QueryDice #35

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,

A cardboard box is hidden in an empty room. Initial thought: this start is very intriguing. My interest is piqued and I’m wondering where this will go…

Inside the box, there is a stack of black and white photographs, somewhat grainy, somewhat blurred. These photos are all that remains of a young man who has died. They are the memory of him, and they come to represent the time that will slowly pass, leaving nothing else behind. They are the only clues into his life. They are the things that, still, are left.

These words set the stage for my first novel, titled [redacted].

I’m  turned off by your copy-and-paste of the beginning of your novel into the query. First, it is all tell and no show, which is a turn-off in a manuscript. Then, also, while it is great to get a taste of the author’s voice in a query, I feel tricked. I’m part of the way through your query and I still don’t know what your book is about.

Set in the tradition of Kazuo Ishiguro, John Banville, and Ian McEwan, [redacted] explores a shifting web of memory, family and friends. The novel is about a young man, named Ennan, who must come to terms with the loss of his brother. In doing so, Ennan must struggle to understand both his brother and himself, and must answer the question, what do our loved ones leave behind?

This is a bit dry. I’m not compelled enough to read more. What makes Ennan’s loss-of-loved-one story any different than all the rest? Also, the question at the end of this paragraph was surely meant to be compelling, but I’m just not as intrigued as I think the author intended.

Told through a series of interlocking narrative strands, [redacted] follows both Ennan’s past and his present as he works to cope with his brother’s death. Ennan flies to New York to find an answer to his questions (what questions?), but once there, he soon becomes obsessed with his brother’s box. Isn’t he pretty obsessed already? He got on a plane a flew to New York because of this…

Nothing is as he thought it was, however, and as he digs ever deeper into the mysteries of the box, and the photographs that it contains, Ennan’s own memories begin to shift and mix together, forming a portrait of the shattered and failing relationships (with whom?) that his brother’s death has left him with. Ultimately, things between Ennan and his brother had never been as simple, or as easy, as he’d always led himself to believe.

Why does this matter? What is at stake? This story doesn’t appear to have a conflict. While Ennan has an internal conflict because he needs to find answers to lingering questions about his brother’s life, but this is not enough. Why should we care about that? What does Ennan stand to lose, and how will figuring out his brother’s puzzle prevent that loss?

My work has been published both in print and online in PARADIGM, LINE ZERO, PRICK OF THE SPINDLE, and the PLUM CREEK REVIEW. This is great to know. I have worked as a chef, preschool teacher, student filmmaker, and at an art gallery, This, not so much. and I am currently living in Venice, CA, where I have been hired to write the screenplay for an independent film. This is good to know as well.

Thank you for your consideration.


I would reject this, because I don’t feel like there is a story that is compelling enough to sell to discerning editors. That doesn’t mean there isn’t–it just means it wasn’t shown to me.




Posted on July 5, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I suspect that the manuscript may have more going for it than the query reveals. A box of photographs isn’t a story; it’s a catalyst for a story. Mention it once and move on. What information do the photographs reveal? How does that conflict with Ennan’s understanding of his past? Why does it matter?

  2. While I can tell what kind of book this probably is based on the novels referenced in the query, I agree that the stakes and main conflict aren’t highlighted enough. This is tough to do, so I definitely get how hard query writing can be — it’s not at all like writing the novel itself! Wondering if maybe a peruse of the back cover blurbs for the books mentioned might help. Even if conflicts are more internal rather than external, that clear conflict needs to be shown. What happens if he finds out what he always believed about his family was a lie?

  3. I think the opening sentence, “A cardboard box is hidden in an empty room,” is problematic. How can something be hidden in an empty room? Or are you saying, the room is hidden, like behind a secret door or something? If that’s the case, maybe try, “A cardboard box is discovered in a hidden room,” or “in an otherwise-empty”, or what have you.

    I love the authors mentioned in this query, but I personally try to stay away from comparing to published authors, unless it seems the particular agent is fond of this tactic, as it can set you up for failure. What if the agent would happen to love your story, but not be fond of any of the authors you’ve mentioned? It seems more productive to use query real estate to talk about your story and what makes it appealing, rather than someone else’s.

    If what the box and photos reveal is so intriguing, I think sharing this would also intrigue the reader, but this query leaves quite a bit to the imagination.

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