Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tricia Sutton's Current Query Critiqued

Here we are. Back with Tricia's query. For anyone who is new here, Tricia's query will stay in plain text, and my feedback will be in red.

Let's get right to it:

Dear Agent:

They are naïve. They are uncivilized. They are an Oklahoma family adjusting to 1970s California culture shock (shocking the culture, is more like it). Meet the Austens.

I'm not sure about this opening. I mean it's certainly unconventional, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I'm not sure it hooks us in and makes a reader say "oh wow, I've GOT to read on." It does have some clever voice, but I'm not exactly sure what all this means. The Austens would have to be pretty strange to shock the flower-child culture of 70s California. Perhaps they are, but below it seems like with the Hippy Bus, they'd fit right in. Maybe the problem is that they're shocking the neighbors in their upscale neighborhood, and not California 70s culture in general.

The other problem, which actually may not be a problem due to the dual narrative frame story nature of your novel, is that we have no sense of character. You give us a pretty good one with the next paragraph, so I don't think it's a huge deal, but usually query letters open by introducing a character. I think yours can work without sticking to that norm.

Actually, Patty, the elementary-age youngest member, would prefer that you didn't. Not if she plans on fitting in. Her family, whose outrageous antics often leaves her hiding in embarrassment (even their cat is a regular in the police blotter), is only half the problem.

I like this. A lot. In fact, I think you might consider making Patty your hook. I mean she seems so unique, and turns out to be your narrator (in more than one way), so she would make a great opening. I don't think it's required to make this query work, but you should consider it.

Patty’s the other half. She practices every religion, for good measure, has inanimate objects for friends, i.e., Aunt Jemima syrup bottle and a pet rock, and believes in luck, charms, and signs. Clearly, her family’s not the only one a straw short of a haystack. I'm not sure about this. I like the voice, but isn't straw plural? What's the word for one stalk of straw? I'm no expert in hay, but for some reason it sounds off. But she craves a normal life. Normal isn’t for the hearing impaired. She’s too deaf for the hearing world and not deaf enough to ignore what folks are saying about her family, about her. Normal isn’t being the only white girl in an all black school. And when they move—and they move a lot—it isn’t being the only poor hillbilly among old-money privilege.

I love this character. That will probably be enough to make this query work, and therefore for an agent to request pages, but what's missing here is a clear sense of conflict. We get a general idea of the kind of things Patty's going to have to overcome, but the main conflict is so vague it's almost non-existent. Unless the main conflict is the issue about the psych ward. I'll get to that when we reach that part.

When her dad purchases a psychedelic hippie-band tour bus as their new residence and then parks it in their upscale neighborhood, she realizes that maybe she is meant for something different, that ordinary life is not for her. Being a society reject breeds an isolation that can lead one to amazing and unexpected things. Or life in the loony bin.

This is where the logic breaks down for me a little. If they're poor hillbillies, how to they afford to live in an upscale neighborhood? If not, and they're just rich and eccentric, why do they live in a bus? I'm sure it all makes sense in your novel, but in the query I get a bit confused.

In alternating timelines, adult Patty (our unreliable narrator) is in the hospital recovering from back surgery. Either from side-effects of morphine or perhaps from too many episodes of Jerry Springer, she believes she may actually be in the psych ward, contrary to what the staff tells her.

This is what I was referring to earlier. I get the sense that your novel has two plot arcs of equal importance and screen time, but neither one of their conflicts is made clear enough in the query. Clearly with an unreliable narrator who may or may not know exactly what is going on in the present, it's going to be hard to convey for sure what she must overcome in the query, but for the historical plot line, we definitely need a better, and more specific sense of what kind of adversity Patty has to overcome.

PSYCH WARD, a spotlight of my achievements, I'm not sure how this works. Normally the working title of an unpublished manuscript is capitalized but not italicized in a query letter. I don't know about subtitles like this. I suspect you've done it right, but I'm not positive. Although, you might want to not italicize the main title. is a 99,000-word family saga told in a nonlinear frame-like narrative with one protagonist, two storylines, and two plots. My story of the bullied misfit is softened with humor like that of THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN and of FORREST GUMP.

This novel reflects my own experiences growing up hearing impaired, which has enabled me to write with authenticity about my protagonist. I've had publications in Slow Trains, Turtle Quarterly, Halfway Down the Stairs, and various print and web magazines, including excerpts of my novel. For a list of publications, please visit

To summarize, this is one of the hardest queries I've ever critiqued. For one thing, it's very strong on certain things like voice and character. The issues I have with plot and conflict may not really apply to a query that is describing such an unconventional novel. My suggestion would be to only make the changes I suggest if they resonate with your vision for the story, and only if my readers and your critique partners concur. Another option is to send out a very few queries to see if it is working, before you begin to query widely.

That's it.

What do you guys think? Does the query really need a crystal clear sense of plot and conflict when the narrator herself may not know exactly what is going on? Can you imagine a query for a story that sounds like a cross between The Grapes of Wrath and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Anything I missed? Anything I said you disagree with?


Nancy said...

This novel sounds like it has a lot of interesting stuff going on. I am not sure of the market from reading the query, usually it is based on the age of the protagonist but since there are two storylines going on? From the way this was written I assumed it was going to be a middle grade but then it switched, so one suggestion might be to start with whichever age the book is being marketed for. I agree that it needs a bit stronger hook, probably about protagonist instead of family. That being said, it sounds like the story itself has great potential. good luck.

Sarah said...

I agree, Matt. These days, I don't think a good character is enough--you must have a clear plot and conflict. I've read this over and over again, even from agents who primarily rep lit fic. I'd cut the first paragraph, for sure, present some clear conflict/choice the protagonist must make, and streamline some of the details. The part about her being hearing impaired--but "not deaf enough" is brilliant and unique, and I'd say it's a highlight of this query. The rest of it seems a bit unfocused, so I suggest stripping out as much as possible and rebuilding it from the bones--an alienated girl finding her way, and an alienated woman walking the line between sanity and losing herself. And then connect the two very clearly, so the past-present structure is compelling.

Old Kitty said...

I would like to know more why Patty's family are deemed "uncivilized" etc - there doesn't seem to be a logic why they act like they do except to give Patty her character's excuse to be embarrassed by them. I can't see how elaborating about her family ties up with her being in the Psych Ward of the book's title too.

Patty does come across as a fab character though! Take care

Emily White said...

I completely agree, especially about the first paragraph. The character herself seemed very quirky and interesting, but that alone can't carry a novel and I think no matter how a story is written, the plot needs to be clear in the query.

But I LOVED the voice and I hope I get a chance to read the book some day!

Michael G-G said...

There is much to like about this query. It has a captivating voice (love it that the cat's in the police blotter) and a quirky character in Patty.

Also, the "housekeeping" at the end is some of the best I've seen: good comparison to other novels, without going overboard; an intimate connection to the material (the author herself is hearing impaired)revealed; and relevant publication credits demonstrated. Excellent.

Things I would consider changing: The opening paragraph sounded gimmicky to me, and the gimmick didn't quite work (for reasons Matt explains better than I could.)
Also, I think I need a stronger sense at the beginning that this is not some quirky middle grade novel, but a book for the adult market. I don't get that critical information until the end of the query.

Small grammar nit: It should be "whose outrageous antics often leave her hiding."

Thanks for sharing this, Tricia. A major thing that came across is that you are an accomplished writer. I think you are almost there with this query, and I wish you great success with your novel WHEN you snag an agent.

Brinda said...

I think Matt did a good job of pointing out the areas that need tweaking. Good luck on this submission!

Brinda said...

I think Matt did a good job of pointing out the areas that need tweaking. Good luck on this submission!

mshatch said...

I have nothing to add except that Matt's suggestions and comments were right on as were the rest.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Great critiques, Matt!
I guess I like what it's trying to say, but it takes too long and is a little too roundabout. There are so many anecdotes about why Patty's family is weird. I feel like Tricia is trying to get the message of the novel across, as opposed to the plot.
That said, I agree that this query does a lot of things well. The writing is definitely solid, and the book sounds very interesting. Sometimes that's more than enough. :)

Johanna Garth said...

It sounds like something I want to read! That being said, the first line didn't work for me. I had to re-read it three times. I'd start with reworking that first line and then maybe the rest will fall into place.

Tricia said...

Thank you, Matt. It's actually very validating that you said this is one of the hardest queries you've critiqued. Internal conflict and character-driven stories are hard to sum up in just a few paragraphs. When I tell people it took me 5 years to write the novel, what I really mean is I wrote a novel while trying to write the query. :-)

Your comments, and that of the others, helps a lot. I also like your advice on sending out to just a few agents. This very query was sent to 9 agents so far. So far nothing, not even a form rejection. I can't wait to re-write based on everyone's suggestions and test it again.

Thank you again, everyone, and keep it coming.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I think there's some authorial intrusion here as well. For example, you tell us Patty is an unreliable narrator. That should be shown, and i don't think it needs to be brought up in the query at all.
I also balked at the "i.e." when listing Patty's inanimate friends

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

The novel sounds very interesting, but the opening of this query needs to be totally rewritten. Your comments are astute Mr. MacNish.

Jay Noel said...

The opening paragraph is a little too cute. Too gimicky. And agents/publishers will usually just toss it away right there. So be careful with that.

Good job with your critique, Matt.

Rachel Pudelek said...

I agree with tossing out the first paragraph. Also love the voice and I think a story from that POV would be very interesting.

So glad I found this blog!

Lydia Kang said...

I loved that Sherman Alexie book, and I can totally see the quirkiness in the query reflecting that. However, I got that towards the end of the query. Earlier on, the stakes and a clearer picture of the family is needed. Still, this book looks like a really fun read!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Someone else said the opening was gimmicky, and I think that describes it well. And what are the elements? Who, what, and why? Those need to be strong in the query.
Good job, Matthew!

Nicole Zoltack said...

The voice is spot on but since there are two plots in the novel, I think more time needs to be focused on them.

Lola Sharp said...

Everyone, Matt and all the commenters, have all said exactly what I was thinking. I can't think what I could add to the discussion except to say I agree with everyone.
The beginning paragraph is trying to do something unique, and I appreciate that, but it just didn't stick the landing, IMHO. I'd cut it and start with introducing your quirky MC and make sure you clarify what the main conflict is and what's at stake.

Good luck! :)

Kristen Wixted said...

Yes, right now it's just plain confusing. When I had my query critiqued, I went through all the really clever comments and cut and pasted them into a word doc, then I read and re-read them until I absorbed them. Then I re-wrote the query two more times. It gets easier the more times you write it. I had a similarly complicated sort of problem, like you.
Good luck--you do have some great details in there. Love the cat.

L.C. said...

Since it is an unconventional-sounding novel, I'm assuming Ms. Sutton will be subbing to agents who specialize in less "commercial" type novels, so they might be fine with a query like this?(i.e., mostly character instead of A to B to C plot points.) Very tough to critique, indeed.

I do very much agree with Matt about the "hook" issue, as well as the hippie bus in the upscale neighborhood--it doesn't help me get a feel for who this family is.

Marta Szemik said...

I definitely like Patty and agree that she should be the hook. Thanks for sharing your query.

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is a very, very interesting query.

I think - and this is really not the norm - that most of the confusion about the stakes and the plot stems from the fact that you don't tell us until the end of your query that it's told in a non-linear frame with two storylines and two plots. That's kind of a good hook - it's intriguing, and it makes me wonder how you're going to pull it off. So I'd suggest putting the stuff about "I'm querying you because" and "My novel is titled THIS and it's this long and two plotlines etc. etc." at the beginning, so when we read through the rest of it, it makes more sense. It still needs a bit of tightening, but I think that change would make the most difference.

That's just my opinion, though. And in the title, I'd put a colon after "PSYCH WARD," capitalize everything, and lose the italics. It's clear (to me, anyway) that the part after the colon is a subtitle.

Good luck! I agree with Matt that the main character sounds pretty neat, and I hope you get somewhere with this.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I meant to also mention: I agree that you could cut the examples of her inanimate object friends, and I am also confused about why her family is living in a tour bus in an upscale neighbourhood.

But I think you've really got something here. Good luck!

Rusty Webb said...

Just want to add my voice to the choir in stating that the voice is awesome, but plot is still a mystery. Also, there were several parathetical expressions. No one else seemed to care, but they were a bit distracting to me.

Lori M. Lee said...

Oooh I've seen this query around. Loved your dissection! I'm not sure if this is a book I'd pick up, but that's entirely my own personal preference. Objectively, it sounds great!