he Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment
So sorry about yesterday, Todd! Things got crazy at work and I didn't have time to put your critique up. But here it is now! This critique is for Todd Noker's query for his current YA novel TERMS OF THE INNOCENTS, from Thursday. My feedback will be in blue.
Here's the letter:
Seventeen-year-old Preston is on a journey to find his older brother, the only family he has left after his mother disappeared on a drug binge. Searching among the
homeless teen homeless-teen subculture of Salt Lake City, Preston is witness to drug overdoses, I would like to see more here. Overdoses are not the only tragedy that homeless kids suffer under. There is hunger, there is violence, there is sexual assault. Maybe just mention one or two other things? You've got plenty of room. and ultimately befriends Zack, who sells his body to survive. This is most excellent and you must read BROOKLYN, BURNING, by Steve Brezenoff. When Zack disappears after a tryst I don't care for this word here at all. Tryst implies a plan to meet, between lovers. Unless Zack is actually in love with the John he turns the trick with, I don't think tryst is the right word here. Is it a new customer? Someone he has serviced before? I would really like to see more specifics here. with a customer, Preston plans his revenge to even the score. Again, more. I get the impression from below that Preston decides to start turning tricks too, or least pretending to, so if that's the case just say so. But the man Normally I want the antagonist named, but I think this works. The only thing I need to know is whether this John purchased Zack's services often, or if this was the first time. has plenty of experience of his own, and Preston is locked in a situation where he might also be consumed in the same way as Zack—if he survives the date at all. This is actually pretty good. A bit vague, but I think it's probably important that we don't know whether Zack was killed or not.
Okay, wow. So, first of all, this may be the shortest query I've ever seen. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and realistic contemporary stories like this tend to require less in a query, so that's basically all good news.
It is, however, lacking some important things. First of all, the most important thing in any query letter is the CHARACTER. We have a good bit of backstory for Preston, and a missing addict mother certainly makes him a sympathetic character, but there are two things I think can be improved on here: 1) “find his older brother?” So, the brother is missing too? Not that that's impossible, but it feels a bit convenient for the brother to also go missing at the same time as the mom. Am I misunderstanding here? Why is he on a journey to find his older brother? If the brother was taken away by the state (oh by the way, I'm sure you have since I know you from Drew, but if you haven't you also must read STICK, by Andrew Smith), or might be on his way back from juvie or something, go ahead and put that in the query. Specificity is the key to a good query. 2) We know a good bit about where Preston came from, or at least his backstory, but we know nothing about what kind of person he is. Is he a delinquent before this story starts? Or does he lose his innocence on the streets? We need to sympathize with Preston right away, and be able to start rooting for him right off the bat. Just a couple of words about his CHARACTER in that first line would really help. You can see my query for RUNNING FROM RUBY RIDGE to see what I did to introduce Micah.
Otherwise, this query has some loose ends, regarding the mother and the brother, that never get wrapped up, but that's probably fine. You don't have to give away endings, and it seems like the vengeance for Zack is probably the climax.
Terms of the Innocents TERMS OF THE INNOCENTS (great title, by the way) is a 61,000 word YA manuscript that, while having a sarcastic tone, is gritty and intense. This is probably subjective, but I would cut this. Don't tell the agent what the prose is like, show them. The query should do that even if you don't get to include 5 pages. Preston is a compassionate wise-ass who feels that he is smarter than the homeless teens he encounters, Um, HELLO!?! Put this in the query up top right away. This is perfect. but eventually learns he is just like them. This too. An earlier version of this novel story/manuscript won second place in the Utah Arts Council Creative Writing Competition.
I have two other titles published on
iUniverse iUniverse, and one title published by their Star Star imprint. I write commercial and radio copy, and am a well-known radio personality in Salt Lake City under the name Todd Nuke ‘Em. Can you make this a hyperlink to something? Maybe this(link)? I have done presentations for the Utah Library Association and the Salt Lake City Library for my previous books.
This is great. Agents love signing writers that already have a platform this well established.
The first five pages are below, and the entire manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your consideration.
Readers, Todd mentioned in his email to me that he doesn't include this line with every query. Obviously this only goes out to agents that ask for pages in their submission guidelines.
Okay, man. In summary: first of all I just want to say I really want to read this novel. Having been homeless as a teenager myself, I very much want to see that experience explored more often in literature, and I think the story you're describing here sounds like an important and compelling one. I can't wait to hear the good news that you have sold this manuscript!
As for the query, it needs some work in places, but the good news is that you have plenty of room to include more (for those who don't know, I recommend keeping the “meat of the query” or in other words, the part that describes the story itself (not your bio, or the housekeeping details about the manuscript like word count and genre) to under 250 words. Todd's is 104 words long, so that's plenty of room to work with).
I would recommend that you especially focus on Preston, but you've kind of done your work for yourself already. Try an opening sentence that starts something like this (though in your voice, not mine):
“Seventeen-year-old Preston [Last Name] is a wise-cracking [skateboarder/graffiti artist/gutter punk] who thinks he is smarter than the homeless teens he encounters on the streets of SLC. But when his mother disappears on another bender, he decides it’s finally time to search for his older brother who [insert why the brother’s gone], he discovers that most of them are just like him, with struggles and triumphs all their own.”
Except, of course, better than that and in your own words.
Other than that opening with a better sense of who Preston is before his story starts, I'd like to see a better explanation of Zack's relationship with the John I assume is the antagonist, and if you can clarify that, I think you'd be in great shape here.
Let me know if you have any questions.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts and feedback below.