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About My Query: HALF-TRUTHS

MarieCurieMuralApologies for not posting this Friday as promised, but I took a snow day/superhero birthday party prep day. Without further ado, I’m thrilled to share the first 2014 About My Query post.

Dear Ms.Testerman:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit my query for your critique. I am delighted to have you review HALF-TRUTHS, my 70,000-word YA historical fiction novel set in the 1950s South.

Lillie Harris wants more than anything in the world to be the next Marie Curie. Problem is, she’s black, and no matter how light-skinned she is, there’s no hiding the fact that her parents are only one step ahead of the bill collectors. To save money for college, she gets a maid’s job in the wealthy house in which her grandmother has served all her life. There, she meets Kate Dinsmore, a country teen who feels like a fish out of water in a world of debutantes and glamor.

At the Dinsmore mansion, Lillie encounters white privilege but also discovers an unlikely friend. The girls’ mutual interest in animals brings them to a local bird sanctuary where their friendship deepens. Despite the risks involved, Kate persuades Lillie to pass for white. Shortly afterwards, they uncover a china teacup in Lillie’s great-grandmother’s grave linking the two girls to a common ancestor and cracking their fragile friendship.

Today’s teen readers will identify with Lillie and Kate’s struggle to overcome their prejudices and search for belonging. This 70,000-word book written from two points of view can be pitched as The Help meets FLYGIRL.

My most recent book is [TITLE] (Publisher). I am a writing instructor in the adult education department of [College] and have presented at many educational conferences. I received “Author of the Month” award and “Art Feature of the Year” award from [Magazine] for my article, “[Title]” (pub date). My work has also appeared in [Magazine2], [Magazine3] and [Magazine4]. I have coordinated the [local] SCBWI critique group for more than twenty years.

Both [Editor1] at [MajorPublisher] and [Editor2] at [AnotherMajorPublisher] have expressed interest in my manuscript. I look forward to submitting HALF-TRUTHS for your consideration.


OK, jumping right in, the first paragraph is sort of a gimme. Disregarding the first sentence, which is just for this post, the second sentence tells me the name of the book, how long it is, what category it would fall into, and when it’s set. It’s a straightforward presentation of facts, and if it’s not flashy, at least it’s not off-putting. In emailing agents, you might consider opening with a bit about why you’re reaching out to them specifically — what about their list, clients, or social media personality led you to query them.

In the second paragraph, we meet our MC and her problem. She wants to be the next Marie Curie (Yay! Science!), but she’s black/light-skinned/poor. I don’t see the connection between “no matter how light-skinned she is” and “there’s no hiding the fact that her parents are only one step ahead of the bill collectors.” To me, that reads like separate issues, and by conflating them, it seems as though the query implies that, in this story, black, poor, and bad with finances are all the same thing, so maybe clarify that sentence a bit. It seems like Lillie’s biggest challenge at the start of this story is her lack of money for college, since the next sentence sets up the job she takes in order to save money to pay for her own education. You might consider moving the fact that Lillie is light-skinned to the next paragraph, where you inform the reader that she can pass for white. Otherwise, it feels like too much information in a paragraph that also introduces Kate, the out of place country girl. If Kate and Lillie are going to share the narrative, I want a little more information here about Kate — why is this country girl (which I kept initially trying to read as “country club girl”) in the Dinsmore mansion? Or rather, why doesn’t she belong there? Where is the mansion, that a country girl would feel out of place there? If it’s in a city, can you add that name to the “wealthy house” description above, so we have context for this statement?

Moving on, it seems to me that if Lillie feels the main stumbling block to becoming the next Marie Curie is that she’s black, she’s already discovered white privilege, and it’s not tied specifically to her time at the Dinsmore mansion. I’d prefer to hear more about the girls’ unlikely friendship, and how they discovered their mutual interest in animals. What is the context for Kate persuading Lillie to pass for white? Does it have to do with something that happens at the local bird sanctuary? Help the reader make the connections between the sentences. And what on earth are they doing digging in a grave together that leads to them finding a china teacup?!? I stumbled so much on that half of the sentence, that the revelation that they’re related was somewhat lost.

Coming up on your conclusion, I have a personal pet peeve against queries that tell me readers (of the book or the query) will do anything. Can you find another way to word this, if you want to include it? Then again, you may want to steer clear of anything in your query that offers a moral or a lesson to your manuscript — I, and many readers, care more about the stories than sermons. You also mention the word count again, which is unnecessary. And on second thought, I think you may want to move the fact that it’s a dual narrative up to your opening paragraph, instead of hiding it down here.

Your bio is very strong, and contains all the right pertinent information for an agent. You might want to say where you met Editor1 and Editor2 that they expressed interest in your manuscript already: conferences are great, personal contact on Twitter or via a blog contest are also good, knowing that you might have already gone out with this on submission is a bit of a downer.

Overall, my biggest regret about the query is that you don’t mention Lillie’s interest in science again. It makes me worry that her love for Marie Curie is a throwaway fact, and not actually developed.

Readers, what do you think? What would you fix? Or would you ask for material after reading this query? If it was on a book jacket, would you buy the book to read more?

Photo above by Flickr user machbel, “Mural en honor a Marie Curie en la facultad de ciencias“, used under a Creative Commons license.

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