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QueryDice #47: Nonfiction?

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion, so the author of the query and I would like to hear yours! 

What is this, a new trend? This query had no greeting. While this is not immediate cause for deletion or rejection, it could wind up being that one infraction of many that caused the agent to look elsewhere. “Dear Ms. So-and-so” is always best. Quite like ladies picking up the tab on a first date, some trends don’t work out.

Ants and Candy. What? You might like this–think it’s witty or funny–and it might be, but since I have no idea what you’re talking about, this doesn’t make me sit up straighter.

We humans spend much time fighting, kicking and screaming over many things on Earth that seem so monumental; while elevating the marginal, we devalue the paramount—and place the capital letters of Life where lowercases should be: We’ve turned stuff into Stuff. <—what capital and lowercase letters? Metaphors only work if the figurative and literal both apply. 

In other words…

When the casket or urn is sealed, what will really matter? Depends on whom you ask…and at this point, I’m wondering what the point is. You’re into your first paragraph and I have no idea what you’ve written, for whom, or if I will like it. That’s a problem. It may be “business as usual” for most of us while we careen along in our 75 miles-per-hour lives; surf our 56 megabyte-per-second data connections; and text-while-driving with our lightning-fast opposable thumbs. Wait, wait. This  sentence–which has been split into two sentences because even you knew it rambled too much–began with a conditional phrase, “It may be…” but where’s the punchline? It may be business as usual to us, but to whom is is not business as usual? And what is business as usual? Life? Death? But, if we run this Race and miss the Scenery (why is this capitalized?) and the other Racers (and this?) along the way, have we really even run at all? Yes, actually. Never ask an agent a question that might make you look stupid when they answer it. [redacted] provokes us to consider and truly value the most important thing ever—people and how we treat them. How? How does it provoke us? How does it make us value anything? Quite frankly, if you’re not able to make me value this query letter, I doubt your ability to make me value anything. In clearer terms, I mean to say that if you can’t use your words to provoke me to want to read more, I don’t imagine that your book will make me think. That might be completely off-base, but you have given me nothing to judge you by except for these few words. That’s why they count for so much. If ever there was a forest that has been occluded by some very big trees…. Um, what?

About me. <— you do not need this.
I’m an freelance writer and national award-wining songwriter. <— good to know! After many years in the funeral and cemetery profession, one gets a slightly different perspective when considering the things that really matter in the End. I am a member of the Florida Writers Association and the Clay County Writers (great to know!) and reside in Orange Park, Florida. (Doesn’t matter at all) My passion is provoking people to dive deeper into this “life thing” we’ve been given. In my literary writing, I do just that; hopefully with a chuckle; and a “hmm” along the way. This is literary? Wow. This whole time I thought it was prescriptive nonfiction. That’s a big problem. If this is literary, then it must have a plot, unless you’re Virginia Woolf, in which case I don’t want to read anything you’ve written. If you’re not Virginia Woolf, then I will still need to know the plot of your book.
Thank you for considering my 32,000-word non-fiction: [redacted]

[redacted]

QueryDice #46: What the F*ck?

The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion, so the author of the query and I would like to hear yours! 

This query had no greeting. While this is not immediate cause for deletion or rejection, it could wind up being that one infraction of many that caused the agent to look elsewhere. “Dear Ms. So-and-so” is always best.

[redacted], tentatively titled, (we know it is tentatively titled. If it was finally titled it would be published) is my real life memoir/proposal (whoa, whoa, whoa… “real life” and “memoir” essentially mean the same thing here, so use only one to avoid redundancy and looking like an amateur, even if you are one. Also, is a memoir or is it a proposal? If you haven’t written it yet and it is only a proposal, then you have no business querying anyone with it. Stick with just “memoir”) that begins as all good fairy tales must .. [an ellipsis is always three periods (…) with no spacing] a fashion disaster: a broken shoe that flies under a car while crossing Santa Monica Boulevard. Do all fairy tales begin with fashion disasters? I don’t think they do…and specifically, I know they don’t all begin with a broken shoe. More to the point, what do you mean? I walk into what looks like just a shop. It’s as magical as the pages of a fresh Vogue I might have dreamed of, littered with designer dresses from Halston, Rudi Gernreich, Sonia Rykiel – and shoes, of course. The handsome prince shopkeeper smiles at my dilemma, before asking for my phone number.

Okay, so I’m assuming the shop is not really magical, and the shopkeeper (which is a really antiquated term) is not really a prince. Knowing that, what is interesting about a girl walking into a shop with a hot sales rep? And at what dilemma is the “prince” smiling? And what does any of it have to do with a broken shoe, a fairy tale, or Santa Monica Boulevard? This first paragraph was so confusing, that I would have stopped reading right here.

My memoir tells the story of fashion as it begins (this sounds like your memoir tells the story of fashion’s roots…which would be impossible), the prêt-a-porter (for the uninitiated, and unFrench, this means ready-to-wear, or off-the-rack, and I’m having trouble figuring out how it makes sense here. I could use some help), with the very young and unknown creators in New York, Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo … a pony-tailed Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe sketching a long-sleeved dress and crisply nodding his head, agreeing to send the sketch with the fabric and pattern in a taxi to the dressmaker on the outskirts of Paris who could best do that type of work. Buying the first collections of Giorgio Armani, men and women, eating lunch with the boy models because Mr. Armani had so little experience with tired, hungry buyers. Thea Porter, Zandra Rhodes, Jean Muir, Chantal Thomass, Gianfranco Ferre, Gianni Verscace, Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Missoni … we bought them all for our Beverly Hills shop that a few years later Judith Krantz used as partial inspiration for Scruples, and bought her wardrobe from our shop for her book tour. (Scruples, much to my delight, is actually being brought to the small screen as a series next season.) <–a great example of what I call Synopsis Splatter, or when the synopsis just adds too much information here, not enough there, a big blob here, etc. 

I literally just sighed before writing this sentence. There is a TON going on here. Intuition tells me this is an awesome story that you tell in bits and pieces verbally at parties, but you’ve failed to cohesively transfer it to a narrative on paper–screen, whatever. The paragraph above is like one of those hodge-podge projects where you glue clippings of magazine pages to a stool or a picture frame. We get the basic gist of the theme, if there is one, but the story is too abstract for us to draw anything out of it except maybe a feeling of glamour. Or maybe I’m giving the author too much credit. Maybe the feeling isn’t glamour, exactly, but an ambition for glamour. Also, the name-dropping , to me, seems to be in service of your own agenda rather than in service of the book’s description, which is in poor taste. 

Juxtaposing our (whose? I thought this was YOUR memoir? Who is this other person whose point-of-view is in the book?) work and marriage, so like my almost twinned life with Tina Chow and her husband Michael Chow at Mr. Chow’s across the street, until I couldn’t any longer. Falling apart harder as we open an Azzedine Alaia chez Gallay boutique on Rodeo Drive and close our Camden Drive shop, the divorce is harsh and yet we work together until the Sunset Plaza shop is opened.

The construction of the sentences in the above paragraph, particularly the first one, forces the reader to concentrate really, really hard and maybe even read through twice. If agents don’t stop reading after the hodge-podge or after the confusing first paragraph, this is where you’ll lose them.

The shop across the street (Mr. Chow’s? What?), the one with room for a rose garden, is available and I fly to Paris (why would you fly to Paris? I thought it was across the street), hoping for a lease, hoping for a life and make it work. It sounds like your life is already working…I get the feeling there is some serious money and connectedness here. Adam Shankman is my assistant and Mary Rae McDonald makes custom hats for me. Rock stars, movie stars and the Brat Pack hang in my shop next to Le Dome, agents peeping in after starry lunches. Manolo Blahnik, Dolce & Gabbana, Todd Oldham, Kenzo  … pink-washed walls and happiness. Again, with the name dropping. And the hodge-podge thing. Tina Chow has left Michael and is in Tokyo working with craftsmen to make her jewels when she becomes ill, hospitalized with the pneumonia that means AIDS.  My friend knows she will die soon.

In the middle of a rainstorm while scowling at a leaky ceiling (the construction of this sentence makes it sound like the man was scowling at the leaky ceiling), a man walks in and won’t stay away. We fall in love and have a child together. On his first birthday, I close my dream shop to become a Hollywood wife.

Wow. Okay, so this was actually spectacularly interesting, in the way abstract art is interesting…there is something there, and you know that the person next to you is probably seeing something different, but you are both interested anyway. I would have rejected this, though, because if the whole book is written in this fashion–and I can only assume it is–it would hurt my head too much to read it all the way through. A query letter, while it should have voice and give the reader an idea of atmosphere, should not be saturated in both the way this is. While your book is narrative, your query letter should be expository, and this was closer to a literary narrative than an explanation of what your memoir is about. 

Additionally, there is no salutation or signature. Agents will feel like you don’t think they’re important enough to garner your respect. No matter who you are–short of, maybe, Angelina Jolie (God, I hope Angelina Jolie is not the author) you still can’t drop a bunch of names in the lap of an agent and expect that to carry you.

Let’s take a poll, though: Who wants to see what this was all about, who the author was, and read a great query for this story? *raises both hands*

LR

QueryDice #37: THE QUERYDICE LIVES!

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,

I am seeking representation for my young adult novel, [redacted], complete at just over 61,000 words. Your web site described an interest in young adult and fantasy fiction, and I hope you will enjoy a blend of the two.

Very nice. Any agent representing those genres would continue reading. This is professional and to-the-point. The only criticism I have here is a matter of personal taste and honestly I hesitated to even comment. I’m not a fan of an author telling me in a query that she is “seeking representation” for something. I already know that. Also, if you need to save words, you don’t have to write “…complete at…” If you simply wrote, “…novel, [redacted] (61k)” it would be more concise and it would save some precious real estate.

When Grace Branford crashes her car, killing her two best friends, her life is turned upside down. (Wow) The once-popular eighteen-year-old is now ostracized by her classmates, teachers, and even her parents. Throughout the turmoil she faces daily, she cannot help but wonder how she survived when her friends did not. For answers, she turns to an old book of poetry left to her by her dead cousin and becomes immersed in a world of ghosts, angels, and the afterlife.

Double wow. Not only is this well-written, it’s compelling. This screams YA from the rooftops, but it also hints that the author has gone beyond the boring ol’, tried-and-true “teen is ostracized” thing. 

Grace soon meets a mysterious, handsome boy named Jack, who always seems to know her thoughts and can find her whenever she is in trouble.

Hmm. A handsome boy? Voice is very important and “handsome boy” sounds like something my 80-year-old grandma would say.

As she gets closer to him, she finds out the truth about her own past, his present, and their future – and what exactly it means to be a Guardian Angel.

We didn’t know she needed answers to questions about her past, and this paragraph seems like a departure from the first half of the query. What does this mean for her guilt and confusion over the accident? I’d like to have a stronger grasp of what exactly the conflict is. What does Grace want? Why can’t she have it?

More precisely, a Fallen Guardian Angel, because that’s what Jack is. Now the two are falling in love, but Grace is still hesitant. Why, after all, would a stranger be her Guardian Angel instead of her beloved cousin? Cousin? What cousin?

Determined to find answers, Grace and Jack embark on an adventure that will surely end in disaster – or death.

You wrote above that Grace finds out the truth, but a sentence or two later you write that they embark on a journey to find it. Which is it? You cant tell us she finds the truth and then afterwards mention there is a journey before she does find out.

I am currently working on an MA in creative writing
(good to know)and have received several awards for my writing, most recently the Woodward Prize for Writing Distinction at Pace University. The completed manuscript is available for your review, should you wish to see it. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

This was a professional, largely well-written query. Agents will request more material.

LR

QueryDice #14.1: Do-Over!

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,

I would be delighted to submit for your consideration, [redacted], my dark, romantic women’s fiction novel (there is no such thing as a novel that isn’t fiction, so you only need to write “fiction” or “novel.” This is a huge agent-peeve) which is complete at just under 104,000 words.

A thirty-two year old musician assistant, Trista Hart knows she needs to find a way out of the nocturnally persuaded world of her best friend and boss, Jaxon James.  

Nocturnally persuaded. This is a creative turn-of-phrase, and I love those, but in a query, I just want to get the low-down on your book. Making me think too hard will aggravate my totally abused brain and turn it off. I’m not sure what nocturnally persuaded means because I’m not familiar with your book and its themes, and I’m not willing to try and figure it out because on the heels of your query are thousands of others and I’ll go in search of something with more clarity. Sometimes the simpler the language, the better, even though it doesn’t show your literary prowess.

But no matter how dark that route (what route? Are you referring to his world, the way of out his world?) has become lately, he and his band Sin Pointe are her family and she’s not prepared to desert them for Jaxon’s cousin, Lucky Mason, if it’s just going to take her down another of life’s pot-hole littered highways.  

Who says she has to desert them, and who the hell is Lucky Mason? That came sailing out of left field. Why are Lucky ad Sin Pointe mutually exclusive? Also, nit-pick: the words “pot-hole littered” irks me. Littered would mean someone has dropped something negligently. I think you can find something more accurate.

She has valid reasons to question Lucky and his beloved south—having experienced at an early age the sometimes hypocritical underbelly of the region’s good manners and charm.

What does the south have to do with it? In fact, what does Lucky have to with anything? I’m asking: what does Trista want? What is keeping her from getting that? How does she endeavor to solve that conflict?


Her hourglass has been turned upside down and now with Lucky’s heartfelt proposal before her,
(ah ha! Why are we discovering now, after you’ve confused us and given us every reason to stop reading, that this was a proposal?) she has to decide one for the other at the most inconvenient of times—just as Sin Pointe’s tour is taking off and on the heels of a horrendous late night attack on her and Jaxon that leaves her sure of only one thing…
It’s time for Trista to be her own savior.

Well I, for one, am not sure of anything and that’s the problem with this query. What I really want to know is what the problem is. If Jaxon is her best friend, why would he or his band prevent her from marrying (was this a marriage proposal?) Lucky?

I would reject this query because it lacks compelling conflict. I wonder why can’t she just have both? Her job, her best friend and family, and Lucky? What’s preventing that from happening? I worry that the answer is nothing and your manuscript has a huge, glaring plot hole that would mean it needs an overhaul.

When this query was diced here, the problem was that we didn’t know enough. We needed a better description. Now, we know a bit more, but we still need to know what the conflict is.

While as yet unpublished, I am a member of RWA, my local WRW chapter, and the fantastic women fiction writers group Waterworld Mermaids.

I greatly appreciate your time and consideration and hope to hear from you if my work seems a good fit.
Sincerely,

[redacted]

QueryDice #34

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:

According to our society, few people follow rules in regards to etiquette and manners. Do you want to know why? You are giving me the opportunity to say, “No.”

Today’s philosophy states that rules are made to be broken. What if etiquette and manners were made to be fun?

I’m not sure how the two sentences above relate to each other. They are two thoughts, loosely related, that do not build on or complement each other. I worry that your manuscript will be hard to follow.

Not fun, but saucy. Not saucy, but provocative. Well which is it? Fun, saucy or provocative? If you can’t decide, then how can I expect your writing to be authorial?

The proposed title of our book is, [redacted].

At this point in your query, I’m still not entirely certain what your book is about. Is this a how-to guide on etiquette? Is it a discussion about what manners mean to and say about society?

Being two young business women, who have played the game, (what game?) observed the rules and conquered relationships (friend and foe), we also have the knowledge and humor to address these issues beginning with Provocative Manners and continuing in several future books.

I’m not so sure that being businesspeople who have had interpersonal relationships uniquely qualifies you to write a book on etiquette. If you have the knowledge, I would like to know how and where you obtained such knowledge, and see a demonstration of it, not just be told that you have it.If you have the humor to write such a book, I do not see it here in the query, and voice is very important in both your manuscript and query.

Where should we start? You’re asking me? No, no…you should be telling me. You’re the authors!

Let’s cover the general basics which you will find in [redacted]. In a society where there is no common sense, we are here to dish it out!

Yes, we absolutely should do that…but then you don’t. Instead, you go right into your bio, leaving me wondering what those basics are.

With college degrees in Hospitality Development, Event Planning and Political Science, such a background gives us the starting criteria to educate our readers.

We do not want you to have the “starting criteria.” We want you to be experts.

Being particularly observant, and keenly critical, has given us the knowledge to write this book and with life’s experiences to intertwine the humor for both men and women.

This is not a credential. Many people are observant and critical. What makes you an expert on your subject?

A few chapter titles include “Cleavage, a Woman’s Best Friend or Worst Enemy”, “Hospitality is Dead”, “Sauciness In and Out of the Bedroom” and “Business Manners”.

These chapter titles confuse me. What is this book about?

Readers are ready for a book where manners do not have to be boring and stereotypical; etiquette can be funny and sarcastic while bringing out a saucy edge.

Please respond with the self-addressed stamped envelope. What self-addressed stamped envelope?

Thank you for your consideration and time. We look forward to hearing from you!

Yours truly,

[redacted]

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

QueryDice #31

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:

Some lessons can be hard to understand, even when your life depends on it.

This is a a lukewarm sentence. It’s not horrible, but it has no punch either. It’s just okay. I advise never to accept “just okay” from yourself. The first sentence of a query letter is hugely important because it sets the tone for the rest of it. Think about it like this: if you’ve already failed, you’ll have to spend the rest of your query redeeming yourself. But if you start off like a rockstar, the query will ride on that success and the agent will overlook small mistakes here or there. Here’s what makes this first sentence weak:

1. It is unclear. Why would your life depend on understanding a lesson? I can think up situations in which this would be the case, but you don’t want me to be reading your query with narrowed eyes, or thinking up scenarios which are NOT in your book.

2. I already know the first part of the sentence–that some lessons can be hard to understand–so my initial reaction to your query is a bored, “Yeah, so?” I’m also thinking I’m about to read the summary of a story about someone learning a hard lesson, which in itself is not really that interesting.

Melina Rowe never wants to see her friend Lee again after his startling kiss and confession of love caused her jealous fiancé to leave her. So when a guiding angel named Walter comes to show her that her life would actually be worse without Lee, she laughs in his face and calls him crazy. But as Walter grabs her arm to stop her from leaving, a surge of energy passes between them revealing Melina to be a rare type of human who can absorb angel powers, a problem that quickly forces her to change her mind.

I feel like this paragraph is also “just okay.” It’s not awful, but it’s not very compelling to me. There is so much packed into it. Do we need to know that Melina was angry with Lee? That she had (and now has not) a fiance, and that said fiance was jealous? It seems like it took you this entire paragraph to get around to telling us what you really mean to say: that Melina discovers she can absorb angel powers and has actually done so. Sometimes writers need to just write before getting to the point, which is why we do revisions. You need to cut the fat here and fluff up the actual meat, specifically about the paranormal elements.

The powers are too strong for humans and will eventually kill Melina unless she can gain control of them.  And the only way she can do that is to open her stubborn mind and understand the lesson Walter is there to teach her.

What? This just doesn’t make any sense, which was my issue with the first sentence. How on Earth can Melina’s learning that Lee is someone she needs help her to gain control of powers neither she nor Lee knows anything about?

Still skeptical but now scared for her life, Melina has no choice but to go to an alternate world where she never meets Lee.

What world is this? Where is it and what are its laws? What is different about it, besides the absence of Lee? Also, I’m wondering if there is a plot hole here: why couldn’t the guiding angel just show her a vision of life without Lee…or sit her down and tell her what it would have been like, instead of dramatically whisking her away to a new land? And by the way, what would it have been like? What is at stake if Melina never speaks to Lee again? What will make me care about these characters and their situation?

Once she arrives things only get worse. An elder guiding angel, who thinks humans like Melina are abominations, sends a trio of soul-snatching demons to destroy her.

The biggest trouble with this query is there is no world-building. I don’t get a sense of what this alternate world is like. Since I’m just now learning there are demons in the world, I’m wondering what else is there? Why can’t Melina just high-tail it back to her own world.

Melina must now fight for her life against relentless demon attacks while she struggles to understand her feelings for Lee and awaken to the shocking truth about her former fiancé.

This query is a bit disjointed. I can’t see how Melina’s troubles with Lee and her nameless fiance have anything to do with her new powers or the demons.

If she can’t understand why Lee’s meant to be in her life and her ex-fiancé isn’t, then she’ll never gain control of the powers.

I don’t understand why this is the case, and I worry that the manuscript will have the same problem.

But if the powers don’t kill her, the demons will. They will? I thought they were soul-snatching, not life-snatching.

Complete at 89,000 words, [redacted] is a supernatural romance with an inspirational theme.

I didn’t get the feeling this was romance, exactly. The relationship between Melina and Lee (I’m assuming this is the hero, but then why is Walter’s name in the title?) is not developed enough. It doesn’t come to the forefront, but instead hangs in the background. This felt more like urban fantasy to me. And what inspirational theme?

It’s a stand-alone novel but has series potential and should appeal to an older teen and adult female audience.  

Unless this is YA, you should leave any mention of teens out of the picture. I want to know if this will have a place on a YA shelf or on the romance shelf. Or on a different shelf.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I would reject this query because I don’t feel for the characters, I don’t get a strong sense of the world and I don’t know what exactly it is.

Sincerely,

[REDACTED]

 

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.

 

QueryDice #23

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,

The war started with a drunkard in her library and an arrow in her arm.

The first sentence needs work. I had to read it twice to figure out that you were saying that someone had a drunkard in her home and an arrow in her arm, rather than a drunkard sitting in her own library with an arrow in her arm. Also, I’m wondering how this could possibly start a war.

Seventeen-year-old Adalmund Pratt is one of the last remaining people who can see and weave the threads of magic in her plague-ravaged country, and as such, she is the newly-appointed Advisor to the Theodyn Heir. During a peace treaty signing with the neighboring nation of Amleth, an Amleth advisor drunkenly slurs in her ear that his nation is on the brink of a revolution against the royal family, and she realizes that she and the Heir of Theodyn are in enemy territory.

This paragraph needs some serious work. First, what is the significance of seeing and weaving threads of magic? What benefit or detriment does this lend to Adalmund? Then, some world-building is necessary. What’s a Theodyn Heir? Is the Amleth advisor talking about a revolution against his country’s royal family, or that of Adalmund’s country? What is the significance of that?

The attack comes before they planned. <–You don’t need this sentence. If you want us to know the attack happened without notice, that can be done as an adjective in this next sentence. An unknown division of the Amleth army attacks and it’s an arrow through Adalmund’s shoulder and another through the throat of the Heir, who dies in her arms.

You’ve written that “it’s an arrow through Adalmund’s shoulder and another through the throat of the heir…” What is? Further, why would they attack Adalmund? Her political weight is unclear. We don’t know anything about the heir, either, so we don’t care that he died in her arms, no matter how gruesome his death. We at least need to know his importance to Adalmund if we’re expected to care about this death.

Adalmund knows that her ability remains the only chance to save Theodyn. (How? Why is this the case?)Pushing aside her own grief and feelings of failure, she doesn’t hesitate to obey when the grieving Queen sends her to spy on the Amleth army and bring the murderous army unit to justice.

My intuition tells me the real meat of your story begins with the above sentence. Since the heir dies early, and the attack doesn’t mean much to the rest of Adalmund’s journey, begin with the above sentence, which will give you much more room for world-building.

It’s not an impossible assignment until Adalmund realizes that the soldiers who attacked aren’t a part of the normal army, but are the private guards of a Prince. (What prince? Why does this matter?) The only way she can succeed is to forge a precarious truce with Peace, the mysterious leader (is this the Prince?) of the revolution in Amleth, and she’ll do it to save her country—even if the price of Peace is her life. <–This sentence is confusing. Are you talking about the price of the mysterious leader, or the price of peace?

The first in a planned series, [redacted] is a young adult fantasy novel of 75,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
[redacted]

I would reject this query because the important pieces of the story are not exposed properly, and I worry that will continue in the manuscript. More importantly, though, I would reject it because Adalmund has no internal struggle and doesn’t appear to face the same challenges that teens face. All the conflict is external and I like to see interplay between external and internal conflict in YA. I also know nothing about Adalmund’s personality or that of any other characters, and this is necessary for me to like the characters enough to want to see more of them.

QueryDice #20

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,

I would like to introduce you to my adult love story called A struggle of the heart. This is a Contemporary romance. My completed manuscript consists of 71,539 words. A young woman faces the age-old dilemma: what to do when you are torn between two lovers?

 

Unless your work is written for young adults or children, there is no need to mention what age-group you’ve targeted. The agent will assume it is for adults. Your second sentence is redundant. You’ve already told us in the first sentence that this is a romance by using the words “love story,” although I prefer to see this genre called “romance.”

The story you’ve set me up to receive certainly is age-old. Right from the first paragraph, I need to feel there is something different about your romance, something new or exciting that would make me choose yours among the hundreds I see. Romances are a dime a dozen—I’m looking for the one that’s a dime a piece.

 

Annette, a beautician in Norman, Oklahoma, (these are the first words that catch my eye in your query. I’ve never read a romance about a beautician in Norman, Oklahoma. Interesting…) does not believe she’ll ever find love, let alone two men who fall head over heels for her. Aaron, a handsome and virile Native American (again, I’m interested. This is different…) with long dark hair and sensuous brown eyes, draws her to him like a magnet. Tim, a good-looking, happy-go-lucky fellow, is always there to help, care for and comfort her.

 

While I understand your temptation to succinctly describe these men in as few words as possible, this felt too punchy for me. I would prefer to see a description of her love affair with the first man, and then the other man stepping in to distract her instead of a bland description of the men. Additionally, Aaron seems much more interesting than Tim—who reads to me like a lukewarm guy-next-door—so I can’t feel any tension. Of course she’s going to pick the more interesting one…or she should, if the book is going to be interesting.

 

With Aaron, it is love at first site, while Tim grows on her over time. ß-you do not need this sentence. This is one of those things that a query can do without, but the synopsis she show. How will she ever decide? It seems at first that fate might make the decision for her when Aaron joins the army and is stationed overseas. While he is gone, Tim fills the huge void left in her aching heart.

 

I’m not so sure you should explain that she had her eye on both men before Aaron joined the Army. You might consider saving Tim’s introduction for after you explain that Aaron joined. This would free the men from being lumped together in the same paragraph.

At the same time, Annette knows she must follow her own dream. After the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, she yearns to find a more fulfilling job helping others. This leads her to begin emergency medical training and after that, to attend paramedic school.

 

You do not need the above paragraph at all in this query. It is a good idea to give Annette this extra depth of character, but it could be exposed in passing, as in, “…taking Aaron’s cue to follow her own dreams, Annette enrolls in paramedic school…” We don’t need to know anything beyond that.

 

Upon graduation, Tim asks for Annette’s hand in marriage but what about Aaron, who just returned home from Afghanistan?  It is truly “A Struggle of the Heart” as Annette finds herself torn between two lovers.

 

The biggest problem with this query is its lack of tension. It is not very interesting that she has two men who love her and must choose between them. This is not extraordinary. I have a feeling, however, that this is not a problem with your query, but rather with the story itself. For the torn-between-lovers plot to work, there must be something overarching the story that is at stake. Perhaps Annette has something valuable that one man wants to help her cultivate and the other wants to exploit for his own gain. Maybe Annette stands to lose something if she goes with one man, but has something else to lose if she goes with the other. These two things should be extremely important—like loved ones or her career or her life. Either way, there must be another element to this that extends beyond a girl making an emotional decision. Maybe your manuscript already has this, but if that’s the case we all want to know about it.

I hope this query letter interests you and you will want to pursue reading more. I am looking for a publisher to help me in my endeavor to share this love story.  Your experience is very impressive and I would like to congratulate you on joining BookEnds as a full time literary agent. It would be an honor to work with you on this novel.  

 

This is great. Agents love it when you prove you’ve researched them and made an educated decision to query them, rather than blindly sending your query to everyone and her mother.

 

As I read through the FAQ on your website, it states fiction writers should copy and paste the first three chapters or no more than 50 pages, a synopsis, and an author bio stating what writing experience that we may have.

The first three chapters and a synopsis are the components of a fiction book proposal and are never to be attached to a query. Most agents these days do not want you to attach anything and want your 250-word query in the body of an email. I personally do not mind when authors paste the first ten pages or so after their query in the body of the email.

 

For my author bio I only have one thing that I have written. It is a book called Alzheimer’s A Caretakers Journal, which is a diary about taking care of my father in law with Alzheimer’s. I wrote and published this book in the hopes that I could help others with this terrible disease. I do keep a Alzheimer’s Blog which I have written since 2008.

 

While it is helpful to include an author bio if you have writing credentials, it is not helpful to include non-fiction credentials if you are querying with a work of fiction (unless that work is loosely related or has lent you a platform) or vice-versa. These are two very different skill-sets. Because your bio consists of one published work of non-fiction, I immediately think writing is a hobby to you, rather than a career aspiration, and that your writings are unfocused. In this case, it is better to just leave the bio out and skip right to your polite closing.   

 

I have copy and pasted my synopsis and the first 50 pages of my manuscript. Thank you for reading my query letter.

 

Sincerely,

[redacted]

LR

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