Sunday, April 7

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Middle Grade Query Letter

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Eight

This week’s question:

Is this query working?

Something new this time: A query critique! I haven't done one of these for RLD before, but I was asked and I thought it would be fun to do something beside pages. Shake things up a bit.

Market/Genre: Middle grade science fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear [Agent],

Twelve-year-old wimp and self-designated videogame pro Kreith Briggs has just received the scariest birthday gift of his life: A wild safari with his Uncle Tonas through an alien jungle. The jungle contains seven out of the ten most exotic—and most lethal—animal species in the universe, including the electrocat and giant land squid. The tour goes well until Kreith discovers he's been set up. Wilmur Banx, the host of the tour, holds an old grudge against Kreith's uncle and the other twenty-four safari guests. Not to mention he’s schemed to strand them all in separate locations in the jungle with zero protection from the universe's fiercest beasts.

Kreith and Uncle Tonas search for an old research facility where they intend to alert the authorities. Only Kreith gets separated from his uncle and now he’s got no plan at all. Armed with a trusty new guidebook and his knack for all things techno-nerdy, he and his uncle’s survival—not to mention the lives of any remaining safari guests—rest squarely on his puny shoulders.

Savage Jungle is a 60,000-word middle-grade science fiction novel where Jurassic Park meets Nathan Bransford’s Jacob Wonderbar trilogy. I have a degree in Creative Writing from XXX, and won the individual award for Outstanding Achievement in Creative Writing. I have also recently obtained an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from XXX. Savage Jungle served as my thesis. I am also currently interning at XXX in the Publicity/Marketing department.

Thank you for considering Savage Jungle and I hope to hear from you soon.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Dear [Agent],

Twelve-year-old wimp and [self-designated videogame pro] Since video games skills aren't used in the query, perhaps cut this Kreith Briggs has just received the scariest birthday gift of his life: A wild safari with his Uncle Tonas through an alien jungle. [The jungle contains seven out of the ten most exotic—and most lethal—animal species in the universe, including the electrocat and giant land squid.] I like the animal names here since it gives a sense of the book, but the way it's phrases feels a little flat. This is a good opportunity to show some voice with how Kreith would describe this The tour goes well until Kreith discovers [he's] They've? It's not Kreith but the others been set up. Wilmur Banx, the host of the tour, holds an old grudge against Kreith's uncle and the other twenty-four safari guests. [Not to mention he’s schemed to strand] Perhaps rephrase to show he's done this, not plans to. This is the inciting event problem, so make it active. "He strands them..." them all in separate locations in the jungle with zero protection from the universe's fiercest beasts.

[Kreith and Uncle Tonas search for an old research facility where they intend to alert the authorities. Only Kreith gets separated from his uncle and now he’s got no plan at all.] I like the idea here, but this is one thing they do, not the core conflict problem, so it feels too small and random to carry the entire story [Armed with a trusty new guidebook and his knack for all things techno-nerdy, he and his uncle’s survival—not to mention the lives of any remaining safari guests—rest squarely on his puny shoulders.] Love this.

Savage Jungle is a 60,000-word middle-grade science fiction novel where [Jurassic Park meets Nathan Bransford’s Jacob Wonderbar trilogy.] Normally you don't want to compare yourself to a mega-blockbuster, but here it actually works well. I can see the kind of book it will be from this. I think it helps that this is for MG and Jurassic Park is for adults. I have a degree in Creative Writing from XXX, and won the individual award for Outstanding Achievement in Creative Writing. I have also recently obtained an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from XXX. Savage Jungle served as my thesis. I am also currently interning at XXX in the Publicity/Marketing department.

Thank you for considering Savage Jungle and I hope to hear from you soon.

The question:

Is this query working?

I think it's almost there, and you might even get nibbles from this because of the concept. It's cute, I can see what kind of book this will be, and it sounds like a fun MG adventure.

I do think you could strengthen it though. One major aspect of middle grade is the voice, and I'm not getting a strong sense of that here. There are hints of it in the final line which I really like. Getting in a few more voice elements overall would take some of the basic lines and turn them into wow lines. For example, the line where you describe the animals in the jungle could be fun if it were more in Kreith's voice.

I think the first set up paragraph is working fairly well, but the opening of the second paragraph feels a little unfocused. You've already said they're stranded apart from each other, so mentioning again that Kreith and his uncle get separated feels like redundant information. And them going to find a research facility to call for help doesn't feel like a strong enough goal to carry the query. It doesn't allow for a sense of stakes or show the larger core conflict problem.

Try thinking about what Kreith has to do that ties more into the core conflict of the novel. He's stranded and now he has to what? Or what happens if he fails? Then end with that great line.

Overall I think it's close, and a few more tweaks will pull it all together.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

8 comments:

  1. What a great concept! Jurassic 3D just came out too, so you'll have some buzz with the safari aspect. My kids would read this book for sure. Good luck! :)

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  2. Sounds like a great story. I agree with Cat that kids would probably like this.

    Janice's suggestions for improving this are good. You already have a strong start here. Good luck.

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  3. Loved this query! With some of the enhancements suggested by Janice, I can certainly see this getting a number of bites.

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  4. Hi Janice,
    Your query post was very helpful. :-)

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  5. I also loved this query. I'd read it :)

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  6. Three hopefully helpful comments:

    Re: “self-designated videogame pro”: Ms. Hardy notes videogame skills are not used in the query and you might consider dropping the phrase. There may be a powerful alternative. Later in the letter you seem to say, “[Krief’s] knack for all things techno-nerdy” determines the outcome. You might consider tying these thoughts together. [For what it’s worth, I found it intriguing to think a 12-year-old alone in a deadly environment could save himself and adult companions with videogame skills.]

    Re: “seven out of the ten”: You consider dropping the word “out.”

    Re: “he’s got no plan at all”: If you decide to keep this line in spite of Ms. Hardy’s suggestion to drop it, consider changing “got” to “has.”

    Re: “he and his uncle’s survival—not to mention the lives of any remaining safari guests—rest squarely”: Consider changing word “rest” to “rests.” In this sentence, the subject is “survival,” a singular noun. The verb should match; i.e., survival rests.

    Good luck.

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  7. I've never seen a query critique before. So helpful to have one picked apart for what works and what needs a little tweaking. Thank you Janice and whoever was brave enough to submit.

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  8. Jennifer, the blog Query Shark does query critiques all the time. That's how I finally learned to write one--by reading hundreds of critiques on a variety of styles and types. You can also finds tons more in the archives of Miss Snark. Just look for the Crap-o-Meter contests.

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