Sunday, August 24, 2014

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Middle Grade Sci Fi 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 it 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: Three 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 13. Any Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some if my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

Does this query letter work?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction Query

NOTE: Revised text at the bottom.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear Mr/Ms. (Agent Name)

(Mention something about agent) I would love to send you my MG sci-fi manuscript VENOM FOR PLANET HARTE, complete at 40,000 words

One-third of aliens on planet Harte are suddenly dying and nobody knows why. Then when eleven year old Gaben witnesses two of his friends survive after being struck by a rattling slither, he becomes suspicious. Is it possible that they had the mysterious disease and the venom cured them? If so, did Gaben discover the cure that could save his people?

This is my first novel.

I have enclosed the first (agent requirement). Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Dear Mr/Ms. (Agent Name)

(Mention something about agent) I would love to send you my MG sci-fi manuscript VENOM FOR PLANET HARTE, complete at 40,000 words

[One-third of the? aliens on planet Harte are suddenly dying and nobody knows why.] An interesting mystery, but with just one sentence to set the scene, I don't know how many aliens this is, or who they are or how they're connected to humans. Perhaps add a little more here to setup the world and situation [Then when eleven year old Gaben] Is he alien or human? [witnesses two of his friends survive] this doesn't sound right to me. You can't "witness" people surviving. [after being struck by a rattling slither] does this mean they survived the bite or the disease killing people?, [he becomes suspicious] I like that he makes a connection between the deaths and the snakebite, though suspicious doesn't feel like the right world for this. [Is it possible that they had the mysterious disease and the venom cured them?] If he didn't know if they were sick, how could he make this connection? [If so, did Gaben discover the cure that could save his people?] Rhetorical questions are tough in queries because the answer is almost always yes. In this case, we know the entire book now and there's no mystery to get someone to want to read it

[This is my first novel.] Tastes vary, but many agents recommend against saying this, as it could create negative expectations.

I have enclosed the first (agent requirement). Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

The questions:

1. Does this query letter work?

Not yet. The goal of a query is to entice an agent or editor to want to read the entire novel. Although there are some interesting ideas here and the setup sounds like a fun adventure for kids, this isn't grabbing me yet for several reasons.

1. There's no sense of a protagonist with a problem, conflict to that problem, or stakes if he fails to solve that problem. Right now, all I know is that "Gaben makes a connection and saves his people." That's a good thing for his people, but it's not a character struggling to overcome an obstacle and solve a problem. As a reader (or agent), why should I care about Gaben and these aliens? Is he sick? His parents? His little brother? What is he risking by trying to solve this problem?

(Here's more on goals, conflict, and stakes and why they matter)

The query focuses on the resolution and not the problem, so there's nothing to entice someone to read it to see how the problem is solved. Try looking at how your novel opens and the inciting event instead. Ask yourself a few questions:
  • What is the problem Gaben is facing?
  • Why does he want to solve this problem?
  • What's keeping him from solving this problem?
  • What's at stake for him if he fails?
  • How is this all personal to him?

With this premise, it'll be easy to say "well, his entire planet is in danger," but readers won't care about a planet of people they don't know. They want to care about Gaben and his problem, so while having larger issues is good, the real problem should also be very personal to him, and difficult to solve. Friends and family dying sounds like the personal aspect is indeed there in the story, but it's not showing up in the query yet.

Also, what's the conflict Gaben faces? People are dying and Gaben finds the cure, but there's no mention of how hard this is for him or what he sacrifices to do it. Is there anything in his way of finding the cure? Is there an antagonist keeping him from telling people? Is he risking anything to share this information? Why does he go looking for the cure in the first place? What's motivating him to act?

Stories aren't about a character doing something, it's about a character struggling to do something. It's a subtle difference, but it makes or breaks a novel. Show us that struggle and that problem.

(Here's more on writing the query letter)

2. I don't understand who Gaben is or what his world is like. It says aliens are dying and then brings in Gaben, but I don't know if he's an alien or a human living on that world. I'm also not getting any sense of the planet or the setting. Sci fi and fantasy queries typically need a little more time to show the world and how the protagonist fits into that world.

Try taking a sentence or two and set the scene to let us know about this world and Gaben's problem. What is this world like? How does Gaben fit into it? How is he the right person to solve this problem? (such as, his parents work at the hospital and he knows more about the disease than the average person or the like). What's "special" about him?

(Here's more on what our queries say about our books)

3. I don't have enough information overall to get a sense of what the book is about. I know generally that people are dying and Gaben saves them, but that's too general to make me curious about this book. Almost all books have the protagonist "saving" something. The brevity of this query also makes it sound sound the entire book is about Gaben noticing one thing and then it's over, and I'm sure that's not the case.

You have plenty of room here to add another paragraph and flesh out this story so agents can learn more about it and hear what makes it special. Try starting off with a paragraph about who Gaben is, where he lives, and what his problem is. Then use another paragraph to talk about how he decides to deal with this problem and what's at stake if he fails. Add in a ticking clock if there is one. Focus more on the beginning of the story and not how it ends, so it leaves agents thinking "gee, I wonder how he solves that problem" and they'll ask for pages to find out.

Queries are very similar to book cover copy, so if you're stuck on how this should sound, try reading the cover copy for books in the MG sci fi market. The only real difference is that cover copy is vague and doesn't give away details, while queries are specific and do give the details, because those are what sets the book apart and agents need to know them.

(Here's still more on writing a query in four easy steps)

4. There's some incorrect word usage that suggests the manuscript still needs some work. I know from the emails that this query has been through multiple revisions, so it could just be "revision smudge," but all an agent knows about the book is what they see in the query. Using the wrong word can suggest that the author doesn't understand language or how to use it (I'm not saying that's the case here, just that's how it can come across when all an agent sees is this one letter).

"Aliens" is what we call beings from another world, not what we'd call ourselves. If Gaben is a non-human being living on his homeworld, he'd be whatever he is. But I know it can read awkwardly to use the alien name since no one will know what that is. Do we need to know in the query that Gaben is an alien or can that be something agents discover as they read the novel?

Instead of focusing on the entire planet (and thus having to explain he's an "alien") you might try just saying people in his town are dying and it's a worldwide epidemic. Or maybe set the scene by saying something like what you have and connect it to Gaben: "On the planet Harte, people are dying and Gaben fears for his family and friends" or the like.

Also, you can't really "witness a survival." You can witness an event, like the snake attack, though. Making a connection between the disease and the cure is more of a realization than being "suspicious," which has a different connotation. I like the idea behind this as it sounds like a major part of the story, so perhaps reconsider the phrasing. You might even just say that Gaben makes a connection he thinks can save his people and...? Are there stakes associated with this? What's the conflict between Gaben finding the cure and saving his people?

And this is a total nit-pick, but it popped into mind as I read this and it could occur to others the same way (readers chime in here). If one in three people die, then two out of three friends surviving isn't unusual statistically. And unless his friends were visibly sick and then they were cured after being bitten, how would he even know the bite protected them? The way this is phrased makes it sound like Gaben sees friends who aren't sick get bitten, and then assumes they're cured from something they didn't have. Since it's all the plot shown in the query, it reads as if the entire plot hinges on a contrived assumption. (and again, I'm not saying that's the case, just how it looks without knowing anything more about it) If this plot point feels weak, agents could easily assume the rest of the plot is also weak and pass on this.

(Here's more on how (and if) mistakes in our submissions hurt us)

Overall, I think this is a query issue, not a book issue. It's just using the wrong details and not spending enough time on what the book is about. It looks like there are some fun things in this story that kids would enjoy, so perhaps rework the query to bring those elements to the front. You don't have to say how it ends, you just have to give enough information about the problem and conflict to entice an agent to want to read it.

Revised Query:

Dear Mr/Ms(agent’s last name),

(Mention something about agent) I would love to send you my middle grade science fiction manuscript, VENOM FOR PLANET HARTE, complete at 40,000 words.

Gaben, an intelligent yet reckless 10-year-old from an alien race, lives on planet Harte. His biggest problem is being bullied by his peers [because he is younger and smarter.] Feels a little too general and explanatory After he’s placed in a classroom with older students [to fulfill his academic needs, he wants to excel]. Same here. This isn't him with a problem, it's the author explaining what his issue is [Gaben is upset when all the learning centers are ordered to shut down because many of his kind are dying from an unknown disease. Then he is devastated when he learns that his father Mokus has the fatal condition.] Three problems are introduced here and I don't know what the core conflict is

[When two of Gaben’s friends don’t die after being struck by a deadly rattling slither, he starts wondering if they had the disease in its early stage without knowing it and the venom might have cured them.] This still feels like a leap in logic to me. Does he suspect the friends are sick before this happens? Maybe his father can be saved [from] by a venomous bite—that is, if Gaben dares to try capturing a poisonous creature so that it can strike him. Gaben must perform this life threatening challenge quickly without getting bit—his dad is fading fast.

My Thoughts:

Better, but the core conflict isn't clear enough yet to me. The issue seems to be Gaben's quest to save his father, and his goal is to capture an animal that could kill him. That's what the bulk of the plot will revolve around (is that right?). That works from a plotting and story standpoint. The friends' survival feels like an extraneous detail that's mucking up the query (because it needs more explanation to understand than the query will allow), so perhaps just allude to it, such as "Gaben makes a connection between a snakebite and the disease and sets off..."  You'll probably need a few details about how he makes it, but I think keeping it vague might work better for you in this case. What matters is that he has a crazy plan to save his father.

The bullying feels like a minor issue or subplot, but putting it at the start of the query makes it seem like that's what the book is about. I'd cut that aspect from the query unless it directly affects how Gaben saves his father.

Trimming out the extra details will give you  more room to develop the quest for the snake and his dying father more, which is all good stuff.

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.


  1. This diagnostic pretty much covers everything I would have said.

    To me, the biggest problem here is I don't know what's preventing Gaben from accomplishing his goal (which I assume is stopping whatever is killing people). Also, it confused me when the query first says "nobody knows why" folks are dying. I assumed people were dropping dead for no reason, but then it mentions a mysterious disease. A disease is a reason.

    It sounds like this could be an interesting story. I think if you study the advice in the diagnostic and apply it to your query, you'll be able to entice an agent to read more.

  2. Can't say it better than Elissa. I do like the idea :)

  3. I'm in the same writers group as the volunteer. Her ms has improved so much since she started and I know that she appreciates your impute on her query letter. I know I've learned and improved on my own work since I discovered your blog. Thanks.