Ask Daphne! About My Query XXIX

November 7th, 2009 • Kate

Rubber-Rain-BootsI’m going to get caught up this weekend, I promise. And next weekend, if the good lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise (but if it does, try these boots!), I’ll have scheduled posts for the two days I’ll still be in New York and traveling, and will be back to normal on Wednesday. Until then, this is a special EVEN MORE audience participation edition of About My Query. You guys get to read it first and add your thoughts, and then I will add my thoughts for improvement in the comments. Ready? Go!

Dear Ms. Unfeasible,

We are seeking representation for our 95,000-word contemporary coming-of-age story, Newbie.

At Gordonstoun, the school famed for educating HRH Prince Charles and Tomb Raider Lara Croft, the Headmaster always tells his newest charges, “We don’t expect you to be good at everything, although one thing would be nice.” But when fourteen-year-old American Jack Gordon arrives at the prestigious Scottish boarding school founded on the ancient estate of his eccentric ancestors, he can’t imagine what that one thing might be. Turns out Jack has two gifts. He has a knack for finding the perfect song for every occasion: it’s as if his iPod is playing the soundtrack to his life. And he can see through the b-s of his classmates, his teachers, and everything else in the little bubble of entitlement that is Gordonstoun. That’s right, Jack Gordon sees everything clearly, except himself of course.

And who could blame him. With an older sister who’s the leader of the popular girls posse, the Parkside Piranhas, and a father who was a Gordonstoun athlete and scholar, Jack arrives at the school carrying more baggage than a hotel bell hop. At 4 feet 11 inches tall and 100 pounds, Jack has no hope of making his mark through sports. As for scholarship, Jack can barely spell rugby (much less play it). Fortunately though, at 21 seasons, 444 episodes and counting, everything Jack needs to know in school can be learned from watching America’s favorite cartoon family, The Simpsons. That’s good news for Jack as he has no intention of letting academics get in the way of his all-consuming quest to get his jaw-droppingly hot classmate Lucy to fall in love with him, or at least notice that he’s alive. If that isn’t enough for one self-proclaimed gamer and slacker to deal with, Jack’s been assigned to the Recycling Committee, which is a cover for a student-run alcohol distribution ring. The Headmaster has just discovered their base of operations and, while its no Armageddon, it may be the end for Jack. Jack needs to get his world under control or he’s going to be saying Goodbye to You and to Gordonstoun School faster than you can say haggis.

Newbie is the work of K.B. and J.B.. Nineteen-year-old K., a native New Yorker and former Gordonstoun Head Girl, is currently earning her B.A. in English Literature and Drama from the University of Bristol. J. is the mother of K. and her three siblings, all boarding school survivors. J. practiced law in Manhattan for over a decade. She splits her time between New York and Scotland where she has studied with Cynthia Rogerson, director of the Arvon Foundation center at Moniack Mhor, belongs to an Inverness-based writers’ group and is a founding member of the Highland Literary Salon.

Fledgling, the second book in the planned series, is already in the works.

We appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours truly,

K.B. and J.B.

I’ll be watching!

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12 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About My Query XXIX”

  1. Karen Says:

    I'm not a query master by any means, but as someone who has a lot of things going on in my novel, I know it's difficult to boil it all down to just one plot and leave the subplots for the actual novel or for a longer synopsis.

    As it stands now, it seems there is no plot, just a bunch of subplots going on. I want to know just enough about Jack to be interested to read more. I want to know what he hopes to achieve or *not* achieve by the end of the book. Right now, I don't know.

    Personally, I think the query should start here: When fourteen-year-old American Jack Gordon arrives at the prestigious Scottish boarding school…

    The second paragraph needs to be trimmed down a lot. We are learning a lot of little things about Jack (his height/weight) that don't tell us about the plot or clearly define Jacks conflict. There may be a very funny and interesting story here, but there is just too much distracting from it for us to see.

    Hope that helps 🙂

  2. Stephanie W. Says:

    The beginning of this doesn't hook me, and I agree with Karen that it should start, "When fourteen-year-old American Jack Gordon arrives . . ."

    Also, 95K? That's entirely too long. Am I right?

  3. amy sue nathan Says:

    I like the voice in the query but I think you need to cut to the chase. I'm not sure what that is exactly because I don't see that Jack is at stake for losing or gaining anything here and I don't see him in a quest for anything.

    My advice is to simplify this. Who is Jack? What's his problem? What does he want? How does he get it? That will tell the agent about your story.

    I'm also wondering if Jack's "gifts" are instincts or magical powers. I can't tell. I think if this is a boarding school drama/saga like Gossip Girls you still need the plot to pop out of the query. You need the OMG factor here, what makes it different, what makes Jack special.

    Queries are usually one page, and I'm thinking this would be much longer than that.

    If I was an agent I would worry that the novel was overwritten based on the query and the reported word count. I like the idea of a boarding school story but from what I know of YA, there are scads of them, which means they're popular but also means your book must rise above to get noticed.

    Good luck…it's a cool premise and your lives certainly lend themselves to writing a story such as this.

  4. Katee Says:

    When I looked at this my first thought was "Oh no! That's a lot of words!" While I got a definitely feeling of voice, it was muddied down by the background info-dump. We don't really need to know much about the history of the school or the little details about Jack (height, weight, etc). And if he's so much of a slacker, how did he get into this school in the first place?

    Basically, I wasn't hooked. The alcohol distribution thing felt tacked on, when it should probably have more emphasis (if it is, in fact, the Problem).

  5. Susan Says:

    Like the others commenting, I'm not really sure who Jack IS as a person (he likes music, The Simpsons, and there's a mention of gaming–but these are things nearly all my college student boys enjoy) or what he really truly wants. Does he have a goal in the story, other than surviving his first year at this school and getting his classmate Lucy to look at him? What's at stake if he gets kicked out or if Lucy never notices him? I'd like to think he's a really interesting character I could sympathize with and find originality in, with an internal conflict to go along with his external one, but I'm not getting a sense of that here.

    Also, the query has SO much information in it, but not what I wanted. The setting caught my interest–I've never been to a boarding school, and certainly not one in Scotland–but after that it suddenly becomes a "your typical high school story where the main character doesn't quite fit in" book with little to no nods to the fact that they're at boarding school or Scotland. Could we get a bit more of the feel of how different this place is–more than a reference to haggis? Does the fact that Jack's ancestors built the place somehow come into play? Since what I've got in my head when you say "Scotland" is all the cliches, and you didn't take those away and supply something new, I've got Jack wearing a kilt, going to school in a gloomy castle on a hillside overlooking a military tattoo.

    Queries are so tricky and I think you have the right idea about trying to insert voice in with little details. This just wasn't quite tight enough to me–perhaps they weren't the right details this go-round.

  6. Rissa Watkins Says:

    I agree with the other comments, the query has too much information in it.

    I also don't get the part about watching 21 seasons and 444 episodes of the Simpsons and how it is supposed teach him everything he needs to know in school. I like the pop culture reference and am thinking it is added for humor, but it kinda missed the mark.

    Though I do like the headmaster's motto, "We don’t expect you to be good at everything, although one thing would be nice." It made me chuckle.

  7. Stacey Says:

    I have to agree with the other posters. It seems too long and too complicated. I particularly agree with Katee who said the alcohol thing seemed tacked on. So much is already going on, and this whole subplot seems added as an afterthought. Which problem needs to be resolved by the end of the story – which ones might carry over to the sequal (I`ve often heard not to mention the possibility of a sequal as the agent has to be able to sell this book first).

    Too much specific detail, and not enough about the goal.

  8. Jenny Says:

    I agree with everyone else – there is an awful lot going on in this query, which makes it difficult to focus on any one thing. The first sentence doesn't tell me anything about the story or the character. Mentioning Lara Croft pulls me out of the query right away because it makes me wonder what exactly is going on. Is she supposed to be a "real" person? Is Jack a video game character? Since nothing like this is mentioned anywhere else in the letter I assume it's not that important and therefore can probably be cut. The reader should be wondering about Jack, not Lara. The fact that Jack can pick the perfect song for any situation seems a bit random as well. How does this affect the story line or characters? The Simpsons reference is another thing that doesn't make sense. Overall it seems as though this query could be for several separate books. Like Karen I would also recommend boiling down the story to the main important, unique point and focusing on that. The main thing that makes me want to continue reading is a strong sense of who the MC is and why I should care about what happens to him/her. In this case I didn't get any sense of who Jack is. Good luck and thanks for sharing with us!

  9. Kate Says:

    Fantastic comments, everyone. I almost feel as if I don't need to add my thoughts, since you've covered this really well, but I will do so anyway. (It's my blog, I get to do what I want!)

    I'll start with a superficial — my eyes just really want to skim right over this. Yes, it's kind of long for a query, but that can be worked around. I think you want to split some of your giant paragraphs into smaller ones — the white space I think will make it easier for a reader's eyes to stay interested.

    As for the plot — wow, there is a LOT going on here. If I had to pick what might be the most interesting idea to me, I'd go with the student-run alcohol distribution ring, and the worry that Jack's participation in it (even if it's unwilling) may get him kicked out of the school his family helped to found.

    But other clearly have thought otherwise, and that should be a clear indication to you that there's too much being told here.

    What's the one line pitch for this story? Know that, then expand on it in minor increments, rather than throwing everything at the query and seeing what sticks.

    Another thought — if you want to concentrate on Jack's "gift" for finding the perfect song for every situation, you might try using a lot more song titles in your query. It might come off as gimmicky, but a very wise stripper once sang, "You gotta have a gimmick." You try this a bit in the second to last paragraph with "he’s going to be saying Goodbye to You and to Gordonstoun School," so see what it feels like to do it throughout. Especially if it's a theme that's carried through the novel, it might be worth playing with here.

    I hope J. and K. will come back and share a revised query!

  10. J & K, Newbie Au Says:

    Many thanks to Kate and all her blog-followers for comments on our query. The good news is we sent this query to 10 agents a few weeks back and have received 4 rejections, 2 requests for partials and 4 no replies. The bad news is, as everyone has pointed out, the query is so jumbled full of information that we have no idea what caught their interest. Several commentators have suggested that the alcohol ring should be the main story line (as has a report on our manuscript from the Hi-Arts council’s work in progress scheme over here in Scotland) so this new version of the query focuses on that. Your feedback on our revised effort would be much appreciated. J&K

    Famed for educating the real Prince Charles of England and the fictional Tomb Raider Lara Croft, Gordonstoun School is now home to 14 year-old American Jack Gordon.

    When Jack is shipped off to boarding school in the north of Scotland, he knows he doesn't belong. His teachers assume he is smart and sporty like dear old dad, a Gordonstoun Old Boy, and the students expect him to be popular like his big sister Lizzy, the campus Queen. But Jack is more of a gamer and a slacker than a scholar and an athlete and he figures he has about a one in a gazillion chance of being cool.

    The minute he steps foot on campus, Jack has a problem. Well, if he’s being honest, Jack has a lot of problems. But if he’s prioritizing, the Recycling Committee is definitely his biggest problem.

    At first, the assignments are innocent enough—washing and drying empty plastic bottles and taking them to the Recycling Center. But thanks to some compromising photos featuring Jack, his friends, and a bottle of Scotch whisky, the mysterious Captain of Recycling has been able to blackmail Jack and his friends into bootlegging alcohol around campus pretty much all year, right under the headmaster’s nose, using innocent- looking recycled plastic bottles.

    When Jack gets promoted to rum runner status, he starts handling real booze, not just empty bottles, and that means certain expulsion if he gets caught. Then the headmaster gets a lead on the operation. Jack and his friends know if they don’t find a way out of this mess they’ll be saying goodbye to Gordonstoun faster than you can say haggis.

  11. Karen Says:

    Congrats on the partials! Hope that pans out for you two. I like this one better but there still seems to be some trimming that could be done. Now this is just my opinon…

    [Famed for educating the real Prince Charles of England and the fictional Tomb Raider Lara Croft, Gordonstoun School is now home to 14 year-old American Jack Gordon.]

    **I would cut the above reference. The book is about Jack not so much the school, Prince Charles and Lora Croft. It only confuses things right off.**

    I’d start here:

    When Jack is shipped off to boarding school in the north of Scotland, he knows he doesn’t belong. His teachers assume he is smart and sporty like dear old dad, a Gordonstoun Old Boy, and the students expect him to be popular like his big sister Lizzy, the campus Queen. But Jack is more of a gamer and a slacker than a scholar and an athlete and he figures he has about a one in a gazillion chance of being cool.

    **Here, is where I get a bit lost. Did Jack join the Recycling Committee, or was it forced on him like detention? We don’t need to know all of the details to that, actually, I don’t know that we need to know anything about the committee other than the Captain. Will the captain be the antagonist? If so, name him or her then it could continue something like this…

    The minute he steps foot on campus, Jack has a problem. Well, if he’s being honest, Jack has a lot of problems. But his biggest is thanks to some compromising photos featuring Jack, his friends, and a bottle of Scotch whisky. (Enter antagonist’s name here), the Captain of Recycling, has been able to blackmail Jack and his friends into bootlegging alcohol around campus pretty much all year, right under the headmaster’s nose, using innocent- looking recycled plastic bottles.

    When Jack gets promoted to rum runner status, he starts handling real booze, not just empty bottles, and that means certain expulsion if he gets caught. Then the headmaster gets a lead on the operation. Jack and his friends know if they don’t find a way out of this mess they’ll be saying goodbye to Gordonstoun faster than you can say haggis.

    Hope that helps 🙂 GOOD LUCK!

  12. J & K, Newbie Au Says:

    Don't stop commenting on queries. We need your advice. K and I are now busy revising our manuscript as well. It dawned on us that if the query was jammed with too much information/too many plot lines, the manuscript must be as well. We are focusing on the Recycling Committee/alcohol bootlegging storyline and hope to get the manuscript under 80,000 words. We should have a better book and a better query in the next 30 days thanks to all of you. Keep offering advice. We are listening! J&K