QueryDice Hijack #4: Women’s Fiction

The QueryDice has been HIJACKED by avid reader, Scribble Orca! 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. Scribble, take it away! (Scribble’s comments in green.)

Dear Ms. Ruth, Excellent – addressing the agent!

When Emily Matthews returns to the small Oklahoma town she ran away from as a teenager, she’s the last person in her family to arrive.

This sentence works because we know 1) our MC’s name; 2) setting = a small Oklahoma town (although I would add in the name of the town before “..a small..” to be specific); I don’t mind the omission of the name of the town. This is a matter of personal taste, really. 3) Emily is no longer a teenager (so this is not YA) and she was a runaway; and These are extremely important things to know, so I also give the author kudos on that first sentence. 4) she’s still a black sheep because she’s the last person to arrive.  I’m not so sure Emily’s lateness necessarily means that she is a black sheep. It could mean other things as well. This is why it is important to be clear in your query letter; don’t leave too much up to interpretation. Even though this sentence is unclear, it is obvious that the effect is intentional and like Scribble, I think the sentence works. What’s missing in this sentence is “…at her estranged grandmother’s deathbed.”  I would suggest scrapping all of the next sentence except for that piece of information. I’ll respectfully disagree with Scribble, here. I like the mysterious leaving-out of important details here because I can tell it is intentional. There is a big difference between an author lazily or ineptly leaving information out and an author skillfully knowing when to leave things unsaid…for now.

I’m also being nit-picky here: I prefer “…from which she ran away as…” rather than “…ran away from as..”.  If you had written “She ran away from the town as…” that would be fine.  However, I don’t think this would mean the agent would decline to read further, if you chose not to insert “from which”. Like Scribble, I have trouble with dangling prepositions. It grates on me. I actually winced. That being said, this particular mistake has been made so often that it has become familiar to most people. I don’t think the error is so glaring that I would stop reading. I’d keep going. 

As a first sentence goes, I think it is terrific.  I’m really keen to keep reading. Agreed.

Everyone else is already there holding vigil around her estranged grandmother’s deathbed. Call her old fashioned, but she thinks you should wait for the person to die before you hold the viewing.

Here is where I stumble, because I don’t think ‘holding vigil’ equals ‘a viewing (of a casket)’, or being ‘old-fashioned’.  In fact, most families gather around the death bed of an aged relative who is dying.  What is it you want me to know here?  That Emily is, despite her history, conventional?  Has morals?  We know that she’s willing to put her own feelings aside because she has come to see her ‘estranged’ grandmother in a place that’s obviously uncomfortable for her – “the town from which she ran away”.  What else do you want to add to this picture of Emily that contrasts her with her family and specifically, her grandmother?

I also had trouble understanding what it was you were trying to tell us with this sentence. A query letter should be restricted to only the barest bones of information, and since this one detail doesn’t seem to be central to the plot, I wonder why a a whopping two whole sentences have been wasted on it. Above, I liked the mystery of the first sentence, but even so, I’d rather you simply (as Scribble suggested) add “at her grandmother’s deathbed.” However, I’d leave out the word “estranged” because it implies that the grandmother has been alienated, which is not the case. Emily is the one who is estranged from the family, not her grandmother whose whole family has gathered around her.

After a suspicious fire destroys her car, she reluctantly accepts help from Miller, the boyfriend she left behind when she ran.

I would avoid ‘suspicious’ fire, because the fire isn’t suspicious – the circumstances are.  So I suggest being direct here without saying arson – “After a deliberately-lit fire destroys her car…” or “After her car is deliberately destroyed by fire….” depending on your preference for passive or active voice.  That was a great catch, Scribble, but your fix then sets us up to ask more questions. Author, can you find a way to tell us concisely that a fire destroyed Emily’s car and she thinks this was foul play? The next part of the sentence is fine, however the last part is using up your hectic agent’s limited attention on redundant words.  You’ve told us Emily ran away, so that means she left everyone behind.  What would you like to tell us here?  That she and Miller were still girlfriend and boyfriend when Emily left?  Perhaps you could reword the sentence as “…she reluctantly accepts help from Miller, the boyfriend she deserted when she left.”  If I’m wrong about thefeeling you want to evoke in your reader here, you can use a different verb.  Bear in mind that the choice of verb has to go some way to explaining why Emily is reluctant to accept help from Miller. I agree with Scribble about the redundancy, but I acknowledge how difficult it is not to be here. How about this fix: “…destroys her car, she accepts help from her old high-school sweetheart, Miller, even though she feels [describe her feelings in line with her personality–this is a great way to build character in the query] about accepting help from some one she deserted so long ago.”

It doesn’t take long for old feelings to reignite. But then she discovers evidence that her grandmother has spent the last seventeen years lying to Miller to manipulate him into covering up one of the family’s darkest secrets

Your first sentence in this paragraph brings me to a halt – I’m guessing the feelings are on Emily’s side – but also Miller’s?  You also start the next sentence with “But…”.  That means that what follows ‘but’ will contrast with the first sentence.  It doesn’t – your second sentence goes into information-dump territory and tells me nothing about the romance between Emily and Miller.  

I disagree with Scribble, here. I assumed the feelings were mutual, and I thought the sentences separated by the word “but” did in fact contrast: Emily is beginning a new romance with Miller, but something complicates that.

It also hints at a link between Miller and Emily’s grandmother but doesn’t give me any background to this and I’m asking ‘But why would Emily’s grandmother have the opportunity to be lying to Miller – how have they been connected in Emily’s absence?’  Agreed. This is a big problem. Because it is unexplained, and even seems a little unlikely, I have no choice but to think it’s not well-developed in your manuscript. Also,  “evidence” and “cover up” might give your query an unwanted police-procedural feel.  I don’t mind that so much. I could take it or leave it. My rewrite suggestion would be:

“But as Emily’s feelings for Miller re-ignite, she discovers that her grandmother has used her [something about grandma’s relationship or position with Miller – so we know how she has the chance to manipulate him] to manipulate Miller into concealing one of the family’s darkest secrets.” Great suggestion.

The key pieces of information for me are that Emily’s old feelings are aroused, after seventeen years.  So Emily is in her early to mid thirties and must be single – otherwise she wouldn’t have old feelings for Miller to arouse.  I assumed she was single as well. If she is, it is fine for the author not to have mentioned her status, but if she is NOT single, that’s huge and we need to know how that complicates things. Miller has been manipulated by Emily’s grandmother to hide a dark family secret – so now I want to know what it is.  But that isn’t what I find out in the next sentence.

Emily realizes that when she left, he became easy prey to her horrible family.

What does Emily realise that has made Miller fall easy prey to her family – and what has her family done that is horrible?  My best re-write suggestion here is: “Since Emily left, Miller has succumbed to the influence of Emily’s family.”  And if you look at my re-write, it’s  rather poor, because it’s still not telling us new, important information – because we already know that Miller is under the influence of Emily’s family since he’s also hiding their secret.  Do you see why this sentence doesn’t work as it is? I think it’s interesting that he became easy prey to her horrible family, but this comes out of left field and we wonder why and how and is that why she left, and my brain is so busy asking questions that it’s not paying attention anymore.

The guilt she feels is enough to make her want to run again. But she can’t. Someone has gone to great lengths to make sure she stays in town.

Why does Emily feel guilty – because she left Miller, because Miller has been duped? And why does she only feel guilty now and not before she came back?  She feels guilty for something, so she wants to run away, despite her feelings for Miller being re-aroused.  I’m wondering the same things. Sadly, it isn’t Emily’s depth of feeling that prevents her running away, it’s because someone has done something to make her stay in town.  Yikes. I’d missed that, but now that Scribble brings it up, how are we supposed to like Emily and sympathize with her character if she’s such a coward that she would desert Miller a second time? What is the something and is it valid to stop her from leaving – how can it provide more reason than her feelings for Miller?  As a teenager running away is fine, but she’s in her thirties [exactly] – how deep are these feelings now if it’s something else that’s keeping her in town?

Emily has a choice to make: Tell Miller the truth about her grandmother, which would expose the family secret she ran away from years ago, or let him go on believing that he’s based his entire life upon a bad promise from a good liar.

Based on the preceding information, I don’t see that Emily has a choice to make.  She feels guilty, wants to leave town, someone else is forcing her to stay, and not her feelings for Miller.  So why expose a family secret (and we don’t know how terrible it is)?  I’m confused by the next sentence as well.  Emily wants to stop Miller believing his life is based on a bad promise – does this mean Miller already knows the promise is bad and that Emily’s grandmother is a good liar – so when Emily tells Miller about the family secret Miller will stop believing his life is based on a bad promise?  Or do you mean that Emily is considering letting Miller know that he’s based his life on a promise which is a lie and he doesn’t yet know the promise is a lie?  Do you see why it’s not clear for me, your *ahem* agent? I agree with Scribble. I’m thinking, “Okay, so expose a secret that her family has kept (so what? She doesn’t even talk to them and she deserted them) or hurt Miller who’s been nothing but helpful. That seems like a no-brainer. But there are too many questions to ask here, so I’m having trouble really getting a handle on what happens in the book. 

That being said, I have an inkling that there is a great story here and the query just didn’t do its job. 

[redacted], a work of women’s fiction, is complete at 97,000 words. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas, and I’m a member of RWA and its North Texas branch.

Thank you for your time, 

[redacted]

I was absolutely certain I’d request my first Dice…but I’m not sure whether this is actually meant to be a romance (unless women’s fiction means romance) or something else [it’s definitely women’s fiction, which differs from romance mostly in its focus on a larger issue than just a romantic relationship between two people], and I’m not sure what the real conflict is [me neither].  The hints aren’t enough to make me say “yes, I’d like to know more.”  If those missing gaps in the story were instead filled in and the query was stronger, and if I were an agent who knew the market for your kind of women’s fiction very well, then I could imagine requesting at least a partial to look at your writing style.  But at the moment, there’s a sneaking suspicion that the choice of words you’ve used in your query might reflect an imprecision in your manuscript, and I really don’t know enough about your story to be hooked.

What does everyone else think?

Thank you for having me as your QueryDice Hijacker and I’m looking forward to Lauren’s, the querier’s and everyone else’s comments.

Good luck! 🙂

Scribble Orca is based in Singapore and loves to read, discuss books and anything book related, and write.

She has lived and worked on every continent in the world, with the exception of the polar caps, doing everything from washing cars to advising government ministers, helping refugees to fleeing from pirates, interviewing terrorists to almost dying from malaria.   In her own words: I fixate a lot, procrastinate some, and I lucked out in the patience stakes.

 

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Posted on September 26, 2012, in Advice, literary agency, manuscripts, publishing, queries, Query Dice, rejection, slush pile, submissions, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Lauren, terrific to read your comments. Very insightful to see how you are thinking as you read, where we differ (very important also is the why! thank you!), as well as where we agree. I learned just as much from reading your points as from analysing the query.

    This was excellent – looking forward to more.

  2. Hey, Ella – I love stress-baking! What’s your favourite bake? I make home-made pasta – nothing like digging fingers into dough!

    Yes, you (succinctly!) state the problem – lack of emotional attachment to Emily but the feeling is that there could be a story.

    • I’m a cake girl. The more elaborate and fattening, the better. Have never made fresh pasta but I’ve always wanted to! And good job on your Hijack. It was very thoughtfully done.

      • Definitely give the pasta a go! One egg to one hundred grams of durum wheat semolina = one portion…if you have a hand turning pasta machine it’s easier than rolling by hand – which is a great workout but exhausting!

        Thanks for your kind words – but I was lucky to receive a query that gave me this opportunity. Looking forward to more 😀

  3. First off, Scribble Orca, your bio is impressive. I believe the one I sent to Ms. Ruth mostly talks about how I like to stress-bake.

    My biggest issue is what the author has set up as the main conflict: tell Miller that Emily’s grandmother lied to him (which, when we don’t know the lie, doesn’t seem so life or death) or don’t tell Miller. The problem is these only indirectly affect Emily. I want mega stakes for the protagonist, not the guy she hasn’t seen for seventeen years. I want to worry about the consequences of her actions, but here I don’t.

    I like the idea of a woman returning to the town she ditched as a teenager, and a dark family filled with secrets. Make it sound as enticing as it is with punched up word choice. Make me feel like Emily’s in danger, of if she isn’t, make me care more that Miller is. Right now the consequences don’t feel so big. Something bad must happen no matter what. If she tells Miller, Bad Thing A will happen. If she doesn’t tell him, Really Bad Thing B will happen.

    I’d take a look at your ms, too, to make sure things in there reach a full boil. Right now, the story feels somewhat like it’s at a low simmer to me. But good luck! I think there’s a really interesting story in here.

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