Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Query Quagmire #3

TITLE: The Real Hero
GENRE: MG Historical Mystery

Dear Agent,

In The Real Hero an 11-year-old boy eats worms, chases trains, cracks codes, and kisses the girl in his quest to unmask a spy posing as a patriot.

Steve Abernathy is on a mission to protect the home front while his brother fights Nazis in Europe. A loyal member of Captain Asgardia’s fan club, Steve has pledged to help his comic book hero Fight for Freedom, Defend Justice, and Destroy Evil. His patriotic zeal is put to the test in the summer of 1944 when German POWs are stationed in town. Morse code flashes from the prison camp at night. Dieter Zinzerdorf, a suspiciously charming prisoner, seems to be everywhere he shouldn’t be, like swapping gum with Steve’s older sister. When Steve discovers his own Sunday School teacher passing coded messages to Zinzerdorf, he vows to expose their spy ring and gain his rightful fame as town hero. But the villains on either side of the prison camp fence don’t wear easily identifiable masks like the bad guys in Steve’s comic books. If he can’t sort out friend from foe, Steve won’t just fail his mission, he’ll put his sister’s life at risk.

The Real Hero is a middle-grade historical mystery complete at 56,000 words. The tale is rooted in the true history of the German prisoner-of-war camp based in my hometown of Reedsburg, Wisconsin during World War II. The manuscript has 32 chapter illustrations gleaned from primary source graphics.

I have a MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Teenagers from Hamline University and was a history teacher for more than twenty years. I have had several nonfiction books published by ABDO and Nomad Press for the education and trade markets.

What follows are the first 250 words of my manuscript.

Thanks for considering my work.

Chapter 1: Metamorphosis

The coffin at the front of the church looked so sad and lonely that all of a sudden my heart twisted and I couldn't breathe. My brain knew who was being buried today, but my gut didn’t always trust my brain, and my gut had to be absolutely, positively certain my big brother wasn’t inside that brown box. If I didn’t find out soon, I was going to suffocate right here in the fourth pew of St. John’s  Church!

Maybe if I dashed up the aisle and hid behind the altar, I could crack the coffin lid just enough to get a peek inside before anybody noticed. Opening my mouth so wide my jaw cracked, I gulped a mouthful of air. I was debating whether to sprint or belly crawl when suddenly a big hand clamped down on my thigh.

Dad leaned over the pew, his long arm pinning me in place. Mom stood in the aisle behind him, holding Junie on one hip and shooting me the evil eye. I hate it when parents know what you’re going to do before you even know it yourself.

I leaned back. Dad and Mom headed up the aisle with Eleanor trailing behind. When she passed me, Eleanor rolled her eyes. One of these days her pupils were going to get stuck behind her forehead. That would teach my stupid sister.

“Why you breathing like that?” Gordy said.

I stared at him. “Like what?” The words came out sounding like Donald Duck.

His eyes got real big and scared looking. If Gordy cried for Mom, I'd be the one in trouble.

I coughed and tried to clear my throat. “It’s nothing,” I said. “I’m just hyperluccinating a little bit.”
“What's hyperluccinating?”

My brother had the vocabulary of a five-year-old. Probably because he was a five-year-old.


  1. Great hook/logline! You lay out the character, what he wants, and the implied stakes. In the summary paragraph you point out that this spy is putting Steve's sister in danger. This makes the stakes personal. Maybe consider adding that to the logline to amplify the stakes up front:

    "In The Real Hero an 11-year-old boy eats worms, chases trains, cracks codes, and kisses the girl in his quest to unmask a spy posing as a patriot who is flirting with his sister." I may not have got the details accurate, as I'm not sure who the spy is (see, you already have me hooked. I want to know who it is!) But I think it raises stakes if he not only wants to stop a spy, but also protect his sister from danger. I think you can do a better job with the wording than I did. Just a thought.

    Great premise. I love that it's based on a real event in history that I have never read about. And I love the tie-in with the MC's obsession with comic book heroes and villains. Good Luck with this project!

  2. This is excellent, top to bottom. I have nothing to critique. GREAT WORK!

  3. I was completely hooked by the query, it sounds like a fun romp through history! As one tiny line-edit, I recommend a dash instead of a comma in this sentence "everywhere he shouldn’t be--like swapping gum with Steve’s older sister."

    I enjoyed the writing in the sample, but have a minor issue with the setting/events. Starting off with a funeral and him picturing his brother dead is really heavy stuff, but the tone felt intended to make you laugh, which just didn't work for me. I would expect (and want!) this story to go to some places that are a little dark given the subject matter, but I wouldn't start there, especially when the query is so much fun! A good example of what I mean--I loved the part where he says his parents know what he's thinking before he does (great line!), but what I didn't like was that it was in the context that what he was thinking about it his brother dead. I mean, if a parent knows their kid is worried about their brother/picturing them dead, I don't think their reaction would be to be angry. Consider lightening up the setting just a touch. For example, switching to a regular church service with the mc contemplating some shinanigans, and maybe towards the end the war is brought up to work in the back story (i.e. "pray for our soldiers" sermon). Overall though, the query stopped me in my tracks and the writing and voice were spot-on!

  4. Interesting premise based on your historical research and knowledge. Great MC voice. Love the tagline.

  5. Historical fiction can be a little tough in the market, but I do always love a good historical MG. The bar for WWII stories is particularly high because it is such a crowded area of historical, but, by the same token, readers find it perennially interesting so there is always space to sell a WWII story that is unique and high quality. It just needs to stand out from the other WWII books in the market.

    This title feels a little bland to me. It could fit a lot of books in a lot of genres. I know it is hard to find a truly standout title, but I would recommend brainstorming to find something that will be specific to your story/nobody else would think to use. (I know--easier said than done!) Check out the other titles out there in the MG historical space and see what works and what doesn't. That's always a good place to start. The more specific to your story the better. Worth noting: I would never reject a book because I don't like the title. That can always be fixed! But, of course, a really fantastic title can be an effective attention grabber.

    You have nailed the middle grade voice. Kudos to you! It isn't easy to do. Steve's personality jumps off the page.

    Just a heads up that the chapter illustrations may not be a selling point as you query. It is good that you have them as a resource and, certainly, there is a possibility that a publisher might use them, but, ultimately, publishers like to have control over the design of books and it is likely that any illustrations you provide won't make it in the final product. I would take that line out of your query and wait to discuss it with an agent when you are having a phone conversation about representation. It only complicates things at the query stage.

    Bravo on the voice! Feel free to query me (query followed by first ten pages in the body of the email). querydanielle@nelsonagency.com

  6. I have to agree with Eliza. The query was great. It made me want to pick up the book for my daughters, who are both MG readers. And I like the writing in the excerpt. It was the tone that bothered me. A brother's funeral would usually rank as one of the worst events in a person's life, but I agree that the action and setting seemed a bit out of sync. I could see him acting this way at a typical church service but perhaps not at a heartbreaking funeral.

  7. I have no suggestions for the query. It's very good. I like your frame of reference -- your own city. The query promises a good book.

    The first 250 pages had a comedic feel to me, to the point I had to go back and be sure he was attending the funeral of his brother. The body language, the imagery, was good but didn't set the mood I would expect. It appears you are trying to set up the character as having a humorous streak (and you do a good job). If that's what you are trying to accomplish, I'd set him somewhere else.

  8. Fun first sentence to your query and strong overview of the story. I came out of it introduced to the hero, got a taste of your voice, and understood the stakes.

    Your sample has good pacing and voice. I’m left somewhat confused between the query and the opening scene when it comes to his big brother. I suspect this is possibly case of the unreliable narrator and a journey with our young hero that may result in more clarity as to whether his big brother is actually dead or alive. At least that’s what I’m guessing and I’m hooked.

  9. What a great voice! You've really captured a believable MG-age narrator. I love the idea of a comic book fan trying to fight real bad guys. FWIW, I took the opening words to mean they were at a funeral for another soldier but the narrator panicked because he's so afraid of his brother dying. I love how the query sets up very clear stakes that are important but reasonable for MG.

  10. I thought both query and page worked very well. The query not only gets across what the story is about, but gives me a nice sense of your mc, too. Just one minor suggestion here. Since Morse Code is more a sound than a sight, perhaps instead of saying it flashed, change flashed to a sound related verb.

    I did have a few questions re: the page. Why are only Mom, Dad, and Eleanor going up to view the deceased? Why doesn't the mc go, too? And I'm not quite believing that he knows his brother isn't in the coffin, but still has this desperate need to see, just to be sure. And if it is the case, all he has to do is ask his parents if he can go up and see the deceased. That's what they're there for, after all. And like others, there is a part of me that wonders if you want to turn a funeral into a comic situation.

    But really, overall, it's very well done.

  11. Sorry to be so late with this.

    I'm not normally a fan of "logline" opening paragraphs, but I'm definitely making an exception for this one, it's a corker (as Steve might say). I think I'd split the next paragraph after "Destroy Evil", but otherwise I don't really have any suggestions to improve the query. Well done! I love that it's based on real local history, and... I just want to read it now, please. :)

    I do wonder why Dad isn't dragging him up the aisle with whispered warnings to behave or else, though.

    Good luck!