Thank you, M.W., for submitting your query letter! I hope that the comments you receive will help you get tons of positive responses!
Critiques are welcome from anyone and everyone. Just remember our rules: Be nice. Be constructive. Be specific. Be polite. In this case, we would appreciate comments from writers who have gone through the process, or at least have looked into the art of writing a successful query letter. If you’re not familiar with how query letters work, you can still comment on the blurb!
For anyone just joining us, check out a previous post about the this week’s event.
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Title: The Chess Club
I am currently seeking an agent for my first novel, THE CHESS CLUB. A YA mystery novel, which is about 70,000 words. The idea for this book derived from my interest in chess and a love of the Nancy Drew stories. I wanted to write a feisty, intelligent, female character for today’s young adult audience, as well as include humour, eccentricity and Skittles. The story follows the anti-social Penelope Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshaw) as she starts a chess club without realising just how much that will change her life.
Penelope is forced to come up with an after-school club and she chooses the Chess Club, hoping nobody plays chess any more. Her solitary world is instantly invaded by four quirky characters who drag her out of her comfort zone, whether she likes it or not. Things are made worse when their chess pieces go missing, as well as objects from other after-school clubs. The headmaster asks Penelope for help and the Chess Club members rally around, eager to dive into an adventure. In the meantime Penelope’s attention is divided between her alcoholic mother and robberies committed in town. Though she is armed with her intelligence and sarcasm, she doesn’t realise how close to danger she truly is.
I have a BA in English Language and Culture from the University of Utrecht and recently received my MA in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. I have had one of my short stories published in the University of Utrecht student magazine Phoenix.
I have added a synopsis to this email. I chose to approach you because you have a broad taste when it comes to fiction, just like me. A partial or full manuscript is available upon request. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your time and consideration.
I feel awkward commenting on your letter when you hold a BA in English, and I’m not even a native speaker. But one thing I have faith in is my instinct, so I’ll offer my bit, and hopefully you’ll find it constructive.
I felt that the language you used throughout the letter was more of the conversational type when you need “tight” original language that will brand you as a good writer. For example, the second sentence is not full (no main verb). My suggestion for your opening:
“I am currently seeking representation for my first novel, THE CHESS CLUB, a 70,000-word YA mystery novel.”
I’m not sure that the two sentences where you talk about what inspired you to write the book and your intentions regarding the heroine would be of interest to the agent. If your inspiration was highly original e.g. an Andean trek inspired you to write a wilderness thriller, I’d say include it, but an interest in chess and Nancy Drew isn’t that exceptional. Also your intention to portray a feisty heroine does not guarantee that you’ve succeeded, but what if you present her character’s attributes through a behaviour rather than tell us (show not tell)? My suggestion:
“Penelope Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshaw) is a ??-year-old high school student who likes people as long as they keep their distance. When she is assigned the foundation of an after-school club, she goes for a chess club, assuming she would be its sole member. But her solitary world is instantly invaded by (names) who, in no time at all, drag her out of her comfort zone.” (The phrase “whether she likes it or not” is redundant; nobody likes being dragged out of their comfort zone.)
The rest of your blurb is somewhat fragmented. You say “things are made worse” when objects go missing, but then we learn that Penelope has an alcoholic mother, which makes the missing objects sound trivial. Then there is mention of robberies and danger but how does that connect to the chess club? My suggestion (but I’m speculating here, as I don’t have all the facts):
“Having to deal with an alcoholic mother and a wave of robberies that sends ripples through the town, Penelope needs a tougher armour than intelligence and wit.”
As for attaching a synopsis, make sure you do it only when the submission requirements specify it.
I wish you the best of luck with your endeavours, and, once again, thank you for participating in our event.
5 thoughts on “Calling All Critiques: Query Letter Entry #6”
Chess! Nancy Drew! Skittles! These were the three most exciting parts of your query for me. See how I led there with three hooks? Take advantage of your fabulous inspiration in crafting your query and your initial hook. Unless the Skittles play a role, though, they may not be worth including. I adore Nancy Drew, but any mention of other books (comps) belongs in the last paragraph. Chess offers a wonderful metaphor for conflict and an apropos way to frame your story.
CHARACTER. Rather than starting with your bio, start with Penelope and show us what makes her feisty. I love a girl who plays chess! A lot of other readers, parents, and other buyers of YA books will, too, so make sure to play up this point. You can dispense with P’s surname for the query, unless you make it part of the title (i.e., Penelope Featherstone and the Chess Club). Let’s talk about a…
CATCHY TITLE. I think chess is a great subject, but many people think it’s boring and this may be an issue for marketing the book. How many YA readers are going to pick a book up on chess versus, say, vampires? Lord Byron said, “Life’s too short for chess.” Now, that might make a more interesting title, depending on the…
STAKES. What is specifically at risk for Penelope? And from whom? Might she face ruthless robbers? Or might she face juvey because she’s a suspect in the robbing? Do tell. This will add some drama to the chess match!
SHOW DON’T TELl. It may be best to omit “the four quirky characters” as they don’t add to the query. Consider focusing on Penelope’s conflict/issues with her mother (pawn vs Queen?). Change passive construction to active, tighten phrasing, and avoid word repetition throughout. For example, rather than: “Penelope is forced to come up with an after-school club and she chooses the Chess Club…”, try something like: Penelope’s mother forces her to join an extracurricular activity. Penelope chooses Chess Club …
LAST PARAGRAPH: GENRE, WORD COUNT, COMPS, BIO, THANKS (preferably in this order)
GENRE YA Mystery novel
WORD COUNT: which is about 70,000 words (Agents are OK with rounding to the nearest 1K. 70, 000 is long for YA. This may be too long for some agents to even consider, so you may wish to look into this (there’s plenty of info online). Also, your query could do with more editing/tightening, so how about your text?http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post
COMPETITION. Is Nancy Drew the best comp for your book? If you can think of a more recent/topical one, that may be better.
BIO. This also belongs in the last paragraph and should be 1-2 sentences max. This includes any sentence with “I” or “me.” Either rewrite the sentence without “I” or “me” or eliminate the sentence altogether. Stick with your MA in Creative Writing, as this is the highest degree earned and omit the student magazine publication credit.
THANKS. I think you may have just added some filler sentences for this contest. I hope that you would actually query agents who are actively looking for YA. All you really need is that last line. Just mention somewhere that your manuscript is completed
I hope my comments help and look forward to reading your book, which I’m sure will be published one day. Your move!
Thank you so much for your insightful input! That was great advice from someone who obviously know what they’re talking about.
OK, so you understand the mechanics of query letters, but I feel like you’re floundering with this. The opening two sentences contain all the relevant information but can be combined into one. No fragments here: “I’m currently seeking representation for THE CHESS CLUB, a 70,000 word YA mystery.” I am also a fan of leaving out possibly detrimental information—just skip the part about it being your debut novel altogether. If the novel is good, it doesn’t matter.
For the rest of the first paragraph, I’m not sure why you now explain what prompted you to write the novel. This is one of the cardinal rules of query letter writing: Leave out the small talk. Agents want to know about your novel first, and you can get to know one another after you’ve signed on the dotted line. Think about this as your commercial. If you’re Pepsi, you might want to include a nice story in your commercial about when and where you were founded and how you employ lots of family people. If you’re Unknown Cola, you want people to see how delicious your cola is. Make the cola delicious!
For the meat of the query, I think you can expand more and tighten the language up. Break this into two paragraphs and make it punchy. I see that you understand your plot, but you’ve gone from too specific (another difficulty in query letter writing) to too vague with a few extraneous details.
First line: “Penelope is forced to come up with an after-school club, and she chooses the Chess Club, hoping nobody plays chess anymore.” Does this matter to the plot? You could have written her as loving Chess Club or hating it or doing it because she’ll win a scholarship and get out of her terrible town. But the motivation doesn’t sound tied to the stakes, so the most important part is: “Penelope joins the chess club.”
Second line: “Her solitary world is instantly invaded by four quirky characters who drag her out of her comfort zone, whether she likes it or not.” Good that you’ve included some characterization, but again, I don’t see how this relates to the plot. Plot is primary in writing queries, and you don’t want a giant cast of characters. You could combine the first and second sentence to a half-sentence to start off your query: “When loner Penelope joins the chess club …”
Now for the third and fourth sentence: “Things are made worse when their chess pieces go missing, as well as objects from other after-school clubs. The headmaster asks Penelope for help and the other Chess Club members rally around.” Combine those thoughts with the first half-sentence and you’ve got something punchy:
“When loner Penelope joins the Chess Club, she must discover why pieces are going missing and / because …” We’re missing some information in the ellipses—why would the Headmaster ask her? Why is she the perfect gal to solve the crime?
Now you’ve got another 1.75 paragraphs to expand on the plot. Put in some specifics about what’s happening and a key plot point or two. Define the stakes, since “close to danger” could mean anything. Keep the cast of characters to Penelope and one or two other people, people who are integral to solving the crimes. And I’d like to hear stakes to her and stakes to their town—what’s going to happen next to the poor townspeople if she doesn’t solve the robberies? Her mother’s alcoholism might be irrelevant to the plot, so take a hard look at whether you want to include it in the query.
Good luck with this! I know query letter writing is tough, so keep at it.
Holy muffin! I still have so much to learn when it comes to query letters. It’s such a struggle to write them. I feel very tempted to set fire to the letter and just send my pet dragons to agents instead.
The internet says different things about how to write query letters, so all of your feedback is incredibly WELCOME! Also, thank you for your positivity, because I need it!
I’m going to get my chainsaw and get the letter in shape so this darn book can finally be brought into the world. Thank you again!
I agree with most of what has been said here and will try not to reiterate too much. I think that for the most parts queries need to indicate what’s going to happen in the beginning and middle of the story and then kind of hint at what’s going to happen in the end without giving too much away.
At the beginning of the story we have an introvert shaken out of her comfort zone by a chess club. Then I have a sort of nebulous idea of what might be in store for her in the middle: The headmaster “asks” her for help, she has to deal with an alcoholic mother, and robberies are committed. But what I don’t get a sense of is what actions Penelope takes to remedy these situations and the danger those decisions might lead her to. This sounds like a great story and if you pitch it right I’m sure you’ll get some requests. Best of luck to you!