Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Piedmont Writer's Query for Remembering You Critiqued

Before we get started just a couple of personal/announcement things:

  • Go Celtics!
  • Glee rocked last night, literally.
  • Congratulations Kylie (my daughter) on an excellent performance in her first high school play.
  • I can't take much more of this Georgia weather. It's nearly November. I want to cuddle up beneath the comforter, not lay in my boxers and a tank top under nothing but a sheet, and still wake up with a pillow moist with sweat.
  • End rant.

And a little bit of interesting literature news that I heard, where else? On NPR this morning:

Henry Austen once said that "Everything came finished from her pen," regarding his sister Jane, and suggesting that she was such a polished writer that she never had to revise, or be edited. Some newly discovered original manuscripts of some of her work may indicate differently. You can read the story here, audio should be available later today, and it even links to a site where you can see pictures of her original handwriting.

I think it's very appropriate that this story broke today, don't you?

Anyway let's get down to business. Before I critique Anne's query I want to thank everyone for their comments yesterday. I agree that Anne's current query is very good. It's already been through many changes, and with the help of Rick and everyone at the PQS it's very well
polished. I think that if she sends it out as is she will probably have a lot of requests, especially when allowed to include her first pages. Anne's writing, especially her dialogue, is very good, and I can't see a query this good holding her writing back.

BUT ... there is almost always room for improvement. I don't claim to be an expert, but I do think about queries a lot, so what I am going to try to do is be as nit picky as possible, and try my best to improve this query. It makes me feel a little pretentious to suggest changes to something that's already been worked on so much, but Anne asked me what I thought, and as writers I think we all owe it to our community to be honest with each other. So here goes:


When Genna goes home to Rhode Island to spend a long-awaited vacation, she finds that her family is falling apart and she has only twenty-one days to put them back together.

This is good. One thing that I do think is missing though is a better sense of Genna as a character. Right now she could be a kid, a grandmother, or a transexual transvestite from Translyvania (sorry Rocky Horror is on the mind). I realize that your next paragraph gives us a pretty good sense of character, but I really think you have to give more in the hook. Your first sentence is your most important. Make it sing.

Perhaps my readers can suggest a better opening pitch?

I am also tripping over the verb spend a little bit. This could be a regional/colloquial thing but where I come from you don't spend a vacation, you take one. Probably not a big deal.

Otherwise I think the last half of this sentence is very good. It has high stakes, it has the surprising but also intriguing twist of the twenty-one days, and it gives us a hint of conflict without giving it all up right off the bat.

Her new promotion as Executive Chef at the posh Crestwood Country Club in Delaware is a dream job. It’s more than the pay and benefits, she has the chance to achieve what she’s always wanted – her own kitchen – and Genna can’t wait to get started when she returns after her Fourth of July holiday.

I think that this paragraph is very good. It tells us a lot about Genna in a few words. I just think that you need to work this all into you opening hook. I know it's tough because you can't get away with using so many words, but if you can combine all this (her hopes/dreams, her love of cooking) into the first line or two, you'd have a more powerful pitch.

However, her vacation is far from relaxing. Two men are vying for her attention, an ex-fiancé who wants to fix the mistakes of the past, and an old school chum who finds her irresistible…and inspires mutual feelings in Genna. Her aunt is also clearly showing signs of mental illness. The family is in denial; her cousins are unable to cope with their mother’s changing behavior and her beloved uncle, dealing with all the stress, has a heart attack.

This is where it gets a little foggy for me. As I've said I'm no expert when it comes to women's fiction so I could be wrong, but this feels like too many different conflicts here. I mean they all sound interesting, and are surely important to Genna and her story, but I think you could achieve a more concise query if you could cut even one of these. It's really only 3 different things, 4 if you count two separate romantic interests, but if you count the romance as one, as the mental illness as two, you can probably get away with that.

I know the heart attack is important (we're talking about Uncle Tony here, right?), but it sounds from this query that the mental illness and the damage it is doing to her family is the real conflict. I'll defer to my female readers on this point, but you may not need the heart attack in the query.

On the other hand, the parts that you should keep are done very well here. I think you've presented the love interests and the mental illness very succinctly. Other than possibly cutting the heart attack I wouldn't change much in this paragraph.

Genna steps in to keep his diner open and the family together while he recuperates and she questions what’s more important – breaking the glass ceiling or remaining with her family. The clock runs out and Genna finds she is needed at her new job, she is needed by her family, and she is needed by lovers old and new. Now Genna must search her soul to find out what she needs.

You could also just move the heart attack part to this paragraph. I don't mean to harp on it, because it's not a deal breaker, but I think it fits better here, rather than in the previous paragraph where it muddies up the sense of what the clear confict is, for me at least.

I also think these last two sentences are very good. Excellent summary.

Now ...

In general there are three things I want to go over. Yesterday some people mentioned length and humor. I know that with queries the idea is to tell just enough, and this query may look a little long here, but keep in mind that this is a blog, with thin margins for the text (or is it wide?) and if you put this query in a word doc in a 12 point font there's plenty of room for the housekeeping info.

When it comes to humor I'm a little ambivalent about it. Essentially it all depends on the story. If your novel is pretty funny, or even just has funny moments, then you may need to inject a little more of that kind of voice into your query. If it's more serious, with some element of tragedy, then this kind of factual description may be just right.

Finally is something Anne and I discussed based on some comments she has received: the concept of cliches in a query. Anne removed some phrases from this query that some readers considered to be cliche. The only one she kept is the glass ceiling idea. I would argue that the glass ceiling idea is not cliche, and even if it is I think it works. It's a very real issue for women, and there is really no other term that can be used to convey it.

Please fogive me for the ridiculous length of this post. This is a tough query for me to critque because I don't really read these kind of books. Also, Anne and readers, please remember this is just the humble opinion of one dumb guy who doesn't really know what he's talking about. Feel free to disagree with me, and please say so if you do. Also feel free to follow or ignore my advice as you see fit. The nature of feedback is that some of it won't fit. Hopefully I've suggested at least one change that resonates for you, and will make your query better.

Readers? Please help us out here. Let me know if I'm an idiot, or just partially deluded, or (not likely) a complete genius. The one thing I think Anne needs most is a stronger, more colorful hook, with more voice and a better sense of character. If you can suggest something that actually works I will heart you like Brett Favre hearts crotchless Wranglers ... er, wait a minute.

23 comments:

Creepy Query Girl said...

I agree about the opening paragraph- I got the sense that she was thirty-something but it would be nice to have that clarified. Matt's input is pretty thorough (as always!) Is the story more dramatic? comic? romantic? I would def. use your writing style in the query to narrow it down- add more light language if there's a lot of humor or up the intensity if it's a full on drama. But all in all, it sounds like a great story! Good job you guys!

Hannah Kincade said...

I will not forgive the length! LOL!

But seriously, if you're missing colder weather, just fly up here. We are currently experience a "hurricane on land." Weatherman words. The wind gusts are otta control and it's doing that rain/snow thing it likes to do when the pressure changes and the wind blows strong. You know. God, I love Minnesota.

Anywho, I agreed with all of your points. Although for me, I think from the rest of the query that the love interests are more of a subplot and moves it more towards romance than women's fiction. Or just mention her growing feelings for the old school friend to muck up things a bit. These are just my opinions as a reader. Hope that helps!

DEZMOND said...

imagine if we all lived in the world like the one in GLEE? :))

Kelly said...

It seems like a more serious story, so I think the tone of the query is good. I agree that the main character should be described more in the first paragraph. There does seem to be too much in the second.
I do think your advice is spot on!!

Elana Johnson said...

When Genna goes home to Rhode Island to spend a long-awaited vacation, she finds that her family is falling apart and she has only twenty-one days to put them back together. (Okay, so I’d revise this just a tiny bit. Maybe like: “Three weeks before Genna starts her new job as Executive Chef at a posh country club, she returns home to Rhode Island to find her family falling apart—and it’s up to her to put them back together.” Also, I don’t think the query needs humor. It needs VOICE. There’s a huge difference. Most people think of voice as being humorous, but it’s not. It’s smart writing. It’s organizing the words in such a way that allows the reader to feel who the person is. I think combining some things into this hook, and adding an em-dash for the kicker also provides some voice. But I could be very wrong about that (I usually am).)

Her new promotion as Executive Chef at the posh Crestwood Country Club in Delaware is a dream job. It’s more than the pay and benefits, she has the chance to achieve what she’s always wanted – her own kitchen – and Genna can’t wait to get started when she returns after her Fourth of July holiday. (I’d cut all of this since I put the job in the first sentence. And I’d find a way to work in a couple of other things that would be lost like her own kitchen. But for now, I’d cut this whole paragraph.)

Elana Johnson said...

(I’d rearrange the conflict, starting with the family. I mean, that’s who she went there to see, so it makes more sense to me to start there. So. “Even as she assists her aunt through the first stages of mental illness, Genna can’t help but dream of running her own kitchen. Those thoughts are quickly silenced when her beloved uncle suffers a heart attack.”

Then I’d move this sentence into the paragraph. “Genna steps in to keep his diner open and the family together while he recuperates. While flipping burgers, she questions what’s more important – breaking the glass ceiling or remaining with her family.”

That gives me all the family drama. Now, onto the lovers!)

Elana Johnson said...

(Okay, so the men. Let’s see. I’ll just toss stuff out there, and you can ignore at will. Maybe like, “In her precious spare time, Genna walks along the beach (Or some other activity where she’d meet the men. Where does she meet them?) where she runs into her ex-fiance—who intends to fix the mistakes of the past—and an old school chum who finds her irresistible. As the starting date for her new job draws closer, Genna finds herself caught between family loyalty, career pressure, and the possibility of true love. (cliché? Probably. But I like it.) She must search her soul to find out which path to follow or risk losing it all."

(Okay, I’m not a fan of the “risk losing it all,” but I do think you need some such consequence statement. I wasn’t a fan of your last line, because I think it made Genna seem a tad on the selfish side. I like searching her soul, but not for what she needs, but for which path to follow. And of course, she won’t lose it all no matter the choice, and that’s why I don’t like what I put. But my brain can’t think of anything else right now. I’ll stew on the way to work.)

Tracy said...

Injecting humor into a query is ONLY acceptable if the story is humorous, or it has a narrator who tells the story with that sort of "I know I shouldn't find this funny, but I do" sort of tone. If it's a more serious, dramatic story, adding humor to the query only makes it feel wrong. So in this instance, I think the tone is perfectly fine for the subject matter.

Spend in the first paragraph is tripping me up a little too. I'd agree to going with Elana's suggestion about how to tweak the hook.

I disagree slightly, that there are too many things going on. In women's fiction it's often about the totality of a female character's struggle. Though I do think adding her uncle's heart attack to the following paragraph is a good suggestion.

Matthew Rush said...

Thanks Tracy! I was hoping someone would overrule me. And I agree, the tone of the query should match the story.

LTM said...

all good suggestions here--I'd say to Anne, read them all, process, come back w/3 'graphs of tight, strong plot summary based on your MS... yes? ... that's what I'd do anyway. All the best of luck~ :o)

re: weather--it was your turn to do the cooler weather dance. *I* did the rain dance~ ;p

Piedmont Writer said...

Thanks Matthew. Thanks everyone.

As you know, this is probably the 437th rendition of this query. This is the best of all the feedback I received from The public Query Slushpile hosted by Rick Daley.

I agree, it's not the best. There is absolutely no voice. I had one, it was cut out. I have to find it and put it back in.

I also had a real hard time with the hook. I couldn't decide whether or not to make this a true romance, or more women't fiction. It ended up women't fiction. Genna's struggle throughout the book to find out what she wants/needs is the main storyline.

Perhaps there is too much information about the family, but to me, that's what makes the internal and external conflicts apparent.

As to the length. This query comes in at 238 words. I do have more than enough room for a bio. paragraph.

Matt, thanks again for hosting me. This was a great experience.

salarsenッ said...

Ooh, all great suggestions. E, you RAWK! I hear you on the opening sentence, Matt. Maybe add some sort of a descriptive before the character's name.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Okay, Matt, I'm sending you our snow. Enjoy! :D

I have nothing else to add. Everyone, including Ann, did a great job.

Voice is important, but it has to match what's in the ms. If it doesn't, the agent either isn't going to read your sample (or request it) because the voice is dull, or will be pissed that the voice didn't live up to expectations.

Old Kitty said...

Well done Kylie too! Yay!!!!

And here's to a proper winter for you over there!

I kind of liked the many conflicts in the query - cos it makes Genna's "job" really tough but being the heroine I am interested as to how she will deal with all these issues!

Have a great day Matt and Piedmont Writer! Take care
x

Angela Ackerman said...

As always, great breakdown, Matt. I found myself nodding throughout. :)

I think for me, to build on what's been said about the conflict--there is a disconnect from the opening hook of 'a family in shambles that she must put together by a deadline' and the part where conflict is intro'd, because the romance angle gets top billing and the family troubles almost feel like an 'add on'.

My immediate thought in this query is to make the romance secondary and mention it lower in the para where you describe that she's struggling to keep the diner running. There you can intro this complication of these men, adding to her stress (both good and bad). To me, this is where the romance angle falls, as an added complication to family problems premise you set up in your opener. However, if the romance is really the most important aspect of the plotline, perhaps it is the hook that needs rethinking to better focus on this. (And I love you hook BTW), but feel that as Matthew does, that you need a tiny bit more personal info (her age for one, or the fact that she's a chef) in that hook, without making it unweildly and long.

Anyway, it's a great query any way you slice it, but these were my thoughts as I read...what's more important--the family situation or the romance?

All the best,

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think the first line could just start "Genna's family is falling apart and she has just twenty-one days to put them back together."
And we aren't much better weather-wise here in the Carolinas!

Lydia Kang said...

Ah, Elana stole my thunder. I agree it could use a little more voice, and it can be serious or humorous or whatever is appropriate for the novel.
But the premise sound good and I love the ticking clock as a factor that adds tension.

Lisa and Laura said...

First of all, you don't give yourself enough credit, Matt! You rock at queries...okay, on to our opinion, for what it's worth...

When Genna goes home to Rhode Island to spend a long-awaited vacation, she finds that her family is falling apart and she has only twenty-one days to put them back together.

I love the 21 days concept, but I agree that we need a more succinct hook here.

All Genna ever wanted was a break before jumping into her new position as executive chef. But when she heads home for a fourth of July holiday, she's instead faced with a race against the clock.

Okay, this is lame-o, but maybe you get the picture???? We'd use the time constraint to build tension.

Her new promotion as Executive Chef at the posh Crestwood Country Club in Delaware is a dream job. It’s more than the pay and benefits, she has the chance to achieve what she’s always wanted – her own kitchen – and Genna can’t wait to get started when she returns after her Fourth of July holiday.

Not sure if you really need all this. You might be able to add some of the more important details to your first paragraph. Either that or really tighten this up.

However, her vacation is far from relaxing. Two men are vying for her attention, an ex-fiancé who wants to fix the mistakes of the past, and an old school chum who finds her irresistible…and inspires mutual feelings in Genna. Her aunt is also clearly showing signs of mental illness. The family is in denial; her cousins are unable to cope with their mother’s changing behavior and her beloved uncle, dealing with all the stress, has a heart attack.

Again, just a tightening up here. I stumbled over the second line--this might be clearer:
Two men are vying for her attention, an ex-fiancé wants to fix the mistakes of the past, and an old school chum finds her irresistible…and inspires mutual feelings in Genna.

Genna steps in to keep his (We'd change to her uncle's) diner open and the family together while he recuperates and she questions what’s more important – breaking the glass ceiling or remaining with her family. The clock runs out and Genna finds she is needed at her new job, she is needed by her family, and she is needed by lovers old and new. Now Genna must search her soul to find out what she needs.

A lot of good information here and it's bound to grab attention. Hopefully this ridiculously long comment makes sense!

Ishta Mercurio said...

I think what I'm missing is the connection to the aunt and uncle - did they raise her? How close are they? When I read that portion of the query, my thought was, "Why does this stress her out so much? It's not like we're talking about her parents." Unless she's staying with them while on vacation? See what I mean?

Otherwise, this is a strong query. Nice job!

And Matt, Glee - Oh, yes. Last night was fantastic. On SO many levels!

Falen (Sarah Ahiers) said...

hell, we had snow this morning. and the wind was so strong it blew down part of our fence.
YAY MN!

I pretty much can't stand Will on Glee anymore, so he came awfully close to ruining the episode for me

Candyland said...

I wanted to read on...I tried...but you said the word "moist" too soon...and I had to go throw up.

Colene Murphy said...

I agree on the over-active paragraph. It kinda made me a little nervous to think about how many peoples problems. I mean, it's fine IN the book but in the query it made me a littler hesitant.

Great input! The story really does sound amazing too!

Christina Lee said...

What can I possibly add after you, Elana, Angela, etc. did it justice? But the story sounds GOOD!

And yay for your daughter!