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QueryDice #46: What the F*ck?

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion, so the author of the query and I would like to hear yours! 

This query had no greeting. While this is not immediate cause for deletion or rejection, it could wind up being that one infraction of many that caused the agent to look elsewhere. “Dear Ms. So-and-so” is always best.

[redacted], tentatively titled, (we know it is tentatively titled. If it was finally titled it would be published) is my real life memoir/proposal (whoa, whoa, whoa… “real life” and “memoir” essentially mean the same thing here, so use only one to avoid redundancy and looking like an amateur, even if you are one. Also, is a memoir or is it a proposal? If you haven’t written it yet and it is only a proposal, then you have no business querying anyone with it. Stick with just “memoir”) that begins as all good fairy tales must .. [an ellipsis is always three periods (...) with no spacing] a fashion disaster: a broken shoe that flies under a car while crossing Santa Monica Boulevard. Do all fairy tales begin with fashion disasters? I don’t think they do…and specifically, I know they don’t all begin with a broken shoe. More to the point, what do you mean? I walk into what looks like just a shop. It’s as magical as the pages of a fresh Vogue I might have dreamed of, littered with designer dresses from Halston, Rudi Gernreich, Sonia Rykiel – and shoes, of course. The handsome prince shopkeeper smiles at my dilemma, before asking for my phone number.

Okay, so I’m assuming the shop is not really magical, and the shopkeeper (which is a really antiquated term) is not really a prince. Knowing that, what is interesting about a girl walking into a shop with a hot sales rep? And at what dilemma is the “prince” smiling? And what does any of it have to do with a broken shoe, a fairy tale, or Santa Monica Boulevard? This first paragraph was so confusing, that I would have stopped reading right here.

My memoir tells the story of fashion as it begins (this sounds like your memoir tells the story of fashion’s roots…which would be impossible), the prêt-a-porter (for the uninitiated, and unFrench, this means ready-to-wear, or off-the-rack, and I’m having trouble figuring out how it makes sense here. I could use some help), with the very young and unknown creators in New York, Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo … a pony-tailed Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe sketching a long-sleeved dress and crisply nodding his head, agreeing to send the sketch with the fabric and pattern in a taxi to the dressmaker on the outskirts of Paris who could best do that type of work. Buying the first collections of Giorgio Armani, men and women, eating lunch with the boy models because Mr. Armani had so little experience with tired, hungry buyers. Thea Porter, Zandra Rhodes, Jean Muir, Chantal Thomass, Gianfranco Ferre, Gianni Verscace, Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Missoni … we bought them all for our Beverly Hills shop that a few years later Judith Krantz used as partial inspiration for Scruples, and bought her wardrobe from our shop for her book tour. (Scruples, much to my delight, is actually being brought to the small screen as a series next season.) <–a great example of what I call Synopsis Splatter, or when the synopsis just adds too much information here, not enough there, a big blob here, etc. 

I literally just sighed before writing this sentence. There is a TON going on here. Intuition tells me this is an awesome story that you tell in bits and pieces verbally at parties, but you’ve failed to cohesively transfer it to a narrative on paper–screen, whatever. The paragraph above is like one of those hodge-podge projects where you glue clippings of magazine pages to a stool or a picture frame. We get the basic gist of the theme, if there is one, but the story is too abstract for us to draw anything out of it except maybe a feeling of glamour. Or maybe I’m giving the author too much credit. Maybe the feeling isn’t glamour, exactly, but an ambition for glamour. Also, the name-dropping , to me, seems to be in service of your own agenda rather than in service of the book’s description, which is in poor taste. 

Juxtaposing our (whose? I thought this was YOUR memoir? Who is this other person whose point-of-view is in the book?) work and marriage, so like my almost twinned life with Tina Chow and her husband Michael Chow at Mr. Chow’s across the street, until I couldn’t any longer. Falling apart harder as we open an Azzedine Alaia chez Gallay boutique on Rodeo Drive and close our Camden Drive shop, the divorce is harsh and yet we work together until the Sunset Plaza shop is opened.

The construction of the sentences in the above paragraph, particularly the first one, forces the reader to concentrate really, really hard and maybe even read through twice. If agents don’t stop reading after the hodge-podge or after the confusing first paragraph, this is where you’ll lose them.

The shop across the street (Mr. Chow’s? What?), the one with room for a rose garden, is available and I fly to Paris (why would you fly to Paris? I thought it was across the street), hoping for a lease, hoping for a life and make it work. It sounds like your life is already working…I get the feeling there is some serious money and connectedness here. Adam Shankman is my assistant and Mary Rae McDonald makes custom hats for me. Rock stars, movie stars and the Brat Pack hang in my shop next to Le Dome, agents peeping in after starry lunches. Manolo Blahnik, Dolce & Gabbana, Todd Oldham, Kenzo  … pink-washed walls and happiness. Again, with the name dropping. And the hodge-podge thing. Tina Chow has left Michael and is in Tokyo working with craftsmen to make her jewels when she becomes ill, hospitalized with the pneumonia that means AIDS.  My friend knows she will die soon.

In the middle of a rainstorm while scowling at a leaky ceiling (the construction of this sentence makes it sound like the man was scowling at the leaky ceiling), a man walks in and won’t stay away. We fall in love and have a child together. On his first birthday, I close my dream shop to become a Hollywood wife.

Wow. Okay, so this was actually spectacularly interesting, in the way abstract art is interesting…there is something there, and you know that the person next to you is probably seeing something different, but you are both interested anyway. I would have rejected this, though, because if the whole book is written in this fashion–and I can only assume it is–it would hurt my head too much to read it all the way through. A query letter, while it should have voice and give the reader an idea of atmosphere, should not be saturated in both the way this is. While your book is narrative, your query letter should be expository, and this was closer to a literary narrative than an explanation of what your memoir is about. 

Additionally, there is no salutation or signature. Agents will feel like you don’t think they’re important enough to garner your respect. No matter who you are–short of, maybe, Angelina Jolie (God, I hope Angelina Jolie is not the author) you still can’t drop a bunch of names in the lap of an agent and expect that to carry you.

Let’s take a poll, though: Who wants to see what this was all about, who the author was, and read a great query for this story? *raises both hands*

LR

Final comments: QueryDice Hijack #5: Memoir

The QueryDice has been HIJACKED by aspiring author, Gillian! The following is a query critique performed by a reader of SlushPileTales. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. The Hijacker can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours. After all comments are in, I will re-post the Dice with my own thoughts in purple. To apply to be a Hijacker, please contact me using the contact tab above. Gillian, take it away! (Gillian’s comments in green.)

Dear Ms. Ruth,

My 8th-grade social life is totally lame—my friends do nothing but collect lip gloss and decorate study guides for fun. You want the first line of your query to grab the reader. This is not particularly enticing or unique, though it’s not completely horrible. I was thrown by the first person, until I read to the bottom and realized this was a memoir and not fiction. I am not a big an of first-person queries from the protagonist’s point-of-view. I also did not know this was a memoir until I read to the bottom, and so for most of this query I assumed you were trying to be cute or unique by having your protagonist speak to me. I also agree with Gillian that the first line of the query was not as compelling as you might think it is.

I wake up from a long depression (this worries me, since depressed characters are not always easy to connect to) the spring before high school, take one look at these shiny-lipped losers (this I like– it shows your voice), and decide I am destined for greater things. I like the voice here too, but I’m still not hooked. I agree with Gillian that depressed characters, unless there is a humorous or satirical spin on them, are never very likable or interesting.

I want passion and adventure, and I want it in the form of romance. Nevermind (it should be “Never mind”, two words– and yes, I am that picky) that I never talk to boys (except to bribe them to eat pencil lead) (this completely threw me. You do WHAT? I think I get what you’re saying– fourteen-year-olds are not so smooth in the romance department– but this comes off very strangely) (I agree. This was really strange and not very funny.) or that my ultra-conservative parents have strictly forbidden me from dating until I am thirty-five (this doesn’t feel unique) (Yeah, not at all…that’s most young women). I am ready for love. Big love. The kind that inspires movies like Clueless and songs by *NSYNC (this threw me until I realized your memoir set in the 90’s. Then I felt nothing but pure nostalgia). Or that will at least give me a reason to stay up late on school nights chatting on AIM.I would have stopped reading here. The most interesting thing about this query is that it is told from the point-of-view of a teen in the nineties. Having been a teen in the nineties, I’m unimpressed. So the readers in our age-bracket will be bored with their own story (which is exactly what this memoir is), older age-brackets won’t necessarily understand the references or their importance, and younger age-brackets won’t care at all. That’s an issue with your book, not your query though.

The problem so far is that my interest isn’t piqued. The writing is pretty solid, there’s a fair amount of voice, but your stakes are non-existent. A teenage girl wants love. Which teenage girl doesn’t? What’s special about this story? Where’s the real conflict? What choice are you going to make that gets the story rolling?

But instead I find Nick. When he physically attacks me the night of our freshman band concert (this is where you should start. This is the inciting incident) (agreed), I know that I’ll be leaving my first relationship with more questions about love than answers (too vague. I want to know the specifics of your situation. This is the heart of your book, after all) I completely agree with Gillian, here. This is entirely too vague…did he think you were a prowler under the bleachers and accidentally beat you up? Did he viciously rape you? The weight of this, for your book, is huge. I don’t yet know that each new relationship will just bring more questions than the last (Again, too vague, and too philosophical for me. A freshman in  high school wouldn’t immediately leap to thoughts like this. I’m not sure I even leap to thoughts like this, particularly after something traumatic).

[redacted]: A Memoir of Young Love is the story of my high school quest for love [when I read this, I automatically think, so what? We all have high school quests for love. Why does YOURS deserve to be told? What’s special and compelling about it that would make people who don’t know you want to read it? Also, I’m not sure why, the phrase “young love” strikes me as sickly sweet and a bit too nostalgic. Teenagers don’t think their love is young. They just think it’s love (says the very wise and elderly twenty-one-year-old)] and all the things I find instead. It is complete at 73,000 words.

I studied creative writing at Indiana University, where I wrote weekly columns for the Indiana Daily Student and won 2nd place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ student columnist contest judged by Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe. I also have a short story published in the North Central Review. I currently work as a therapist, and I keep a popular blog. I would include the blog link, but I’m not an expert on what agents like in a bio. I defer to Ms. Ruth and the comments here. I’d include the link in your signature. That way, you’re not being so presumptuous as to assume the agent cares to look at your web presence, but if they really wanted to (which isn’t far-fetched) they could. My impression is that in memoir and non-fiction, platform is uber important, and the agent would want to know what kind of readership your blog gets. Yes, agents want to know everything about how you can market yourself as an author…including a built-in readership by way of a blog.

Thank you for your time. I am ready to send any or all of the manuscript and can be reached at [redacted] or at [redacted].

Best wishes,

[redacted]

There could be a story here. I’m just not certain what it is. Is it solely about your younger self being disappointed in love and boys? Is it about you healing from a sexual assault? I want to know. And I want to know why this book is different from the myriad other books dealing with the same subject matter. You can clearly write and I like your voice. This query could do with spicing up, stronger word choice, clearer conflict. I want to be so hooked that I can’t wait to read pages.

Gillian is a full-time student and aspiring author, because that’s the only thing she can think of doing with her English degree. She is a crazed bibliophile who scares people sometimes with the depths of her geekiness and uncanny ability to make pop culture references at any moment. She loves her rescue dog beyond the realms of sanity.

Gillian has just started foisting her ideas on the internet with her own blog, Writer of Wrongs, where she rambles on about the trials of writing, publishing, living in Los Angeles, and baking the perfect apple cinnamon cake.

Thanks, Gillian!

QueryDice #24

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours.

Dear Agent X: (Readers, please note that this author probably wrote “Agent X” just for this exercise. You should always use the agent’s name, as in “Dear Ms. Ruth”.)

Have you ever wondered if parents can love an adopted child as much as “one of their own”? When you first heard the story of the mother who sent her adopted son on a plane back to Russia with a note pinned to his jacket stating she “no longer wished to parent this child,” were you horrified?  Were you empathetic?

I normally abhor questions at the beginning of a query, because you just don’t know what the agent’s internal response is going to be. What if my answer to the first question is, “No. I don’t really care.” In that case, I would read the rest of this query thinking I don’t care about what you have to say. In this case, I just so happened to be intrigued by the questions, but that’s left up to chance. Don’t leave it up to chance.

In Children of My Own: Bringing Borya Home, I bring first-hand perspective to thoughts like these in the tale of the adoption of my 13 year old son, who struggles with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Memoir is tough. Unless you’ve been through something no one has ever been through, or that is extremely compelling or extraordinary, a memoir is hard to sell. I’m already thinking about this after this paragraph. Many people write memoirs about their parenting experience, but unless it’s radically different from everyone else’s experience, it won’t be enough. I’m going to keep reading to see if this is different enough. The query itself, though, minus the questions in the beginning, has a good start.

In this 22 chapter (a word-count is good to know, but since we have no idea how long your chapters are, this is not helpful) memoir, readers will first be introduced to Borya in the dusty play yard of an orphanage in Kazakhstan when I was there adopting another child.  (This is interesting because there are not many books set in Kazakhstan) They will learn of the five year quest to find him, adopt him, and bring him home.  They will come to realize, as I have, that there is more to bringing someone home than changing their address.  For children with RAD, bonding and attaching to a family does not come naturally, or easily, and sometimes it never comes at all.  For a parent to love a child without reciprocity can be heartbreaking, and has led to parents disrupting adoptions, abusing their children, and even sending them back on a plane.

I’m mildly interested. I do think this is radically different enough to have potential.

This book describes my initiation into the world of RAD.  There is raw honesty (always awesome, in a memoir) as I share my successes, my failures, my moments of weakness, my fear at thinking that I would not be able to do this.  By weaving a few tales of my own upbringing throughout the book, I hope to give the reader some perspective as to who I am as a person, as another flawed and imperfect parent.

When I searched for books on RAD, I found many titles.  After all, of the roughly one million children adopted annually, more than 10% will present with severe challenges related to RAD, and all prospective adoptive parents are instructed to educate themselves on this frightening “what-if”.   The books I found, however, discuss treatment strategies for RAD, or delineate the ordeal of families who have struggled to come to terms with this disorder, only to end in sadness, with broken hearts and feelings of failure all around.  To my surprise, I found no books that recounted personal tales of success in raising a child with RAD.  My son, who has made so much progress towards becoming a part of our family, tells me I need to write this book so that others can see that it can be done.

Children of My Own has evolved into a book from its origins as a blog.  The blog was begun during the adoption process, but continued once the kids were home so I could share both the comedy and insanity of raising six children while RAD unfolded itself before my eyes.  The blog’s readership has grown to roughly 6,000 per month  and has given hope to many other parents who are also struggling to raise a child with RAD.

Even outside of the adoption community, my story has served as an inspiration to many, and my platform is growing rapidly. In addition to the blog, I have several published essays/articles in the magazines Adoption Today, Adoptive Families, and Country Magazine, as well as two essays published in the book The Foster Parenting Toolbox, published by EMK Press. Through my blog, I have been contacted by an agent from the Magical Elves production company, who expressed interest in doing a segment about our family in an upcoming show.  I have given permission for an adoption counselor to use posts to help educate prospective families.  My blog is also featured periodically on the blog Five of My Own, which receives more than 60,000 hits per month.

Ms. X, I know I will need the guidance of a professional to help polish this manuscript (my first), (so, then you admit to being unpolished? This is risky. Even if you are a newbie, don’t wave that flag) and when I read your bio and saw that you specialize in blog-to-book projects, (it does not say that in my bio. And I don’t. I wonder whose bio you were looking at? Did you just assume?) I had such a strong feeling that you are the person to champion this book.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts and I hope you will see something in my story that you feel is worth telling.

This query is a bit long and rambling. Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 are fine. The only truly helpful information in paragraphs 5 and 6 are the statistics on how many kids are adopted and how many face RAD-related challenges, the fact that you have a successful blog with an audience (is it 6,000 or 60,000? You’ve used both figures.) and that you have six adopted (?) kids. This information should be concisely incorporated into paragraph 7. The rest can be scrapped without consequence.

All in all, this wasn’t half-bad. And while I think this query rambles a bit, and I have a hunch the rest of the manuscript does too, I would like to request it anyway. This subject matter is compelling to me, and I’m curious to see what the author does with it.

LR

 

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