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Saturday, July 29

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This MG Science Fiction Query Letter Working?


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 site. 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: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 26.

This week’s question:

Is this query working?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear (Agent),

When Toby discovers a piece of alien technology on the beach he wishes he could walk away. After all, it could only lead to something any sensible person would avoid—an adventure.

But the alien cube opens a window on the future, showing him the consequence of every action and—as someone who always waters the plants on time and double-checks the door is locked at night—he can’t turn away.

As the cube levels up, displaying further and further-reaching consequences, Toby struggles to stay ahead of a progressively scarier future. His snarky (and much more pragmatic) sister insists on helping out and together they find themselves relying on a tin-hat conspiracy theorist (who is nevertheless 100% correct about everything) and on the run from a pair of agents from the department of Celestial Affairs.

But how much responsibility can one person shoulder? When the cube escalates to world-ending consequences, Toby finds himself pushing up against the limits of his capabilities.

Warning: This story contains space saving sleep pods, and time efficient food bars—so is definitely a horror story.

Alien North is a 58,000-word Middle Grade novel and could appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, and Doctor Who.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Dear (Agent),

When Toby discovers a piece of alien technology on the beach he wishes he could walk away. After all, it could only lead to something any [sensible person would avoid—an adventure.] Cute, and it sets him up to be the sensible kid

But the alien cube opens a window on the future, showing him the consequence of every action and—[as someone who always waters the plants on time and double-checks the door is locked at night] something about this line feels off. It doesn’t mesh with the consequences line—he can’t turn away.

As the cube [levels up] I don’t know what this means but it makes me think gaming, [displaying further and further-reaching consequences] not specific enough, Toby struggles to [stay ahead of a progressively scarier future] how?. His snarky (and much more pragmatic) sister insists on [helping out] with what? and together they find themselves relying on a tin-hat conspiracy theorist (who is nevertheless 100% correct about everything) and [on the run from a pair of agents from the department of Celestial Affairs.] Love the Celestial Affairs, but are Toby and his sister on the run or the theorist? It's unclear

[But how much responsibility can one person shoulder?] This would mean more if I knew what the responsibility was When the cube escalates to [world-ending consequences, Toby finds himself pushing up against the limits of his capabilities.] This basically describes the climax of every story

Warning: This story contains space saving sleep pods, and time efficient food bars—[so is definitely a horror story.] I know what you mean here, but it could throw off folks as to what genre it is, especially since you don’t actually say science fiction in the next paragraph

Alien North is a 58,000-word Middle Grade novel and could appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, and Doctor Who.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The question:

1. Is this query working?

Almost. I like the voice, the story sounds like it’s probably a lot of fun, and it has a great query flow, but it’s not specific enough for me to know what the book is actually about. All I know is a kid gets a cube that tells the future and he has to save the world. I don’t know from what, what it means, or how it happens. It’s too vague and could apply to almost any science fiction story.

Luckily, just being more specific about those points would make this work. The bones are good, it’s just not showing what makes this book different from the others in the slush pile.

(Here’s more on choosing what to say in a query letter)

Let’s take a closer look:
But the alien cube opens a window on the future, showing him the consequence of every action and—[as someone who always waters the plants on time and double-checks the door is locked at night]—he can’t turn away.
I think this paragraph is trying to show that Toby is cautious and wary, but it doesn’t quite work for me with the personality examples used. Seeing the consequences means he’ll know how everything he does will turn out, and watering the plants isn’t something that has unknown consequences. If he doesn’t water them they die. But if he’s the type of kid who’s too scared to try new things or things he wants to do because he doesn’t know how they’ll turn out, then knowing the future would be a powerful draw and I’d understand why he’d want this cube. Perhaps look for examples of his personality that show why the cube would benefit and appeal to him.
As the cube [levels up], [displaying further and further-reaching consequences], Toby struggles to stay ahead of a progressively scarier future. His snarky (and much more pragmatic) sister insists on [helping out] and together they find themselves relying on a tin-hat conspiracy theorist (who is nevertheless 100% correct about everything) and on the run from a pair of agents from the department of Celestial Affairs.
Clearly the cube has an effect on their lives and gets them into trouble, but I have no idea what that is from this paragraph. Leveling up is a common gaming term so I think somehow the cube is getting stronger as they use it, but that’s not clear and is just a guess based on my personal experience. I don’t know what the consequences are, or who they’re for, as nothing is stated about what Toby and his sister are doing or trying to do. Is the cube showing them random consequences of the world, or specific actions taken by them or people close to them? Who are the consequences for? Them or just “everyone?”
[But how much responsibility can one person shoulder?] When the cube escalates to [world-ending consequences, Toby finds himself pushing up against the limits of his capabilities.]
This paragraph is a perfect example of why general comments don’t work in a query letter. This describes nearly every novel out there. Almost all protagonists struggle to handle responsibility, deal with high-stakes problems, and get pushed beyond their capabilities. What an agent is going to want to know, is what specific responsibility Toby has, what’s going to end the world, and what he has to overcome to save it.

(Here's more on how to write a query letter)

Overall, I think taking another pass and using the actual details from the story will fix this easy peasy. The only real issue I see is the vagueness, and that would take very little time or effort to tweak. Once the details show what this story is actually about, it should be good to go.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

1 comment:

  1. I think I find myself disagreeing with Janice a little bit for the first time. I really like this query and love the warning at the end. I think an agent would have to be pretty dense not to get the joke and wonder if it's actually a horror story. And successful agents don't get that way by being dense!

    I also don't have the same issue with the sentence, "...together they find themselves relying on a tin-hat conspiracy theorist (who is nevertheless 100% correct about everything) and on the run from a pair of agents from the department of Celestial Affairs." You can't rewrite the sentence as, "A tin-hat conspiracy theorist and on the run from a pair of agents from the department of Celestial Affairs," so it seems pretty obvious that 'on the run' is referring to the kids. However, that sentence is 44 words long with two parenthesized sections of text, and it could probably stand to broken up a bit for flow and clarity's sake.

    I do agree with Janice that a few more specifics about the stakes and maybe the cube would make this stand out as more unique. The MG voice is great though.

    Thanks to the writer for sharing their work! Good luck!

    ReplyDelete