PubCrawl Podcast: Query Critique III

This week JJ and Kelly run another query critique podcast! The quality of the submissions were pretty high all around, so barring a few nitpicks, we encourage y’all to keep querying! Also, lots and lots of fangirling over the Netflix original show GLOW.

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Previous Query Critiques

If we seem terse or overly critical in the writing of these show notes, please know  that it’s not to denigrate, but to educate.

Query #1

Dear Agent,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and positive feedback during the recent YARWA pitch contest. It was during this contest that you requested the full manuscript of TITLE, which I am attaching to this letter. I read you’re searching for strong, unique voices in compelling stories with high stakes. TITLE, an upper YA post-apocalyptic, reveals one girl’s journey through a gritty underground world with the rebel who’s come to her rescue more than once.

Seventeen-year-old Nori can’t bear the light of day, and with the threat of another sunscorch, must find safety underground. Betrayed and left for dead, she’s rescued by motorcycle maverick Sam Cooper, who leads her through a strange new subterranean world where life is hard, and so are the people. Beneath a Mexican mountain range near the more temperate 25th Parallel, they discover the secret entrance to a militant group’s headquarters, and the horrible truth behind the recent ecopacalypse.

TITLE, complete at 81,000 words, is the first in a planned series, although it is written to stand alone. In the world of TITLE, ‘Mad Max meets Gaiman’s Neverwhere.’

In June of 2017, TITLE was named a finalist in the YARWA Rosemary contest’s speculative fiction category. In 2015, I self-published a fantasy romance series that has sold about 45,000 copies, the second of which was selected by iBooks/iTunes as “Our Pick” in Fantasy/Sci-Fi. I am a member of RWA, YARWA, and my local affiliate.

Thank you very much for your time, and for your consideration of representing my work.

TOO SHORT. This query has only 78 words of actual content (excluding intro and credits), and is therefore too much and too little at the same time. We don’t have context for the characters, we don’t have their motivations, we don’t have any way into the story and nothing to hold onto. We’ve mentioned before that the sweet spot for queries is 250 to 400 words, so there is plenty of room to expand.

Query #2

Dear JJ and Kelly,

Addison Dodds is very much like every other 17 year old girl:  She’s clever, awkward and stubborn, but she also carries the secret that she let go of her brother’s hand seconds before his death — the implications guiding her every decision thereafter.

When Owen Gwen, Addison’s best friend, is forced to tell her that her mother’s extramarital affair is no longer a secret, Addison has a decision to make:  Stay with her dad and best friend or choose her mother whose mental health has plummeted since the death of her son.  Like every other instance she can recall, she chooses her mom.

Family, mental illness, guilt, lies, and her mother’s partner (the Cockatoo) stain Addison’s new life.  With her duties understood Addison is determined to right her mistakes while allowing herself to be subject to her mother’s volatile and dramatic behavior.  All the while she tries to figure out where Owen fits into her new life and how, if ever, she will be willing to leave her mother in order fulfill her personal goal of studying at one of the most prestigious medical programs in Scotland.

It’s while trying to cope with the many changes and starting her senior year that Addison meets Keslar Gadd, a college student struggling with a highly personal secret about his father’s inheritable genetic illness.  In a friendship so unlike her familiar one with Owen, Addison is continually pushed through her comfort zone as Keslar determinedly attempts to break through her barriers.  In the ensuing months it becomes clear to Addison that if she ever going to be able to get off the path of guilt that binds herself to her mother she’ll need to accept her past and risk letting others in.  Something she has never been willing or able to do.

TITLE is a young adult contemporary novel, complete at 100 000 words.

Thank you for your time.  If you are interested I’d love to send  you the completed manuscript. Looking forward to hearing from you.

HAS NO SENSE OF STORY, TENSION, OR PROGRESSION. This query isn’t that long, but it reads long. This query rambles, so it’s hard to parse where we should put the emphasis, and also what the conflict is. The conflict seems to be between what Addison wants vs. what Addison feels obligated to do out of guilt, but that narrative is buried in a lot of other details. An agent won’t take the time to sit and sort through the logical progression in a structureless query; they’ll just move on to the next in their inbox.

Query #3

Dear (Agent Name):     

Yslene, the widowed queen of Neratha, wants nothing more than to live out her reign in peace and pass on her crown to her young son. But the Exiled Kingdom of Danlin is rising under the black flag of Valkin, one of Yslene’s own sorcerers. Under threat of invasion, Yslene, must step out of her husband’s shadow and unite the kingdom.

Valkin has made a bargain with an ancient demon, selling his family’s souls to make him immortal. Blind with desperation, Yslene sends a group of six magic users, led by Lieutenant Colonel Saïd, to hunt Valkin’s family. For only in killing them, can Valkin be killed. Or so Yslene hopes. But when Saïd discovers their mission might be for nothing, he must decide where his loyalties lie. With the friends he’s leading into damnation? Or the kingdom he swore to protect?

With war on the horizon, Yslene needs to muster her army and name a commander. But in her fractious court, there are few she can trust and Yslene knows the man who leads the army could also take the crown. The obvious choice would be the powerful Duke Ryker. But Ryker has changed these past years, remade by the zealotry of the Brothers of Elazer. Yslene is not at all pleased with the result.

When Yslene learns Ryker intends to betray her, she knows she has to act. Neratha cannot survive invasion if it is mired in civil war. She has a way to stop it, and it sits at the foot of her bed. The Lyre is an ancient instrument of evil whose song can ensnare the souls of men. If she plays it, she can bring Ryker to heel. But if her will fails her for even a moment, it’s Yslene who will be enslaved.

TITLE is a work of fantasy, complete at 104,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

WORD SALAD. There are a lot of characters and names and no way into the story, nothing familiar for readers to hold onto. We’re also not sure what the central conflict of this story is. Is it fending off the military advances of Valkin? Is it to keep Ryker under control? If it’s both, then how do these storylines feed into each other? Prioritizing characters and storylines is important when you have limited real estate.

Query #4

For as long as she has known, Saskia has heard mythic tales of the Black Mirror, and its wish-granting properties, but what she has never known was just how fragile legends truly are. When her father grows ill Saskia’s desperation to save him forces her to seek out the mirror, unknowing that the magic it possesses will trap her sister in a deep sleep. To save her sister Saskia must travel all the way to the Imperial Palace at the court of the Ice Vales to discover the secret to awakening her sister straight from the mirror itself which the king has placed under his protection.

But with her arrival at court Saskia is drawn into a political battle with the leader of the religious faction of her home nation Zahset, a curiously, beautiful man named Fox who has the answers to saving her sister. But to save her sister she must follow Fox’s political agenda, as he seeks to manipulate all those around and commit actions that make her question the lines between good and evil, and whether some risks are worth taking.

TITLE is a 60,000 word fantasy novel which is best described as A Court of Thorns and Roses meets the dark symbolism of Snow White.

TOO VAGUE. There seems to be a fairy tale-esque story here that is both Kelly and JJ’s catnip, but we don’t have enough context for the details.

Query #5

Dear Kelly and JJ,

Seventeen-year-old Thea Warren will do anything to succeed as an apprentice healer: volunteer for extra night shifts, distill caustic cures for wayward curses, and—when the curator of the city’s museum dies on her watch—cover up his murder.

But concealing the murder doesn’t save Thea’s reputation as a healer; instead, it leaves her on the run from the city guard. Desperate, Thea makes a deal with Lal, heir to Elspeth City’s criminal underworld: Lal will fabricate evidence to clear Thea’s name if Thea helps her steal from the museum vault.

But the museum has no intention of giving up its treasure.

To break through the vault’s elaborate magical defenses, Thea and Lal recruit an unlikely crew: a scholarly ex-boyfriend, a runaway mage, and the curator’s wealthy protégée. Together they con a pompous nobleman out of architectural plans, brave the icy waters of Elspeth Bay to break a reluctant locksmith out of prison, and magically (and illegally) impersonate the curator during the Governor’s Ball. Yet, even as their capers bring them nearer to opening the vault, they must evade arrest and head off betrayal from within the crew.

As the city guard circles closer and closer to the museum and the truth, Thea must choose between her career and her safety. Because to fulfill her bargain with Lal and clear her name, Thea must outwit the mind-altering magic that lurks in the vault.

TITLE is a standalone work of young adult fantasy with series potential and is complete at 85,000 words. It will appeal to fans of Libba Bray’s Diviners series and VE Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy.


What We’re Working On

  • Kelly is catching up on agenting stuff
  • JJ TURNED IN BOOK 2. It is trash. But now it can be fixed! AND NOW, VACATION. A REAL ONE.

What We’re Reading

  • Both JJ and Kelly are reading for work not pleasure.

Off-Menu Recommendations

  • Glow
  • Despicable Me 3

That’s all for this week! Next week we’ll continue our Summer of Archetypes, starting with The Chosen One! As always if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below, send us an ask on Tumblr, or tweet using the hashtag #askpubcrawl!


5 Responses to PubCrawl Podcast: Query Critique III

  1. Cyn Vannoy Jul 6 2017 at 11:11 am #

    First off…there is no age-limit for Despicable Me!! (I’m LMAO here) I truly believe animations like this are done for both children and adults alike. There are so many adult-only “Easter eggs” in every single one. Love them all….as if you couldn’t tell!
    Okay, now that I have that out of my system…serious question here.
    Kelly: on one of these critiques, you mentioned that you would have read an enclosed first chapter (along with the query) in the effort to see if it helped resolve issues stemming from the query.
    The reasoning behind this is completely understandable. But what if the agent to be queried does not state that they want additional material with the query letter? I toe the line very carefully when it comes to individual query guidelines. The last thing I want to do is tick off an agent (who sees thousands per month or more) with unsollicited material!
    I suppose the real answer to my conundrum here is to write the perfect query so as to not require an agent to go digging for answers, right? Haha!
    But, do you or JJ have any additional comments on this? When is it ok to send more than specific guidelines…if ever?
    Thanks for another great podcast, ladies!

    • Kelly Jul 6 2017 at 11:32 am #

      Hi Cyn!

      Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. Period.

      I ask for a sample chapter because right now I have the time and desire to give queries I’m on the fence about a chance. I’m willing to do that extra work right now. But someday I won’t be willing to do that work anymore, and I’ll change my guidelines. And then a query will have to live and die on its own merits.

      Agents solicit queries in formats that are most conducive to their workflow. Their guidelines exist for a reason. Because the materials and information they’re requesting are the materials and information they need to do their job.

      I get that it’s frustrating for writers to have to reformat with every new query, or remember who likes what to be included. But that’s the nature of the business.

      Your query needs to stand on its own, just like your book will someday need to stand on its own. No caveats. No explanations. No supplementary material.

      Do not send additional materials to agents who don’t specifically request them.

  2. Aly Jul 7 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    Hi guys, great podcast as always! Thanks for these informative discussions.

    I know you mentioned receiving queries that weren’t discussed here and I was wondering if you plan to do another query critique any time in the future. Seems like the last one was a long time ago!

    • Kelly Jul 7 2017 at 10:36 pm #

      Hi Aly! So glad you found it informative!

      We definitely plan to keep query critiques as a semi-regular part of the podcast and will start soliciting new queries in perhaps 3-4 months. I personally really love the query critique episodes. I find them so inspiring, and I love helping writers make their queries better. So this will definitely come back and around at some point in the future.

      The query critique episodes take a lot of extra prep time. We need to solicit enough queries to fill a show. And we read and make notes on every single one–not just the ones that make it on air. We go through and categorize our critical feedback to present a spread that we think will be most beneficial to listeners.

      Although JJ and I take this passion project seriously, it is just that–a passion project. We podcast for love and not for money. For that reason, we’re unable to keep to a strict schedule of topics. Sometimes life gets in the way, and we need to take care of ourselves or our families first, and we need to focus on our work–writing and agenting respectively.

      So while I can confidently say that we’ll definitely do another one of these in the future, I can’t tell you when that might be!

  3. Emilia Balog Jan 13 2022 at 7:14 am #

    Hi Kelly,
    I just listened to the podcast above and found your comments and critique helpful. I am an aspiring children’s author who has been sending queries no end and as you might guess, has received many rejections but also some valueble feedback at times. I have written a MG book in the romantic style and agents seem to not fall for it. The style of writing is prose and the theme is something that I am very passionate about – the sublime beauty of our naural world of endless colour. Would you care to take a look at my query? And if a YA query should be between 250-400 words how long should a MG query be?
    I would greatly appreciate your reply.


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