Query Critique Blog Hop

23 Jul

I’m throwing my hat into the ring for a query critique blog hop run by the wonderful Michelle Hauck. I’m working hard to get my novel in shape for Pitch Wars, which starts in August, and I’d love your feedback!

Query Letter

UPDATE 7/26 Oh my goodness, thank you for the feedback! I’ve entered a revision for anyone who still comes by this post. The new version is above the old one. I’ll be going around giving feedback in the next few days.

NEW VERSION:

Subject: Query for THE ACCIDENTS: HOLES meets MEAN GIRLS

Dear [Agent Name],

Sixteen-year-old Olivia must work with a girl she hates to escape a corrupt alternative school in THE ACCIDENTS, a 68,000 word YA contemporary novel. I am querying you because [I met you at x conference, your MSWL post, etc].

All Olivia wants is to go away to art college. But when boyfriend-stealing Bethany beats her in a high-stakes art contest, she loses it. Olivia and Bethany get in a fistfight, and their high school sends both troublemakers to the School for Alternative Foundations in Education (SAFE).

SAFE is not the outdoorsy utopia it’s advertised to be. Power-tripping counselor Hal steals Olivia’s sketchbook and displays her private drawings in group-therapy-gone-wild. There’s no way Olivia will be able to build the portfolio she needs for art school if she’s stuck here. When she lashes out, she’s forced into isolation therapy—a night with no bed, no light, and no bathroom. SAFE won’t let Olivia contact her parents, or she would beg them to take her home.

When Olivia and Bethany keep fighting, they’re sent on wilderness therapy under Hal’s supervision. The girls don’t like the way Hal watches them and fear they won’t be able to protect themselves if he tries anything. As much as they hate each other, they must work together to escape.

A version of the first chapter of this novel was published in YARN. My writing is published or forthcoming in The Stoneslide Corrective, Refractions, two feminist anthologies, and several other magazines. I cofounded Sounding Sea Writers’ Workshop, am an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at The University of Baltimore, and am active in my SCBWI region.

Thank you for your consideration,

Tracy Gold

OLD VERSION

HOLES meets MEAN GIRLS when sixteen-year-old Olivia must work with a girl she hates to escape a corrupt alternative school. THE ACCIDENTS is a 68,000 word YA contemporary novel.

All Olivia wants is to go away to art college and escape Hughes High. She tries to keep her cool, but she gets in a fistfight with Bethany, her rival for a hot guy and a high-stakes art contest. Hughes sends both troublemakers to a new program, the School for Alternative Foundations in Education (SAFE).

SAFE is not the outdoorsy utopia it’s advertised to be. Power-tripping counselor Hal steals Olivia’s sketchbook and displays her private drawings in group therapy. And why does SAFE’s founder, Ms. Malvern, keep the blinds drawn at her house all the time? SAFE won’t let Olivia contact her parents, or she would beg them to take her home.

When Olivia and Bethany keep fighting, Ms. Malvern tries to force them to get along by sending them on wilderness therapy under Hal’s supervision. The trip might be their best chance to get away and get help for everyone who’s trapped at SAFE. Can they stop fighting long enough to outsmart Hal and escape?

A version of the first chapter of this novel was published in YARN. My writing is published or forthcoming in The Stoneslide Corrective, Refractions, two feminist anthologies, and several other outlets. I cofounded Sounding Sea Writers’ Workshop, am an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at The University of Baltimore, and am active in my SCBWI region.

 

First 250 Words 

NEW

I sink into my chair as everyone else shuffles through their bags and takes out typed and stapled essays. Oh man. Why do I always mess this stuff up? I grope around in my bag, pretending to look for mine.

I knew we had a deadline today, but last night I stayed up late working on a portrait for art class that isn’t even due until next week. I got so caught up in the drawing, and then I guess I just fell asleep without even thinking about Mr. Drake’s stupid Lord of the Flies essay. If I could, I would go straight to Bolton College of Art and skip all this high school crap. But here I am, practically handcuffed to my chair.

I’ll be damned if I can’t get at least two pages done during class. Mr. Drake wanted us to write three pages about the id, ego, and superego in Lord of the Flies, but I don’t buy that psychoanalysis bull. You don’t need to be stranded on an island with a group of them to know that teenage boys are animals.

Mr. Drake rambles on in his mental-masturbation way about the symbolism of some pig the boys killed. I scribble until my hand hurts. “The id is the true soul of the human because the id is the same thing as the libido.” Mr. Drake would like that.

OLD

I sink into my chair as everyone else shuffles through their bags and takes out typed and stapled essays. Oh man. Why do I always mess this stuff up? I grope around in my bag, pretending to look for mine.

I knew we had a deadline today, but last night I stayed up late working on a portrait for art class that isn’t even due until next week. I got so caught up in the drawing, and then I guess I just fell asleep without even thinking about Mr. Drake’s stupid Lord of the Flies essay. If I could, I would go straight to Bolton College of Art and skip all this high school crap. But here I am, practically handcuffed to my chair, wishing I could be home sketching instead.

Still, I need to write that paper, and I’ll be damned if I can’t get at least two pages done during class. Mr. Drake wanted us to write three pages about the id, the superego, and the ego in Lord of the Flies, but I don’t buy that psychoanalysis bull. You don’t need to be stranded on an island with a group of them to know that teenage boys are animals.

Mr. Drake rambles on in his mental-masturbation way about the symbolism of some pig the boys killed. I scribble until my hand hurts. “The id is the true soul of the human because the id is the same thing as the libido.” Mr. Drake would like that.

16 Responses to “Query Critique Blog Hop”

  1. Carlyn Greenwald July 23, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

    Whoa, this is definitely something I’d like to read! Overall, both the query and the 250 are well on their way. But, specifically:

    Query: [All Olivia wants is to go away to art college and escape Hughes High. She tries to keep her cool, but she gets in a fistfight with Bethany, her rival for a hot guy and a high-stakes art contest.] – great hook, but I may consider shuffling some phrases around for better clarity. Something like “…but she gets into a fistfight with her rival for a hot guy and a high-stakes art contest, Bethany.”

    I think the query does a good job of setting up what the story is about, but I feel like the stakes aren’t as clear as they could be. We are told that SAFE is the kind of place that needs to be escaped, but I never quite got the reason why. Like, the second paragraph makes it seem like the adults are kind of jerks and there’s some strange people, but nothing that would make me think the girls need to escape. Perhaps being more specific would help the stakes come out clearer.

    250: Overall, I really liked this. Olivia’s voice came out nicely, and I think she has enough personality for the first person to feel authentic, but not too much that it distracts from the story. Also, I appreciate the very relatable way you start out – I think we’ve all had that “oh crap” moment, and it’s a nice starter for her character. Also, there are some super funny lines in there. Teenage boys are animals and that scribbled line about id being libido is great.

    Quick note, though: “mental-masturbation” to me sounds more like a creeper teacher having sexual fantasies up there. Perhaps change it to “intellectual-masturbation”? Just a small note. take it or leave it. 🙂 If there’s anything to take another look at, I thought the background about her art school aspirations were a *tiny* bit heavy-handed. Maybe take out one of the sentences. Perhaps the last sentence of the second paragraph — I feel like we get that Olivia would rather be doing art than listening to a lecture on Lord of the Flies.

    Overall, like I said, very good! Best of luck to you.

    • Tracy Gold July 27, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

      Thank you so much for your feedback, Carlyn!

  2. Nicholas McRae July 23, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

    The first and most immediate thing that springs to mind (after, “Oh God, I remember what it was like to feel *all* of that”) Is, “Let’s go ahead and say ‘bullshit’.” Man, do I ever know how she feels! But, I wonder if my empathy comes from the fact that I was pretty terribly hyperactive as a kid. My concern is, and this might not be entirely valid because I am especially sensitive to the tyranny that is boredom, is that without some exaggeration, your more normal readers might not understand just how much she wants to claw her way out of her own skin to get out of that class. Right now, when I step back and look at your first 250 through more normal, and adult lenses, your heroine reads like a normal kid, and I am afraid that her struggle might not carry over into adult sympathy, considering the fighting and all that you mention in your query. That’s me reading as an adult. When I put myself into my High School glasses, I’m more like, “Yeah, lucky girl has a future.” So either way, I would like to see just a touch more of the desperation that is high-school adolescence. Maybe 10% more.. RAAAGH! If that makes sense.
    Now, for the Query:
    The story is solid, and it makes sense, but I don’t get a feel for what’s at stake. I really want to fear what Olivia fears. Right now, my inner kid is thinking “Keep your head down and they’ll stop hitting you.” (artifacts from my own high school experience)
    Taking a page from “But, I’m a Cheerleader.” Is Olivia afraid of being brainwashed? Having her passion eradicated? Her soul whitewashed?
    Or, are they using the children in some illegal child-labor ploy? I would like to know this.
    I guess my whole concern is this: You have a great grasp on what it means to be a kid trapped in a world that does not understand her, and your writing tells me that you really are taking this novel somewhere that your readers *need* to go. I would hate for an editor or agent to pass you up because every Alternative-High-School drama is about a corrupt alternative high school. Grab us by the small intestine and twist! Is it hand-breaking labor that may ruin her ability to draw? Do they have / fabricate secrets about her that could destroy her chances of getting into Bolton College of Art? Let us know. Grab us, shake us, and terrify our inner children in that Query. Looking at your first 250, I know you have it in you. This is going to be an amazing novel!

    • JR Yates July 23, 2015 at 11:40 pm #

      Oh my goodness, Nicholas. You give such great feedback! It just had to be said. 😉

  3. JR Yates July 23, 2015 at 11:59 pm #

    Okay, here I go. I will try not to repeat what’s already been said. I think your query is very well written.
    When I read your query, what kept popping into my head was the beginning of the original Parent Trap (I say original as I never saw the remake). So, what makes this different than that? Be sure to show what makes this story truly unique.

    That being said, here’s my inline feedback:

    Query Letter

    HOLES meets MEAN GIRLS when sixteen-year-old Olivia must work with a girl she hates to escape a corrupt alternative school. THE ACCIDENTS is a 68,000 word YA contemporary novel. (great opening paragraph)

    All Olivia wants is to go away to art college and escape Hughes High. (She gets her escape when she’s sent away for…..but SAFE is anything but an escape – or something like that to explicitly show the conflict) She tries to keep her cool, but she gets in a fistfight with Bethany, her rival for a hot guy and a high-stakes art contest. Hughes sends both troublemakers to a new program, the School for Alternative Foundations in Education (SAFE).

    SAFE is not the outdoorsy utopia it’s advertised to be. Power-tripping counselor Hal steals Olivia’s sketchbook and displays her private drawings in group therapy. (delete as you only have one page – just the essential conflict – And why does SAFE’s founder, Ms. Malvern, keep the blinds drawn at her house all the time?) SAFE won’t let Olivia contact her parents, or she would beg them to take her home.

    When Olivia and Bethany keep fighting, Ms. Malvern tries to force them to get along by sending them on wilderness therapy under Hal’s supervision. The trip might be their best chance to get away and get help for everyone who’s trapped (i didn’t feel that they were trapped – show it more strongly – add more to the line about not being able to contact her folks, maybe it should be no contact to the outside world?) at SAFE. (rework, agents dislike rhetorical questions- Can they stop fighting long enough to outsmart Hal and escape?)

    A version of the first chapter of this novel was published in YARN. My writing is published or forthcoming in The Stoneslide Corrective, Refractions, two feminist anthologies, and several other outlets. I cofounded Sounding Sea Writers’ Workshop, am an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at The University of Baltimore, and am active in my SCBWI region.(Wow! Mega credentials! Congrats!)

    The first 250:
    This is quite well written. I would say, watch that you vary your sentence structure. In the first two paragraphs you have “I slumped” “I groped”, “I knew” “I stayed” “I got” etc. Subject: I followed by verb. You could vary this. e.g. Instead of “I grope” why not do “My overstuffed bag on my lap, my fingers grope for something other than gum wrappers and …”, or something like that. Instead of “I knew today was the deadline” Try “Today was the deadline”
    Other than that, I like the action and the voice. Great work!

  4. Mich Fisher July 24, 2015 at 3:17 am #

    Hi Tracy,
    You have so nailed voice, anything I throw into the mix is quibbly technical doo-dahs to add polish on an already shiny work. Your prose flows brilliantly and has a great in-the-moment feel. Your story also has a compelling hook, which could be amped up even more in the query.

    The query is where I have the most commentary. Your opening hook could be much stronger by jumping to the fight and what makes her wish to escape HS more individual. A hint more detail of why Olivia hates her school and gets into fights would be great setup for the jump to the SAFE school.

    Once we get to the SAFE story, there are great details about the indignities, but they don’t give me a sense of dread, danger, or stakes. I’d imagine most facilities of its kind have limited freedoms and staff who take liberties. What makes SAFE’s version different and more of an imminent threat? In this section, we also don’t get a sense of how Olivia shows agency and action in the situation.

    One other quibble in that section. Maybe that she can’t call home could come first, so as the tension builds, it’s clear she has no other means to escape the situation?

    The choice/stakes section could also use more details to establish urgency and danger. Also, some example of how Olivia and Bethany come together and act would be groovy to give a sense of her agency, too.

    The 250 is so damned good.

    As has been said, there’s a bit of extra emphasis of art school that could be dialed back a tad. Also, the specific full name of the art school feels a little heavy-handed. Otherwise, you’ve nailed voice and tone with panache and put me immediately in Olivia’s corner, empathizing over the forgotten assignment (and resulting gut-drop) we’ve all had.

    You have a KILLER voice and style with a compelling story and heroine. This should resonate exceptionally well with agents looking for something more unique and a touch more gritty.

    Good luck with it! I expect it’ll get snapped up pretty quickly.

    • Tracy Gold July 27, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

      Thanks so much for your feedback! Hopefully I have upped the stakes’ appearance in the query in this revision!

  5. kris laubscher July 24, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    I will keep my comments to things not mentioned in the above comments since I agree with everything that has already been said.

    My comments are getting really nit-picky because overall I think its all pretty fantastic and most of what I would comment on has already been covered.

    The opening sentence: there is something mentally off-putting for me about starting with the name of someone else’s book. After i read the whole thing when I thought back on it, my brain recalled HOLES first and not the name of your book. Its just personal preference but I would start by naming your book THE ACCIDENTS and end that paragraph with the HOLES meets MEAN GIRLS. (By the way, in order to type this I had to go back to the top and remember what your book was called but I remembered “HOLES meets MEAN GIRLS” without having to go back to your post).

    I think it was already mentioned but I’ve read several places that rhetorical questions are not a good for queries. I suggest taking those out.

    After reading the query, the only note I made myself was “stakes?” How is this different from every other Young Adult book about a kid wanting to go their college of choice? How are the stakes any different and how does SAFE specifically make the goal of getting into college more challenging? Is the story (at it’s heart) about getting into college or is it about two girls who hate each other learning to understand and accept each other for who they are? If its the latter, then the query needs to be tweaked more to reflect that. I was left feeling like it is a “get into college” adventure with a “enemy turned friend” subplot than the other way around.

    For the 250 – LOVED IT!!! I really don’t have much to add to the commentary on it other than I can totally put myself in her shoes which is great in 250 words. One note: i studied psychology and when discussing Freud, it is always referred to as “the id, ego and superego.” You reference it as “id, superego and ego.” There are likely very few readers who would notice or even care but it caught my attention so i pass it along.

    Good luck with Pitch Wars.

  6. J.A. George July 24, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Your query is very strong, setting up interesting stakes for your protagonist and the other members of her program. Unfortunately, I don’t have much else to say about it, but take that as a compliment; I don’t feel the need to offer other criticisms.

    The first 250 words of your manuscript feel a bit heavy on exposition, as if Olivia is explaining everything to me instead of allowing me to experience it with her. As a reader, I’d like to find out about her and her aspirations more gradually, instead of feeling like there are big neon signs telling me she cares more about art than school. Other than that, I like the flow and sound of your prose, and think your word choices are strong and appropriate for the genre and age category.

    Good luck, and hope these comments prove helpful.

    • Tracy Gold July 27, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

      Thank you so much for your feedback!

  7. LA Knight July 25, 2015 at 11:34 pm #

    Okay, so I’m dedicating the first week of this to critiquing the queries and then going back and doing the first 250 in a separate comment. I need to be in a different mind-set for those. So I’ll comment on your query now and come back for the sample later, okay?

    So at first glance, your comp titles tell me what the book is about. I’ve seen both films so I got the idea, and their iconic enough that they’re good choices for comp titles because agents will be like, “Ding! I know what this is going to be!” Except then your pitch didn’t really deliver.

    First let me say what I liked. The SAFE acronym is good (and I could see both Olivia and Bethany being like, “Ugh. Seriously?” when they hear it. It’s great that you use the full name of the program once (setting up the acronym) but then only use the acronym after that. Saves a lot of space. I like the name of the school (makes me think of director John Hughes who did great teen movies).

    Here’s what I don’t like. Mean Girls is all about power struggles, social hierarchy, finding your place in that hierarchy, and deciding what you are and are not willing to do in order to cement that place. I’m not seeing any of that in this pitch and it really feels like that sort of storyline isn’t really relevant to your book. Just because Bethany and Olivia are rivals for a couple things (and the guy seems very unimportant, honestly – the art seems to be the bigger thing, and makes Olivia a strong character) doesn’t mean they’re comparable to Katie and that ultimate B****-Queen, Regina George.

    Holes is about a group of kids who are basically being held prisoner by a band of criminals. So far in this pitch, you haven’t shown us criminal activity other than not being allowed to call the parents. The blinds always being closed is suspicious, but even Nancy Drew wouldn’t be *that* concerned unless Ms. Malvern (great name btw) did something else to draw her attention first, much less a couple of teenagers who aren’t pro detectives or suffering from paranoia. Hal sounds like a jerk, but his taking Olivia’s sketchbook isn’t criminal. It’s just jerk-ish.

    Also, why would Olivia and Bethany just run away over a simple sketchbook? Yeah, it’s important to Olivia, but it’s also super childish to risk going to juvie because someone took your diary (or the artistic equivalent). She’s sixteen and has a well-thought-out career path ahead of her and a desperate wish to get into art school. Why would she risk it all by ditching school and running off (also breaking the law)?

    If SAFE is an alternative school, they can’t keep the kids from contacting their parents. The parents would have something to say about that and it would read highly suspicious to local authorities, and if they’re criminals they would think of that and plan accordingly. Also, if the kids aren’t being actually abused (Hal’s actions are thus far not enough), they wouldn’t need to worry about kids calling their parents because parents who would send their kids to a place like this aren’t going to drop everything to snatch them back out again because the kids whined home.

    If this is a juvenile detention center like in Holes (where they don’t have to let minors call their parents), you need to make that more clear. And if it’s juvie, how did a single fistfight land both girls there? What, did they punch a teacher? Accidentally set the chem lab on fire? Shoving someone in juvie seems a little harsh for an offense that usually only results in a week’s suspension.

    I don’t see someone as criminally savvy as you’re setting Ms. Malvern up to be doing something as stupid as sending two problem-girls on a hike with a male authority figure they have problems with.

    You say everyone at SAFE is trapped and needs help but you haven’t shown the adults doing anything other than not respecting emotional boundaries. Your pitch treats the stakes as super high, but they’re really not (as you’ve laid them out). If people are in danger, like in Holes – kids forced to dig ditches in high heat surrounded by venomous lizards, for example – you need to make that clear.

    Olivia has no clear motivation for getting into a physical fight on school campus with another girl, because a guy and a contest aren’t enough. Did Bethany steal Olivia’s boyfriend? Sabotage her art submission to the contest? You need to say those things if so, and if not, she needs better motivation (honestly I think you should just get rid of the boy; the art thing is a much stronger and less wimpy reason). Neither girl has clear motivation for running away, considering the consequences that will come down on them.

    Your bio is good (although what sort of outlets are we talking here?) and your opening paragraph is perfect…except your comp titles don’t work. The 250 might be a different story because pitch writing and drafting a novel are different skills, but this is just my commentary on the pitch itself.

    • Tracy Gold July 27, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Nicholas! It’s really interesting–I think we got two totally separate meanings from Mean Girls. At its heart, I really see it as being about how girls are so mean to each other because of jealousy and insecurity, and how stopping that should be a part of growing up. And that’s what I’m hoping agents will see when they read my query!

      The place they’re sent is bad like Holes but in an emotional way…any suggestions for other stories with a setting like that would be much welcomed!

      • LA Knight July 31, 2015 at 4:44 am #

        Yeah, I think we did. I didn’t see much jealousy from any of the girls towards each other until later when Katie was making moves on the guy she throws up on. Insecurity, yes, but I don’t think those 2 things coincide. The driving force behind the narrative was Katie and what she was willing to do first to be friends with the original 2 kids and then to maintain her position of popularity and how her association w/ peeps was sort of poisoning her.

        BUT! Reread your new query. LOVE. I would probably read this. As for a place w/ emotional abuse…unfortunately, the only book I can think of is Suzanne Young’s The Program (omg ugh, so much ick for the brainwash place) but that’s not the best comp. And no comp is better than bad comp. I like what you’ve got, honestly. 🙂

  8. Dooley July 27, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

    I have this feeling I should be taking advice from you instead of giving it. Anyway –

    Query (revised)
    Like the story. The setting could be ripped out of the back pages of a news paper. The rivalry between the girls is well set up. The specifics in the query are excellent (naming the school, Hal’s betrayal with her sketch book)

    The ‘Bethany beats her…she loses it’ construction is a little awkward with two different senses of to lose. I’d suggest:
    But when boyfriend-stealing Bethany beats her in a high-stakes art contest, she and Bethany get into a fist fight. Their high school…”

    The ending could use a bit of clarifying the stakes. “…they must work together to escape or X” I realize they are implied, but every query can use some stakes raising.

    If all you professional work is going to be Tracy C. Gold, you might want to sign it that way.

    First 250 (revised):
    Oh that Lord of the Flies essay is such a great way to set up the reader for the school. The metaphorical handcuffs are a nice touch.

    “You don’t need to be stranded…with teenage boys to know they are animals.” Just a suggestion to streamline.

    Like the voice of the main char in this first page.

    Good Luck with it.
    D

  9. MissWBooks August 5, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

    WOW! So I was late to the game getting back to my Blog Hops. I absolutely love this query (you’re not looking for readers are you??) and I definitely think the revised one is stronger. You’ve done a great job responding to the feedback that you’ve already received. However, it’s also longer than your original and I wonder if you could regain a little of the snappiness? I know it’s so hard to condense all the elements of your story, but I think it could do with being a tiny bit shorter.

    Anyway let me know if you do want a reader, I wasn’t just saying that for effect, it sounds like something I’d love to read! Reminds me a bit of the comic Morning Glories (might be a good comp title?)

    • Tracy Gold August 6, 2015 at 10:26 am #

      Thank you so much!!! I’d love a reader–what a high compliment! I’m smack in the middle of a fairly major revision to get ready for Pitch Wars so it might be a few weeks until it’s ready. My email is tracyc@tracycgold.com; if you reach out or comment with your email I will happily send it to you when this round is done!

      Let me know if I can return the favor; I love historical fiction and I’m just getting into historical fantasy. I might be painfully slow to do a whole novel, though.

      Honestly, I’m torn on the length thing. Everyone says to keep the queries short, but I’ve seen so many authors post successful queries that are a little on the long side. So frustrating. Anyway, I am constantly looking to cut words where I can and chop, chop, chop.

      Morning Glories looks amazing! I will have to read it before I comp it. Thanks for the rec.

Leave a Reply to MissWBooks Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *