Wednesday, January 18, 2012


(First of all, apologies for the JanuQuery delay and the wonky formatting.  The move to wordpress has things a bit off.)  Today we have Amy McCullough, author of the upcoming THE OATHBREAKER'S SHADOW, here for a critique.  Learn more about her below.


Hi Tony,

I really enjoyed your query and the chance to critique it. I’m not an agent but I do work as an editor so I know a good pitch when I see one. I hope you find my comments useful, but I just want to reiterate here that I think you have a strong query, and with only a few tweaks will probably be ready to go. I’ve added my comments as footnotes so my suggestions don’t interrupt the flow of your query.

All best,



Dear Ms.  XXXX


Given your interest in middle grade adventures, my 73,000-word upper middle grade thriller, DUST AND BONES, may be of interest to you. 1


All the truth in the world can be found in dust and bones. These words don’t mean much to fourteen-year-old Ethan Carpenter when his archaeologist father mutters them in his sleep. But when his dad goes missing shortly thereafter, Ethan’s desperate search leads him to history’s most shocking truth: Attila the Hun. Vlad the Impaler. Hitler. Mao. This is not just a collection of history’s most malevolent rulers. It is the résumé of one soulless and immortal man.: Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, driven by an unquenchable thirst for power, achieved supremacy over death, itself 3. Kept alive by the mysterious Eon Compound 4, which nourishes his body and allows him to alter his appearance, but depletes his human soul, he has roamed the Earth for two thousand years, seeking the ultimate seat of power. Ethan, with the help of Mei Li, a beautiful Chinese pickpocket, learns that his father had deciphered Qin’s next move just before his disappearance. Now, Ethan must circle the globe—navigating his way through murder, political intrigue, and a whole bunch of nasty guys with neck-tattoos along the way—in order to track down and confront this ancient evil if he is to save his father and, perhaps, the world. 5


In writing this book, set mostly in China, 6 I drew on my experiences living, travelling, and teaching abroad in Hong Kong and New Delhi, among other locales. I have participated in writers’ groups and workshops in order to hone my understanding of craft and to make this book a taut, gripping thriller. 7Most recently, I refined the project from beginning to end in a whole novel workshop, where my mentors were National Book Award Finalist, Martine Leavitt, and editor/publisher Stephen Roxburgh.


Ethan’s story will appeal to readers of Alex Rider or Percy Jackson for its intrigue, its strange-but-true historical connections, and its white-knuckle action. I will gladly supply all or part of my manuscript at your request.


Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. 9



Tony Freeman


1.       This is good – some people launch straight into the pitch, but I like the idea of getting all the salient details out of the way first. It’s what I did!

2.       I did find myself wondering here why a 14-yr-old was listening to his dad sleep? But I love the ‘dust and bones’ line – very atmospheric J

3.       A query is so short, the more you can cut down repeat information the better – we get the info that he’s immortal, soulless and that he has a thirst for power in the surrounding sentences so you could probably cut these for length.

4.       Since I’m invested in YA lit, The Eon Compound immediately makes me think of another Asian-themed fantasy book called Eon by Alison Goodman – might be a bit close to home?

5.      Your pitch is good, but it feels long. I also found myself longing to know more about Ethan himself. The query is mostly centred around Qin Shi – who is obviously central to your tale (and a fantastic idea, by the way!), but what about your main character? His father’s kidnapping is a big motivation, but what else does he bring to the table? Later on you reference Alex Rider and Percy Jackson – and both those boys have their own back stories which make them special. What’s Ethan’s story? Or is it that he really is just an ordinary boy thrown into an extraordinary circumstance? I think a query that shows off more of his point of view/side of the story will be even more compelling than the one you have at the moment. If you thought about what might be said on the back cover of your future book, I don’t think it would be all about Qin Shi. If you also think of your book as having series potential - like those Percy Jackson books - the villain will most likely change but Ethan will be the pivot around which your stories rotate.

6.      I didn’t really get that the book was set in China from your pitch – is there a way to add this in before this point?

7.      I would probably gloss over this line as an editor – it’s what you would hope all writers would do – and a personal pet peeve of mine is when people try to ‘review’ their own work so I would cut out ‘taut, gripping thriller’

8.     Again a stylistic preference for me

9.   Best of luck with this query and hope to see DUST AND BONES in stores soon J


Amy McCulloch is a girl of many publishing hats: author, editor, and reader. Originally from Ottawa, Canada, she currently lives in London, UK, and works as a commissioning editor for Harper Voyager[]. Other than books, she is addicted to travelling, running and Starbucks coffee. She is represented by Juliet Mushens of PFD Literary.


Her debut YA fantasy novel, THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW, is the story of Raim, a promising young warrior who is exiled from his home for breaking a vow he never knew he made, and his journey to clear his name. It will be published Random House Children’s Books in Spring 2013. Find out more on my blog  or feel free to say hello on Twitter [@amymcculloch] anytime!


  1. [...] it’s my turn! Head on over to Gennifer’s blog to see what I had to say about the query for a MG fantasy novel Dust and Bones. Advertisement [...]

  2. Amy, awesome job on the critique! I was hoping someone would pick this one, since I am also in the lucky position of having met the author of this query. Nice job all around, and Gennifer, this is really a great program you're running.

  3. Thanks, Megan, and thanks Gennifer for hosting. And thank you much, Amy, for the encouraging and insightful advice. I look forward to putting it to work.

    Boy, I'm finding all kinds of friendly people around this blog!