Query Critique Winner

Monday, March 23, 2015

Congrats to Mikah, who was the winner this round!  I had to rush a little to get his critique done, but here it is.  This is the original query:

Dear Agent Pestritto,
I retired at age 25. It may seem silly just after finishing grad school, but when I saw my 58-year-old father die of cancer--losing his chance at retirement--I wanted to make sure I didn't suffer the same fate.
So I drove.
I spent 260 days living out of my car and exploring North America, taking the Dream Road Trip my father never got to, and searching for the parental advice lost through his death. (Think Cheryl Strayed's WILD, except with a prominent minister father and closeted-to-openly-gay son).
But my story is about more than the lessons learned across 16,400 miles and 46 states/provinces. My memoir shows the development of a personal credo--one learned through travel--which inspired my book's title: LIFE'S MORE FUN WHEN YOU TALK TO STRANGERS. Through the example of a European love affair, my unofficial adoption by a Swiss family, and a Dream Road Trip where I fall in love with a man I read about in a magazine, I show readers how life can be enriched by reaching out to the strangers in their midst.
My summary of the book recently went viral on Huffington Post Travel--gaining over 33,000 Facebook Likes and Shares within a week (article "The Road to Everywhere: Why You Can't Put Off That Trip Any Longer" linked here: http://huff.to/1g3syBm ). That same story also has me in final negotiations with a major non-profit to sponsor my next big road trip, second book, and documentary--a three year journey that will launch on my father's death anniversary/the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Act (2016), and earn me a world record as the youngest person to visit all 410 US National Park Units.
This trek will be both a sequel to, and a promotional tour for, my 105,000 word debut memoir LIFE'S MORE FUN WHEN YOU TALK TO STRANGERS.
Pasted below are the first ten pages. A full manuscript/proposal are available immediately via email or post.
My writing has been published by the Washington Blade, Believe Out Loud, GLAAD, and in diverse sections of the Huffington Post (Travel, Religion, Black Voices, Sports, Gay Voices, Politics, Third Metric, Good News, Healthy Living), and my extroverted life has been featured by over forty media outlets, including USA Today, FOX Television, and Virgin Radio. Outside of writing, I am a professional countertenor singer and founder of "Queer For Christ."
Thank you for your consideration,
Mikah Meyer

And here is the critique:

Dear Agent Ms. Pestritto,
I retired at age 25 twenty-five. [From what it says later on in the query, I’m not sure if you mean you retired at twenty-five, because it doesn’t seem like you had a job to leave.  Perhaps instead say that you knew at age twenty-five that you would never enter the corporate workforce?] It may seem silly that I did something like that just after finishing grad school, but when I saw my 58-year-old father die of cancer--losing his chance at retirement--I wanted to make sure I didn't suffer the same fate. [Was your father’s death the thing that made you realize that you had to live your life, or were you worried because you had a family history of cancer?  Clarify a bit more here.]
So I drove.
I spent 260 days living out of my car and exploring North America, taking the dDream rRoad tTrip my father never got to [Did he want to?], and searching for the parental advice lost through his death [I’m not 100% sure what you mean here.  How did a road trip help you search for parental advice?]. (Think Cheryl Strayed's WILD, except with a prominent minister father and closeted-to-openly-gay son).
But my story is about more than the lessons learned across 16,400 miles and 46 states/provinces. My memoir shows the development of a personal credo--one learned through travel--which inspired my book's title: LIFE'S MORE FUN WHEN YOU TALK TO STRANGERS (Think Cheryl Strayed's WILD, except with a prominent minister father and closeted-to-openly-gay son). Through the example of a A European love affair, my unofficial adoption by a Swiss family, and a Dream Road Trip where I fall falling in love with a man I read about in a magazine [This confuses me a little bit.  Do you go out in search of this man?  Is he an ideal that you develop and compare other men to?  Or do you perhaps actually meet this man and fall in love with him?], I show readers how life can be enriched by reaching out to the strangers in their midst all enrich my life and help me realize the value of reaching out to the strangers in my midst.
My summary of the book recently went viral on Huffington Post Travel--gaining over 33,000 Facebook Likes and Shares within a week (article "The Road to Everywhere: Why You Can't Put Off That Trip Any Longer" linked here: http://huff.to/1g3syBm ). That same story also has me in final negotiations with a major non-profit to sponsor my next big road trip, a second book, and a documentary--a three year journey that will launch on my father's death anniversary/the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Act (2016), and earn me a world record as the youngest person to visit all 410 US National Park Units.
This trek will be both a sequel to, and a promotional tour for, my 105,000 word debut memoir LIFE'S MORE FUN WHEN YOU TALK TO STRANGERS.

My writing has been published by the Washington Blade, Believe Out Loud, GLAAD, and in diverse sections of the Huffington Post (Travel, Religion, Black Voices, Sports, Gay Voices, Politics, Third Metric, Good News, Healthy Living), and my extroverted life has been featured by over forty media outlets, including USA Today, FOX Television, and Virgin Radio. Outside of writing, I am a professional countertenor singer and founder of "Queer For Christ." 
Pasted below are the first ten pages. A full manuscript/ and proposal are available immediately via email or post if you would be interested in taking a look.
My writing has been published by the Washington Blade, Believe Out Loud, GLAAD, and in diverse sections of the Huffington Post (Travel, Religion, Black Voices, Sports, Gay Voices, Politics, Third Metric, Good News, Healthy Living), and my extroverted life has been featured by over forty media outlets, including USA Today, FOX Television, and Virgin Radio. Outside of writing, I am a professional countertenor singer and founder of "Queer For Christ."
Thank you for your consideration,
Mikah Meyer

I thought that this was a very interesting query letter.  Also, the platform Mikah already has in place is fantastic and definitely something that will work in his favor with agents, so great job mentioning it so well.  I was intrigued by the story, but also slightly confused about the overall purpose and narrative arc.  It seemed to me that the point of writing this memoir was to talk about Mikah’s life experiences and how they lead him to reach out to strangers.  However, reaching out to strangers (what that entails, how exactly they enriched his life, what he wants his readers to take away from his story) was a bit glossed over in the query letter.  I didn’t leave with a strong sense of the memoir’s purpose, and would have loved to know a little bit more about just why getting to know random people  is so great.  

Mikah briefly mentions being the gay son of a minister, and I would also have liked to see that touched on a bit more in the query in terms of family issues and if this road trip helps him shape his identity in any way.

What do you guys think?  Comment below!

31 comments:

  1. I'm curious to know how the remainder of his story plays out!

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  2. In the first paragraph, where the review inquires about the relevance of his father's death, I believe the reviewer was correct in suggesting Mr. Meyer expand upon and clarify the role the loss played in his motivation. However, I feel that the reviewer misses one important aspect: the wake-up call, as impetus for the adventures of the roadtrip and subsequent story telling, may well be less about the father's death or fear of cancer and more that the untimely death meant the father missed the opportunity to travel, to adventure on his own, and Mr. Meyer would not fall prey to the same regret in his own life. This does need to be clarified because it touches on themes powerful in our contemporary culture: a desire to not repeat the mistakes of our parents, a drive for worldliness, our American context of too much work and no play until we're too old to enjoy it, and delaying gratification and denying the self to fit societal and economic demands of conformity. Also in this opening paragraph, I see an opportunity to show some personality around this word "retired"; put it in quotes to show it is hyperbole and then follow up with a statement about what is actually meant.

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  3. One quick question, in his opening sentence you spell out 25 rather than the number. Why abandon the rule of only spelling out numbers if under 10?

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    1. When it is the end of a sentence, you always want to spell the number out. Same goes for if it is in a quotation!

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  4. Hi Carrie, thanks for the critique. I will take some time to review the comments and work them in, but one quick question: why cut the word count? I've read that authors should always include that in their query.

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    1. You don't have to cut it (or include it!), but since it was over 100,000, I thought cutting it might be good so you don't scare anyone off. I know seeing anything that long always makes me say, "Oh, whoa" inside.

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    2. Is there an ideal length for the first manuscript that goes to an agent? Your comment seems to suggest Mikah may need to do some serious editing/paring down.

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    3. For memoir, I would say anywhere from 70,000-90,000 is the norm. 105,000 is a little high, but if it is necessary to tell the story, then it's fine. I just think that when you're in the higher range, the safer bet is to intrigue the agent first and then let them know they're going to have a bit of reading ahead of them :)

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  5. Excellent critique! And I can't wait to read the entire book. Carrie, my question is about your comment regarding Mikah's line about "falling in love with a man I read about in a magazine." You write that it confused you, because it made you question if Mikah "went out in search of this man?" To me, this section of the query is great in that the list of provocative statements come one after the other without any explanation. If he explains this one, then should the other preceding comments also be taken out or explained more?

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    1. Thanks, Guthrie! That was the only one that made me pause. I think the other statements make sense, and although they aren't fully explained, I have a sense of how they would work in the memoir. I have no idea what falling in love with a man in a magazine entails, which was why I was asking for a teeny more clarification on that. I'm assuming that he met the man in real life somehow and then fell in love with him, but just from what he wrote I'm not 100% sure.

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  6. Oh! One more question. I wonder if Mikah's identity as a "gay pastor's son" scares agents off? Do you think there's an interest in new literature at the intersection of religion and sexuality?

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    1. I don't think that would scare agents off at all! There is a big push for more diversity in literature nowadays, and editors everywhere are hungry for projects that showcase all different kinds of experiences and identities. This campaign is just for children's book, but check out http://weneeddiversebooks.org/!

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    2. I think Brandan makes a good point, but everyone should be sure that when referring to Mikah's identity, that he should be called a "pastor's gay son" and not "a gay pastor's son" - there's a big difference between the two.

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  7. Hey Carrie! Great critique! I'm curious if going into greater depth in the first 2-3 paragraphs would make the query letter too long. Mikah uses short, non-explanatory sentences at the intro that seem like they'd draw the agent into reading the whole query. How much of the story do you recommend explaining in the beginning? If Mikah explains much more, he runs the risk of having a really long query letter. Do you think that risk is worth it? Thanks!

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    1. Thanks! You definitely want to draw agents in with your query, but there is a fine line between being mysterious and compelling and being confusing. I found myself on the other side of that line in a couple places in the query, so I think clarifying/explaining is the way to go, even if that means a longer query. You don't want it to be too long, but I think taking the time to make sure an agent has a full sense of what the project is about is worth adding some more sentences!

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  8. I understand that Mikah is using "I retired at 25" as an "attention grabber" (since, with this economy, some of us may never get to retire), so while I understand that it might not make sense right away (hence your request for further explanation), I think his reason for using such a factious statement is to intrigue the reader and make the want to find out what that's supposed to mean. Would "I essentially retired at 25" work better? Also, many people "retire" only to return later to the workforce. Is there another word besides "retired" that would get is point across and still be intriguing?

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    1. Essentially retired would be a great way to fix that!

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  9. I agree with you that the author saying he was going to retire at 25 seemed strange. To the comment you made about finding parental advice on the road, do you think Mikah should address whether he did, in fact, find any parental advice on the road to replace that he no longer had the privilege of getting from his father?

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    1. I'm not sure it's necessary to talk about whether or not he found any parental sources of wisdom while on this road trip, but to me, the idea of specifically seeking that out during a road trip seemed odd. It brought up an image of driving around to different peoples' houses all over the country and asking them for advice. I understand what the author is trying to say, but think it needs to be rephrasing or explained out a little bit.

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  10. What a great critique and a fascinating story. I thought Carrie's comments were fabulous and know from experience that they are always spot-on. I also agree that diversity is a good thing and not a turn off at all. Publishing is a pretty open-minded industry. And what a fabulous platform. All the best!

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  11. I don't quite agree with your comment, "it doesn't seem like you have a job to leave." Anyone who has gone through grad school knows that is a job in and of itself!

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    1. Haha, that is fair. If only you got paid to be in grad school!

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  12. Hooray to Mikah for getting 8 comments on his query critique! Thanks to everyone who helped him get the additional 100 page critique!!!

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  13. Comments made without reading Carrie's critique or any of the other comments.

    It sounds like an interesting story, but the query feels kind of thin to me, to be honest. Half of the query feels more like a press release than a query. Maybe that's how queries for manuscripts are supposed to be, I don't know. IF I were an agent, I don't know that I'd see enough here to request more.

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  14. Oh, also going to add: this was a road trip across North America, so when he got to the part about the European love affair and Swiss family (and yes, you could be adopted by a Swiss family in America) I found myself a little confused.

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    1. Hey Jeff, all 3 of those are connected in one story (though I could probably make that more clear).

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  15. Great critique, Carrie! I think he did gloss over the arc a little bit, and it's not altogether clear how talking to strangers blends with the examples given to create a coherent narrative. With that said, the ambiguity almost seems to be the point. I got the sense that Mikah was looking to generate interest and establish credibility more than express details of the memoir itself. I think this is a fine balance writers often try to make, and finding the line is tough. In query letters that I've sent, I've struggled to decide what is enough information without overindulging in the excitement of my project, and I try not to share long after I should've stopped. Once you've established a relationship with a particular editor, it's a little easier to know the line, but initially it's hard to know if someone is looking for a sterile, nuts and bolts kind of explanation or a more enthusiastic, but less particular, description. I would be interested to hear your thoughts...any advice for finding that line?

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    1. It is definitely a hard line to tread. Without looking at your individual query, it's hard to say whether I think you're on track or not, and of course, my thoughts are just my own subjective opinion--another agent could think differently! I think the best course of action is to make sure that before you start sending out, you have lots of people whose opinion you trust look it over for you.

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  16. I think this is a great critique. I want to know more about the journey Mikah has taken. How does the story unfold/continue.

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  17. Thanks for all the comments, critiques and ideas, all! I've pasted below the resulting updated query.

    (The later paragraphs didn't change much beyond grammar/organization, so I've just posted the changed opening paragraphs):

    Dear Mr./Ms. [LAST NAME],

    "Life's more fun when you talk to strangers" has become my personal credo. Whether it was a European love affair helping me accept my homosexuality, a random Swiss family unofficially adopting me, or a retired couple in Mississippi paying for my grad school, this attitude has been crucial to my survival since my minister father died from cancer when I was nineteen.

    Emboldened by these experiences, and seeking to fulfill the retirement dreams of my road-trip-loving father, at twenty-five I embarked on a 260 day, 16,400 mile North American road trip to direct my transition into adulthood. After breaking bread with drag queen nuns, rubbing shoulders with presidential candidates, and falling in love with a man who I initially contacted after seeing his story in a magazine, I was sold on my credo. This "Dream Road Trip" was so impactful that I want to share my extroverted doctrine, and have done so in my memoir: LIFE'S MORE FUN WHEN YOU TALK TO STRANGERS. (Think Cheryl Strayed's WILD meets Jeff Chu's DOES JESUS REALLY LOVE ME?)

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