20 Query Critiques [Novel Boot Camp]

NBClogoThis query critique session is part of my Novel Boot Camp series. If you don’t know what Novel Boot Camp is, click here to check it out.

If you’ve already submitted your query and didn’t receive a critique or if you would like to now submit your query for critique, I will be posting another set of critiques as soon as my schedule allows.

I know I said in my original instructions that I was going to only post the query up until the point that I stopped reading, but I decided to include the full queries for clarity (and because I got overly ambitious with my feedback). Enjoy!

20 Query Critiques

Query 1

I am currently seeking representation for my YA Fantasy novel, [title], complete at 76 000 words.

After being brutally murdered, the Croft family appears in heaven with no recollection of their death. Although 16-year-old Sam Croft would like to spend eternity blissful with his parents in heaven, he can’t, not until he knows what happened to his big sister Cara who did not come to heaven with the rest of them. Was she still alive? Had she safely escaped whatever had murdered her whole family or was she in danger?

I love the mystery behind this concept. It’s a great hook. There are a few awkward phrases “appears in heaven” and “eternally blissful.” The questions take up a lot of space focusing on speculation but don’t give much indication of what actually happens. I’d cut them in favor of making more room for the plot.

When Sam goes on a journey to find her, his afterlife is changed forever as he falls into the depths of hell. That is where his sister was sent to after having her whole family murdered.

“Life is changed forever” is a cliché so I would avoid this wording. How does he learn that she had her whole family murdered? This is a big revelation that seems a bit too downplayed by this wording.

In hell, a place plagued with human-eating beasts and home to the most vicious people who have ever lived, Sam has to fight against all dangers, including his naïve and kind hearted nature, in order to survive. In order to find Cara.

“Fight against all dangers” is too vague. “His naïve and kind hearted nature” makes him sound precious and potentially too cutesy for YA.

But if he does find her, will he see the face of a murderer or the face of the big sister he had once loved?

It’s not clear what he does and doesn’t know about what his sister did. It seems like he knows that she had them killed (maybe she hired someone?) so what element of the situation is up in the air for him still that won’t be revealed until he sees her?

What I’m not seeing in this query is a clear indication of plot points. He goes to hell and fights obstacles, but why can’t he find her right away? Is he following a trail of clues or is he simply journeying across hell?

Query 2

As a therapist, Grace easily recognizes obsession in others. But she thinks nothing of the time and energy she spends thinking about her own boyfriend, Ryan. After all, he’s perfect and she’s in love. But when his ex-girlfriend, Molly, gets herself beaten into a coma and he rushes too quickly to her side, Grace panics, terrified he will dump her to be with his former love.

This sets up the reader to expect more focus on her obsession with Ryan. It makes her seem potentially unstable which doesn’t suit the tone or intention of the rest of the query. At first I was thinking, Wow, she’s mad about her boyfriend helping a girl who was beat into a coma? But I understood what you meant by the end of the sentence when it’s revealed they were former lovers. Still, this gives off vibes that Grace is paranoid and clingy. Maybe that’s intentional, but I think it’s creating more complexity than is necessary in the query.

When a detective comes to their apartment to question Ryan about the attack, Grace is surprised, but refuses to consider he could have anything to do with it. But she suspects his best buddy Brett would. She hears the two of them whispering about a girl and a secret. Are they talking about the attack? She needs to find out, so the police can quit wasting their time on her boyfriend, and aim their investigation towards Brett.

She discovers a flash drive hidden in Ryan’s toolbox where she finds an old photograph of Ryan, Brett, Molly and a young woman who looks familiar. Familiar because seven years earlier, she was in the news, Missing. Grace is shocked when she realizes the girl disappeared the same day the picture was taken.

I would try to combine the above two paragraphs to reduce wordiness. Perhaps something like this (except better than what I can whip up in thirty seconds): When a detective comes to their apartment to question Ryan about the attack, Grace maintains that he’s innocent. But when she finds an old photograph of Ryan, his best friend Brett, Molly, and a young woman who went missing seven years earlier, Grace begins to think maybe Ryan isn’t so perfect.

Grace is beginning to believe maybe Ryan isn’t so perfect. She knows he’d never hurt her, or anyone else. But why is he keeping Brett’s secrets? A twisted sense of loyalty, or good old-fashioned blackmail? Either way, she needs to help untangle him from this toxic relationship, without ending up like Molly. Or worse. Otherwise, how will they ever live happily ever after?

I’m not getting a sense of what Grace does. Presumably she investigates the murder, but what sort of trouble does she get into? What obstacles does she face?

Jutters Way is a 72,000 word psychological thriller set in Maine. Readers of Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood would enjoy it. I thought this might be of interest to you because you are looking for character-driven mysteries and thrillers. The first ten pages of my manuscript follow. Thank you for your consideration.

In my opinion, “would enjoy it” is a bit presumptuous.

Query 3

Dear Ms./Mr. __________,

I’m seeking representation for my diverse MG Steampunk novel, C.T. Similar in humor and tone to Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place and Gail Carriger’s The Finishing School, C.T. includes fantastical science and mechanics in an alternate history of the late 1800’s.

 I like that you compare the tone of your story instead of just saying that it’s similar to the comparison titles. I do think you could probably dig deeper to explain what exactly about the tone is similar. I read “C.T. Similar” as a name and stumbled over it.

A night at the London opera plunges twelve-year-old Fowler Tesserand and his family into the middle of corporate espionage. Thieves try, but fail, to kidnap his father, inventor of a super fuel. The most power-hungry man in the British Empire soon succeeds in his abduction, however; he also unabashedly throws his thirteen-year-old daughter Sophey into the thick of things. Fowler’s father escapes and sends word that he’s heading home to the Bahamas. Desperate to keep his father safe and despite his fear of flying, Fowler travels across the Atlantic Ocean in a dirigible with only a malfunctioning robotic butler as a companion.

I found this paragraph very difficult to follow. I would condense the first several sentences to something like this (but better): After Fowler’s father, the creator of a super fuel, is abducted [insert logical conclusion to this sentence].

I’m not sure how Sophey factors in because “the thick of things” is too vague. Since his father escaped, I’m not sure why Fowler travels at all.

While Fowler tries hard not to panic over disappearing into the ether, Sophey comes aboard the craft with confidence and deceptive sweetness. A hurricane flings Fowler and Sophey close together. Fowler must stay focused before he reveals any crucial information about his father’s whereabouts. He slips up, however, and he suspects Sophey will get word to her father the first chance she can get. Fowler is uncertain he’s the hero needed to save his father or his life’s work, and ultimately, his family’s future.

Again, I don’t understand the plot description. Why is Fowler keeping information from Sophey? Why doesn’t he want his father to know he’s traveling? Why is Fowler uncertain he’s the hero needed?

I’m not getting any sense of plot points or characterization.

The full 39K word manuscript is available upon request. Please note this is a simultaneous submission. Thank you for your time and consideration.

The word count seems quite short for steampunk so make sure the plot is properly structured and the worldbuilding is strong. The note on simultaneous submissions is an outdated recommendation. Pretty much all submissions are simultaneous so there’s no need to specify.

Query 4

Dear Ms. XXX

I see from your write-up on the Writer’s Digest site that you are interested in “adventure science fiction,” and I think you might be interested in representing my completed novel, The Lost City of the Metal Men, a 100,000-word adult science fiction story.

I’m not a fan of personalization that simply states the genres or subgenres an agent accepts. To me, this isn’t worth noting but it’s your choice and almost definitely won’t be a factor in your success or failure with the query.

It ain’t easy bein’ a dame and a crackerjack mechanic in a podunk town. When Nifty Brandenburger scores a job in Chicago, welding together an exhibit for the 1933 World’s Fair, she finally has her chance to show those chowderheads back home what she can do. That is, until her boss tells her to hit the bricks…Hey, if they don’t want her gawking at Hector Halibash’s new robot invention, they oughta keep it from wandering off. But that’s water under the bridge, what with an army of mechanical monsters busting up the fairgrounds, pinching Halibash’s robot, and snatching the man, himself. The world’s begging for a hero to save the day. What it’s got is a dame with a tool belt, a pair of steel-tipped boots, and one helluva chip on her shoulder.

The first sentence was a tad difficult to read, but I like that you’re getting the voice into the query. You’re not giving a lot of description of the plot and that can be good (because you’re not going on and on and on…) but it can also be bad because you’re not giving the reader a lot to latch onto.

I don’t understand why she got fired for gawking at a robot. What’s so bad about that? I stumbled over “hit the bricks” at first because it’s not a phrase you hear too often.

I’m having trouble seeing this premise as mature enough to appeal to adult audiences. The concept of the world needing a hero and the lack of intense or mature interpersonal or external conflicts gives this a bit of a children’s book vibe.

The premise sounds cool and I want to like it, which is great. I’d probably give more indication of the plot as well as some hints at what makes this an adult story.

While I am unpublished as a novelist, I am a professional playwright with fifteen full-length plays and eight productions, largely in Philadelphia. I’ve received various grants and have my bachelor’s in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon University. I also blog about theater, playwriting, and writing-in-general on my website, wardigo.com, and I have a webseries called Martinis with Nick, in which I interview some of the coolest theater artists in Philadelphia.

Thanks for taking the time to read through my query. As you specify on your webpage, I’m attaching a synopsis and the first three chapters of The Lost City of the Metal Men. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

I would cut the first line of the last paragraph. It seems cluttering.

The bio paragraph is strong. You could cut “while I am unpublished as a novelist,” but it won’t make a major difference either way.

Query 5

Dear XXXX,

Maggie Morris spent her childhood evenings by a bedroom window, waiting for a flying boy who never came. At the cusp of her society debut, eighteen year old Maggie is dismayed to learn becoming an adult isn’t as adventurous as she hoped. Corsets pinch, afternoon teas drag by, and the boorish suitor her mother is pushing her towards sees her only as a pretty prize to be won. As Maggie fears true love will only be found in fairytales, in flies Peter ready to whisk her away.

I felt a bit discombobulated by this first paragraph, mainly because the first sentence gave no indication that this was a period piece. “Society debut” could refer to a wide range of time periods, so it wasn’t until “corsets” that I narrowed down the time frame. The realization about the setting is overshadowing (or at least competing with) the realization that this is a Peter Pan story.

Once in Neverland, she discovers life on the island is nothing like Grandmother Wendy’s stories. The Lost Boys are long gone, victims of a mysterious tribe of Shadow Eaters and their Raven King. Though Peter is no longer a little boy, his childish antics leave Maggie in peril more often than not. Captain Hartfield isn’t a pirate at all but a handsome, hooked naval officer and Peter’s twin brother. He appreciates Maggie’s curious mind and hunger for knowledge. They fall in love but their life together is threatened when the ever hungry Raven King fixes his attention on Maggie.

I like the initial descriptions of the changes to Neverland, but the last two sentences seem rushed and give the impression the plot is lacking. Maggie sees Neverland and falls in love, so what’s the problem? What’s the story? It seems like there is no conflict or tension until well into the story when the Raven King fixes his attention on her.

After Maggie survives an attack by the Shadow Eaters, Peter secrets her to London against her will, convinced it’s the only way to keep her safe. Unable to return to Hartfield, Maggie must outwit the advances of her would-be fiancé and rescue her grandmother from a dark family secret if she ever hopes to grow up on her own terms.

Does Maggie try to get back to Neverland? I’m assuming she does, but you’re not mentioning it in the query. What is this family secret and why does it pop up out of the blue? The concept of her growing up on her own terms is also popping up out of the blue. Who is forcing her to grow up? She seems to want love/marriage just not with the suitor her family chose for her, so this doesn’t give the indication that she’s resisting growing up. What does Maggie do for the rest of the novel? What is she trying to achieve? She’s trying to avoid the dark secret and her fiancé, but what is she trying to accomplish?

At 87,000 words, my debut YA novel, Grasping at Shadows, is Once Upon a Time meets Downton Abbey and will appeal to fans of Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty.

I have a BFA in Theatre Design and Production from the University of Michigan—where I took as many British history classes as I could—and have stage-managed more productions of Peter Pan than I’ll readily admit to! After working in the nonprofit arts world for many years, I am adept at actively promoting my own work.

Thank you for your consideration.

Stating that the novel is “Once upon a Time meets Downton Abbey” doesn’t give a lot of information that the reader doesn’t already know (it’s a retelling and a period piece). I don’t think you need four comparison titles, and I recommend cutting this down to two to save space/time. I would cut the last sentence because the ability to promote yourself isn’t a major concern at this point and this concluding paragraph is already running long.

Query 6

Johanna Martin spends all her spare time within the virtual world of Élan Seven, avoiding real world problems like her leg brace, a lack of friends, and worst of all, conversation. Élan Seven is Johanna’s haven until a rogue guild threatens the balance. This new guild quickly renders the game unplayable and forces Johanna to invest more time in the real world.

Johanna must navigate middle school life – friends, bullies and, worst of all, a new boy in class threatening to converse with her – while trying to destroy the rogue guild. She is determined to restore the community of Élan Seven, even if she has to interact with real world players – right, humans – to do it.

This is a pretty short and clean synopsis, but I’m not getting any sense of the stakes. What happens if she doesn’t win the game or doesn’t succeed? What are the real-world stakes of talking to real people? This isn’t showing me why readers would be invested in Elan Seven or her fear of talking to the boy. Both sentences in the second paragraph are awkwardly worded and should be rephrased.

Query 7

I am seeking representation for my 60K word YA novel, (title omitted). In researching your interests, I was thrilled to see that you are acquiring young adult fiction. I would love the opportunity to share Jake’s story with you. It’s a story about first love, friendship and the self-doubt that arises when debilitating anxiety and phobia threaten these relationships. The details of Jake’s panic attacks are revealed through inner monologues and stream of consciousness. As someone who suffers from anxiety, it was written from a very deep and personal place. Professionally, I have a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s in Education, and currently teach middle school English. I know first hand that many of my male students suffer from anxiety, yet they are unable to find themselves in the books they read. Perhaps this will change in the telling of Jake’s story. Fans of Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley and Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone might find hope in the pages of my book.

This is a LOT of information to put at the beginning of the query. I would split this in half and include half before and half after the synopsis. I would also condense this significantly to avoid wordiness. The big block of text is daunting to look at and encourages skimming. There’s no need to mention the agent accepting YA fiction because that’s not true personalization of the query. There’s no need for the sentence “it’s a story about.” The story will be clear from the synopsis. There’s no need to explain about the inner monologues and stream of consciousness, though if you feel strongly about revealing this in the query it won’t hurt you so long as you shorten the paragraph. Your firsthand experience with males suffering from anxiety is also unlikely to mean much to agents, but probably won’t hurt your chances if you shorten the paragraph.

Brief synopsis: Jake Forest appears to have it all, including a special gift from his deceased twin brother. He’s a starter for the football and lacrosse teams. He has great grades, lots of friends, and according to his girlfriend Summer Fields, a great smile. But when debilitating anxiety sets in, Jake’s world rapidly spins out of control, forcing him to deceive the people he cares about most. Jake’s need for control is the root of all the challenges he faces. Pushed to the breaking point, he must find the strength to accept all the pieces of himself, and reconcile that perhaps, acceptance, is the real gift he was meant to receive.

As stated in your submission guidelines, I have included the first ten pages of my manuscript.

I appreciate your time and hope to hear from you soon.Thank you for your consideration.

“Brief synopsis” should be cut. The plot synopsis is too vague. What is the “special gift” from his twin brother? How does his world “spin out of control”? Why does he need to deceive people? Why does Jake feel he needs control? How was he pushed to the breaking point?

The plot feels pretty generic: the boy who seems to have it all doesn’t have it all. And you’re not giving the reader anything meaty about your plot to bite into. You’re trying to sell the story based on the fact that it focuses on anxiety, but the story needs to be entertaining in its own right, outside of any potential messages it has. Writing fiction about anxiety is commendable, but stories are what sell and the story isn’t shining in this query.

Query 8

Dear [agent name here],

I am seeking representation for my young adult novel, CLASS ELEVEN: INSANITY, which is complete at 110,000 words and is the first of a planned duology.

A monster in the shape of a man has held Charlotte Dalton underground for the past three and a half years. The torture was enough to turn her mentally unstable, but her last escape attempt gives her enough momentum to flee the country in search of the only safe place left in the world: The Royal British International Institute of Science and Technology, private and hidden in the uncharted islands off the coast of Great Britain. Seeing it as the only way to come into contact with her family again, Charlotte finds her godfather, who now runs the institute, and seeks shelter under his hand as she begins her search for her mother.

Your introductory paragraph doesn’t mention genre which makes this paragraph more difficult to understand. I would tighten this paragraph up significantly to something like this (but better): After escaping the man who held her captive for three years, Charlotte escapes to the International Institute of Science and Technology where she seeks shelter with her godfather.

It’s not clear why she was held captive and tortured which starts the reader off a little discombobulated.

But a diagnosis puts her plans into full stop: Insanity is a new disorder characterized by the rewiring of the brain, due to trauma, into a lethal pattern that slowly turns the body against itself. Charlotte must undergo radical, experimental treatment if it means she stays alive.

It’s a tad confusing that insanity is a “new disorder,” especially when the explanation doesn’t sound far off from how most people interpret the word “insanity” anyway. How/why would this Insanity kill her?

Camouflaged as a teachers assistant, Charlotte has to adjust to life outside of the cellar while trying to remember what she was even supposed to be doing at the institute in the first place before her own brain kills her.

I don’t know what you mean by “what she was even supposed to be doing at the institute.”

If that wasn’t enough, the timing couldn’t be worse. Only a few months prior, the institute had its first mass shooting in its history. She not only has to hide from her past but also the devastated and clawing students seeking revenge on anyone from the outside world.

The way this plot is described makes it seem like it’s all over the place and disjointed. There isn’t any logical connection between different plot elements. What does any of this have to do with her search for her mother? What is her godfather doing? What is she doing at the institution?

Meanwhile, Axel Chadwick, a former student who was convicted for the shooting on a triple-life sentence, is royally pardoned due to unforeseen circumstances and is forced to finish his final year of education at the Institute.

Why does this matter to Charlotte? After reading on, it’s clear in the next paragraph that you’re conveying two different perspectives. I highly recommend focusing on only one in the query. You can mention Axel as he relates to Charlotte, but you don’t have time/space to convey both characters’ stories.

But walking past the memorial on the way to class each and every day is harder than Axel thought it would be. Guilty enough to see ghosts, Axel must dodge every attempt from the students, the staff, as well as his own self-destructive tendencies to get him back behind bars while having to completely redo the biggest project of his lifetime, one that could make him a fugitive or the biggest name in science.

Why did Axel shoot at the school? Is he seeing actual ghosts? What is his project about and what does it have to do with Charlotte?

The plot description is long and confusing. You might have a great story here, but it’s not clear what it’s about.

This is my debut novel, however, I have written several stories on Wattpad, accumulating over six million reads in total. I also have several years of publication experience as an editor. My school’s yearbook has won several awards, primally, an All American from our publisher, Walsworth, with marks of distinction in writing and was nominated for a National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker.

As for myself, I have been in two active shooter situations and know the devastation that can follow an attack as such. I am a videographer and a social media manager at a cancer radiation medical device manufacturer and am attending the University of Central Florida, on track with a Web Design major and Marketing minor. I plan to pursue my masters in Business Administration.

Pasted into the body of this email are the first five pages of my manuscript CLASS ELEVEN: INSANITY.

Thank you for your time and I wish you the best with your upcoming projects.

I would trim the biographical information down to the essentials. You mention being an editor but don’t explain where or whether you volunteered or were employed, this gives the sense you’re exaggerating your credits. Give specifics (who employed you and where you worked) or cut the credit. Were you the editor of the yearbook? You mention the yearbook winning awards but you don’t mention what you did to contribute to that, and you also don’t mention the school. Having been in two active shooter situations is a strong biographical detail, however the rest of that paragraph is unnecessary. Your jobs and what you’re studying in college aren’t writing credits and aren’t relevant to what you’re writing about. They’re also bulking up the query.

Query 9

What Once was Mine is the story of popular Rebecca Hart, whose senior summer plans include partying with her best friend Carly and getting the attention of her crush. But, when she wrecks the family car, and is grounded for the entire summer, these plans are turned upside down.

I like this paragraph except for the last phrase “turned upside down” which is a cliché and doesn’t show off your writing abilities. You could simply rephrase to: But when she wrecks the family car, she’s grounded for the entire summer.
Isolated from her friends, Rebecca spends her summer helping an elderly Croatian woman with her housework as she recovers from a knee replacement. She also befriends the reclusive, neighbor boy, and finds that he is more than meets the eye. The time away from her friends gives her perspective on the choices she has made. By the end of the summer, she is not the same girl she used to be.

Carly is not happy with the ‘new’ Rebecca. When school begins again, Rebecca must choose between being who she was and who she wants to be.

Is going back to school the end of the novel? It comes across as if the bulk of the novel is Rebecca making new friends and growing as a person, then she goes back to school and breaks her friendship with Carly. If she doesn’t go back to school until the end, I wouldn’t mention her return to school at all and instead I would focus on the conflicts she faces over the summer. If she returns to school at the beginning, I would condense everything in this version of the query to two or three sentences and then describe the main conflicts of the novel.

Query 10

Tashah Lo’Kahjih has hidden her empowerment ever since her mother, the legendary Scorpion of Kaohmorih, died breaking a siege on the city. Ten years later, Tashah is a minority in her own country and empowered kaimannih are commodities in a struggle between foreign rulers who care more about victory than who lives or dies. Even though she wants to fight as her mother did, her family insists that she keep her head down and go to university instead.

The fantasy words are difficult to pronounce and a bit overwhelming. Most readers will see “Tashah Lo’Kahjih” and not even try to pronounce it because it’s visually overwhelming.

What are kaimannih? A race of people? The next paragraph makes it clearer that she’s kaimannih, but I did not get that impression necessarily from the wording of this paragraph. 

When the army discovers Tashah has evaded the draft on kaimannih, she flees north, through territories rife with evil spirits and treacherous outlaws, to the haunted Pucah Forest where her mother spent her final days. Tashah gets the adventure she always wanted, but it’s not at all what she thought it would be, and the secrets she learns about her mother’s past and her own power could irrevocably alter her future and the future of her people – for better or for worse.

I think it would help to clarify that she evaded the draft in the first paragraph and to mention “the adventure she always wanted” earlier in the second paragraph to create a clearer flow of motivation through the query.

The “secrets” are too ambiguous and family secrets are a dime a dozen in fiction so I’d give more indication of the nature of this secret.

To protect her homeland and her family at the same time, Tashah must tread the lines between darkness and light, violence and peace, legends and lies. Can she return home without becoming exactly what she’s trying to destroy?

What is she trying to destroy? This isn’t working as a closing hook because it’s not clear what it refers to.

Daughter of the Scorpion, at its heart, is about a young woman finding identity and agency in a land broken by war and colonialism. It includes a cast of diverse characters in a nonwestern setting. Some titles this story could be likened to are Marie Lu’s Young Elites series and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. It is complete at 120,000 words. This is a standalone book but could serve as the first in a series.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

“At its heart” seems like editorializing to me so I would cut it. “Nonwestern setting” is vague. Is this set in an actual location or is it just a fantasy world? A fantasy world doesn’t really count as a nonwestern setting so perhaps it would be better to describe the nonwestern influences in the worldbuilding. That said, I think it’s already obvious from the query that this isn’t a western story.

Query 11

I’m seeking representation for my 90,000 word YA novel REGION LOCKED. Given your interest in science fiction, I thought my novel might be a good fit for your list.

The personalization is too impersonal to be needed. Following their submission guidelines by submitting in the genres they represent is not personalization so doesn’t need to be stated in the query.

200 years after the remains of humanity became trapped in a virtual reality world, the system starts to fail. Now when hit points reach zero, a person doesn’t wake up.

Don’t start a sentence with numerals. Something about the phrasing “when hit points reach” caused me to stumble. I like the idea, but I think the wording could be snappier: “people die” instead of “a person doesn’t wake up.”

When Alex, a 16-year-old adventurer with a glitching leg, witnesses the death of his best friend, his quest to resurrect him leads to a terrifying discovery – there is only one immortal left, and he is intent on enslaving humanity. Together with a sassy girl known only as Peach, he’ll need to battle his own preconceptions, terrifying monsters and finally death itself in his quest to save the human race.

I like the short snappy query and I think the plot description works fairly well. I don’t know what “adventurer” means in this context. “Enslaving humanity” is pretty vague and also tends to be the type of vague motivation given to underdeveloped villains so I would be more specific and detailed. “Sassy girls” are a dime a dozen these days. My main concern is that you’re not showing enough of a selling point (What’s special about your story?). With everyone trying to write the next Ready Player One, you’re going to be competing against a lot of similar novels.

For your information: I’m a hybrid author with four novellas published through XYZ Books and twelve self-published novels (several of which have been Amazon best-sellers in their respective categories). I have a bachelor’s degree in communications, and (relevant to this novel) am also an avid computer gamer.

“For your information” seems snarky and is unnecessary. If you really have Amazon bestsellers, I would specify the category and title of the novel. Agents know that writers will use super niche categories to top the charts so if you don’t specify, the assumption is going to be that you’re exaggerating. “Relevant to this novel” is unnecessary, however being an avid computer gamer is pretty common so this probably isn’t going to be seen as a meaningful credit.

Region Locked is the first novel in a planned five book series and will appeal to readers of Sword Art Online by Reki Kawahara, and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (which is currently being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg).

Thank you for your consideration—I can be contacted via email at [email@email.com] or via mobile on [555-555-5555] if you would like to discuss Region Locked further.

Agents know that Ready Player One is being made into a film by Steven Spielberg. By mentioning it, it can come across like you’re insulting their intelligence and awareness of what’s going on in the industry. The comparison to Ready Player One is obvious (they both feature virtual video game worlds) so unless you’re going to provide a more specific element of comparison, it’s not adding anything and could even get the agent thinking that the story is too derivative.

Query 12

Mirror of Sparrows is a YA fantasy that, when complete, will be about 80,000 words.

Only complete novels should be queried so “when complete” is unnecessary. Wait until the novel is done.

Seventeen-year-old Colin Swift helps run the family hardware business and is great a lock-picking; in fact, he’s the best in all of Port Ofenter, the capital of Correnstrait. While Colin works his utmost to keep his family afloat, his money worries lead him to steal the omniscient Mirror of Sparrows – think Beast’s mirror in Beauty and the Beast – and he finds that he’s put everyone he holds dear in harms way.

You spend a lot of time explaining that he can pick locks, but then you don’t make that relevant again in the plot description. This first paragraph could be condensed and then expanded. For example, you could mention the hardware business, whatever is causing the money worries, and the decision to steal the mirror in one sentence. For example (but better): When the family’s hardware business threatens to go under and his father falls ill, seventeen-year-old Colin Swift decides to steal the Mirror of Sparrows.

I would explain the mirror’s abilities rather than relying on the reader remembering how the Beast’s mirror works in Beauty and the Beast.

“Harm’s way” is vague – what actually happened as a result of stealing the mirror?

As he and sixteen-year-old stick-fighter Molly Fitzpatrick contend for their families, they must partner with an mysterious order of renegades, the Sparrows, face the tyrannical Christian Barnes, and, of course, decide how they will put to use the Mirror of Sparrows.

Thank you for your time and consideration!

This last paragraph feels a bit like you’re tossing all of the plot elements at the reader hoping some of it will stick, but you’re not giving a sense of the plot. Why does he join with Molly? Why does he need her or want her help? What does Christian Barnes have to do with the mirror? Why do they have to “put to use the Mirror of Sparrows”? Why don’t they just ignore it or dump it off somewhere? Try to create a clearer connection between plot elements.

Query 13

I’m currently seeking representation for my YA Sci-Fi novel, MECHANICAL, complete at 80,000 words.

In year 2120, an epidemic heart disease forces the army to take control of the city of Philia. As the army leader soon turns into a dictator, a group of Rebels rises against his government.

18-year-old Landy Miles is a top soldier and an elite sniper. A loyal supporter of the government’s goal of safety and peace, she hunts criminals and Rebels without a fail. When she is charged with the mission to kill Cale Levard, a Rebel accused of crimes against the city, she sees him as just another target that she easily executes, until she later sees him alive. She repeats her mission, only to find him again safe and sound. The more she tries to eliminate him, the more he keeps on surprising her. In her quest to find his survival secret before the government learns about her failure, Landy will know him and the Rebels better. Her feelings and alliances gradually change, as she uncovers the real nature of the dictator she was proud to serve. Forced to keep hunting Cale and the Rebels or be eliminated herself by the government, Landy eventually has to choose between justice and duty.

Even though there are areas where the writing could be stronger, this totally catches my interest. There’s an intriguing hook (Why won’t Cale die?) and clear stakes (she doesn’t want the government to know she failed) and a clear goal (kill Cale) and there are hints that an additional goal will come into the story later on. Nice job!

That said, I have a few suggestions. Don’t start a sentence with a numeral (use “eighteen” not 18). “Without a fail” seems awkward and unnatural to me. I would rephrase to something like “and has never failed to make a kill.” “She sees him as just another target that she easily executes” is awkward because “she sees” makes it seem like she hasn’t actually killed him. I would rephrase to something like “She sees him as just another target and easily executes him.” “Keeps on” is awkward and reads as sloppy. “His survival secret” is strangely worded. “Will know him and the Rebels better” is also strangely worded. “Uncovers the real nature” is awkward and also vague.

MECHANICAL is the first novel in a planned series and will appeal to fans of Marie Lu’s LEGEND and Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT.

I am an elementary school teacher with a Master’s Degree in Special Education.

I would be delighted to send a sample or full manuscript at your request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

I’m not a fan (as you’ve probably caught onto by now) of comparative titles that are simply novels in the same genre or with similar worlds. This doesn’t tell the agent anything.

Your occupation isn’t relevant, especially because your students aren’t in the target audience of your novel (elementary students rather than high school students). Some agents like this information anyway, some don’t. It shouldn’t make much difference either way.

The agent knows you’d be delighted to send a sample or full so I wouldn’t bother with stating that, though it won’t hurt you either.

Query 14

When military historian Dr. Peter Camden receives a box of random history books from his recently deceased grandfather he puts them aside intending to go through them later, but a letter from his grandmother urges him not to delay. Peter discovers underlined words and notes in the margins and remembers word games he and his grandfather played when Peter was a boy.

I would cut out “he puts them aside intending to go through them later, but a letter from his grandmother urges him not to delay.” This isn’t important information because it says little about his personality or the plot. It’s taking up space without pulling its weight. I would also cut “and remembers word games he and his grandfather played when Peter was a boy,” because it isn’t an important detail. I would move the first line of the next paragraph to the first paragraph, then move on to describing actual plot points.

Clues in the books point to a Civil War-era sabotage plot. After a librarian helping him is murdered, Peter wonders what kind of 150-year-old secrets are worth killing for?

I would explain how he gets involves with this librarian first to make the death less jarring. Introducing and killing a character in the same sentence could make the agent’s head spin.

Worried he will be next, he races from Charleston to Richmond and Gettysburg searching for what happened on and off some of the bloodiest Civil War battlefields while also trying to learn who is willing to kill to keep the truth from being heard.

The last part of this paragraph is saying the same thing as the end of the previous paragraph so seems a bit redundant. I recommend getting a little more specific about the plot details. Is someone actually pursuing him? Just speculating that he could be murdered doesn’t have much tension unless there’s actual evidence he’s being pursued or thrown off the trail. What does he think he will achieve by solving the mystery? Will he gain something (like treasure) or prevent something (like innocent deaths)? The story needs an emotional hook built on tangible stakes and goals.

It is THE DAVINCI CODE meets NATIONAL TREASURE. It is complete at 86,000 words. You will find the first chapter below.

Query 15

Dear Ms. Brock,

I’ve watched most of you Novel Boot Camp videos and learned much from them. I look forward to your critique of this query letter.

This is pretty good personalization, but I would take it another step and prove that you watched the videos by describing your favorite one or some sort of detail that couldn’t be obtained from a quick Google search. Genuine personalization can really butter someone up. The less generic, the better.

Some people attend estate sales and only see what’s for sale on the table in front of them. Other sense a universe deeper than what is easily seen. And some, well they might take home more than that knickknack they couldn’t live without.

This paragraph, especially the first sentence, is falling into the same awkwardness of rhetorical questions that no one has ever thought of (Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be slowly digested by a whale?). You’re trying to create a point of connection with the reader/agent but it isn’t working. Who goes to an estate sale and senses a deeper universe? I’d cut this paragraph because it isn’t doing anything for you.

THE POCKET WATCH TALE is a quirky, mystery about love and death, with a bit of paranormal thrown in. It is complete at about 86,000 words. This is a multiple submission.

You’re editorializing. Never call your own work “quirky” or “funny” or anything else that can be construed as complementary. “A bit of paranormal thrown in” gives off an almost careless vibe like you woke up one morning and decided to toss a ghost into your manuscript just for the heck of it.

There is no need to mention that this is a multiple/simultaneous submission. Agents will always assume this to be the case.

Even though her mother wants her married with children. 26-year-old Sophie Jaxs thinks life is fine just as it is. Between full time at the library, and estate sale shopping with her grandma, she doesn’t see any room for more.

The first sentence should not stand alone as a sentence (use a comma, not a period). “Life is fine just as it is” and “she doesn’t see any room for more” seem like slightly contradictory concepts. Is she just as happy to be single or does she want to be single?  

George, the bane of her estate sale mojo, is back from out of town and has managed to snake yet another perfect find out from under her nose. She resents him for this, yet every time she sees him, she feels something, not all together terrible.

“She resents him for this” is unnecessary because that’s already obvious.

When Sophie happens across an old beat up knife and silver pocket watch, she has a vision of a stabbing and a man being pushed from a bridge. As the man disappears under the water she hears a voice, “Find me.” Although more than a little unnerved, she begins her search to find out who the man is, and what happened to him.

This feels extremely disjointed from the previous paragraph. Does she usually have visions when holding objects or is this new? What does this have to do with George and the budding romance? Does George help her investigation or does he get in the way?

I would cut the dialogue from the voice. Dialogue isn’t recommended in a query but mainly I think it seems a bit like a campfire story instead of a novel. The details of the murder aren’t catching my interest because it seems fairly generic. I would try to increase the sense of mystery surrounding this murder. If it were me, I’d be more excited about my newly discovered psychic ability than I’d be interested in solving an old murder. Why does she feel compelled to solve the crime?

I didn’t expect this to be the end of the plot summary. What are the stakes? Why does she need to solve the murder? Why does it matter to her personally? What is her goal?

After a stint in the Estate Sale world I realized there were so many stories waiting to be told. The result is this, my debut novel. I am currently working on my next. I live in Blue Springs Mo, twenty miles east of Kansas City.

Thank you for your time.

I like that the bio paragraph is pretty simple and ties into your novel in a relevant way. “Stint” is a bit vague. Did you just go to estate sales or did you work at them?

Query 16

The lives of public officials are now on public record. Completely. Certain offices of public servant are now required to have a neural implant that records everything their eyes see and ears hear. Each day is downloadable by anyone with access to the internet.

I like the opening hook, but sentence three is awkward and clunky and should be simplified. For example: Public servants have neural implants that record everything they see and hear.

The system superficially appears to be a brilliant way to ensure politicians remain just and forthright in their civic duties. However, media companies have realized the immense entertainment value such a service offers. The leaders with stellar viewcounts and daily follows earn cash and commodity prizes. Consequently, the more needless drama, intrigue, and erratic behavior they engage in, the greater their social following.

Again, I’m intrigued by the idea, but the writing is wordy. The first two sentences could be condensed into one. For example: The system was intended to ensure the honesty and morality of politicians, but media companies quickly realized the immense entertainment value of the recordings.

“Stellar viewcounts and daily follows” would probably be clearer if rewritten to “the highest view counts and followers.” I would cut “commodity” because it’s unnecessary. “Consequently” doesn’t make sense in the way you intend it to. You could reword to something like: Consequently, politicians engage in needless drama, intrigue, and erratic behavior to drive up their social following.

June Lewis, personal secretary of Representative Elliot Newman, wants nothing to do with such sensationalism. Her sole ambition is to become the next Madame Attorney General of West Virginia.

When an unknown entity hacks her daily transmission to frame her for very specific international corruption, she’s desperate to not only control the damage but learn the sinister reasons why. The journey will take her into the fast-paced world of celebrity treachery, reveal deep-seated government manipulation, and unveil embarrassing secrets June is desperate to keep buried.

I’m definitely excited by this idea. You clearly identify the stakes and the goal which is great. I’m not a big fan of the generic wording in the last sentence, especially “the journey” and “fast-paced world.” The last sentence also makes it seem like June unveils her own embarrassing secret, as if she just realized her own embarrassing secret exists. This is a tad confusing. You might not need this final sentence at all and could potentially strengthen the end of the previous sentence instead.

SURREALITY is an 82,000 word Adult SciFi Thriller for fans of The Truman Show and The Pelican Brief. While full of psychological suspense and tight action scenes, SURREALITY doubles as a social commentary on American culture.

The last sentence is editorializing and doesn’t seem needed. The social commentary is shown (rather than told) in the query itself.

I like that you use The Truman Show and The Pelican Brief only because it’s not the same ten comparison titles that every other writer uses. You might still benefit from pointing out which elements of your novel can be compared to them.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Below you will find the first two chapters. Let me know if I might send the rest of the manuscript!

Query 17

Hello Mrs. Brock,

I understand from your website you are seeking submission from fantasy authors, so I’m pleased to offer my original novel, A Pact of Wolves.

I know I’m belaboring the point but the agent doesn’t need to be told their own submission guidelines (which genres they accept) since you should always follow the guidelines. It takes up space without actually being personal.  

A Pact of Wolves is the story of Caelan. He is a young man who after years of being the village outcast, seeks to prove his worth and win the heart of his unrequited love, Rosamunde.

“A Pact of Wolves is the story of” and “He is a young man” are both unnecessary. “Win the heart” is a cliché so it’s not showing off your writing ability or creativity and it sounds generic.

Caelan believed he was relegated to a farmer’s life. His grandfather’s plantation has started failing, as no one wanted to work on a farm with Caelan once his hair began turning blue, and his eyes bloodred. He struggles to maintain the fields until he learns of a father and brother somewhere beyond the mountains at the edge of the Teolan Empire. He teams up with soldiers, adventurers, orcs, and brownies on his journey to find his family.

This paragraph seems scattered. Why does it matter that he feels relegated to a farmer’s life or that he struggles to maintain the fields? It seems like the point is that he needs to find his family so I would focus on that and explain why his father and brother are missing.

As a side note: strangely colored hair/eyes is a trope that is widely considered to scream “amateur” and has a huge likelihood of contributing to rejection.

What’s at stake? Why does he want to save his family? What is the antagonistic force? How does Rosamunde fit into the story? I’m not getting any sense of what happens or what Caelan needs to do.

This story runs about 175,000 words and is similar in tone to Jim Butcher’s and Brandon Sanderson’s respective series Codex Alera and Stormlight Archive. I have enclosed the first three chapters of A Pact of Wolves for your approval.

This word count is way too long. Chances are very slim that agents will take on a novel over 110,000.

I like that you mention the tone of your comparison titles (though I would put the title and author together to avoid the need for the awkward “respective series”).

This novel will appeal to fans of both high and low fantasy. It has elements of adventure and mystery, and touches on themes of survival, prejudice, and belonging. I believe A Pact of Wolves will be an excellent addition to your catalog and await your reply.

I would cut this entire paragraph. The previous paragraph gave the word count and comparison titles. This seems wordy and is overkill.

Query 18

Felicity wants to be a Star Juggler. Star Jugglers open portals into other worlds, worlds where no one would care that Felicity is a witch. She is tired of townspeople avoiding her like she’s a plague rat. If she were a Star Juggler, no world could contain her. She would be enigmatic and glamorous. She would be a legend.

Trouble is, no one has seen a Star Juggler in a thousand years.

This description works pretty well for me. I like that Felicity has a clear problem (being perceived as a witch). Really my only complaint (and it may be totally personal to me) is that “Star Juggler” just sounds goofy. I don’t know why but it makes me want to giggle (Let me know what you all think in the comments).

Instead she’ll have to settle for becoming one of the King’s illustrious Wizards. Not that this is a simple task either — Bearburn, the only wizarding university in Hickory, has never accepted any girl, much less a witch. Still, with the help of the handsome wizard apprentice James, and his mysterious mentor, The Wizard Once, Felicity might forge herself a place with the King’s Wizards yet.

Which may wind up being important because war is brewing with the Frothlands in the North, the Evil Wizard Arachnitac is on the rise, and the Wizard Once has a number of secrets of his own, secrets which will change the course of Hickory’s history and which will place Felicity at the center of an adventure not even she could have imagined.

I’m not a big fan of “which may wind up being important.” It either is important or isn’t important. I recommend giving a stronger sense of the plot. What does Felicity have to do? What’s at stake for her? What’s her goal?

There’s a lot of emphasis on becoming a Star Juggler in the beginning of the query but then that’s never mentioned in the second half of the query so it seems disjointed. Perhaps cut the concept from the query to give you more room to explain the plot and/or create a clearer connection to the rest of the plot.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX is a 120,000 word Young Adult Fantasy and is my first novel. It might be the love child of Howell’s Moving Castle (the book) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (the movie) but paternity tests were inconclusive and Anne of Green Gables does tend to lurk about.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I highly recommend that you cut the word count down by at least 10,000 words. It’s very unlikely that the novel truly needs to be this long. Kill a subplot, cut down on descriptions, throw away unnecessary or redundant scenes – do what you have to do, but I would get that word count down. Without a mind blowing query, a word count over 110,000 has a good chance of swaying agents away from requesting pages.

Mentioning two Studio Ghibli films (yes, one is a book, I know) gives the impression that you’re a Studio Ghibli fan but doesn’t really tell the agent anything about your novel. I would stick to one of these examples and draw a clearer comparison (what about your book is similar?). I love Anne of Green Gables but I’m not seeing any connection between what you’re describing and Anne. What about your book is similar?

Query 19

The last one picked and the first one picked on—welcome to Crane’s world. Small, thin and a bit on the nerdy side, Crane English realized the only way to survive middle school was to go unnoticed. During his entire stint at PS 102 few could call him by name. When he moved from the Big Apple to a tiny rural village in upstate New York no one noticed he’d gone.

The first line is clever, though “welcome to Crane’s world” is a little generic and doesn’t excite me. I’ve seen this phrase in query letters a hundred times: “realized the only way to survive [middle school, high school, wizarding academy, insert location here] was to go unnoticed.” This first paragraph seems maybe a tad lengthy but I’m not too bothered by it.

On Crane’s first day at Sleepy Hollow High School Irving Webster, class jester and potential best friend, noticed him and actually came to his rescue. He also caught the attention of Kat Tasselman, ‘hottest girl in school’, and her super-sized boyfriend, ‘Bones’ Bromley—football hero and motorcycle gang leader, though for different reasons. Ripper Williams, recently expelled local psycho, wasted no time zeroing in on the new nerd. Even Mr. Gunderson, the creepy caretaker in charge of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and all things haunted, pointed directly at Crane when he issued his demonic warning.

This is no more than a list of your cast of characters. I can’t tell the genre of the story, the central conflict, Crane’s goal or his stakes. With the names “Crane” and “Sleepy Hollow” I’m assuming this is a retelling of (or at least inspired by) Sleepy Hollow, so emphasize that instead of putting so much emphasis on typical school problems.

I assumed this was middle grade because “middle school” was mentioned in the first paragraph, but then the “hottest girl” and “motorcycle gang” was very jarring because I was imagining Crane was maybe 11-13. You may have a problem with the age group not being clear enough. Make sure you’re fitting snuggly in MG or YA and it will make your querying life a whole lot easier.

Crane clearly needed to come up with a better way to survive high school because going unnoticed wasn’t gonna work around here.

I like this concept and it could work as sufficient stakes, but there’s too much confusion about what the story is actually about and that could make the agent second guess your ability to write clearly. Identify the main antagonist, the goal, and the stakes and I think you’ll have a good shot.

Query 20

Dear Literary Agent,

I am seeking representation for my contemporary young adult novel, ASHES, complete at 91,000 words. I am submitting this novel for your consideration because . . . . (varies by agent).

After a devastating accident, sixteen-year-old Jasmine’s family moves from Washington, D.C., to her mother’s home country, Thailand. Even though Jasmine is half Thai, she barely speaks the language, can’t read it at all, and knows next to nothing about Buddhism. Still, Jasmine feels drawn to the beauty of her new home—a river full of candlelit boats, a Buddhist shrine nestled beneath a mountain, and nine monks chanting a blessing over her grandfather. At school, Jasmine thrives in art class and falls for a boy named Cam who befriends her.

This paragraph makes me want to read a book set in Thailand which is great! You’ve gotten the reader invested in your location which is a unique hook that agents don’t see every day.

But Thailand is as sharp as it is lovely. Her maid’s teenage daughter, Sai, wants nothing to do with her. The God she’s always believed in is absent here. Jasmine questions her loyalty to Cam when she meets an intriguing boy in Chiang Mai. Jasmine struggles to know who she is here, and no one in her new life knows the secret she carries or that she burns every piece of art she creates to punish herself for what she did.

I’m intrigued by what she did and I love the pros and cons of Thailand. My only major piece of advice is to cut Cam from the first paragraph. Instead, I would mention in the second paragraph that Jasmine is torn between two boys. This gives an impression of the plot without the sense that you should be giving more details about the plot which is what happens when you separate the two sentences about the boys.

I wrote this book because I lived in Thailand when I was a teen, and I now teach students newly arriving to the U.S. from other countries. I wanted to capture the experience of a teenager who feels lost in a new culture.

I love how you tie the book into your bio paragraph, however I do think the wording could be a bit snappier and more emotional. For example the first sentence could be changed to something like this (but better): As a teen I moved to Thailand and experienced firsthand the pain and confusion of adapting to a new culture.

I earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Murray State University in 2010. I am a Pushcart Prize nominated poet and the author of the poetry chapbook EVENING BODY (Finishing Line Press, 2016). My poems and essays have been published in a variety of literary journals. In addition, I am a high school ESL teacher.

I would cut out the last line because your teaching was already mentioned. Your writing credits are strongly presented. The prize and your press are mentioned by name which gives you more credibility. Overall, this is a nice query!   

What do you think?

Were there any queries that really stood out to you? Any suggestions for the writers?

If you missed any of the Novel Boot Camp videos, check out the playlist:

4 thoughts on “20 Query Critiques [Novel Boot Camp]

  1. coalandcotton says:

    I liked #19, Crane’s World and #20 Jasmine going to Thailand. They both seem like interesting reads.

    Reading these help me to prepare for my query in the future. I Didn’t know to personalize a query for the agent, or word count for the novel really mattered, or even tying in your own bio helps.

    Thank You Ellen!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Everytime I read “Star Juggler” I pictured the best juggler on the juggling team. Like a clown at a circus who can juggle 4 bowling pins instead of just 3… I have to agree, it sounds goofy

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