QueryDice #26

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 Ms. Ruth,

As a result of your interest in women’s fiction, I hope you will enjoy A Shift in the Wind, contemporary women’s fiction with a speculative bent. Hmm. Speculative? I really like speculative fiction…I wonder how this turns out…

Augusta Collins was born in the wrong century. A lover of the elegance and slow pace of times gone by, she never liked the technology-crazed, faster-is-always-better life, so it’s a strange, but exciting occurrence when a solar flare storm knocks out electricity and she finds herself experiencing first-hand what her life would’ve been like had she any say in the time frame of her birth. How long is the electricity out? Also, this is not striking me as a noteworthy story.

The resurgence of beauty in the form of elaborate balls, the popularity of performing arts, and leisurely strolls in the rose garden are perfection, but change has the ability to both heal and kill – and it does.

Hold the phone. Have elaborate balls, performing arts and leisurely strolls in the rose garden returned to everyday life, or that this would be very nice? What do you mean they are perfection? Do you mean they are Augusta’s ideal, or do you mean they’re pleasant, or do you mean everyone in the world agrees that these things are perfection? The last sentence, for some reason, doesn’t sound wise to me. Its sounds like a reach, because you could swap any ol’ noun for “change” here. Chairs (to pick a noun off the top of my head) also have the twin abilities to heal and kill because you could knock somebody over the head with one, but also use one to get a healing rest from a day’s work. My point is, yes, change can kill and it can heal, but so can many other things, so what significance are you trying to highlight?

And what has changed so much that the world is significantly altered? Again, is the electricity out indefinitely, for months, forever? If it’s an extended period of time, I wonder if it is believable that engineers would not correct it. What changes has this brought about? Better yet, what changes has this brought about that we weren’t expecting?

It’d taken Augusta’s father a year earlier, murdered in split-second madness by a stranger, but it’d given her family 28-year-old Griffin Alexander, a former capital investor who, conveniently, knows nothing about how to run the Collins’ sheet metal manufacturing company and everything about money and combat.

This paragraph continues with that reach, which I think you’ve tried to use as a transition. Change did not take Augusta’s father, Augusta’s father’s death was itself a change. Why is Griffin’s age important, why is his former life important, why is it significant that he knows nothing about how to run the company, and why is this convenient? Why is it significant that he knows everything about money and combat? Is he an employee and if so, to whom does he answer?

This paragraph also signals the complete departure from the electricity outage and speculative world you were beginning to introduce, which makes for a very disjointed query.


If you hadn’t told me, I would be wondering if this was romance or women’s fiction, and that is a problem, because I worry that I’d read the manuscript and it would turn out to be some sort of hybrid. Hybrids are hard to sell–publishers are afraid of them–and many just won’t sell. (As an aside, don’t ever tell me your manuscript is “genre-bending” if you want me to read without suspicion.) I think this is probably women’s fiction with a strong romantic element, but the problem is I’m not sure. It could very well be romantic suspense.

Since that day, (since what day? The day of Augusta’s father’s death? The day of Griffin’s initial hire?) Griffin has protected and provided for the friends he considers family, but when Augusta discovers that Griffin may have risked their livelihood for the sake of his own, she makes a decision that may hurl her family into danger and swat down the affection growing between them – unacknowledged yet intricate and fragile as a spider’s web.

This paragraph generates even more questions. We have heard nothing of Augusta’s family, but now you’ve brought them into the query, so they’re a distraction. You have a choice here: either include some exposition of Augusta’s family, if you think they are major characters, or leave them out of the query entirely. Why does Augusta’s family need Griffin’s protection? The rest of this paragraph tells me you understand that writing a query is the art of leaving things out, but there is a fine line between successfully telling us only the need-to-know, and just confusing us.

Ask yourself what you really need in this paragraph for us to understand the main story, here. For example, do we need to know exactly what Griffin may have done wrong, or just simply that he may have done wrong?

Stuck in the narrow, unaccompanied middle between clutching governmental control and the radical members of an opposition group, the decision to stay neutral may be fatal – and ultimately impossible.

Whoa. Clutching governmental control? Radical opposition group? Is this is same query? Neutral would indicate there were opposing sides to some conflict–what conflict? Focusing on the threats (what threats?) around her, Augusta attempts to ignore the heightening conflict between her heart’s urging to risk it all for the love of her soul (do you mean she loves her own soul, the love her soul expresses, or possibly Griffin?) and her mind’s persistent encouragement to settle for another. Another what? Is there a character who should have been introduced?

As all of the elements come crashing together like the conflicting fronts of a tornado, Augusta finds that although turmoil and deception are plagues in any age, love always tends to find you right where you belong.

You know, for this sentence to have the punch that you want it to have, it needs to have a set of opposites on either side of the word “although.” So, since plagues don’t keep you from finding where you belong (maybe you belong there, plagued) this sentence didn’t resonate with me. Since it is the closing of your synopsis-portion in this query, I would have liked to be left with something with a better kick. The language in this query–metaphors, etc.–hints that the you’re leaning toward the literary side (women’s fiction sort of straddles commercial fiction, genre fiction and sometimes literary fiction) so I’d like your last sentence to be just a tad more poetic or profound. Also, “always tends” contradicts itself. Always means it doesn’t ever do something else, while tends means it regularly or frequently does something, but not always without deviation.

A Shift in the Wind is 115,000 words and fully complete. I would love to send the manuscript for your review. Thank you for taking the time to consider this project!

This query had no salutation, which won’t earn anybody a rejection. It is a nice formality to say bye-bye, though.

I would reject this query not because I think there isn’t a story here, but because I’m not entirely sure what it is.


Posted on March 14, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I liked the first part of it, but then I got confused for the same reasons Lauren pointed out. But I think I liked the first paragraph more than she did; although, it would help to give an explanation as to why something as simple as a power outage propelled the entire country (world?) into an earlier time. Was it a magic bolt of lightening?

  2. Thanks to Lauren and those of you who gave constructive, positive comments! This was actually my first attempt at the query letter for this MS. I’ve revised it a little since submission, but am excited to implement your suggestions. Off to revise! Thanks again. 🙂

  3. I think most of the comments here will have helped to identify what needs work, hopefully they will be of use to the author. I’d just like to add that when considering your pitch (and of course when writing your MS!), it really helps if you can decide what market you’re targeting. On my reading, there was a romance novel struggling to get out, as the relationship between H&H was very much in evidence, along with a HEA ending. Perhaps not, but it is a decision every author has to make if they want to sell. As it currently reads, it’s covering too many genres. Best of luck and thanks to the author for sharing.

  4. This is what went through my mind as I read this query. Writer, bear in mind that most of this is because I have no idea what the story’s about, other than what you’ve told me.

    Paragraph 1: “As a result of” seems awkward.

    Paragraph 2: The power goes out, so Augusta thinks about living in the past. The past? Plenty of people live without electricity today.

    Paragraph 3: The electricity hasn’t come back on, and society rapidly devolves into an archaic social system in which a few people enjoyed the luxuries provided by the cheap labor of a massive underclass.

    Or, more simply: Huh?

    Paragraph 4: Augusta’s dad was murdered a year ago and a man has come along who can run the family sheet-metal business without electricity.

    Paragraph 5: Anarchists and the government are fighting over something.

    At this point I stopped reading.

    I’m not trying to be cruel here, it’s just that we have nothing at all except what you give us, and what you’re giving us isn’t enabling us to understand what the story’s about. Be clear. Be crystal clear. Write in simple sentences and tell us exactly what’s going on.

  5. I like the story of the solar storm knocking off the electricity and changing Augusta’s world. In the movie “What Women Want” (2000) an electric shock changes the world of Mel Gibson. But then you lost me with too many storylines that confuse the reader. My advice is to cut the number of words to about 85,000 and in the process cut some plots. You don’t have to put everything in one book. Keep the rest to another book. Have a clear basic storyline and then add another two plots and make everything clear, logical, easy to follow and interesting. The good news that it’s easy to cut 30,000 words and to eliminate some storylines. Best wishes.

  6. I was lost after the the first section…I thought it was going to be about something else, and then it went to this battle…and the government…not sure I would read this one.

    Thanks for your input. This helps me in writing my own!!

  7. The best queries, IMO, are like walking along a clearly-defined, well-trodden path, with lots of sign-posts, in the brightness of a mid-summer’s day. You know where you are, where you’re going, and you have a good sense of what’s ahead. This query to me felt like I was groping around a dense forest in a fog in the middle of the night.

    I don’t want to belabor the points Lauren made, so suffice to say I thought there might be a good story here, but the query is too disjointed and “fluffy” to determine whether it’s a story I would want to read. I also wonder about the word count. 115,000 words seems a little long for a non-fantasy debut novel. The way the query is written suggests the novel could probably use another round of edits.

    I suggest the author read the query aloud and ask if s/he honestly feels compelled from that to request pages. Strip away everything that’s not absolutely essential to the plot, and start there.

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