Aug 27, 2010

Query - The Paw Shake Portal

Dear (Agent):

Preoccupied with worries about moving to a new town and feeling left out among his friends, eleven-year-old Alex Locklin doesn’t think much of the stray cat he finds in his back yard. But when his little sister insists they give the cat a collar, Alex soon discovers that this isn’t an ordinary animal. Her name is Lumina, and she’s a cat that can turn into a human.

Lumina appears as a human to anyone who gives her a collar in hopes of forming a “bond of trust” with that owner. An animal’s friendship with a person makes them healthier and stronger, and Lumina needs all the strength she can get in order to fight against an army of people-hating cats. Alex is desperate to get his mind off his troubles and happily forms the bond of trust, but instead of helping fight the enemy, he’s determined turn the cat army around by proving himself to be an ally of animals.

When he winds up in the principal’s office for skipping class to go to the far away Animal World, and then gets scratched by an angry cat, Alex begins to doubt his ability to help Lumina. But he feels a tug on his heart. There has to be a way to change the hearts of the spiteful animals without accidentally causing trouble – and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to find it.

THE PAW SHAKE PORTAL is a middle grade novel complete at 29,000 words. (Reason for querying specific agent.)

Thank you for your time and consideration.


(Thanks in advance to anyone who offers advice!)


Mesmerix said...

Hello! So, I'll be the first to admit that MG/Children's literature is not my strongsuit. With that in mind, my critique will be less about content and more about the grammer and style.

I love the idea of a stray cat befriending a displaced boy. You have done well to convey the plot synopsis of your storyline.

Here's my two big concerns:

1) Grammatical issues. Example: "he’s determined turn" is missing a "to" and "Animal World, and then gets scratched" should not be using "then." Then is a filler word like just, that, very, soon, etc that can be dropped 90% of the time. Try "Animal World and is scratched." These teensy problems can indicate a larger issue in the MS to an agent, whether or not it is the actual case, so try to eliminate them from the query.

2) A soapbox. I am deeply concerned by the agenda I see in your query. It appears less like a story, and more like a campaign for the ASPCA. (And before anyone critcizes, I'm an animal lover and have done animal rescue and fostering. I <3 the ASPCA.) That being said, fiction writing is about telling a story, not preaching from a soapbox. You CAN HAVE an agenda, but you just can't show it. Hide it inside the entertainment!

I think it's entirely possible to write this query in a way that conveys the adventure and excitement of the story without sounding like you have an agenda. Word phrases like "friendship with a person makes them (which them?) healthier and stronger" and "army of people-hating cats" and "ally of animals" and "hearts of the spiteful (I thought we were on the animal's side?) animals" give me cause for concern. Unless these are supernatural in nature I think you should cut or rephrase. If it is a supernatural, like there's an army of mutant humans who hate cats or something, then you need to amp that up.

SF/F writers have long portrayed societal issues and agendas through the filter of aliens and magic swords. The more supernatural fiction is, the less it sounds like a soapbox. Simple reality detachment.

Hope this helps. It looks like a great premise for an MG novel and definitely something I would want children to read.

Scribbler to Scribe

Shelley Sly said...

Mesmerix - Thank you so much for your critique! This is really helpful!

Yes, I do need to clean up some grammatical issues. I didn't even notice I was missing the word "to". Thanks.

Ah, yes, the agenda issue... although I love animals, I'm really irked by campaigning and I promise that isn't what I planned with this story. But you're not the first to suggest that this is how it comes across, which tells me that it's something I really need to fix. The story has somewhat of a supernatural element to it, but possibly not strong enough.

Re: the confusion about which side humans and animals are on... majority of animals in the book are friends to humans, but there's this growing army of angry cats that hate humans. I need to think of less confusing ways to word that in my query; "the spiteful animals" was only supposed to refer to those in the army.

I don't know how to make this less ASPCA-sounding, but I'm open to ideas. I so appreciate this in-depth critique and welcome any more suggestions!

Mesmerix said...

Shelley: So there's evil kitties and good kitties? And the evil kitties are forming a army that Alex and Lumina must contend with?


Do we have 2 armies here then? (people who hate cats, and cats who hate people)

Rewrite the entire query as if you're trying to entice the agent to read your book.

What is super-awesome-special about your character+conflict? Focus on that.

Sidenote, does this MG novel have a humorous bent at all to it? An army of evil kitties spurs all sorts of good, funny ideas to me.

Shelley Sly said...

Mesmerix - My query must not be very clear. There aren't any humans who hate cats. (Perhaps "people-hating cats" makes it sound that way? I'd better reword that. "Anti-human cats", maybe?) It's only an army of evil kitties -- as you put it ;) -- that hate humans. With this in mind, maybe it's a little less humane society-esque, since it's the cats that are being cruel to humans, not vice versa.

There's a little humor sprinkled in here and there, but even though it's not a downright hilarious book, it's more lighthearted than serious. Definitely not a horror story.

I'm taking everything you say into consideration to help build a better query. Thanks again for all your help!

Mesmerix said...

Oh, yes. This was unclear. I thought "people-hating cats" meant people who hate cats.

I asked about the humor because I was thinking that if it's a lighter hearted book you could drop the word "hate" and instead use something like, "kittens of darkness" or the "Anti-Human Feline Association (AHFA)." I don't know, but "people-hating cats" obviously needs changed and clarified.

Evil kitties sounds much more entertaining and fun. Definitely takes the agenda down a notch now that I understand it.

Janae said...

My concern is the title. It sounds like a very specific thing in the book, but there's no mention of a portal in the critique. I think your query would be much stronger if you put an emphasis on the portal, or changed the title.

Rick Daley said...

I think the hyphen in people-hating cats makes it clear that the cats are people-haters, not the other way around. However, given the confusion this has caused, and the fact that evil kitties does indeed sound more entertaining and fun, I recommend you go with that change.

When Lumina turns into a human, is she an adult or a kid? And she would be a human to Alex (and perhaps his sister) but anyone else would still see her as a cat?

It sounds original, good luck!

Shelley Sly said...

Wow, thanks so much for the feedback, everyone!

Mesmerix - I like the idea of something like AHFA. The army has a cutesy bad-guy name ("Alley Scratch") but I wasn't sure if I should include that, or if it would be too many names in a query. I agree that hate might be too strong of a word for the mood I'm going for. I might use anti-human instead.

Janae - Thanks for pointing this out. I didn't want to flood the query with details, but the title comes from the method that Alex uses to teleport to the Animal World (shaking a cat's paw). I'll do some research, and if it seems that it's important to include the origin of the title in the query, I'll either add it in or change the title. (Problem is, I'm terrible with titles!) :)

Rick - Yes, I'm certainly getting rid of "people-hating cats". Lumina turns into a girl around Alex's age, and since anyone can see her as a human, the kids have to come up with excuses for her presence, which just adds to the fun. Thanks for your input, and thanks for posting this!

Rick Daley said...

If Lumina appears to anyone, I would re-word this:

Lumina appears as a human to anyone who gives her a collar in hopes of forming a “bond of trust” with that owner.

This implies she only appears as a human to the person/people who provided the collar.

Thanks for participating, good luck!

Shelley Sly said...

Rick - I see what you mean. I'll reword that in my revision. Thank you!

Anonymous Author said...

Okay, credentials: I'm a middle-grades author, several books published by a Big House, etc.

Let's talk stakes. Alex doubts his ability to help Lumina because he gets scratched by a cat and sent to the principal's office. We want heroes who fight for their lives with their backs to the wall, not heroes who are discouraged by minor injuries and adult disapproval. If Alex is such a hero, can you show us that?

What's at stake for Lumina? What happens if she doesn't form this bond? What will this people-hating cat-army actually do? What's at stake for humanity? Can these cats deliver anything worse than scratches? Can they destroy the human race? Or at least some portion of it?

If not, it's gonna be a hard sell ...this is not your mother's middle grades market... :-)

If yes, then Alex needs to be willing to go all out to stop them, principal's office or no... and he needs a motive bigger than just wanting to get his mind off his troubles. This is undoubtedly all made clear in your manuscript, but can you make it clearer in your query? Show us what's at stake. State it clearly in a sentence or two.

Shelley Sly said...

Anonymous - Thank you for this honest critique, and for sharing your wisdom. This really does help. You're right, my manuscript reflects much higher stakes (the safety of Alex's friends) but I focused on the wrong parts of the story in the query. Thank you for pointing this out!

Anonymous Author said...

Shelley, you're very welcome.

Now please don't think I'm nitpicking, but this is important. By "safety," do you mean "lives"?

This is the kind of detail where you have a chance to raise the stakes and convey a sense of urgency, just by a simple word choice.

Shelley Sly said...

Anonymous - You're right, I see how word choice can change everything. Thanks for this advice!

Dominique said...

This query isn't bad. I feel like I understand the plot and the stakes. I do have a few questions though.

1) How exactly is this bond of trust thing work? When I think of a bond of a trust, I imagine what I share with people I've known for years and have a lot of confidence in. Your query makes me think you're discussing some sort of symbolic ritual.

2) How bad is this cat scratch? I've been scratched and bitten by animals before, and I've never thought of it as something bad enough to make me decide I'd let an army of people-hating cats win in a fight.