When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about ten query letters written by Novel Boot Camp participants.
I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.
Please play along by tracking which books you would request to read based on the query. There will be a poll at the end of the post.
“I Stopped Reading When…”
1. middle grade, fantasy
There are two things you absolutely must know about cave-dwellers: they live inside of caves, obviously, and they never, ever leave their town, the County of Morrat.
Peter Folkthorn is fine with the first rule, he quite enjoys living inside of caves, despite the fact that his particular burrow, the Morrat House for Disregarded and Unwanted Children, is far from cozy. Not only is he bullied by the stout headmistress, Miss Thonda, but his only two friends, Poppy and Grindel, are lucky enough to have parents still around, which means they don’t get to share on the thrilling joy that is living under Miss Thonda’s tutelage.
The final two paragraphs of the query are not included in the excerpt.
I like that the first sentence shows some voice because it tells me you spent time on the query. However, the cave-dwellers never leaving their town threw me off a bit. It’s not clear if the town is above or below the ground. The bullying headmistress at a house for unwanted kids is certainly not a new idea so I lost some interest in the second paragraph. The final sentence of the second paragraph is awkwardly worded. I think you’re spending too long on the setup.
2. young adult, urban fantasy
When seventeen-year-old October Haven wakes up in a cemetery holding human bones, she thinks she’s going crazy. Again. Instead she finds out she’s a Bone Singer – one of three teenagers in the world with the magical ability to sing to the bones of the dead and temporarily bring a spirit back to life.
Learning how to be the Bone Singer is tough, and working out the mixed signals coming from her handler Michael is tougher. When October is attacked, she finds out the Bone Singers before her were killed for their rare and much sought after magic. She agrees to help the Bone Singing Council find out who is behind the attacks, but the sentient magic is less inclined to help. It’s tired of being commodified, controlled and corrupted by the Council, and it’s ready to take matters into its own hands, which also happen to be October’s hands.
Final paragraph not included in excerpt.
I like the voice, so that’s great. “Again” in the first paragraph made me think she was mentally ill on top of being magical. “She finds out” is a little vague, but I’m going to assume it’s too complicated to explain in a query. The last sentence of the first paragraph is too wordy. I would cut “one of three teenagers in the world” and reword. In the second paragraph, it’s not clear why she has a handler or what his mixed signals are (I’m assuming romantic and indifferent?). I’m not clear on why there is a council or what it does or how she found it. I know what the sentient magic wants, but I don’t know what October wants. What motivates her?
Japan 1990: twenty-year-old Miwako Sumida has killed herself, and nobody knows why. Slowly, her life is revealed through the eyes of three people who have been close to her. Ryusei is an upper classman who loves Miwako, Chie is Miwako’s best friend who has a secret of her own, and Fumii is Ryusei’s transsexual sister who hides a painful truth from the past.
This is the full query.
I really like that this is short, so nice job there! I’m concerned that the second sentence will give the impression that this is a story made up of back story. Are there stakes? Are there active conflicts for the three characters? Why does Miwako’s story need to be revealed? That said, the premise intrigues me despite some reservations.
4. Young Adult, urban fantasy
When sixteen-year-old Aria discovers she’s a modern-day Fate, entrusted with preserving the order of life and death, she must decide if she will allow the boy she loves to die, or if she will abandon order to save him.
When Aria’s sixteenth birthday is eclipsed by blackouts and premonitions, she learns a family secret: her mother was a Fate. Fates have been around since they were documented in Greek mythology, but they aren’t the hyperbolized old ladies who cut the threads of life. Fates are tasked with saving the lives of people who would die before their time, thanks to chaos. The caveat: Fates must allow those who are predestined for death to die without interference.
Aria joins the Fates but doubts her decision when she witnesses a gruesome murder scene. The Fates are able to save one of the victims, but refuse help to his begging brother. Now she’s dealing with bewitching Sirens who have the ability to lure people toward disaster. Aria’s normal and supernatural worlds collide when she’s forced to decide whether she will preserve order and allow her boyfriend to die, or if she will go against everything she’s been taught and save him. But saving someone comes with consequences, and the Furies who punish those who stray aren’t far away. They’ll demand a life for life repayment.
This is the full query.
The first sentence does a nice job of setting up the conflict. The rest of the query seems to be the long version of this sentence so there is a lot of repetition. Finding out about your real identity through your mom’s identity on your sixteenth birthday is actually a trope so focusing on that isn’t banking you originality points. I don’t know who/what the “hyperbolized old ladies” are and the sentence feels like a waste of space. I don’t think the murder scene described at the beginning of the third paragraph is relevant. I would cut it. Focus on this boy she likes. Are they in a relationship? Give me a couple of details about him so that he sounds cute. How does she find out this boy is going to die? That would be a more interesting detail to include. I’m also doubting that this decision creates enough conflict to fill an entire novel.
5. women’s fiction
Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Jeffreys lives for her son, Owen. Certainly not for her husband, Kyle; he’s far too liberal with his fists. But when Owen becomes Kyle’s target, Charlie has to protect him. Together they flee to her grandfather’s farm. A place Kyle doesn’t know; a place where they can be safe.
But Kyle is not her only problem. She soon finds that her grandfather has enemies–people like Annie Farrell, who blames Charlie’s grandfather for her family’s woes and who wants revenge. She will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get it.
As the problems and pressures mount, once again threatening both her and her son, Charlie learns that the worst of her fears has become a reality.
Kyle has found her and intends to teach her a lesson she may not survive.
This is the full query.
Overall, this query doesn’t feel polished. The wording of the first sentence is awkward. Annie Farrell and Charlie’s grandfather’s secret seem completely disconnected from her abusive husband and that’s a problem. The last two paragraphs are too vague. Avoid phrases like “pressures mount” and “the worst of her fears has become a reality” because they aren’t explaining anything concrete.
6. Comedy, Women’s fiction
Caprice Bello, the product of a small, Italian, and very Catholic family, has an allegiance to Baby Jesus, an affinity for Agretto’s pizza, and an aversion to discussing S-E-X. A few weeks ago Caprice lived up to her name and quit her job as a buyer in the worst way possible. Word must have gotten out to the retail community, because now she can’t even score a cashier position at Walmart.
A friend intervenes and helps Caprice land a job selling the next new blockbuster erectile dysfunction drug. After completing a grueling training program that teaches her (amongst other things), male anatomy facts no woman ever needs to know, Caprice is ready to conquer her little piece of the world. But once in front of physicians, Caprice is faced with a harsh and unexpected reality: doctors care less about her pharmaceutical knowledge and more about her skirt length and catering abilities.
Final paragraph not included in excerpt.
I like the personality shown in the first paragraph, however it ultimately seems irrelevant to the plot summary. The sentence is also too long and needs to be trimmed down. What is “the worst way possible” in the second sentence? I’m not getting a sense of what Caprice wants (on a deeper level than simply a job). Why does it matter if she fails at this job? What are the stakes? I find the premise a little bit funny, but I’m not laughing out loud, which doesn’t build my confidence that the voice is strong enough to carry a plot entirely built on humor.
7. historical fantasy
Reymond, born in the late 11th century, joins the first crusade and matures from naïve youth to disillusioned adult in the forge of war. He joins a knightly order who each take one of the heavenly virtues as an inspiration. The knights hunt and kill a unicorn, thinking it is to give them an edge in battle, but in fact it is so that their mystical leader, Sebastien, can become immortal.
The second half of this paragraph is not included in the excerpt.
The writing doesn’t feel polished in this query. There is no sense of personality, motivation, stakes, or conflict.
8. Dark scifi/fantasy
Sasha meets Ambrose and is instantly attracted to him—a red flag. In her twenty-six years, she has learned she has a type: abusive, emotionally unavailable men—men like her father. But this one is different, he’s not even human. He is hahmi—a mind-reading, centuries-old, alien hybrid who hunts and kills men like Sasha’s father.
When Ambrose finds Sasha lying in Jamison Square, bloody, naked and barely clinging to life, he saves her. Healed and no longer human, she is pulled into a hidden world—the world of the hahmi. Suddenly everything she thought she knew is a lie, and surviving means going to war against the alien race who created all life on Earth before it’s too late.
This is the full query.
Firstly, figure out if you’re writing fantasy or scifi. They aren’t interchangeable terms. The first paragraph feels clunky and too wordy. I would cut out Sasha’s attraction to Ambrose being a “red flag” since you immediately state that he’s different. I’m a bit confused about why alien hybrids would hunt down abusive men. Don’t they have anything better to do? This seems odd. In the second paragraph, it’s not clear why Sasha is naked and injured. How does getting healed by an alien make her no longer human? Is he a vampire alien? Did he turn her into a robot? The last sentence is vague and relies on cliches (“everything she thought she knew is a lie,” “surviving means __,” and “before it’s too late”). This last sentence makes me fairly certain your novel has structural problems because her only motivation is to stay alive.
9. new adult contemporary
After months of wading through life on a listless autopilot- and rapidly flunking out of school because of it- journalism student Leah Laporte has begun taking medication for depression. But she’s having a hard time accepting her diagnosis. Why should she be depressed? She has no tragic past, no chronic diseases, no dead loved ones or dysfunctional family. . . every day in journalism she writes about people with far more “legitimate” struggles than her. And yet, she’s wilting.
So when she confesses her romantic feelings to her friend, Aaron Stephenson, in an impulsive attempt to revitalize her life, she’s thrilled that he seems to return her interest.
But when she learns something about Aaron that she hadn’t expected-something that leaves her heart in pieces- she finds her grades and her mental health nose-diving rapidly into a worse state than ever before.
Relief comes when her sister’s beach wedding flies her away to Cayo Coco, Cuba over Spring Break. Relaxing beneath the lush palms, attempting to forget the dark winter back home, she catches the eye of a handsome young resort worker who flatters her with his fearless pursuit. Unused to such attention but enticed by his infectious energy, she’s soon drawn into his surreal world. Carlos Velasquez has a heart-wrenching story like one straight from the pages of one of her class assignments. But despite his poverty and struggle, she realizes she had more in common with him then she would have ever expected. Inspired by his resilience, meeting him ends up being the boost she’s needed. But when she discovers that his affection for her may be merely the mirage of a well-practiced game, her newfound confidence is instantly challenged. Leah is left wondering who she can trust, and questioning if she’s been looking for happiness in all of the wrong places.
This is the full query.
The first paragraph takes way too long to make its point. I would condense this down into one or two sentences. Overall, the entire query needs to be tightened. the same premise could be conveyed in about half this space. “Unused to” is really awkward and needs to be cut. In terms of plot, it seems like Leah leaves a guy because he has problems but finds another guy who also has problems, but this other guy is exotic so his problems are inspiring instead of off putting. This comes across a little odd and calls into question why the first guy is included in the novel at all. Once she figures out Carlos is a player, I’m not sure how the novel will sustain itself. What does she do? How is she proactive?
10. young adult, fantasy
Emily is in love with her neighbor, Mr. Fox. He’s handsome, mysterious, and twice her age – but the heart wants what the heart wants, right? Emily’s heart gets more than it bargained for when she meets his talking, shapeshifting pet cat, Boris, and learns that Mr. Fox is a magician from the magical world of Elspeth. In hopes of getting Mr. Fox’s attention, she follows him and Boris through a “seam” in her backyard.
The next two paragraphs are omitted from this excerpt.
The premise isn’t striking me as original (talking cat, magical world, portal/seam). Emily’s crush on someone twice as old as her reads as a bit creepy and ruins the potential for an age-appropriate romantic subplot. The talking cat and magical world read more like middle grade than young adult.
What did you think?
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4 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” Query Edition – Volume 1”
This is so helpful Ellen, thank you. Certain things came across inaccurately and now I know what needs to be adjusted.
The only premise I found interesting was No. 7. I especially liked the first sentence. It sets the tone and provides place, time and personal progress for the main character. I also like the idea of taking one of the Heavenly Virtues as an inspiration. I immediately want to know which one he chose and why. I groaned out loud when we got to the part about killing a unicorn, it seems too clichéd a symbol for innocence . . . That said, I’d still like to see how it all goes. As Ellen’s critique points out, there’s a lot of work to be done here but I hope the author isn’t too discouraged and chooses to keep at it. Personally, I believe you may have something here. Good luck.
I agree. thanks very much for helping to direct me along the right query letter path. Lotsa insights which can do a great deal to improve my query letter!
Some detailed feedback if it helps:
1. Not sure where the story is going, but I like the voice. Reminds me a bit of The Hobbit, with the whimsical tone, something Tolkien unfortunately lost when he wrote the trilogy. Or maybe the earlier Harry Potter books.
2. The council confused me a bit. To me, a council implies a society or at least a decent sized group that needs to be guided by leaders. If there are only three Bone Singers, though, why do they need a council?
4. Love the premise and am very interested to see how it turns out!
7. I have a soft spot for historical fiction, so this one stood out to me for that reason. I agree with Ellen though; I’d like to learn up front what Reymond is after on a personal level – aside from capturing the Holy Land from the infidel, of course – and why the unicorn’s death was important.
8. Interesting premise, and I can actually kind of sympathize with the scifi/fantasy label. Mine’s along the same lines. It has sci fi elements such as time travel coupled with fantasy elements such as a parallel world with fantastical beings inhabiting it. I was a little confused as to how she was instantly attracted to him since she was naked and near death when she met him.