QueryDice #9.1: Take Two!

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 Lauren Ruth:

When Prudence O’Brian uncovers a human skeleton in her landlady’s backyard, she doesn’t expect the police or the press to be too concerned. Her mother was brutally murdered and the newspapers didn’t print a blurb. The police were too busy hunting down bootleggers and raiding speakeasies to apprehend her mother’s killer. Pru doesn’t want justice to slip through the cracks again. She decides to uncover the identity of the skeleton herself, but she’s uncertain on how to begin.

I’m already seeing a potential problem. In a mystery, the amateur sleuth needs to have a very solid reason for taking the investigation into her own hands. It is hard to like a person who is a busybody or who is meddlesome. I don’t think Pru’s motivation to get involved in the case of this skeleton is strong enough. She needs a solid connection to this crime…like being forced to investigate it because she or someone close is blamed for it. Now, that’s not to say that you haven’t fleshed this out more in the book, making it believable and acceptable that Pru would investigate this on her own, just that it’s not solid enough here in this query.

That being said, this opening is a huge improvement over the last draft. You’d opened with a question, which is a huge pet-peeve of mine, and you’d provided us with a bunch of information we really don’t need.

Gus Ashton is intrigued by Pru’s quest. He offers her his knowledge as a trial attorney to go places and interview people she wouldn’t dare do alone.

Why? Who is he and why would he offer his assistance to Pru when he could be billing hours? Also, as a side note, this sentence is poorly written. 

Gus is old enough to be her father, but he’s the first man she’s encountered who isn’t intimidated by her intelligence or her dangerous right hook. The farther (further is correct. Farther refers to spatial distance) they delve into their investigation, Pru realizes she and Gus have different definitions of justice, and his is silencing anyone who knows the truth.

This is very vague, which irks me. The difference between a back-of-the-book blurb and a query is that a cliffhanger is ineffective in a query, but intriguing on the back of a book. When I see a cliffhanger like this, it doesn’t make me request just to see what happens, it makes me want to move on to a query that’s made itself clear.

I’m not so sure we need to know anything about Gus. It takes you two paragraphs to get to the most compelling part about him: that his idea of justice is silencing anyone who knows the truth. I would cut the two paragraphs and just keep that one compelling sentence from your first draft: “But discovering the skeleton’s identity also means unmasking a killer whose own idea of justice is silencing anyone who knows the truth.”

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. I applied these skills to my novel to accurately portray life during The Great Depression.

This is an excellent improvement to your bio.

Another issue: this is the first we hear that this is a historical novel. Since you unfolded your query and it was unnecessary to mention that this was historical, I worry that you just set the story in the past without weaving that into the story.

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

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

LR

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Posted on May 17, 2012, in Advice, book publishing, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, slush pile, submissions, voice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. This has sparked an interesting debate about whether or not it’s clear that this is a historical novel. My personal experience was that I *thought* it was after the reference to bootleggers and speakeasies, but then I also wondered if this wasn’t one of those stories that takes place in a parallel universe where it’s sort of like ours, but different. For the sake of clarity and putting the reader’s mind at ease, I’d put that clarification up front.

    I also think the “Dear Lauren Ruth” sounds a bit awkward–it reads like an auto-generated solicitation. I think it’s best to stick with “Dear Ms. Ruth.”

    I like the playful tone of the query–it sounds like it will be fun to read. In that, I also sensed the author’s ability to sort of poke fun of herself (within the context of the novel) and that also seems like it would be a fun, enjoyable read. Like most readers, I like to laugh and be entertained and I think this MS (if it holds true to the query) would provide that.

    With some tightening, this could be a really fun query. What about something like this?

    Dear Ms. Ruth,

    (I like Colin’s suggestion above for the first par): When Prudence O’Brian uncovers a human skeleton in her landlady’s backyard, she doesn’t expect the police to be too concerned. What with Prohibition, they’re too busy hunting bootleggers and raiding speakeasies. They couldn’t find time to apprehend her own mother’s killer a few years ago; why should unidentifiable bones be any different?

    Gus Ashton, the district attorney with a murky past (or something like this), offers to assist in spite of Pru’s intelligence and all-too-ready right hook. But discovering the skeleton’s identity also means unmasking a killer whose own idea of justice is silencing anyone who knows the truth.

    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. I applied these skills to my novel to accurately portray life during The Great Depression.

    TITLE HERE, a historical mystery, is complete at 100,000 words.

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Sincerely,

    ______________

    Good luck! :)

  2. Yeah, I also picked up on Prohibition in the first paragraph as making the story historical.

    The first half of the first sentence really grabbed me, but after that I was let down– most severely by the misuse of “blurb”. A blurb is a little puff-piece. Blurbs are the things on the back of your book where more famous authors say they loved it. A blurb about a murder would be weird. Just say “didn’t print a word.” (If it’s important to the story.)

    There are several awkward sentences here. I think the writer should read the query aloud and see if she can fix them that way… and the probably apply the same treatment to the manuscript.

  3. I agree with Chris– there were things mentioned in the first paragraph that clearly point to Prohibition.

    She also mentions in the first paragraph that the newspapers didn’t print a blurb about her mother’s murder. A query for a contemporary novel would have opted for more modern news sources (television and internet).

    I thought she did a good job “showing” the reader the time period with her word choice.

  4. Like Lauren, I had no clue this was set in the Great Depression until the end of the query. To Chris’s point, the writer says that the police were too busy hunting down bootleggers and raiding speakeasies to bother to investigate her mother’s killer. But it’s not until the third paragraph that we get any sense of how old Pru is (and hence how long ago it was since her mother’s murder). And even this doesn’t necessarily set her investigation in the 1930s. If she was 10 when the murder happened, she might be 30 at the time she investigates, putting the story in the 1950s. Gus could be 50 and old enough to be her father.

    All that to say, there was nothing in this query that screamed at me “set in the 1930s” until the writer explicitly mentioned the fact at the end. Yes, one might deduce that from what’s said in the first paragraph, but 1) the evidence in the query is vague, and 2) I can’t imagine an agent with 300 queries to read wants to spend more than 10-30 seconds with each one, and having to figure out important information (e.g., this is set during the Great Depression) can only be a strike against the query. A good way to avoid any and all ambiguity is to say something like this:

    When Prudence O’Brian uncovers a human skeleton in her landlady’s backyard, she doesn’t expect the police to be too concerned. What with Prohibition, they’re too busy hunting bootleggers and raiding speakeasies. They couldn’t find time to apprehend her own mother’s killer a few years ago; why should unidentifiable bones be any different?

    Not perfect, but hopefully illustrative.

  5. The only thing about this story that interests me is The Great Depression time frame.
    I expect Gus to be involved with the case about Pru’s mother in some way but since Pru doesn’t have a goal, I really don’t care about her.

  6. I disagree with your statement that the first we know that it’s a historical is in her bio–in the first paragraph, she talks about hunting down bootleggers and raiding speakeasies, which clearly put it in during Prohibition for anyone familiar with American history.

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