Workshop Wednesday

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jul 27 2011

By repeated request we’ve started Workshop Wednesday. It will definitely play out through 2011, and beyond that we’ll just have to see. We’ve received well over 200 queries at this point, but we are choosing at random, so don’t be afraid to participate as per the guidelines in our original post.

For anyone wanting to comment, we ask that you comment in a polite and respectful manner, and we ask that you be as constructive as possible. If you can be useful to the brave souls who submitted their query and comment on the query, that’s great. Please keep any anonymous tirades on publishing or other snarky comments to yourself. This is and should remain an open and safe forum for people to put themselves and their queries out there so that everyone can learn. I’m leaving comments open and open to anonymous posters, as I always have; don’t make me feel the need to change that policy.

And for those who have never “met” Query Shark, get over there and do that. She’s the originator of the query critique, the queen, if you will.

Dear Ms. Agent Last Name,

What would you do if…

Your mother is kidnapped? You are stranded, all alone in a foreign country? A strange man with electric blue eyes threatens your life unless you turn over some key you’ve never heard of?

Oh no, you begin with one of my biggest query pet peeves: the hypothetical question. And there isn’t just one of them, there are three! You might say this is simply an unreasonable personal preference of mine, but I am not alone in this. Many agents and editors can’t stand this. Why? Well, I’m not entirely sure why. Most of the time, my answers to these questions are “I don’t care,” “That would never happen to me,” or to clench my teeth in frustration. Or perhaps because it’s a cliche, and we just see so many queries that begin like this. Also, it makes the assumption that the reader will be able to relate to your character. What if I hate my mother and wish someone would kidnap her? What if my mother had just died and I’m overcome with grief? Even worse, what if I can relate all too well, and my mother really had been kidnapped? It feels like you’re trying to force my emotional involvement in your story. But as a plus, if they hadn’t been phrased as questions, some of your plot elements might have intrigued me.

Let me nitpick at your specific questions. At this point in your query, I don’t know that this is a YA project, so the second question doesn’t have the impact you want it to have. As an adult, if I were stranded in a foreign country, it would be frustrating and perhaps even frightening, but I’d deal with it. As for the “man with electric blue eyes,” you have me wondering why his eyes are relevant. Are you trying to tell me that there’s some kind of sci-fi or paranormal element? Or is this man a perfectly normal human who just happens to have striking eyes? My questions don’t get answered in the rest of your query, and they really need to be addressed.

If you’re fifteen-year-old Jim Winters and his nine-year-old sister Erica, you set off in search of your long absent father. Beating a trail from the north of England to the hills of Tuscany and hidden passageways beneath the city of Venice, the two dodge skeptical adults, fend off shadowy assailants, and uncover friends in unexpected places.

Aha! It’s a YA! But wait, in the previous paragraph, you ask what I’d do if I were all alone and here I find out that your character isn’t alone–he’s with his sister. This paragraph makes me ask another question–why don’t your characters just go to the police? I think that would be the logical reaction to one’s mother being kidnapped. I do, however, like the second sentence of this paragraph. It’s concise but gives me something to go on, and road stories frequently appeal to me. Still, I think it would be better if you elaborated some on this sentence–what type of shadowy assailants (and again, is shadowy a clue word for paranormal?) and unexpected friends?

But that’s the easy part! When a final clue leads them high into the Swiss Alps, the two siblings realize their father is not who they thought he was and are forced to make a choice that will either save their family or tear it apart forever.

I’d scratch the first sentence. If it’s easy, it’s probably not going to make for compelling reading. This paragraph raises more questions. Final clue to what–finding their father or mother? And, connected, I’m also wondering how your characters are defining family. Just the siblings and their mother? Or is the estranged father now considered part of their family? Unfortunately, at the end of your plot summary, I have so many questions that I feel like I don’t have a good grasp on your story. And while there are appealing elements, I’m not intrigued enough to ask for more.

This is the story of Paraglide, 71,000 word young-adult novel geared toward preteen and teenage girls and boys. I read your online bio with great interest and share many of the same favorites in children’s literature. I would be thrilled if you would consider representing my work.

The first sentence seems redundant to me. You could just say, “This is the story of PARAGLIDE, a 71,000 word young adult novel geared at both sexes.” Your sentence about the agent’s bio feels phony–it almost always does when someone tells me something general in my bio made them query me. Maybe I’m alone in this, but it really doesn’t matter to me why you queried me, specifically. My assumption always is that a writer is querying as many agents as possible, and you won’t have your heart set on me just because we both might happen to love American Idol or kumquats or whatever.

I am a native Minnesotan, but recently returned from three years living and traveling in Europe, tramping through the various locations visited by the characters in Paraglide. I have published essays in The Christian Science Monitor and The Arizona Republic. I have included ______________ and would be delighted to send you a copy of the entire manuscript.

Thank you very much for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.


Author Name
Street Address
Phone Number

The last few paragraphs were fine. Just make sure that whatever material you’ve sent is what the agent wants to see. Don’t send a synopsis or chapters unless it’s specifically stated in the guidelines.

Jessica A.

17 responses to “Workshop Wednesday”

  1. Hm. I guess I've read enough of these kinds of queries that I'm starting to see (before you mention them) some of the problems.

    Thanks again for doing these. Very helpful.

  2. I really like the idea of an adventure through Europe, especially since the author has first-hand knowledge of the locations.

  3. Written simply and tastefully. It’s pleasant to read. Thank u.

  4. Avatar Sheila JG says:

    This sound like the sort of story I would really enjoy, and I enjoyed reading the query.

    Like Jessica, I wondered at the siblings' reaction to their mother being kidnapped (going in search of their father). I think your query would be stronger if you made this plot point clearer.

    I also think you would have more emotional impact if, instead of the cryptic questions, you wrote this in close-third. "15 yo Jim's mom has been kidnapped. The ransom? A key Jim doesn't have. To find it he'll have to beat a trail through Europe in search of his long-lost father, the only person with a clue about the key (I'm guessing). As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, Jim has to protect his 9yo sister along the way." (I would love some little insight as to their relationship during the quest, too. Is she annoying? Frightened? Resourceful? One word can indicate a lot here.)

    I think if you tell us the choice, instead of being vague, this would be more intriguing. "Finding out his father is (a spy? a traitor? a thief?), forces Jim to choose between (x) and (X); a choice that could tear his family apart." For added emotional impact, put something near the start indicating how Jim has always wanted his family to get back together. Make his want really visible – to save his mom, find his dad, and reunite his family.

    I hope that helps. It sounds like a great story, good luck with the query!

  5. Avatar Kelley says:

    It sounds like an interesting read. Thanks very much for going through the query and pointing out areas to improve.

  6. Avatar Meg Spencer says:

    This seems like one of those ones that's almost but not quite there. Good luck! I'd definitely want clarification of whether there are paranormal/fantasy elements to the story.

  7. Thank you for the analysis; your commentary is extremely useful for someone like me who is headed toward the query stage early next month.

    Oooh, you like kumquats? I should definitely seek to work with you! (just kidding…I probably will query you, but not because of kumquats)

  8. Avatar Meg Spencer says:

    Also, the use of hypothetical questions definitely seems to be a common issue. I think they're understandably tempting for writers – after all, authors want readers to relate to the story, to put themselves into the characters' shoes. At the same time, they can be oddly annoying to readers.

    I think the problem might be that a really good story (and really good characters) appeals to people for different reasons, and I suspect that authors don't always know what those reasons might be. Take Bilbo Baggins. One person might relate to him because they feel like they are trapped in a shlubby, boring life and they wish an adventure would fall on their doorstep. Another person might relate to the feeling of being torn away from everything that was comfortable and trying to make the best of it. Another person might relate to Bilbo because of a shared love of food. Yet another might find him rather pathetic and whiny, but love the story in spite of it. Same character, but very different perspectives.

    The problem with hypothetical questions, then, is that they narrow the perspective to a single angle rather than leaving it open for the reader to decide what appeals to them. Plus, I think they often contain subtle judgments indicating how we ought to react along with assumptions about our situation, as you point out with the question about the mother being kidnapped. Readers want to decide for themselves how they view a story, not be told.

  9. Avatar Tricia says:

    The query switches tenses from 2nd person to third. You go from the "you/your" 2nd person to "they/their" 3rd.

  10. Avatar Angie says:

    The "hidden passageways beneath the city of Venice" would be submerged by the lagoon. I wonder if they swim through like frogmen. it could be interesting.

  11. Avatar Beth says:

    Jessica, I notice you said you don't care why we query you, and that people referring to your bio feels phony. (I'm sure it does, it feels weird to write too). But you always hear you have to have a research paragraph. How do you do this if you're not supposed to refer to generally available knowledge?

  12. Avatar laurathewise says:

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the dad's the one who kidnapped the mom…that's what will "tear their family apart," a cliche which I despise.

  13. My question is the same as Beth's. So many times we read that agents don't want to feel like a "number" anymore than writers do. They want to know that they've been queried for a specific reason and that writers have done their homework before querying. Is this just a personal preference or something you've heard from other agents as well?

  14. @Beth and @Danielle, maybe this is a personal preference of mine, I'm not sure. If you're genuinely querying me because you're one of my author's biggest fans, sure, tell me. But if you're just picking a random fact out of my bio to show you've done your research, I can usually tell (or will suspect) it's insincere. It won't cause me to reject you, but it's not adding anything to your query for me. In this particular query, the personalized comment was vague, and, really, not all that personal–it probably could have been used for any agent specializing in YA.

  15. Just to add to my comment direct at Beth and Danielle, I recently had someone query me who looked up the acquisitions I had made at Harlequin, and said she was querying me because of a few specific acquisitions. She clearly had to do a little digging for that information, but the books she cited were somewhat similar to her story, so it felt genuine. In her case, I appreciated it and wouldn't have suggested she remove it from her query.

  16. Avatar Lorenda says:

    @ Jessica – I'm glad to hear the above…I have a few agents that I am querying specifically because they represent clients who I feel carry the same voice (not necessarily genre/subject matter) in their writing as I do. I feel that if they liked writer X's style, they would probably be a good fit for mine as well.

  17. There's a problem with the story, I think. The author mentions "hidden passageways beneath the city of Venice", but it seems there are no underground passageways in Venice because "as the town rises on wood piles in the middle of the saltwater Venetian Lagoon. There is no room for underground chambers or passages, and only a few buildings have a basement", according to the head of the Archaeological Superintendence of Veneto in an article on the NatGeo site: Thank you for your critiques, Jessica. They are very useful.