Monday, December 29, 2014

Holiday Query Hop Critique 12

The last week of 2014 starts out with help from Tracy Townsend! Tracy Townsend took a roundabout way to getting her agent but the original request came from one of my contests! 
Keep in mind that feedback is subjective by nature. What does and does not catch the eye is going to vary by person. Each writer must weigh the comments they get against their own judgement and make the changes that resonate with them.

The Holiday Query hop is closed. Please make sure you get your 10 critiques done.  
The random number generator picks 48!
Dear {Agent},

{personalization as to why querying agent, if applicable}
[I’m glad you note “if applicable” here… In my experience, personalization only seemed to pay off when it was very specific and important (“You favorited my pitch in #adpit” or “I saw your #MSWL tweet about wanting to represent a zombie gnome plague memoir and thought you might be interested in this project.”) Recently, Her Sharkness Janet Reid weighed in on the issue, too.  Bottom line, I think in most cases, personalization is best left undone.)

Viking lord Skrizgaard's got it made in the shade: loads of quests, big bad boss battles, and plenty of pillage to plunder. [While “pillage” can be used as a noun (“the raider horded up his pillage”), it’s more commonly recognized as a verb – ie., “to pillage.”  Given that, I stumbled a bit on this phrase and found myself trying to reframe it as “plenty of pillaging to pursue” in order to keep your alliterative bounce.  Think that one over – you have a kind of playful tone here that’s fun and interesting, but any nonstandard language use could slow down the agent reading your query, and not necessarily in a good way.] The noble warrior's been the world's greatest hero for over 1,000 years and he plans to keep it that way until forever finally ends. [I struggled with this idea of forever ending: it could be a specific usage that references something about the nature of your world and its rules.  Mostly, though, it flies in the face of “he plans to keep it that way.”  If he’s going to keep it that way, that’s his motivation, and we don’t want to qualify it, thereby muddying the waters of Skrizgaard’s M.O. and persona.] A fetch quest to nab a cursed flute for the queen of the Eternal City is easy-peasy for a champion like Skrizgaard. Until the flute strips away his immortality and makes evil, people-dissolving spirits pour into the world. [This is a sentence fragment – you can use them artfully in a query, but in my opinion, they read as artful and intentional when they are short.  This might be long enough to come off seeming like a grammar fluke rather than rhetorical strategy.] After that, the last thing he needs is some pre-teen following him around saying she needs his protection.  [We need something that transitions into the arrival of this other character in Skrizgaard’s life – something that clearly shows we’re in a bad-to-worse situation for him.  Opening the sentence with “after that” didn’t quite achieve that for me.]

To twelve-year-old Medolie Perker, better known as Meddy, [Limit the names you provide.  In this case, I’d call her Meddy Perker and worry about introducing her proper name in your actual pages, where you have room to set that up.] the great and noble Skrizgaard is like a knight in shining armor [But, umm.. he’s a pillaging Viking, right?  So, is the point that Meddy is totally mistaken about him or are we getting conflicting images of your main character?]. She just knows he'll make a great bodyguard. Until her Glitch powers activate, that is. Then bending space’ll be child’s play and she'll be the most powerful being in the world. Till then she might as well be a regular kid, a sitting duck for the cyborgs from the Land of the Technomancers to kidnap and use in their dastardly devices. [I’ve read this paragraph several times – which is probably more than most agents would do – and I’m afraid I get lost in the weeds somewhere in this section.  Is Meddy supposed to have powers?  And what are Glitch powers?  She seems to be anticipating their arrival, but until then, she needs a bodyguard?  Why is she someone these Technomancers want to kidnap and use?  I’m assuming it’s because of these Glitch powers, but without knowing what they are or why they would be both valuable and dangerous, I’m more confused than intrigued.] .  And her powers show no sign of kicking in anytime soon. But as the world fills up with evil spirits and more and more people get dissolved, those cyborgs might be the least of Meddy's problems.

Now with a devil on his trail [Are you being literal or metaphorical?  In this kind of a story concept, could be either or even both.  This only adds to my feeling of uncertainty about the stakes all around.] and zero health potions left, Skrizgaard's got his hands full enough trying to complete his quest [That snatch-quest, right?  Agents reading fast and furious probably have a brief brain buffer. Don’t strain it. Try to clarify by reminding us he’s got his hands full of everything but the flute he’s meant to grab.] without having to look after Meddy. Luckily, the queen of the Eternal City knows a cure that'll let him reverse the flute's curse [Ahh, here’s the flute – can we bump up mentioning it to the sentence before to eliminate the confusion buffer?] and send the evil spirits back to the otherspace. But he'll need an all-powerful Glitch to pull it off. [Okay: bring it home now.  Remind us here that all of a sudden, Meddy might be just the baggage he needs.  Make the pieces come together clearly.]

At 51,000 words, THE GREAT AND NOBLE SKRIZGAARD is a stand-alone middle grade fantasy adventure with video game elements. [I like the idea of this, but I’m not sure what it means.  As in, the characters are actually in a video game, and you’re going for something super-meta, or this fantasy world is based off tropes drawn from video games, or something else?  Would a slightly different description be clearer and livelier? A middle grade READY PLAYER ONE?  A middle grade fantasy with the spirit of Golden Axe and the sparkle of League of Legends?  Can you make this pop?] It is available in part or in full upon request. [That’s why you’re querying. You don’t have to say this; it’s assumed.]

I have a degree in Film from Wayne State University with a special interest in screenwriting. [I know this detail helps link a Film degree with writing, but what does “special interest” mean?  That you’ve written screenplays?  That you’ve had some of your work produced?  If you can’t get concrete about what your interest means, it probably won’t help you more than my special interest in ice cream helps my body fat percentage.]

Thank you for your time and consideration! [Random personal bias here:  I hate exclamation points.  They strike me as chirpy.  I’d rather be not muddy this good social grace with whatever the reader will or won’t read into punctuation.]


The strengths of this query – at least in the first paragraph – are its voice and the way it leans hard into the language and imagery of quest-oriented MMORPG video games.  I couldn’t quite tell if we’re meant to accept this as a fully developed secondary world fantasy, as in “there is no real world, only Skrizgaard’s world,” or if this is some kind of meta-text, where the reader is analogous to a player of the game in which Meddy and Skrizgaard are characters, a kind of portal-fantasy variant.  I’m still puzzled about that, actually.

Sf/f queries face a real uphill climb in terms of making unreal worlds feel real, alive, and full of meaningful stakes that don’t devolve into predictable plots. I can empathize with the struggle to make this very brief document clear and yet representative of your text.  Because I feel I don’t quite understand the nature of the project, I’ll leave it at that and hope you can brainstorm a slightly different approach.

I like that both your characters have stakes (Skrizgaard has lost some measure of his power to a curse, and he can’t complete his quest, and the world is going to hell in a hand-basket because of how that curse was released; Meddy will be powerful one day – presumably – but she isn’t yet and has to stay alive long enough to protect herself from being hunted down.).  What I don’t get is the threat that faces Meddy in the first place, before folks start dissolving. 

If you can help your reader grapple with what this world is and help them appreciate Meddy’s initial situation, you’ll have a much stronger query.  Good luck in the trenches!  (She said, using an exclamation point.)

Tracy Townsend lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois and teaches English at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.  She has studied at DePauw University, the National University of Ireland (Galway), and DePaul University, where she obtained degrees in English, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric.  She is a member of the Science Fiction Research Association and other academic organizations, which allows her to write very long things and read them aloud to people who are obliged to behave politely.  Her sf/f writing draws on her experience as a lapsed Catholic, an assistant martial arts instructor, a comic book fangirl (Make Mine Marvel!), a tabletop role-player, and an obsessive hound for obscure mythologies.  Inexplicably, other uses for that resume have yet to present themselves.  She is represented by the strikingly elegant and classy Bridget Smith of Dunham Lit. 
Tracy devotes time she doesn’t have to cooking, gardening, writing, and seriously pondering the treadmill in her basement.  She is married to her high school sweetheart, with whom she shares two remarkable children.  They are – naturally – named after characters from books.
You can find Tracy on Twitter (@TheStorymatic) more often than she really ought to be.


  1. This was a really helpful critique. Thanks. Julie

  2. Glad I could help, and glad Michelle had me on as a guest. Happy New Year!

  3. Lots of great advice on here, Tracy and Michelle. It's so interesting to see what each author or agent picks up on.

  4. Thanks so much for taking the time to go over my query, you made a lot of fantastic points :)