Query Hack: Critique #16 – YA Contemporary

Dear Query Hack,

Lulu is the girl with all the answers. She has to be. It’s the only way to keep from being crushed by her parents’ wàng nǔ chéng féng—hope their daughter become a phoenix. You know, provided she were allowed to fall into any ashes in the first place. If only there was a Chinese proverb to tell Lulu what her boyfriend expects from her. She certainly can’t ask him how he feels. She’s not even entirely sure he is her boyfriend.

  • I love the phoenix concept! So cool!
  • Also, do you mean, “hope their daughter will become a phoenix”?
  • You lost me on the fourth sentence (You know, provided she were allowed to fall into any ashes in the first place.) Are her parents controlling? Do they not want her to get dirty? If they want her to become a phoenix (as the previous sentence suggested), why wouldn’t she be allowed near ashes (assuming ashes are necessary to shift into a phoenix)?
  • Could you give more information on the process of becoming a phoenix and why her parents would want her to become one? Is there a social hierarchy for people who can become phoenixes? 
  • How does one become a phoenix? Is it like werewolves, where they shift forms? 
  • I’m pretty confused by the sentences about her boyfriend. In a query (especially fantasy queries), it’s important to lay the foundation: who is your protagonist, what does he/she want, where is the story taking place, what is preventing her from getting what he/she wants, and only the necessary world-building/magic information.
  • Though, you had labeled this story as a YA contemporary. Does a phoenix represent a club or some other non-magical society? 
  • In addition, you want to provide specific (vs. vague) conflict. Saying she doesn’t know what her boyfriend expects of her is one thing. An example of specific conflict would be her “boyfriend” is a guard in the tower she’s locked in, who comes to her bed at night but doesn’t allow her to leave the tower—because he’s afraid the king/overlord of the castle who ordered her seclusion will execute him (etc.). 

It’s better this way, without him. She’s sure of it. Lulu needs a guy who doesn’t leave her wondering; someone who takes charge of the situation. Or is it a guy who appreciates her sarcasm? Maybe it’s a guy who makes her stomach flutter?

  • While I appreciate the character voice here, you want to focus most of your query on the meat of the story and laying a foundation. Right now, I’m uncertain of the setting, the importance around your character becoming a phoenix (why her parents want her to become one), how she becomes a phoenix, what she wants, how she met her not-boyfriend, and what the ultimate stakes for the story are (though, for the latter, that usually comes in the final plot summary paragraph). I think tweaking your first paragraph, eliminating this one, and weaving in this great voice throughout those essential details will make your query much stronger. 

It turns out, dating isn’t like taking a multiple choice test—there isn’t one right answer. And as she swaps one flawed prospect for another, Lulu finds she’s causing more problems than she’s solving. Can Lulu take a break from pursuing the relationship she thinks she wants long enough to ask herself what she really needs?

  • Again, we need more specific (vs. vague) conflict. For example, Lulu causing problems is vague, as it doesn’t show what problems she’s actually causing (like political upheaval of sorts). 

Spanning the years from first love to long-term commitment, BOYS I KNOW is a story of self-discovery through experiences with boys. It is mature YA contemporary fiction and complete at 86K words. It is my first novel.

  • By your mention of Lulu becoming a phoenix, I had thought this was a YA fantasy. That’s part of the reason why laying a foundation for your story (setting, character desires, etc.) are so important. 
  • In general, I advise most writers avoid writing about themes in a query (save the themes for discovery in the pages, themselves). 
  • Here is what I recommend you write instead: “BOYS I KNOW is a YA contemporary fiction, complete at 86,000 words.”

I understand you are seeking stories written for and by traditionally underrepresented communities. Being Chinese-American, it was important to me to incorporate Asian-American identity issues in this story without making the main character’s ethnicity the primary focus.

  • Nice paragraph! I also recommend you also give a quick shout out to your professional experience (vocation) and any publishing credits/experience you have. Although most of your query should focus on your manuscript, we do want to know a little bit about you as well.