." That's not very good, but you get the idea.

    After introducing the problem and the main characters, throw in a mention of one or more obstacles making it even harder for the protagonists to accomplish their goals. Something beyond the obvious (they're teenagers, not professional detectives) and more of what makes this novel different from other YA mystery/suspense.

    Good luck!

  3. Thanks so much for doing this — it's great getting a 'peek behind the curtain' as to what works and doesn't work. Also, a big thank you to Suja for being willing to post her query.

  4. Avatar AJ Blythe says:

    Congrats, Suja, for putting your query out there. Good luck with your revisions.

  5. Avatar gabe says:

    Even if you're a prolific writer, you'll finish maybe two mss in a year. It's so difficult to know what is "unique" when a writer completes one or two mss a year versus an agent who sees hundreds of query in the same time.

    Suja, your query drew me in. I would have asked for more to see how you handled things. Alas, I'm not an agent.

  6. Avatar jfaust says:

    I think YA Thriller is enough. Contemporary is usually implied in that case.

  7. Avatar LynnRodz says:

    I'm a bit surprised that no one mentioned the 56,000 word count. To me it seems ten to twenty thousand words too short for a suspense or a YA novel, especially with several murders being investigated instead of one.

    Thanks, Jessica, it's interesting to see your perspective. And thanks, Suja, for making your query available.

  8. Avatar Bobbie Metevier says:

    I think I'm a weak query writer. I've read the books, looked at examples, but I have an ensemble cast of characters–even the city is a character–and many subplots. The examples I run across always seem to be for books with a single gamble at play, a main character with a dilemma, etc.I would love to see a query for something like the Godfather or Salem's Lot where the main character isn't immediately identifiable, a book where there are many subplots. I have sent my query to the appropriate email, and it is for such a book. Feel free to take it apart here on your blog. I would be nothing but grateful. :)Thank you for your blog, Jessica Faust. It's always very helpful.