QueryDice #9

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!

Sociopaths are people without consciences. If you have a conscience, how do you spot someone who has none?

I’m not crazy about this opening. First, I don’t think having a conscience would inhibit your ability to spot someone who doesn’t. In fact, I think the opposite would be more likely. A question as the first line of a query is also a big pet-peeve for me and many other agents. The reason: my immediate reaction, most of the time, is, “I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the one who wrote the book.” The only glimmer of hope in this sentence is the word “sociopath” which immediately grabs my attention. Crazy people are entertaining–at least from afar.

In 1932 the use of forensic evidence is in infancy and the mere thought of DNA is a dream. If a skeleton pops up in someone’s backyard there’s little hope of finding out who they were–unless you’re Prudence O’Brian.

This paragraph is very disjointed from the one above it. You’re half-way through your query, and I still don’t know exactly what your book is about. Also, a nitpicker at heart, I have to point out that DNA was first isolated in 1869 and was understood to contain genetic material in 1927. I can assume you meant to convey that DNA was not used in forensics at this time due to a lack of knowledge and technology, but that’s not what you’ve said. When I read this, I questioned your fact-checking, even though I’m actually quite certain you didn’t mean to write anything incorrect. Clarity is very important in such short-form writing.

Pru isn’t a coroner or a detective. She’s a twenty-four year old woman with a penchant for justice and a dangerous right hook.

How can a woman who has no credentials other than being female, tough and into justice, trump the knowledge and experience of the police force or those in the medical fields when identifying a skeleton? This seems far-fetched and overdone.

To find the skeleton’s identity, she’ll brave grimy gin mills, locked office doors, and three story mansions on Grand Avenue.

Without the use of DNA, in a time when there was little hope–even for the police or medical practitioners–of discovering the identity of a skeleton, how could Pru possibly identify the skeleton by braving gin mills, locked office doors and mansions?

But discovering the skeleton’s identity also means unmasking a killer whose own idea of justice is silencing anyone who knows the truth.

I like this sentence. It’s well written, engaging and draws my attention. Whatever you do, keep this sentence.

I received a Bachelor of Arts in history from Drake University. After graduating from college, I worked as a tour guide at a living history museum. Most of the information we conveyed to the public had to be learned by research or by personal experience. I can milk a cow, cook over an open hearth or on a wood burning stove, and lead oxen. I believe the small details of a character’s everyday life are what draw people into a story.

The strongest point in your bio is your B.A. in history. You’ve drawn from this by pointing out that most of the information conveyed during your tour-guide days was learned informally by personal experience. Can you personally experience history? I would consider omitting the latter.

My 100,000 word historical mystery, [redacted], is complete and available for review.

Thank you for your time.


I would like to get to know Pru (by the way, I love her name) better. I like that she has a killer right hook, but what is her personality like? Why should I care about her? And why is involved in the justice system? Is she just a meddler? A P.I.? This is unclear, which brings me to another point: clarity is something you’re lacking here, and I think the query would improve with more fleshing out of characters, plot, and logistics. Lastly, where’s the sociopath? That’s the most interesting part!

I wish you the best of luck. I believe there’s a story in there.


Posted on September 7, 2011, in Advice, book publishing, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, slush pile, submissions, voice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Whenever I read crime/mystery/suspense queries in which the protag is an “ordinary” person, I wonder why they’re involved and not leaving the detective work up to the professionals. This query didn’t answer that for me–and while the book might, I have to assume it’s a plot hole based on the query alone. Does that make sense? I just need more reason for a protag to get involved than “she’s nosy” or “it was HER backyard, so she was interested.”

    I have to say–as a living history participant and a history BA, I disagree that the living history creds don’t mean something–a history BA doesn’t teach you what 1776 smelled like or what a 1870s corset feels like when it’s on or how difficult it is to coax a fire out of wet wood. That said, the way you’ve phrased this here doesn’t show me how your experience is coming out in the book–just that you have it. Remember that whoever is reading your query likely doesn’t have our insider’s knowledge of how you can translate your living history experience into more tactile, more convincing writing. If you can express this well, I think it would serve your query–if not, it’s better not to include it.

  2. Can someone who hasn’t written a query, comment on a query? Hmmmm…maybe it’s the sociopath in me that’s keeping me from continuing on here. Or maybe it’s my conscious?

  3. I think this sounds like a book I would love to read, but I’m with Rhay. What is it about Pru or about the skeleton or both that encourages her to get involved?

  4. I’m so impressed with everyone sharing their queries here. I’m even more excited that Lauren has decided to offer this service and actually gives great feedback. A fan of adult thrillers (even though I only write YA) reading about a 24 gal solving a mystery would definitely be fun. In saying that and agreeing with most of what Lauren said, my one overall question is why Pru would even bother? Okay, I get that a skeleton has shown up in her backyard is an inciting incident, but why does she care enough to put herself into terrible danger to solve the mystery, even if she likes mystery? I think by exploring that, you might even be able to fill in some of her personality traits as Lauren suggested.


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