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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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QueryDice #10

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 Mr. Schneider, (I am not Mr. Schneider.)

In a land where ghosts are guides and heroes are traitors, Liu Jie is haunted by past decisions that cost him loved ones.

I’m too busy wondering how heroes could possibly be traitors to absorb this first sentence. You vaguely introduce your world, your character and his conflict all in one very short sentence, so I feel a bit like you’ve dumped something really heavy in my lap and I haven’t seen what it was yet: jarred. Also, how do the two halves (separated by the comma) of the first sentence relate to each other?

Now all he wants is a safe life with his family.

Nit-pick: You’ve begun the above paragraph with the word “now” which implies that Jie’s wants were once different than they are now. Since we don’t know what they used to be, or even clearly what they are now, this sentence doesn’t work.

Then the Emperor sends a plea for protection from the Imperial Chancellor.

Who are the Emperor and the Chancellor? What do they (and the plea) have to do with Jie?

Jie tries to stop the coming civil war by assassinating the Chancellor, but the attack fails. The Chancellor escapes and retaliates by murdering Jie’s co-conspirators. Branded a traitor and with the death of hundreds on his conscience, Jie defends his people from armies, famine and fire. He launches a counterattack, yet when the Chancellor captures Jie’s brother, Jie faces a terrible choice: sacrifice his family or his country.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. There’s a story in here, and I love that Jie has to choose between his family and his country, which sounds extremely Chinese to me, but all of the details in the above paragraph have been shot into my head like rapid-fire, so I haven’t a clue what the heck is going on. How does Jie’s past tie in with his struggles in the above paragraph? Remember, I don’t know your world, your characters or their conflicts.

I think if you paced yourself a bit and took this more slowly, this could be a great query. After reading this three times, I think there’s an epic and intriguing story here, but I would reject this query because the world you’ve created is not well-explained and I’d fear that this would continue into the manuscript.

[redacted] is a 97,000 word fantasy set in the fictional Xing Empire. I based the story on the Chinese folktales about the Three Kingdoms period. The novel can be described as a cross between “Braveheart” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and will appeal to fans of Peter V. Brett or Alison Goodman.

I usually advise against naming names as you’ve done above. However, since I’m not intimately familiar with any of the titles you’ve cited, I have no criticism. I will advise that if you choose to do this, remember to make sure that your work truly is comparable to these.

I am a 2010 Sandy Writers Competition finalist and have published fiction in several online publications. In addition, I am a member of the Wuxia Society and The Historical Novel Review Board.

I invite you to experience [redacted] and look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

Best of luck,

LR


QueryDice #9

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!

Sociopaths are people without consciences. If you have a conscience, how do you spot someone who has none?

I’m not crazy about this opening. First, I don’t think having a conscience would inhibit your ability to spot someone who doesn’t. In fact, I think the opposite would be more likely. A question as the first line of a query is also a big pet-peeve for me and many other agents. The reason: my immediate reaction, most of the time, is, “I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the one who wrote the book.” The only glimmer of hope in this sentence is the word “sociopath” which immediately grabs my attention. Crazy people are entertaining–at least from afar.

In 1932 the use of forensic evidence is in infancy and the mere thought of DNA is a dream. If a skeleton pops up in someone’s backyard there’s little hope of finding out who they were–unless you’re Prudence O’Brian.

This paragraph is very disjointed from the one above it. You’re half-way through your query, and I still don’t know exactly what your book is about. Also, a nitpicker at heart, I have to point out that DNA was first isolated in 1869 and was understood to contain genetic material in 1927. I can assume you meant to convey that DNA was not used in forensics at this time due to a lack of knowledge and technology, but that’s not what you’ve said. When I read this, I questioned your fact-checking, even though I’m actually quite certain you didn’t mean to write anything incorrect. Clarity is very important in such short-form writing.

Pru isn’t a coroner or a detective. She’s a twenty-four year old woman with a penchant for justice and a dangerous right hook.

How can a woman who has no credentials other than being female, tough and into justice, trump the knowledge and experience of the police force or those in the medical fields when identifying a skeleton? This seems far-fetched and overdone.

To find the skeleton’s identity, she’ll brave grimy gin mills, locked office doors, and three story mansions on Grand Avenue.

Without the use of DNA, in a time when there was little hope–even for the police or medical practitioners–of discovering the identity of a skeleton, how could Pru possibly identify the skeleton by braving gin mills, locked office doors and mansions?

But discovering the skeleton’s identity also means unmasking a killer whose own idea of justice is silencing anyone who knows the truth.

I like this sentence. It’s well written, engaging and draws my attention. Whatever you do, keep this sentence.

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 or by personal experience. I can milk a cow, cook over an open hearth or on a wood burning stove, and lead oxen. I believe the small details of a character’s everyday life are what draw people into a story.

The strongest point in your bio is your B.A. in history. You’ve drawn from this by pointing out that most of the information conveyed during your tour-guide days was learned informally by personal experience. Can you personally experience history? I would consider omitting the latter.

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

Thank you for your time.

[redacted]

I would like to get to know Pru (by the way, I love her name) better. I like that she has a killer right hook, but what is her personality like? Why should I care about her? And why is involved in the justice system? Is she just a meddler? A P.I.? This is unclear, which brings me to another point: clarity is something you’re lacking here, and I think the query would improve with more fleshing out of characters, plot, and logistics. Lastly, where’s the sociopath? That’s the most interesting part!

I wish you the best of luck. I believe there’s a story in there.

LR

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