Thursday, January 1, 2015

December Mystery Agent REVEAL and Winning Critiques

Thanks to everyone for entering our December MA and for your patience through the holidays (hope they were awesome for you.) Without further ado, here is reveal for our Mystery Agent .....

(drum roll)

Our mystery agent is.... RENEE NYEN from KT LITERARY

Renee Nyen: Several years in the editorial department at Random House’s Colorado division provided Renee with the opportunity to work with bestselling and debut authors alike. After leaving Random House, she came to KT Literary in early 2013. She loves digging into manuscripts and helping the author shape the best story possible. Though this is great for her profession, it tends to frustrate people watching movies with her.

With a penchant for depressing hipster music and an abiding love for a good adventure story, Renee is always looking for book recommendations. Even if that means creeping on people reading in public. Which she does frequently.

She makes her home in Colorado with her husband, their young daughter, and their hygienically-challenged basset hound.

To let you all get to know her better, we asked her a few questions:

1. Any tips for writers struggling with their pitches/queries? What are some common mistakes you see in them?
I see many queries that come through that lack proper preparation. Red flags for me are lots of rhetorical questions in the opening paragraphs, general language and lack of comp titles. Obviously, form letters "Dear agent;" are a turn-off. And it sounds basic to say, but I like reading that the author classifies their book as one of the genres I represent. Yes, I can probably tell that it's a MG book if I dig into the sample writing, but I prefer knowing in the query letter.

2. What books have you read lately that you've fallen in love with (manuscripts you’re currently working with or others')?
YA/MG books I've read and loved lately: ISLA AND THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER, WHEN YOU REACH ME, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, ASK THE PASSENGERS (I never said they were all brand-spanking new.)


Of course, I have to give my client Rebekah Crane a shout out. Her writing is so poignant and focused while still being funny and entertaining. It's a difficult line to tread, but she does it beautifully.

3. What would you like to see more of in your slush pile? 
I'm a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy. Obviously, I receive those in my slush pile, but I haven't found "the one" yet. I will search tirelessly until I find it. I'm also looking for a great story (whatever genre) with a lesbian romance. 

4. When considering a manuscript, what are some tropes you're drawn to? What are some tropes that turn you off? 
I will always love the maverick character. Han Solos, Mal Reynolds, the shoot-first-question-later characters that love deeply and are fiercely loyal. They're likeable, they're funny, and they don't take crap from anyone. I'd like to see more female mavericks.

Tropes that turn me off immediately are "girl meets boy and her life changes forever" and "main character wakes up with amnesia".

5. Any exciting news you can share?
Umm...I'm having a baby in February? Right now, that's the big thing I have in the works. Professionally, I'm just continuing to build my client list with intentionality and great care.

6. And a few just for fun:

Coffee or Hot Chocolate?
Coffee. I love the stuff hot, cold, sweetened, black, or mixed with hot chocolate. The only way I don't take my coffee is weak.

Summer or Winter?
Because I like to embrace where I am in life and it's, like 12 degrees outside right now: winter! I'm such a girl. I love boots and scarves and lattes. And instagramming them, of course.

Chocolate or bacon? 
Chocolate covered bacon. :)

 Ebook or print book? 
I love the convenience of an ebook. I love that I can carry a library around with me in my purse. Since I used to carry 2 or 3 print books at a time, my shoulders are certainly thrilled about it. However, there are things to be said for print books. I like the physicality of the paper. I like seeing the cover art and author's name every time I pick it up. Reading ebooks, I find I have to be much more intentional about paying attention to publishers and authors than I do with a print book.

So both? Can I say both?

Favorite tv show? 

For me, the answer to this question is ever-changing. Right now I'm all about Game of Thrones and eagerly awaiting season 5 in April. (Who isn't?) I also love Doctor Who, Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Right now, my husband and I are rewatching Chuck for the third time and Zachary Levi--um, I mean, the show is charming me all over again.


And now, what  you have all been waiting for. The winners of our December Mystery agent contest, in no particular order....

From ReneeI would like to start this whole process by saying that I really liked many of these queries. I picked my 5 favorite to critique. So, as I tell my authors, if I’m being hard on you it’s because I really like your work and want to help polish it.


Name: Stephanie Cardel
Genre: Upper MG Mystery


Dear Mystery Agent,        

Thirteen-year-old Manjakonony “Jack” O’Brien’s mother is missing and presumed dead. But Jack and his father find new hope when they discover that Jack has inherited the ability from his Malagasy mother to see into the past with her ancestral prayer cloak. Jack learns that while his mother was writing a book about their tiny, former coal mining town, she discovered clues to finding a treasure from a local legend.

Now he just has to figure out who wants the treasure so badly that he or she was willing to hurt his mom to have it. He convinces his friends to help him search for the treasure. All of their efforts point to the sheriff’s involvement until the cloak shows him who is really behind it. It’s a desperate race for Jack to find the treasure first. He’ll need it to have the leverage to find out what happened to his mother and save her—if it’s not too late.

THE CLOAK is a 38K upper MG mystery with a magical realism twist. It stands alone but has the potential to be a mystery series. I am a member of the SCBWI and won their fiction contest in 2011 for a YA post-pandemic sci-fi.

Thank you for your consideration.

First Page:

It’s illegal to fart in Florida after six p.m. Good thing Floridians didn’t have to eat my dad’s cooking. Too bad I did. The stink going on in our kitchen was enough to make a pit bull gag. And considering I’d seen the pit bull down the street roll in poop that was saying something.

I scraped the noodle and vegetable mystery goo into the disposal and surveyed the damage. Every surface was covered: the sink, the counters, and the island. No one should be allowed to make this big of a mess if the food wasn’t even edible. “You know if you hired a cook she would probably do the clean-up too. And the shopping.”

I gave him credit for trying, though. Mom was the cook.

Mom. Where are you? Worry settled back on my shoulders. Not that it ever left me for long.

Dad handed me his plate and headed back to the office. “I cook, you clean. That’s the deal we made.”

I leaned against the sink. “But who shops?” The door closed down the hall and I knew I’d never get an answer. He was already back in investigation mode. The whiteboard Mom used for plotting her biographies was now covered with his scribbles. I didn’t see how staring at it would help. He wasn’t Sherlock Holmes.

My stomach growled. Dad may not have had much of an appetite, but I was always hungry—worry or not. One of the few things left in the pantry was a box of vanilla wafers. They were stale, but some peanut butter globbed on covered that right up. Mom would have a cow.

In the opening paragraph I would like to know how long Jack’s mother has been missing, why Jack believes she’s not dead, and what she was doing to end up missing/not dead. Knowing about Jack’s power is interesting and, obviously, integral to the story, but the missing mother is my immediate connection with Jack, not his powers.

Also, Jack’s Malagasy origins are the only geography I get. I’d like to know where the story takes place. You do answer this question in the opening pages, but it would make sense to include it in the query, too.

It’s hard to tell from the opening page, but in the query, Jack’s inherited powers seem to be very important to the story, however, you classify the story as magical realism. Typically, magical realism is very understated and not always the crux of the plot. I’m not saying you have to change anything, I’m just letting you know that it tripped me up a little bit.
I’d like to see some comp titles in your closing paragraph.

I really like this opening. Jack’s voice is relatable, memorable, and spot on for MG.


Kristen Adams

Dear Mystery Agent

For N, there are rules that keep the world straight, rules to explain what’s normal, and rules of riding shotgun in Triss’ car. When you break a rule, you get thrown away, and all N wants is to stay with Triss.

That’s far more important than a corpse in the trunk.

N’s not sure which rules got broken, but six weeks ago there was a party, there was a game, and there was a bet. It was supposed to be fun. Something to kill the boredom, but people aren’t like cards or poker chips. They have baggage. They get angry. They want revenge.

When Triss’ betting partner, Jackson, ends up on the wrong side of dead, the laws that hold N’s world together collapse like a wet deck of cards.

The driver is supposed to hold all power and responsibility, but something’s off with Triss. Last night when Jackson died, she was fine. Bagging the corpse and loading it into the trunk, she was fine. But today, she’s not fine. Somewhere between her broken down car, dealing with her crazy divorced parents, and figuring out what to do with the corpse, Triss has slipped out of control.
And there are no rules for that.

With Triss no longer steering, N has to finally stop riding shotgun, take the wheel, and figure out what rules will keep them safe, but more importantly, what will keep them together.

THE RULES OF RIDING SHOTGUN is a 65,000 word YA Contemporary with a non-linear timeline, similar to Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR. The quiet, complex, internal tension of the story may appeal to readers of Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

First Page:

1) Always trust the driver
2) Don’t ask stupid questions
3) Never lie to the driver
4) Always obey the driver
5) Don’t talk back
6) Never, ever assume you have the right to ride shotgun


It’s easy to forget that crazy is relative. If the same thing happens everyday, it becomes normal, no matter how screwed-up it might seem to someone else.

After a year of riding shotgun with Triss, I should be used to her driving. And I was, until yesterday. I never noticed how I slouch with my elbow braced against the door and my knees jammed into the dash. When she guns the engine, I didn’t realize that my hand automatically burrows through a hole in the seat and clamps around a sharp piece of metal frame. Before today, my voice wouldn’t stall-out mid-sentence when she spins the wheel, hops a curb, and nearly takes out some old guy with a shopping cart full of Depends.

I shouldn’t be worried that I’m unsafe, that we could crash, burn, and die, but I am, ‘cause something happened. One-hundred-seventy-five-pounds big, enough to shake up every damn rule of what’s normal and what’s crazy.

Rules are everything. 

They tell you what you can do, and what you can’t. What will get you a pat on the back, or a punch in the gut. I don’t make the rules, but at least with Triss, I have a choice. No one who rides with her is ever in control, but calling shotgun means I get the best view of whatever chaos she’s driving into.

Even today, when there’s a dead body stashed in the trunk of her old Volvo sedan.


Query: Talk about an immediate hook! I’m a sucker for stories that start with a dead body. Especially if the narrator is unreliable.

That said, the opening sentence of your query is incredibly confusing to me. N’s rules mean that N needs to be thrown away? Why can’t N stay with Triss anymore? Because of their own rules? I’m sure if this was worded differently, your readers could hang with you a little bit easier here.
Also, I’ve been looking for a great trans and/or non-gendered narrator for a while, however, it would be great to know in your query how N defines themselves. I don’t need it spelled out expressly in the opening pages, but definitely in the query letter. Even if you simply tell me that N doesn’t have a gender, I would like to know how you as the author see N.

I can’t tell if Triss also gets a POV. From the second half of your query it seems like she might. There’s an entire paragraph where N isn’t mentioned. I’d like to know if it’s told in dual POVs. If not, I would like to know how Triss’ slipping out of control effects N. I know that seems like a lot to ask for in a query letter, but I think it’s important to have it come back to your narrator, since who is telling the story to begin with.

Great comps. They position this book well, however, can you find something more current? In publishing, even 4 or 5 years is a long time.

Pages: The opening is pitch perfect. I love the details of N bracing themselves against Triss’ driving. 


Name: Jennifer Rockwell Ganoung (Pen Name: JB Rockwell)
 Manuscript Title: THE FIREDRAKE

Query Letter:
Sixteen-year-old Akhtimet always dreamed of leaving Sishut and seeing the world, but an arranged marriage wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.  She escapes that fate only to be kidnapped along with dozens of other women from her village and delivered as sacrifice to the god-beast Firedrake. 

The Firedrake is thirty feet of blood-red scales and razor-sharp talons, and Akhtimet’s death is meant to appease him, but to her surprise, the Firedrake doesn't want her.  Doesn't want to kill her, doesn’t want to eat her, doesn't want her there at all.  And yet, it was Akhtimet's own people that cast her out as a sacrifice so she decides to stay in the Firedrake's mountain lair.

The Firedrake is unhappy about the arrangement but he tolerates her presence since she stays out of his way.  But an attempt on her life and the return of her would-be husband changes everything.   Akhtimet vows to find her captors and free the other women who were taken from her village, but to do that she’ll need the strength of the Dragon.  She crafts weapons and armor from the castoffs of the Firedrake’s body, remaking herself in his fearsome image and that at long last wins him over.
Dressed in Dragon’s scales, armed with Dragon’s claws, fangs and flames, Akhtimet and the Firedrake take wing to see her vengeance done.
The Firedrake (95,000 words) is a Crossover YA work of fantasy emphasizing coming of age over romance.  The story is set in sprawling desert environment, its people and culture heavily laden with overtones of the Middle East, and Akhtimet herself is a heroine who is notgoing to wait around for some big, strong man to come rescue her.
My publishing credits include Breakshield (March 2014), the first in a series of three adult fantasy novels signed with The Zharmae Publishing Press, and multiple shorts stories in anthologies and e-zines.  Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. 

First Page:
The rain poured down, pounding on the roof above Akhtimet’s head, filling the nighttime stillness with thunderous noise.  The mists and monsoons of summer brought life to the desert, but the rain, this rain brought nothing but devastation.  This was the Draka-Ushut—the Dragon Rain—a deluge of ash and stone and volcanic glass coughed up by the quaking mountain to the east.  And once it started, it would go on and on for hours.

Akhtimet lay awake in her darkened bedroom, staring into the shadows, listening to the rattle and thump as the Dragon Rain fell.  But a softer sound intruded—an insistent tapping at her bedroom window—and when she looked she saw a tall, slim shadow limned in moonlight, staring at her through the glass.

“Usaan,” she whispered, scurrying from her bed, pushing the panes wide.
The Dragon Rain was in full swing now, pelting the buildings, the streets, everything in sight.  Pelting Usaan who should know better than to be out on a night like this.  Akhtimet grabbed his arm and helped him inside, pushing the window closed behind him.
“What are you doing?  If Father catches us—”

“Shh.” Usaan laid a finger across his lips, glancing meaningfully at her bedroom door.  He dusted his palms across his clothes and hair and then took her by the hand, padding silently across the floor, settling beside her on the bed.  “Wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Liar.  You came to steal kisses.”

“Well, maybe,” he smiled, brushing his lips across her cheek.

Query: I’m slightly confused with the second sentence of your query, “She escapes that fate only to be kidnapped”. Does she escape the fate by being kidnapped or does she stage a jail-break and then get captured. I’m not asking for great detail here, but a little bit would be helpful.

In the third paragraph of your query, I find myself a little turned around. There is just a little too much information. The things I want to know about from the paragraph are: What is the attempt on Akhtimet’s life (especially if she’s living with a fire dragon. Presumably there’s some protection there?) and how does that inspire her to fight for the women who have been captured? To me, it doesn’t matter as much that the Firedrake tolerates her or that her would-be husband returns. I want to know what changes in Akhtimet.

I would love to see some comp titles here. GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS?

I love that even though you specify that romance isn’t the focus of the book, it starts with a boy and kissing. It shows me that you can write romance that rings true but I don’t have to brace myself for, as Fred Savage would say, “a kissing book”.

The only think I could ask for more of in the first page is a touch more world building. Shoes that she’s wearing whispering across a stone floor? The shape of her window? Nothing large, but I’d love to see it. (It’s possible you have it lavishly described on page 2 and I just don’t have it.)


Name: Kathleen S. Allen
Genre: YA/soft SF
Word Count: 75,000


Dear Secret Agent,

As the youngest captain in the Starcon fleet, seventeen-year-old Captain Maggie “Mac” MacIntyre has a lot more to worry about than getting her crew to follow orders. After a mutiny and being thrown off her own ship—and on her first day--she’s framed for blowing up an ambassador’s ship. Being captured by space pirates does not end well after a crash sends their ship careening into the planet’s surface.

When Mac wakes up, she has two metal legs embedded with special gems. And since she's now a hybrid human, rules dictate she can no longer be an officer in Starcon, even if she could beat the murder charge. Despondent over her circumstances, a glimmer of hope arrives when  the president promises to reinstate her position as an officer if she goes undercover to ferret out the spy who’s been stealing gems and secretly funneling them to feed the war effort. Mac agrees but being a gem cutter has its own problems since handling the gems can be deadly without the right precautions.

Her investigation leads her to discover that her former starship crew—believed to have been killed when the ambassador’s ship blew up—is alive and awaiting execution. Now she has to decide: stop the spy before more stolen gems are taken and complete her mission reinstating her position as a starship captain or go AWOL and rescue her crew.      

BEYOND THE CRYSTAL SKY, is a YA/ soft SF is complete at 75,000 words and will appeal to SF fans who like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and Aubrie Dionne’s YA/SF series, Paradise and New Dawn series.

First Page:

The stars looked wrong. Mac peered at the navscreen and pressed her com.

“Engine room we’re not on course,” she said. No answer. She glanced over at Hickson who wore a worried expression. The lines on his face deepened as he contemplated the controls.

“The helm isn’t responding,” he said.

Mac tried again. “Elona? What’s going on?” The sound of static greeted her. She stood and was pushed back into her chair when the ship went into hyperdrive, the breath knocked out of her for a moment. She looked over at Hickson but he looked as confused as she felt.

Mac glanced at the screen as soon as the stars stabilized. They were close to a planet. Too close. “Keep trying to hail Elona, I’m going to check it out.” Hickson nodded.

She got out of her chair and walked the length of the ship to the engine room but before she got there she noticed. Kastra stood at the entrance of the emergency shuttle bay, Hanger 4.       

“Kastra?” she asked and walked over to him. He stared behind her and she started to turn to look when a sharp pain on the side of her neck made her gasp. She glanced at Kastra who held the micro-tracker that used to be embedded in the side of her neck in his hand. Blood dripped down her neck and she pressed a hand against the wound.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “No one can know where you are.”


I’m a little bit confused about the “specials gems”. Are they gems as we know them on earth, just endowed with special powers? Are they something altogether different? I’m sure you explain it well in the pages, but the word “gem” as a source of power is a little confusing here.
I have no idea what a soft sci fi is supposed to be. Assuming that it’s a story with mild science fiction elements, I don’t think this is the right classification for this story. It takes place in space! On spaceships! That’s straight-up sci fi to me.

Also, these comps aren’t right. I had to look up Lois McMaster Bujold’s series (which is way too old to use as an effective comp) and I don’t think the Aubrie Dionne comp is popular enough for universal recognition.

Feel free to use the formula of “A + B = My book” when comping this. If you need to use the Vorkosigan series as a comp, feel free, but then give me another, current YA sci fi book. Something like ZODIAC by Romina Russell or THESE BROKEN STARS by Amie Kaufman. (This is where I must say: Be sure you’re reading in your genre. A lot. That way you know what’s out there and where your book fits.)

Pages: Good start. I like being dumped into the middle of the action. It sets up the tension very well.


Name: Marty Mayberry
MS: PHOENIX RISING, 89,000 words, young adult science fiction thriller

Dear Mystery Agent,

When seventeen-year-old Lesha wins a spot on the newly-colonized planet, Eris, getting the hell off the dying Earth can’t come soon enough. It’s a new chance at life—if eating dehydrated food and playing mole in an underground bunker can be called living. But, the starship crashes in Eris’ wasteland. Due to her quick thinking and the help of fellow survivor, Malik, she and a few others escape the burning wreckage.

The government was wrong when they labeled Eris safe. Dead wrong. If the blistering desert heat doesn’t kill them, starvation and thirst just might. But limited supplies mean nothing when Lesha and Malik discover someone’s missing. By nightfall, a creature claims another, convincing them it’s safer to make a run for the colony than wait for rescue. Amidst the desert marathon, another person vanishes.

Lesha fears those taken are lost, until she and Malik stumble upon the first to disappear. Well, his mutilated remains, displayed in a shrine, waiting to be found. Something stalks them. Something predatory. Something else. Lesha and Malik must devise a plan to take the hunt to the hunter, before they become the next victims.

Complete at 89,000 words, PHOENIX RISING is a young adult science fiction thriller. I’m a member of SCBWI.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

First page:

March 15, 2261

My last day on Earth.

I hurried through the corridor in Bunker Number Four at way-too-early-o’clock, the packs I’d retrieved from the storage unit smacking my back.

In the six months since Joe and I won spots in the getaway lottery and moved into the Bunker, I’d come to hate this place.

Long, gray, cinderblock halls without a single window. Coverless fluoros shedding just enough light to see where you were going, but never enough to catch the roaches lurking in the corners. And freakin’ cold. They piped in heat, but the ancient boilers barely brought the temp above see-your-breath range.

Dark, gloomy, and damned ugly. Not that people preparing for the end of the world care much about ambiance, but they could’ve splashed some color around. Fluorescent orange came to mind.

Reaching my friend’s door, I typed the code on the touchpad, and the panel slid open. Darkness enveloped her room. “Tiff, get moving.”

She moaned, and the bed squeaked as she shifted.

“I mean it.” I dropped her bag. “I gotta run.” Silence. “Tiff?”

“Alright already, Lesha,” she said. “I’m up.”

“Don’t go back to sleep.” I locked her door and jogged to my room.

Inside, my little brother slumped on his bed, brown eyes focused on the televid screen mounted on the wall. He clutched his worn, stuffed rabbit to his chest.

“Almost time to leave for the spaceport, kiddo.” I nudged his shoulder. “Go wash. Put on a clean durasuit.”

As he passed me, I ruffled his hair.

There is a lot that works for me, personally with this query. To me it feels like the TV show Lost meets ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis. (Feel free to steal that comp combo from me.) The stakes are high, the players are clear, and the outcome uncertain. That’s almost everything I could ask for in a query.

Yet, I’m going to ask for a little bit more about Lesha. I’d like to know a little something about why she wants to get off Earth so badly. Other than her life, what’s at stake for her throughout the story? This will help position her emotional journey as well as her physical obstacles.

I like your opening. I get a good sense of Lesha’s voice and the world she’s in. 


Thanks again to all! Stay tuned for more awesome Mystery Agent Contests this new year and happy writing!


  1. Thank you all so much for hosting the contest, and that you Renee for your input :) I look forward to re-working my query so it's a little clearer.


  2. Thank you, Renee, for the great comments and feedback!

  3. That's some great feedback. I enjoyed reading these.


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