Query Letter Critique

Skeletons are claustrophic – if you shut them up in a closet they’re going to get out. This could be just me but I don’t really love this hook. It’s vague and tells nothing about the story to come. Also, claustrophobic is misspelled. Celia Narro was just looking for the express ramp to the runway when she walked into a new role:


In this 32,000-word contemporary middle grade mystery, twelve-year-old Celia is on the verge of her big break, NYC’s first city-wide Designing Deb contest, when her family relocates to a lakeshore village upstate. This is where your query actually starts. I would ditch everything before this para and begin here. The first sentence is a bit clunky though, and I think you miss a big opportunity to get that MG voice in really early on. Example: ‘Twelve-year-old Celia wants nothing more than to show the world she has what it takes to be the next (fashion designer). When NYC announces a citywide Designing Deb contest, she knows this could be the big break she’s been waiting for. But her career fall flatter than (joke) when her parents move her to some lakeshore village upstate.’ That needs work too but you get the idea. Her plan is as short and sweet as a pink sequin mini<Cute! : 1) Convince her best friend Indira Prabshan (13) to skirt the rules and enter the contest for her and 2) find a way back to the city before the Deb finals during Fall Fashion Week. I wouldn’t include the best friend’s age. If you didn’t specify, the reader would automatically assume the best friend was the same age as the main character. Her name isn’t important in the query either, especially since she doesn’t really factor in later on. Also: what rules does Celia have to skirt to enter the contest? Why can’t she enter it herself? Is it because she’s 12 and the age to enter is 13? And most importantly: is this all really important for the query letter and the larger story plot? But the skeletons and their living counterparts have other plans far more sinister than Celia could imagine: <I’m not a fan of statements like this. They’re too vague and, prepare for bluntness to come, ‘skeletons in the closet’ is pretty cliche a powerful secret society is working to turn back the clock to a time when women and minorities “knew their place”.


On her first day in White Birch Cove, Celia meets her knight in not-quite-shining armor: the prickly yet gallant Joseph Eli (12). Joe, a part-time Renaissance Fair knight, clues Celia in on a lost local fortune hidden by the previous owner of the Narro’s “new” 1800’s mansion. Her ticket home seems all but punched <I like this para but what does this last sentence have to do with the introduction of Joseph and the fortune in the mansion? Is it because Celia plans to use the treasure to fund her trip home? If so, tell us that.  until hometown princess Jane Archer (12) steps in to make it clear that Celia is one accessory too many. <This is cute but too vague. Why does Jane dislike Celia?


When she stumbles onto a secret room behind her closet that is both a legacy of the Underground Railroad and a key to the treasure, Celia discovers the only place she truly feels at home. <Why? As she sweats to maintain a long-distance friendship with her BFFF* and develop a design for the Deb contest in the midst of household chaos, Jane hems <Cute! in Celia’s search for the treasure at every turn with the help of her creepy uncle Theo Rathbone (54), a member of the society who makes no secret of his dislike for “illegal aliens”. As if. This is good. I feel like we’ve found the heart of the story in this para.


The trail grows ever more dangerous and Celia and Joe grow closer as they work to stay one step ahead of Jane and her uncle. This doesn’t tell us anything new and unnecessarily adds to the word count. After an explosion at the Narros’ new restaurant, they are on the verge of piecing together the mystery and getting their hands on the treasure when Joe disappears. To find him Celia must confront her nemesis Jane and choose between breaking a promise to an old friend or risking the life of a new one. The answer seems pretty obvious, no? Break a promise to save a life. Is there a way you can re-word this so it doesn’t come across that way?


When she gives up what she wants most to save Joe, Celia finds that there are sacrifices she will not make for fashion while everyone else finds personal treasures they did not expect. Joe, Jane, and Celia each hold clues to the treasure, tying them together as co-custodians of a legendary (perhaps priceless) talisman and a curated mess of cryptic memorabilia identifying future targets of the secret society – targets this new club of misfits is now sworn to protect. You’re not supposed to give away the ending in the query letter. You want to end your query letter at the point where your main character is in peril and the stakes are high, sort of like the blurb on the back of a book. Remember, the goal is to intrigue an agent to want to read more!


This is a standalone book with series potential. What is the title of this book? The first draft of this novel won first place in the children’s category in the 2011 Pacific Northwest Literary Contest as The Victorian with a Secret. Awesome! While I started my professional career as a newspaper reporter I have spent the last 20 years in marketing. I have a B.A. in journalism and a minor in graphic design from Michigan State University. I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Agents know what this stands for and the acronym is the more commonly used name so I’d go with that.


Thank you for your time,
(Contact info redacted)
*Best fashionable friend forever


First of all, thanks so much for letting me have a look at your query, you brave, brave soul, you. I appreciate it like whoa.


Secondly, your query is too long. Way too long. A query letter should be around 250-300 words. Yours clocks in at 585. When I boil it down and really look at the bones of the query, everything that needs to be here is here, but you’ve got a lot of vague lead-in type of sentences mixed in as well and have mentioned a few sub plots that likely don’t need to be in the query (such as the best friend entering the contest for her).


Another issue is voice. There are hints of humor in there, and the designing references are definitely cute, but it does read a bit stiff at the moment. Again, that could be just me.


The good news is that I think you have a really great start here that could definitely be trimmed down into a knockout query.


Thanks again for sharing this with me, and good luck with your querying endeavors!


Posted in query critique, query letter, Uncategorized

4 Responses to Query Letter Critique

  1. Brandy says:

    Great crit, as always. Good luck, author!

  2. Paulina says:

    This book sounds super cute and interesting.
    I must admit, just from reading the query I kind of feel that there is a disconnect between the modern-world fashion thing and the old fantasy side of things tied into it.

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