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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

QueryDice #17

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,

I see that you are interested in sci fi and fantasy as well as romance. My novel [redacted] combines these three genres and I thought you might be interested.

Talia Shannon dreams of scaled aliens burning her world, Sendek. (What kind of world is Sendek? A different planet? I need a sense of atmosphere. What is the most striking difference between Sendek and Earth?) Determined to find a way to survive the coming invasion (Well, how does she know that her dream will come true? Is this a power she knows she has?) without revealing the magical source of her information, Talia searches for scientific proof of extraterrestrial life. Her work leaves no time for personal relationships, but Landry Sutton isn’t looking for a friend. <—I understand what you’re saying here, and I think it’s an excellent transition. But it just missed the mark for me. You could improve this by adding that Talia thinks he’s looking for a friend. Or show us that by adding a sentence before this one about Landry’s association with Talia.

As nephew to the King, Landry protects the monarchy from a malicious group responsible for his own father’s death, and he thinks Talia works for them. When a brief touch sizzles between them, they find they can communicate mind to mind. Turns out Landry has magical secrets of his own.

I think it would be helpful if you could transition into this next paragraph better, because it seems disjointed, although I’ve got a hunch it really isn’t.

The Draguman, a human-dragon hybrid created in Sendek’s past, returns from exile. Smarter and stronger than ever, they plan to wipe out their creators and claim Sendek for their own. After they cripple Sendek’s military in a matter of hours, they seem unstoppable.

As a direct descendant of the mage who created the Draguman, Talia is the key to their destruction—if she can trust the magic coursing through her veins. When science fails to protect her way of life, magic becomes the only hope.

[redacted] is a science fantasy novel, complete at 87,000 words. It is the stand alone first novel in a set of four.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

[redacted]

This query is fine. There’s really nothing technically “wrong” with it. I would like to know more of Talia’s personality and more about her world. How is it different than Earth? The query is at around 250 words, and this is probably why you’ve chosen not to include any further information, which is fine. I would prefer you go past the 250 words (but not too far) and show me how Talia differs from other characters and how her world differs from ours. Great job, though!

LR

QueryDice #16

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 castrated leprechaun lands in Dr. Jamie Grey’s morgue. Since the detectives are busy with their own case, Jamie is assigned to find the killer.

I would have stopped reading after this sentence. First, I’m disgusted by the thought of a castrated leprechaun. Because leprechauns are mythical creatures that I thought were neat when I was a kid (think Lucky Charms) the thought of them having genitals at all is upsetting to me and the visual I’ve just been given of a leprechaun not having them anymore is just too much for me. That’s a very personal opinion. Keep in mind someone else might think it’s dark and dangerous or hilarious.

Additionally, I’m not sure why a doctor is assigned to a criminal investigation as a detective. This would never happen. I don’t buy that the detectives are too busy to do their jobs. I worry that I won’t be able to get into the story because I’m too distracted by plot holes.

The investigation takes the coroner into Tara, a community of mythological creatures just south of Philadelphia. But the very beings Jamie vows to protect don’t want her there, fearing her presence may attract “the nut stealer.”

When she visits the victim’s wife, she is drugged and kidnapped and injures herself in the escape. Assisted by an elf, a vile creature whose race nearly eradicated her late husband’s people, Jamie wakes up two days later healed and with abilities only possessed by elves. While Jamie deals with the changes and keeps them hidden from her brother-in-law as he attempts to court her, another victim signals the urgency to find the killer before he castrates another leprechaun again. All the while the trail leads her deeper into elf territory than she ever wants to go.

The above paragraph reads more to me like a very brief synopsis. We don’t need a play-by-play, here. We need to know the large threads that are the meat of the story. What, besides the mystery of who castrated the leprechaun, is the conflict? What are the stakes?

Further, why don’t we know that Jamie was once connected with mythological creatures until the last paragraph? Why is the brother-in-law who is courting Jamie mentioned only in half a sentence? Is this further conflict that needs to be exposed here? This is a big problem in many queries I see: the author presents information that makes me ask further questions to which no answers have been provided. My advice is always to answer these questions right within the query (if you’re not too close to it to know what the questions might be) and if you can’t without answering more and more, find a way to leave that part for the synopsis.

I think you’ve spent too much time giving us a play-by-play of what happens and when. This is just a hunch, but I have a feeling there’s more to the brother-in-law courting Jamie than you’ve told us (I think it is a bigger piece of the story than you’ve let on) and I have a feeling the thread of the elf territory is also a much larger part of the story.

[redacted] is a mystery with fantasy elements complete at 72,000 words. I worry, too, that 72,000 words is not enough to fully flesh out and characterize a new world that you’ve created, execute a mystery plot carefully and include a love interest, if that’s what the brother-in-law is. You might have pulled it off, but I assume you’ll need more than 72,000 words.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

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

QueryDice #4.1

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!

This query was previously Diced on July 28th, 2011. The following is the author’s revised query, based on our suggestions and comments. Kudos to the author for her perseverance!

Dear Ms. Ruth:

When Caitlynn Manning, a Chicago defense attorney, notices suspicious activity surrounding her boss she decides to do some investigating, and this decision will change her life forever.

I like this sentence better than the opening of your previous query. However, I would really like to know why Caitlynn needs to pry into her boss’s affairs. What business is it of hers? In order for me to like this character, she needs to have a very good reason–one that will affect her, personally, in a big way–for getting involved in her boss’s business.

Caitlynn gets caught, (gets caught doing what?) kidnapped, and thrown onto a stolen yacht.  After multiple failed attempts at escaping, it’s time (why is it time? Is this a matter of course, or did the kidnappers move her to keep her under wraps?) for Caitlynn to be moved.  Her new location is close to home.  In fact, she’s being held in plain sight.  (How is this possible? I’m not saying it isn’t, I’d just like to know how it is?)

Caitlynn’s brother, Aaden, and his PI partner, Hudson, are working on a huge case involving a mobster that (who) is supplying the streets of Chicago with heroin.  When Caitlynn turns up missing they have to use their PI skills to search for her, and soon the two cases become one.

Who could gain from Caitlynn’s kidnapping, the drug trafficking mobster, her money laundering boss, or could there be someone else involved?  The first in a series Chicago:  Kidnapping in the Loop is an 80,000 word mystery novel. <—You’re still missing those commas in this sentence.

I currently live in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but I fell in love with the city of Chicago the first time I visited as an adult, so naturally it became the setting of my first novel.

The sentence above is information we don’t really need, which brings me to the biggest problem in this query: not enough information where we really need it. I have too many questions in my head after reading this, and I worry that since the answers weren’t touched upon here, they won’t be answered in the manuscript. Mysteries are difficult to write because of the sometimes very intricate plotting and I worry this author has left out too much information for this to shine.

Additionally, this was very short, and as a result, we have been given very little information about the character’s personalities. Will we like them? What makes them different? Why should we care about the characters?
I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my query letter, and I appreciate your consideration.  My full manuscript is available for you to read upon request.

Sincerely,

[redacted]

Best of luck,

LR

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