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Query Contest: Honorable Mentions!

Okay, you guys. In a very real sense, I was blown away by these queries. And I almost wish I hadn’t run the contest, because now I have to choose winners and that’s been very hard. My personal challenge was choosing submissions based on the strength of the query more than the strength of the hook or the idea, which isn’t really the point of a query contest. Let me tell you, it was very, very difficult! So, without further ado, here are the Honorable Mentions. I chose these queries because they were great, but they also had some opportunity for me to illustrate a few query points.

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The first one is Laurie Edwards, with her query for Red Beads:

Dear Ms. Mary Kole:

Water beetles, worms, and crickets—delicious, right? When you’re starving, pregnant, and on the run from the emperor, they are.

Laurie definitely takes a risk here! This is a question query, sure, but the question is interesting. It’s risky because a) it might gross the agent out right off the bat and b) because it doesn’t exactly tell me about what kind of book I’m looking at here… this could easily be the first line of a creepy crawly picturebook about the eating habits of indigenous people or something. But I kept reading.

Those are only some of the many hardships Mei faces in Red Beads, my edgy YA novel set in China during the Ming dynasty. This tale of palace intrigue, forbidden love between a concubine and a eunuch, and the triumph of the human spirit is complete at 57,000 words.

Great summary in one line tells me everything I need to know, including the central conflict and the main characters.

When sixteen-year-old Mei is taken as a concubine against her will, her feisty personality arrests the attention of head eunuch, Li. He concocts a plan to not only protect her, but to give her heart’s desire—the opportunity to read and write her beloved poetry. But Mei’s jealous cousin Daiyu reports their secret meetings to the emperor, who condemns Li to death and punishes Mei with a sentence worse than death. After Mei realizes she is carrying a deadly secret (the emperor’s child), she flees the Forbidden City, and her life becomes a fight for survival as she matches wits with those who hope to imprison or destroy her.

I love that we find out more about Mei and her passion, poetry. However, “… a sentence worse than death” is a little vague. I think she’s being forced into sexual service of some kind but I had to read it a few times to make sure that’s what we were talking about. Might want to be more specific for the purposes of a query.

When I stood in the Forbidden City several years ago, this story gripped my heart and has since been a labor of love. As for those water beetles and worms? I’m not sure how they’d taste raw (the way Mei eats them), but they’re delicious cooked. I believe in immersing myself in the culture I’m writing about, so during my trip to China, I enjoyed deep-fried water beetles, but must admit I wasn’t as enamored with boiled sand worms. A former librarian, I have been using my research skills to flesh out the historical details. In addition to reading extensively on the Ming dynasty, I have enlisted the aid of a scholar to insure the historical accuracy.

Be careful about giving too much information about yourself. This is a great story — risky again because of the ick factor — but might be too much info for the query. I love that she’s so knowledgeable about the culture and setting that she’s desribing but I would save something like this story for the phone when the agent calls to talk more about the project. It’s an extra little bit of zest but it takes the attention off the book which, for the purpose of the query, is most important.

My writing credits include Rihanna (People in the News) for Lucent (2009) and “Summer Storms” in Summer Lovin’, an anthology from Wild Rose Press (2009). I also have more than 850 magazine and educational articles in national publications including Highlights for Children, Woman Alive!, Junior Trails, First Teacher, On the Line, Light and Life, and Clubhouse as well as in encyclopedias, reading books, and educational databases.

I would be happy to send Red Beads for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Impressive list of publication credits and a breezy sign-off. Nice!

Sincerely,
Laurie Edwards

Now we move on to a picturebook Honorable Mention from Michelle Munger!

Dear Ms. Kole,

Reading your biography, I have found we share a common interest in the works of Neil Gaiman. I hope you will find my story “I Want to be a Cowboy”, a 680 word picture book for ages 4-8 years old, intriguing as well.

I appreciate the author reading my bio and reaching out to make a connection. However, I’m not quite sure how Neil Gaiman fits into a picturebook called “I Want to be a Cowboy.” If you’re going to include personalization in the query, it’s a good idea to have it be pertinent to the work you’re submitting.

Popper is a prairie dog who desperately wants to be a cowboy, like the ones he watches on the ranch just above his home. He decides to find a way to become a cowboy and asks every animal he finds if they know how to be a cowboy. Each animal gives him different advice, but even after he finds boots for his feet and a hat for his head, he still doesn’t feel like a cowboy. It isn’t until he learns to use the things he finds that make him truly a cowboy. The story uses repetition and spunky animals to help him realize it’s not what he has, but how he uses them that make the difference in the end.

The story sounds cute and I like it. The conflict, action and resolution are described well. However, this is a picturebook. Even if you’re only writing the text, give me at least one concrete image to walk away from the query with. Like, for example, I want to know more about “It isn’t until he learns to use the things he finds that make him truly a cowboy.” Give me an example. What does he learn to use? How does it make him feel? Describe a scene for me in a sentence that’ll give me a mental picture.

I am an author/illustrator and member of SCBWI. I attend local weekly critique groups and am active in on-line groups to perfect my craft. I started Manic Network on Ning, a network to bring author/illustrators together so we can all learn from one another. I am a member of VSS, the Visual Storytellers Studio. I would like to illustrate this book, but I would be all right if you see a different vision from another illustrator. The manuscript and sample pictures can be sent at your request.

Great. Normally, of course, if you’re sending a picturebook query, you’ll include the text of the full manuscript, depending on an agency’s guidelines. If you’ve got a link online to illustrations from the project, even better. Include the link in your query so you don’t have to send an attachment to the agent.

Thanks so much for your time,
Michelle Munger

As you can see, these are really strong queries already. Finally, we’ve got another YA query from Marie Devers:

Dear Ms. Kole,

Moxie McCormick’s dad is ditching her in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Grabs my attention but watch out. This opening line isn’t so much about Moxie as it is about her dad, he’s the primary subject of the sentence and it raises more questions about him than about her.

Sounds harsh, but Moxie gets it. He’s given up everything to raise her. Now he’s pursuing his dreams, and 16-year-old Moxie must fend for herself. Her dad sets her up in the college dorms and asks the RA to look out for her. He tells Moxie to use this chance to live.

This sounds intriguing but slightly implausible, so I wanted the writer to combat that feeling of “No dad would ever, ever do this in real life” with some more facts. My brain is asking a lot of questions. Why did he give everything up? What dreams is he pursuing? It feels like he’s leaving her for a long time, even though we learn later that it’s only four weeks. He seems really callous to me from this short description. Also, notice how all the attention is on the dad so far, not the main character.

Moxie joins her new school’s award-winning choral group. She yearns to perform, so what’s stopping her from taking the solo she’s offered and performing at the local open mic night?

Take your pick:

Now we’re getting more Moxie! Good. I also like the “Take your pick,” because it has voice. The query is starting to come into its own.

  • Moxie’s new Alaskan friends are hell-bent on changing her.
  • She’s caught the eyes (and ears) of not one, but two cute guys.
  • All the attention is intensifying her stage fright (if that’s possible).

I like the bullet format. It’s not something I see very often, and it boils down Moxie’s world in a quick and easily digestible way. This does raise more questions, though. Why are her friends bent on changing her? Into who or what?

Moxie’s got four weeks of Alaskan freedom before her dad returns. Will she take his advice and live? Or will the pressure of being a strange new girl in a strange new land keep her from finding her voice?

Really like the last line but the first sentence is problematic. The opening of the query made it sound like the Dad was ditching her and she felt bad about it (though I really couldn’t tell what she was feeling because we didn’t hear about her that much…). Now this makes it sound like she couldn’t wait to get rid of Dad and have fun and it’s this wild adventure, instead of abandonment. The two don’t reconcile for me.

Complete at 50,000 words, MILES ABOVE EVERYTHING is a young adult rock-and-roll love story. I’m querying you because I read your blog and I know you’re wishing for YA fiction with a rock-and-roll slant.

Yay! Someone looked at my Wish List (in the sidebar of my blog) and sent me something cool. I do wonder how choral music equals a rock-and-roll love story, but I might just have to request some sample pages and find out. :)

I’ve been a professional educational writer since 2005. MILES ABOVE EVERYTHING is my first novel. For three years, I taught English classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks–the setting of MILES ABOVE EVERYTHING. While there I earned an MFA in fiction.

It’s nice to know that the writer has an MFA degree. That’s no requirement, by any means, but it lets me know that she’s serious and driven about fiction. It’s also great that she’s so familiar with the setting of her story, and I love the title. This sort of brief blip about her experience with her setting is something I wanted to see in Laurie’s query, above. It’s just enough where I know she’s an expert in what she’s writing about.

I’ve included the first ten pages below. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to see more.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Marie Devers

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So there you are, the three Query Contest Honorable Mentions. Stay tuned these next few days, I’ll be choosing more and more winners and dissecting their queries. I hope this proved a useful exercise for you. The fun is just beginning!

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  1. Karen Amanda Hooper’s avatar

    Congrats to all but especially to Marie. I’ve beta read MILES and know how fabulous the story is. Thank you Mary for breaking down the pros and cons of the queries.

  2. Ashley Cooper’s avatar

    Congratulations to today’s winners. All three queries made me want to keep reading. Mary, your notes are once again incredibly helpful. Thank you!

  3. Marie Devers’s avatar

    Yay! I’m the happiest writer in Pennsylvania! I cannot wait to go home and revise my query using your crazy-good advice. Thanks again for doing this Mary!

  4. MeganRebekah’s avatar

    Congrats to all! I can’t wait to see more of the winners

    (and I second Karen’s praise for MILES — it’s an amazing story!)

  5. Bane’s avatar

    Very useful. Thank you.

  6. Patti’s avatar

    Congratulations to the three. Can’t wait to read more.

  7. Natalie’s avatar

    Congratulations to everyone! Mary–you have GREAT taste. I too have beta read for Marie and MILES is incredible.

  8. Susan James’s avatar

    Congratulations Laurie, Michelle, and Marie. What great stories! And thanks Mary- your comments are very helpful. In that respect, we’re all winners.

  9. Siski Green’s avatar

    Huge congratulations! I loved reading these queries and Mary’s comments. So unbelievably useful. Fantastic to have the chance to read this kind of genuine and helpful comment on real queries.

  10. Jenny Martin’s avatar

    Congrats to the “Honorables.” Ms. Kole, thank you for doing this. Unlike many contests, this one is beneficial for everyone; we have a chance to see concrete examples of what works (and doesn’t work) in a letter. I don’t know about anyone else, but the query conundrum can be both daunting and disheartening. I’m grateful for your time and insight.

  11. Samantha Clark’s avatar

    Great analysis, Mary. It’s always so useful to read an agent’s views on queries. Thanks!

  12. PatEsden’s avatar

    Congratulations Laurie, Michelle and Marie.

    Thank you, Mary. It’s really cool to see how fabulous queries can be made even stronger. Also, reading a wide range of queries helps me understand how an agent’s personal taste and preferences can’t help but come into play when rejecting a perfectly good manuscript and choosing to read another—the dreaded subjective word. I’m just glad I’m not the one doing the picking and choosing.

  13. Patricia Puddle’s avatar

    Congratulations Laurie, Michelle and Marie. And thanks Mary, I usually struggle with query letters. This is a great learning experience. I can’t wait to read the rest. What a great contest.

  14. Lacey Boldyrev’s avatar

    Congrats! Those are some fantastic queries! Ms. Kole, thank you for giving us some great tips!

  15. Karen Collum’s avatar

    Congratulations Laurie, Michelle and Marie! You must all be delighted, and rightfully so. And I would love to read each of your books :)

    Mary, thanks so much for breaking down what works and for providing a picture book example in the mix. I find that querying picture books can be particularly problematic due to the brevity of the text and the important role that illustrations play in the interpretation. And I didn’t know that it was OK with some agencies to send the full text with the query! Thanks for the tip :) I always read through the submission guidelines and try to follow them to the letter, but I will be on the lookout for this now.

    Good luck winners and I hope someone picks up your manuscripts very soon!

  16. Jennifer’s avatar

    Congrats to the Honorable Mentions! What fantastic feedback for all of us writers, Mary. Thanks so much! Now we can see exactly what an agent is looking for in a query. Can’t wait to put this to good use.

  17. Elliah Terry’s avatar

    A big HIP HOORAY! to the winners today.

    It’s not often that I get to read “real” query examples. This is awesome. I’m excited to use all the helpful comments to better my own queries.

  18. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    Congrats you guys! This is such a learning experience.

  19. Dianne’s avatar

    Geesh…we’ve all those good ideas. Those people need to get into a wrtier’s group and share their good ideas and get their fill of positive feedback that way. Stop yacking at agents before it’s time! Perhaps someday they’ll be the sort of wrtier that the publishers call to write the book that fills their missing hole, but until then, they should get in on that book critique group.

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