Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Query Quagmire #5

TITLE: The Salter's Son
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Dear Miss Snark’s First Victim,

Mummifying the dead wasn't ever Paolo’s aspiration, but it’s the work he got. Now folks won’t hardly come near him for fear of catching the plague. He’s a teenaged refugee with no family and no money in Secco, a dust-choked mining camp where the sun is relentless and the sweat stains run as thick as the debts. For Paolo there is no way out from under his indenture. Until he discovers the impossible.

In Secco all the beasts are reptiles. From cart-pulling beasts of burden to twitchy-eyed mounts, life depends on the heat of the sun. That is, until Paolo discovers a new way of warming the reptiles. His discovery means Paolo alone can ride into the mountains even with winter approaching to pursue Secco's quickest source of coin--the skinning trade. It's a chancy endeavor that could buy him out of his indenture and then some. But it's not long before Bento, a moneylender as dried out as a chili and twice as mean, catches wind of the discovery and wants it for himself. Soon so will every cutthroat with a musket or a knife. To stay alive and win his freedom, Paolo will have to partner with the only person willing to give him a chance, a woman old enough to be his mother and who drinks so much she pees herself. Worse, she might just be a cutthroat as well.

The Salter’s Son is a YA fantasy, complete at 81,000 words. It's a tale of trust and betrayal on a brutal frontier, a True Grit set in a world of reptiles.

I am a member of SCBWI. I have a concentration in literature and history from Baylor University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. When I’m not writing or reading, I’m usually burning my mouth on Mexican chilis or sleeping out-of-doors in the landscapes described in this manuscript.

I have included the first 250 words below. Thank you for your consideration.

There wasn't but the sound of the sea moving as I tied the nartak to the hitching block. The moon was bright but low in the west, and all its glow was swallowed by the cliffs above me. Where I stood, everything was dark. I knew miners were digging in their cliffside tunnels and fishermen were straining at their nets, but I couldn't see a one of them. In the dark I could still pretend it was just Constanza and me. That's what I called her, our oldest nartak. The Salter would have branded me a fool for wasting a name like Constanza on her, but she was a fine creature, far too fine not to know such a name. I reached out my fingertips to scratch behind her horn, in the spot where her scales were softest, but she butted me away. The night was stealing her heat, and she was testy.

"We'll get you warm, girl. I promise. I'll be quick."

I adjusted her warming blanket as best I could. I pulled in deep breaths of sea air as I moved, trying to hold the smell of it in my nose. I gave her a final pat on the neck and turned towards the cliffside streets of the Squalors. With shaking hands, I slid on my gloves.

Even in the dark, finding the house wasn't any bother. The air around it was thick with smoke. For seven days they'd burned tallows, sage and whatever they could find for incense. But all I smelled was rot.


  1. I love how you squeezed so much voice into your query! You do a great job of helping the reader imagine a world that is wildly different from our own without disorienting us. Your images and details are great, but I'd suggest using stronger verbs in your pages. "Was" appears quite a few times on page one. You absolutely have the chops to dig up some more potent verbs. I love the premise, the character, and the stakes. I'm hooked! Best of luck to you.

  2. Congrats on being chosen!! I agree with the above comment that you have great voice. Your excerpt draws me in and instantly makes me like the main character (since he seems to be an animal lover). I really like your bio paragraph in the query. There were two spots within the query where I got a little confused or felt the flow was jumpy. You say people stay away from him for fear of catching the plague, so I assume there's a plague happening but it doesn't seem to affect the rest of the plot. Usually plagues cause a lot of problems, so it seemed odd not to hear anything else about it. If it's not really going to be a part of the driving plot, you could just cut that second line and go straight from the opening line to the third one. The other part that stuck out was the transition from paragraph one to paragraph three. The setup makes it seem like what he discovers is that all the animals are reptiles. That threw me for a second. Hope this feedback helps!

  3. The premise is so interesting! For my tastes, the query itself seemed to ramble. Too much information being thrown at me at one time. I think that could be boiled down a bit for a tighter, more effective pitch.

    Truly great work here though!

  4. I agree with the others, the premise is so unique and intriguing! The second paragraph is a bit long, maybe try cutting out parts like "as dried out as a chili".

    I can't find anything wrong with your 250 words. The voice, imagery, world-building was spot on. Awesome job!

  5. Wow! What a great premise for a story! If I were an agent, I'd definitely want to read more. I think your query starts out super strong, but I agree with the others--the second paragraph rambles a bit. I'd cut the majority of the second half of the second paragraph. Also, you have a few sentences that are a little off--for example, "Soon so will every cutthroat with a musket or a knife. " I know that you probably made it a fragment on purpose, but it didn't read quite right to me. Otherwise, good luck! It sounds fascinating!

  6. You’ve an original world here and I am intrigued by the world building possibilities.

    The writing could be tighter with more impact in some of the phrasing. You could tighten to fewer sentences in the first paragraph to set the stage and establish who the hero is and allow us to get right to the stakes.

    The stakes are very personal to the protagonist. As a result, I would want to be more engaged and care about the protagonist in the first 250 words. I like the way the protagonist cares for the nartak. That’s a good start to engage me. However, I don’t feel as if you’ve started the story with an inciting incident and I’m not quite hooked enough to read on to find out what the inciting incident will be.

    You have a good voice and a great world. Thank you for sharing.

  7. I read the page before reading the query. I wanted to see if the story drew me in enough to bother with the query. The writing's good, but going into this blind, as a reader would, I didn't know what a nartak was, and it was never described. We're not even told it's a reptile.

    Same for the setting. 'From where he stood' doesn't tell me anything. He's in the shade of a cliff, but is he in a town or village, just outside before reaching it, are those squalors atop the cliff? Perhaps show us that opening scene. You might also cut the few sentences where the mc explains the reptile's name. You're mc already knows this and wouldn't explain it to himself. (He shouldn't be explaining it to me.) Despite this, it's strong as is, but showing will always make it better.

    The query upped my interest, but a bit of it didn't seem logical to me. Paolo discovers the secret and uses it to work hard into the night at the skinning trade, after a hard day's work at mummifying the dead. His goal is to make enough money to buy his way out of his indenture. Why would he face all the extra work, not to mention all the threats to his life, instead of just trading his secret to the man he's indentured to in exchange for his freedom? Is there something more to this than just keeping his secret until he can buy his freedom? If so, perhaps work that into the query. As is, it seems the problem is rather small, and the situation can be resolved easily.

    Having said that, I think you have a great premise, and both the query and page are written well. I do think the problem has to be bigger though, and less easily solved. Maybe while he's up in those mountains working at the skinning trade, he discovers something else that can up the stakes.

  8. I would probably consider revamping this query a bit. You have high stakes and tension in there, but you make me work a little too hard to put it all together. It should be a little more to the point, centering the plot's main conflict.

    To me, the important information is that Paolo is an indentured servant making a bid for freedom. I'd center your query around that goal from the beginning because it immediately sets up who your character is, what he wants, and what his stakes are. Those are the vital pieces of information. The world building is interesting, but takes up a little too much of the space right now. Give me enough of that to show me what makes the world unique, but hone in specifically on Paolo and what Paolo has to lose if he fails at his goal.

    Something you might find useful as you work on your query is analyzing the flap copy used for titles in your genre that are selling well. (i.e. the description on the inside flap of the book.) How do publishers describe similar titles to your intended audience? Their goal is, ultimately, the same as yours--grab a reader's attention. You'll find that similar formulas and phrases are used often. Don't be afraid to imitate that.

    The first sentence in your excerpt threw me a bit because it felt unnatural in the phrasing. I'd stumble if I was reading it aloud. It really clicked into place for me when you started describing the reptile. That is different and interesting--it makes me wonder where I am and what is going to happen. Definitely an intriguing world!

    Good luck! Keep writing!

  9. Sorry to be so late with this!

    I really like the premise and the voice in the query, but I think it could be tightened some. For instance, unless Bento specifically is the main threat throughout the story, I would consider leaving him out and just go with, "But he knows it won't be long before every cutthroat with a musket or a knife will be after the secret." Similarly, the end of the para could be trimmed to "... a woman old enough to be his mother. Who may also want to kill him."

    I also wondered, with an earlier commenter, why he doesn't just trade the secret for his freedom; I'm sure there's a reason in the story, but I think it needs to be in the query as well.

    Overall, I thought it was interesting and might well read it if I came across it in the store. Good luck!