Query Wednesday – How snarky is too snarky?

I know I haven’t done Query Wednesdays in a while, but I got a request from an author who has been getting a lot of rejections and needs some help. I thought it might be a good way to bring Query Wednesdays back! So here it is:

Dear ______,

Sophomore Max Lewis is living in a world of suck: he’s considered a nobody for quitting the lacrosse team, he’s just pissed off a tyrant – err – vice principal, and now he’s been humiliated in the latest epic prank by the mysterious Chaos Club.

And that’s just his first day of school.

Angry, embarrassed, and tired of being victimized, Max recruits four other misfits to form The Water Tower 5. Their goal? Destroy the Chaos Club. But how do you wipe out an organization with an anonymous membership capable of trapping cows on the school roof and assembling stolen desks into a giant phallus on the football field? Easy, by relying on what Max does best – scheming, scamming, and swindling.

Well, maybe not that easy.

The Water Tower 5 lures the Chaos Club into the open by framing them for a series of pranks involving precision vomiting and indecent pictures of the school mascot. Unfortunately, they also succeed in attracting the attention of the school’s administration and security team. And it’s not like the Chaos Club is going to let a bunch of underclassmen take them down without a fight. Soon, Max finds himself arrested, suspended, and even worse, dealing with an angry girlfriend. With summer only days away, can Max devise a caper ingenious enough to clear his name and expose the Chaos Club? (Hint: It’s possible, but he’s going to need a hell of a lot of weather balloons to pull it off.)
THE WATER TOWER 5 is a contemporary YA novel (94,000 words) fusing the offbeat relationships of The Breakfast Club with the capers and cons of Ocean’s 11. It is the first in a planned series, but also works as a standalone.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

The first thing I get from this query: snarky. And that’s good, right? The best YA heroes we know are snarky, full of witty remarks and quick comebacks. But one thing that happens too often in YA manuscripts is that “snarky” fills in for voice. And that’s when it stops being so good.

This is a fun query. But you spent so much energy trying to be funny and sarcastic, I don’t connect to this character. We see, for instance, that he is “tired of being victimized”. So does that mean he’s been bullied his whole life? Does he have friends? Is he a nerd? Does he wish he could fit in?

Being sarcastic is great, but only when the character has a background to explain it. And please, I’m not saying dump a bunch of back story in your query and a whole lot more in your first few chapters! Please don’t! But maybe lose the “world of suck” (or move it a little further down the paragraph). Maybe start with who he really is. Something like, “Max Lewis spent kindergarten being shoved around in the playground, middle school having his head flushed, and his freshman year of high school experiencing a whole new level of torture in the hands of the infuriating Chaos Club—a mysterious organization that seems to anonymously rule the school and has a penchant for humiliating pranks. And it looks like his sophomore year isn’t about to be any better. He’s considered…”

That’s just an example, of course, but the idea is to give this character a little vulnerability before you allow him to hide behind his wit. And also to add some showing. It could help to show a bit about his misfit partners, for instance. Maybe just an afterthought, like “…four other misfits—a chubby and feisty girl, a world class geek, a hacker wannabe, and a broody and scary guy—to form…” Anything that is showing rather than telling is a score for you.

When you build you character a little, you create a stronger voice to go with the snark. And when you show, you make it easier for someone to start imagining how this will be and get interested. You have a good plot. Just make sure you paint the right picture.

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