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Saturday, June 13

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Middle Grade Query

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP 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 we 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through July 4.

This week’s questions:

1. Have I solved the problems of the first draft?

2. I know the current query letter still doesn't give a good sense of how the whole world fits together. To give background: There are no authors. Everyone is a book character (whether they know it or not) and the only thing that exists outside of books is the meta-data library realm (a gigantic ramshackle library dimension that houses all the books of the world, and is policed by warrior monk librarians.) The meta-data library doesn't become a feature until the final act. Does it need to be mentioned in the query letter?

Market/Genre: YA Query

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Dear (Agent Name),

Evangeline has spent her entire life as a character in “The Darklands,” a monster-ridden horror novel. But Evangeline doesn’t know that. To her life is just an un-ending slog of evading predators, hiding in tunnels and eating seaweed slop from the Black Lake. Her only reprieve is reading stories in (slightly soggy and charred) books.

One day, a mysterious library appears on the Darkland plains, complete with mysterious librarian. The librarian claims to have traveled from other book worlds, and points out that Evangeline is trapped in a particularly horrible one. More importantly, she says she can “catalogue” Evangeline correctly in the right book for her. Evangeline ignores the sinister note in her voice (everything is sinister in the Darklands) and takes up her offer of escape.

Evangeline is transported to the safety and order of “Before the Clock Strikes Three,” a YA high school novel.

Once on the scuffed floors of high school, Evangeline delights in the variety of cafeteria food and befriends practical Clark - a boy who only reads non-fiction (and has the best death glares.) He is also one of the few students to see through the creepy new librarian.

Unfortunately, Evangeline is not the only person the Librarian is intent on “re-cataloguing.” Classmates are disappearing from school, and are showing up as characters in other books. And it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up in a post-apocalyptic novel or worse.

When Clark disappears Evangeline has a choice between her dream story, or venturing out to rescue her new friend and take on the librarian. Still haunted by the horror novel she left behind, a voyage into the unknown worlds of the Librosphere is no easy decision.

EVANGELINE AND THE LIBRARIAN is a 50,000-word upper middle-grade novel and could appeal to fans of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, or The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. I have a BA in English Literature and an MA in Scriptwriting from XXX. I worked in a library for five years. This book is not true to life.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Dear (Agent Name),

Evangeline has spent her entire life as a character in “The Darklands,” a monster-ridden horror novel. But Evangeline doesn’t know that. To her[comma] life is just an un-ending slog of evading predators, hiding in tunnels and eating seaweed slop from the Black Lake. Her only reprieve is reading stories in (slightly soggy and charred) books.

One day, a mysterious library appears on the Darkland plains, complete with mysterious librarian. The [librarian] sometimes this is capitalized, sometimes not. You want to be consistent claims to have traveled from other book worlds, and points out that Evangeline is trapped in a particularly horrible one. More importantly, she says she can “catalogue” Evangeline correctly in the right book for her. Evangeline ignores the sinister note in [her] the librarian’s? Just a wee bit ambiguous voice (everything is sinister in the Darklands) nice touch of voice and takes up her offer of escape.

Evangeline is transported to the safety and order of [“Before the Clock Strikes Three,”] small thing, but this title sounds like a thriller. I think that’s the intent to foreshadow, but if not, perhaps consider a “friendlier” title a [YA high school novel.] This is knowledge the narrator has, not Evangeline. Perhaps show how she'd refer to it

[Once on the scuffed floors of high school,] a little awkward Evangeline delights in the variety of [cafeteria food and befriends practical Clark] the way this is written it sounds as if the food made her befriend Clark - a boy who only reads non-fiction (and has the best death glares.) [He is also one of the few students to see through the creepy new librarian.] This feels a tad off as well, because Evangeline doesn’t find the librarian creepy, so she doesn’t know she needs to “see through” her. Perhaps phrase this more like how Clark suspects the librarian of something? Unless she also thinks the creepy librarian is up to something and this is a shared opinion that binds them?

Unfortunately, Evangeline is not the only person [the Librarian is intent on “re-cataloguing.”] I like the idea, but the phrasing feels off and a bit passive. Perhaps, “has re-catalogued?”. She knows this, correct? Or is this unknown information to her? Classmates are disappearing from school, and [are] "later" to avoid the double “are” [showing up as characters in other books.] How does Evangeline know this? And it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up in a post-apocalyptic [novel] perhaps an em dash here for more impact? or worse.

When Clark disappears[comma] I think this needs something else here before the choice Evangeline [has a choice] "must choose" to make it active between [her dream story] feels like this needs a verb. Living in? Staying in? Risking?, or [venturing out to rescue] rescuing? her new friend [period, as this is the choice] and [take on the librarian] this is the result of that choice. [Still haunted by the horror novel she left behind] since this isn’t mentioned before, perhaps cut, [And a voyage into the unknown worlds of the Librosphere is no easy decision.] This works fine on its own

EVANGELINE AND THE LIBRARIAN is a 50,000-word upper middle-grade novel and could appeal to fans of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, or The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. I have a BA in English Literature and an MA in Scriptwriting from XXX. I worked in a library for five years. [This book is not true to life.] still funny


Thank you for your time and consideration.

The Questions:

1. Have I solved the problems of the first draft? [original query for the curious

Mostly, yes. I get a better sense of the world and situation, and why Evangeline might risk herself to find Clark. I wasn't sure overall which information was known to Evangeline and which was not. Some of the information provided was clearly outside her knowledge—such as Evangeline not knowing she’s a character in a novel. But later, she acts on information that seems outside her knowledge, such as Clark is the only one who sees through the librarian.

It’s a tight line to walk between showing information that correctly sets up the story, and sharing information the characters wouldn’t know. I think it works in the opening paragraph, but not in the rest of the query. By then, I expected everything to be in Evangeline’s point of view.

Of course, you could rework this and not mention her being a character until the librarian shows up. Something like, (but better), “When a strange library appears, Evangeline discovers she’s a character in a novel—and a terrible novel at that. She’s offered a chance to jump books and escape…” Start with Evangeline’s life in The Darklands, why she'd want to leave, then slip into the choice she makes to leave it.

I’m still fuzzy on why she thinks Clark might be in danger. She changed books, she knows others are changing books, so how does she know he’s in trouble? What’s the moment where she realizes that Clark leaving is sinister and he didn’t just take the same deal she did? She has no reason to think he’s in danger.

You also might consider a touch more on why Clark is so important to her that she’d risk it all for him. It doesn’t need a lot, but a line of how he improves her life would help show why she’d go after him. If it fits the story, a sense of her new world being at risk from the librarian as well could add stakes. For example, the librarian has sinister plans for the YA novel world and that would ruin it. A hint of what the librarian’s overall goal might be, because just moving people between worlds doesn't see so bad.

Right now, there’s nothing but “a creepy feeling” that the missing kids and the librarian are anything bad. She helped Evangeline, so she could be doing the same thing for the others. Not everyone is going to want to live in high school. Even one line to explain this would help show the conflict, and her motivation for action.

Perhaps rework this paragraph to include some of the greater stakes and conflicts:
When Clark disappears, Evangeline has a choice between her dream story, or venturing out to rescue her new friend and take on the librarian. Still haunted by the horror novel she left behind, a voyage into the unknown worlds of the Librosphere is no easy decision.
This says too much and too little at the same time. Unless you show that Evangeline has been struggling with her past in the rest of the query, the haunted detail feels stuck in. I don’t think you need it in the query, though you could make it work if you added it easier as a reason she was having time adjusting, and how Clark fits into her life.

Also, the choice still isn’t a choice, as we know she’s going after Clark. Make it active—Evangeline must leave her safe and happy life and risk XX to find Clark. But to save him and all she cares about, she’ll have to take on the librarian. And that means…YY. Maybe you mention the ultimate plan here, maybe a clue toward it, maybe just a hint of greater danger to come.

I know this probably seems like a lot, but it’s mostly tweaks and nudges. The bones of this are pretty good. It's more about polishing and bringing out the details with the most impact.

(Here’s more on Deciding What to Put in Your Query Letter) 

2. I know the current query letter still doesn't give a good sense of how the whole world fits together. To give background: There are no authors (:-(!) Everyone is a book character (whether they know it or not) and the only thing that exists outside of books is the meta-data library realm (a gigantic ramshackle library dimension that houses all the books of the world, and is policed by warrior monk librarians.) The meta-data library doesn't become a feature until the final act. Does it need to be mentioned in the query letter?

Nope. The goal of a query letter is to show the protagonist and their problem, how they get involved in that problem, and how they start to solve it. A hint of the end is often seen, such as “take on the librarian.” That’s all you need for then end, as that shows the ultimate goal. To save Clark and get X for herself, she has to take on the librarian. You can show more, but those are the basics to interest someone enough to read on.

Which is why setting up X and her reasons for risking herself is so vital. It covers the main conflict of the novel and shows what the plot is generally going to cover--her bopping about the book world to save Clark (which is cool). Queries often cover the beginning the novel, and give a hint at what the end is, at least from a “what we have to do” standpoint

(Here’s more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel) 

Overall, it’s an improvement over the last, and very close. I know what she has to do, but the why isn’t yet clear. It’s got a fun MG voice, the funny lines are still funny, and it’s a fun-sounding world and adventure. I just wanted it to be clearer on the conflict and how Evangeline gets pulled into the story, and a touch more on the overall stakes.

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.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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4 comments:

  1. I hate to disagree with Janice, but I'd say don't even think about putting the fact that Evangeline lives in a novel at anywhere but Line 1. It's too good a hook. :)

    Mainly, this does go through all the right steps and is just ready for tweaks to keep it focused on its main thrust. Could some of the details in Paragraph 2 be trimmed, or moved or realigned so there's more focus on Evangeline's need to escape? More later on her new home and the subtle hints of what's going wrong? (Clark being "the only one to see through" the threat kills two birds with one stone, but it's a bit rushed as a way to hint there's danger in this world.)

    Related to this, what is Evangeline's nature as a character, and how does that affect the challenges and choices she's going through? If you weave into all this that she's genuinely tired of danger and has to make a real effort to take it on again -- or that she's always been a fighter and this new challenge is just Strange to her -- we have a strong second layer of appeal under everything.

    One "big" thing about queries and other descriptions: size. If you can find out how long a given agent (and it's always best to study each agent) wants a query, you can adapt it to fit that size. A haiku works by maximizing its seventeen syllables, a pop song its three minutes (half of it for repeating the chorus), and a TV show its 22 or 43 non-commercial minutes. If you know you have just so many words or paragraphs to make your point, how can you pace your query to make perfect use of that space? The query article Janice links to gives a single nine-line paragraph, as an example of how to get the essence of a query in a small space. The query you have is probably a good size, but be ready to re-size it if an agent gives you any reason to.

    This really does sound like a delightfully twisty tale. Good luck!

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  2. I certainly can't add much to the great advice here. With a little more clarity, it should work. I don't see a need to add anything more than what you have. In fact, tightening might help the main focus. Nice voice and great premise. Good luck.

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  3. Thank you so much for the insightful critiques Janice, Ken, and Pamela. I will put it through another draft and get those extra nudges and tweaks in :-) Btw if anyone has any suggestions for the title of the YA highschool novel please let me know (I really struggled with that one!)

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  4. This query letter would entice me to ask for more pages. What is the YA high school novel about? Just asking as it would help as far as coming up with name ideas.

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