Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Shauna Kelley's Current Query Critiqued

Today is Shauna's query again, but this time with my feedback, in red.

The letter:

Dear Fiction Editor:

You must be submitting directly to small presses/indie publishers.

I respectively submit for you review Don’t Wake Up, a 52,000 word literary fiction novel. No. Novels are always fiction, by definition. Otherwise, they'd be memoirs, or biographies, or narrative non-fiction.

Told from the perspective of Gillian, a plain, middle-aged woman, this story opens as she sits by the side of her comatose husband’s bed. This opening sounds like a synopsis to me. It's dry, it's distant, and we don't get a sense of why we should care about Gillian. I want to connect to a sense of character right away in a query letter, and in this one, I'm not. As doctors and nurses rush to assure her that Ricky this sounds more like a son's name than a husband's. will recover well from this mysterious fall, Gillian muses over the years of cold silence and manipulation that have overshadowed their marriage, and her life. I like this a bit, it's a nice twist, and probably enough conflict for a literary novel, since they're more about character, language, and internal struggle than they are about plot, but I'd like to hear some more specifics.

While Gillian guiltily reveals to who? If it's only to the reader, I don't know if I'd call that revealing. that she hopes Ricky remains in his coma and leaves her to a delightfully empty house, his eyes open to reveal a man who claims to remember nothing of his former self. Interesting. Gillian, convinced that this is only a furthering of the manipulations and this is an echo, and with the mind games, you don't need both. cruel mind games that have filled most of her life, seeks to test this new Ricky. She invents a family they never had, and fills his head with stories of an imaginary life. This hints at some interesting psychological conflict, and that's probably enough for a literary novel's query, but I wonder if you couldn't get more specific, and end on some kind of difficult choice she'd have to make. Do they have no family who could discover her ruse? Surely she must choose between the comfort of her deception and the consequences of the truth being discovered.

My first book, Title of First Book, Italicized was published by Lucky Press in late Month 2010. I've It received a very warm reception in the market, and some great reviews to start with, this makes it sound like it started getting bad reviews, later. including being named a finalist in the ForeWord Book of the Year Awards. What category is it under? I checked the 2010 finalists, for Adult Literary, at this link, but I couldn't find it. Was that book some other genre?

I am hopeful that this book will be of interest to your press, and am very excited and anxious to hear your response and feedback look forward to your response. I am including a synopsis and sample chapter below. Please do let me know if there is any other information I can provide.


Shauna Kelley

Okay, in summary, as Jessica pointed out yesterday, it's hard to sell a literary novel, and it's even harder to write a query for one. Usually, there is little focus on high-stakes plot in a literary novel, and that can make it difficult to write a compelling query that really zings.

That being said, I think you've done a decent job here, when it comes to content. You've got a unique premise, that I think makes for an interesting story situation, and all you need to do is work on some of the details in the execution of getting that premise across.

If you could open with a better sense of Gillian as a character, and close with a better sense of some kind of difficult choice she has to make, I think you'd be in much better shape here.

That's it.

What do you guys think? Has anyone ever tried to query a literary novel?


Sarah said...

I think you covered most of my concerns, Matt. I started to perk up in the 3rd paragraph, but until then, it did feel distant and, to be frank, boring--and I know it's not! That's clear from the third paragraph. There's a very intriguing story here, but this query misses its chance to hook the editor early. A stronger, more compelling start is required to do it justice.

Specifically, the editor knows you're a writer telling her/him about the story. So it's unnecessary to say "the story opens with ..."<--wasted words. Just say "Gillian sits beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights in the hospital room, holding her comatose husband's hand ... secretly hoping he never wakes up."

Well, I mean, you don't have to say that, but I suggest leaping straight into the conflict. You expect a woman to want her husband to wake up, and so offering this kind of twist on the expectation could immediately draw someone in because it leads to questions about WHY Gillian feels this way and what she's going to do about it.

Best of luck with this!!

Traci Kenworth said...

I love listening to your advice, it helps me with my own queries. That said, I do see your point with this query. It doesn't seem like much "action" takes place and perhaps that would make it a hard push. But I definitely think there's a story here.

Stella Telleria said...

Wow! Great advice from both Matt and Sarah. The first graph does sound more like a synopsis. It needs more hook, and as Matt said more character exposition. It definately felt like the end needed more information to clue the reader in to what the stakes are. But the story sounds very interesting!! The query just doesn't do it justice yet. :D

L. Diane Wolfe said...

It does need more personality. A dry synopsis will read just like that - a dry synopsis.

Eliza Tilton said...


Nick Wilford said...

I agree with all the advice offered so far. I would say to have the problems in the marriage up front - like "Gillian thinks she's caught a break when her cruel, manipulative husband falls into a coma", something like that. We need more drama and emotion in the first paragraph. I'm working on a memory loss story too so I'm intrigued by this!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I got worried when I read that the character muses. I'm afraid that she spends a lot of the novel just thinking. Follow the advice of Matt and the other commenters and that should fix the problem. Otherwise, I think there's an interesting story lurking in this query.

I don't read literary novels, but I would expect more voice than what I'm seeing here. Make sure it reflects the voice in your novel. I know, it's not easy but you can do it. :)

farawayeyes said...

Interesting comments and critique. I learned a lot here today. Thanks Matt and Shauna.

mmshaunakelley said...

Thank you all for all of your comments. This looks like great feedback to whip this query into shape.

Jericha Senyak said...

I've been lurking around QQQE in abashed silence for a while, but this one kind of leaped out at me because I've been trying to decide whether to submit a query for MY literary fiction manuscript. I find it so helpful just to read your critiques (and the comments! hello, lovely commenters!) even when the genre is completely different that this one really came across as a zinger.

As someone who DOES read literary fiction, the premise of a woman who reinvents a past to "test" her husband is totally fascinating to me. In all honesty, I could do with less obviousness when it comes to the cruelty and manipulation of her husband BEFORE the coma - I would be fascinated to read a query that sets out the premise with only a hint at their past, that is, that suggests that she might not want him to wake up and describes her reinventing their past together with only a shadow of why. That would make me curious. If the book is really a lot about her internal processes in remaking her relationship, giving it a sense of things slowly and subtly being revealed is what is going to make me want to read it and keep me from worrying about dull, expository "musing," as Stina said, above.

Eric W. Trant said...

Your opening should be a punchier version of the eye-open paragraph. e.g. when I remove unnecessary words and passives:

"While Gillian hopes her husband remains in his coma and leaves her a delightfully empty house, he opens his eyes and remembers nothing of his former self. Convinced this is another of his cruel mind games, she tests this new man by inventing a family and life they never had."

And... NOW WHAT! I'm hooked in two sentences, which is all you get.

Spend more time on this part and hash it out. Matt's long red comment in this paragraph is crucial: What did she invent that was so interesting?

Also, I noticed quite a few weasel words. For example:

"It receive a very warm reception in the market, and some great reviews to start with."


"It received a warm reception and great reviews."

I also saw passives throughout. For example:

"I am hopeful that this book will be of interest to your press... I am including..."


"I hope this book will interest you. I included a synopsis..."

EVERY word counts, much like in poetry. Preserve your voice, but remove unnecessary words and phrases.

Good luck. This is a great premise (I don't comment on book premises I didn't like), and I hope the story she invents is intriguing.

- Eric

Matthew MacNish said...

@ Eric - I can never reply to you by email, because you don't have your address associated, and I don't have your address to enter manually, but thanks so much for the comment. You make some great points!

elizabeth seckman said...

Excellent advice. As a reader I got intrigued by the concept of an abused wife who is about to get even with a rotten husband. That's the hook. Start there.

Justine Dell said...

Okay! One, Matt, as always you've done a great job with your crit. I've never queried a literary novel, never written one, or heck, I don't think I've ever read one. BUT, with that being said, I think I have something in common is with this gal and I would like to share.

Before I do that, I would like to point out, IMO, that the third paragraph is what really drew me into this query. I worried that an agent/editor wouldn't get that far.

Now, my second novel also revolved around an amnesia plot. I found out--after the fact--that amnesia plots are cliched and frowend upon. HOWEVER, there are people out there who still love (editors, publishers, and readers alike). The thing writers have to do is take that amnesia plot and twist it into something that's never been done. The way you describe your story, I think you've done exactly that. I've never seen an amnesia plot twisted quiet like this and I think it's wonderful that you are taking your characters to strange and interesting places. Because of that, I wish this query (and the book!) the best of luck in finding a home. Mine did. ;-)


Robyn Lucas said...

All of the above comments are spot on! Really focus on your main plot point (inciting incident) and tension to grab the agent/ editor's attention.

Leave off the pub credits if the sales weren't really great and if the reviews were ho-hum.

Also, not sure if this has been pointed out, but 52K? For a lit fic? Seems too short. You may want to try to apply the Save the Cat beatsheet to strengthen your plot.

Best of luck to you!

Sarah Ahiers said...

I think the query started off slow for me, but then got better as it went along. i would really try hard to zazz up that opening, to catch that editor's attention right away, and then i think you're pretty good to go if you follow Matt's advice.
Good luck!

Joshua said...

In general, I didn't feel hooked by the letter. Not enough to want to read it. That's all I have.

Joshua said...

And by "it" I mean the book, not the letter. I did read that.

Nicole Zoltack said...

The third paragraph interested me. Matt and the others had some great comments and suggestions, I don't have anything to add. Good luck!

mshatch said...

great suggestions here and I completely agree that the opening is weak and lacking voice. Starting off with Gillian at the bedside hoping her husband never wakes up is a great hook, imo, because it begs the question, why? And hopefully that will be enough for the agent reading to want to see more.

Nancy Thompson said...

This is what I love about The QQQE: Matt's spot-on perfect advice, as well as the commentary advice which is strong & substantial with examples of what might work better. Seen from so many different perspectives, it becomes clear what a reader would like to see. I agree with everyone. Using their advice, you might start by rewriting your query from the wife's POV so the voice is clear & doesn't feel so detached, then switch back to third person. Also, the word count is pretty low to be considered an adult novel, especially literary fiction. Makes me worry that it's not fully developed yet. Having said all that, I find the premise to be quite interesting.

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, it does sound like an interesting premise--I like the creative reinvention of a life together as a means of changing it. I think Matt has good points, though I think I might also tighten the beginning--the set-up seems best done in one or two sentences (husband in coma, wishes he'd stay their as life was bad)--the rest is the part that is twisty and unique, so the focus there.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I like the query letter suggestions that you give. It'll be easier to get a publisher interested than an agent (in my opinion). That just seems to be the way things go.

Johanna Garth said...

Good advice Matt. I like a query letter with a little drama that sucks me in right away!

Elana Johnson said...

I agree with the synopsis-like opening. You really want to lead with a strong hook to make the person (agent/editor) read the whole letter. Each sentence should drive us through the letter.

Matt has some great feedback.

Tricia said...

I try to comment from time to time but Blogspot hates me. This is more of a test to see if my comment shows since I have nothing to add that hasn't already been said. I felt I should at least show up since I read and write literary. I guess I could add that you could show a comparison novel or movie to ground the agent. Other than that Matt is a genius at this.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I've never tried to write a literary novel much less a query for one. Great critique, Matt. I'm fascinated by the story premise. Makes me wonder if it will go the way of the film "Regarding Henry" which I loved.

Ciara said...

Great points. I did think it improved after the first paragraph or two. Queries are tough, I can't imagine writing one for a literary novel. I hope this helps.

Sally Spratt said...

Thanks for the tips. Some of the corrections seem obvious i.e. fiction novel. I thought the bed was comatose, not the husband - because of the sentence: ...husband's comatose bed.

Angela Ackerman said...

I agree Matt, the biggest issue is that I feel like I'm outside this woman's life and looking in, when I should feel her volatile emotions and there fore really feel a connection with the events that unfold. I'd like to have a bit more after the 'inventing a new family', like how this entangles her into a difficult position--does she start to fall for Ricky again, and find it harder and harder to keep lies from truths? Does something else happen to complicate matters?

We should be left feeling the stakes escalate in some way before launching into a para about past publications.

Great advice as always!


DL Hammons said...

Literary fiction is so far outside my comfort zone, that I hesitate to even offer an opinion. I do agree there's a sense of detachment early on, but that may have been intentional. There is some really great feedback here!

Misha Gericke said...

Excellent tips as usual. The main thing that I'd gotten yesterday was that I couldn't get a feel for Gillian.


Jess said...

I agree with most of what Matt said here~ sounds like you've got a really interesting psychological twist on the somewhat common literary novel theme of an unhappy marriage. Best of luck!

Elise Fallson said...

Well, everything has already been said. Take Matthew's critique and the advice above and your query will be rockin in no time! It also helps that you have a really interesting premise. I'm more an action/adventure type of gal but I'd really be interested in reading your book.

Traci Kenworth said...

Passing on The Kreativ Blogger and Versatile Blogger award to you...congratulations and good work!! See to receive your awards.

JeffO said...

Late to the party because blogger once again dumped you from my feed yesterday (though you were back today, go figure).

Tough query to write. As someone who is pitching a semi-literary novel, I feel your pain. I think you've got a good story in here, but the query needs to be stronger up front: Start with Gillian sitting by her comatose husband's bedside, not be telling us the POV. And I think if you round out the para by saying something like: "But Gillian doesn't want her husband to wake up: Ricky has filled their marriage with mind games etc." gives us a big wallop of inner conflict right there. Then you can say something like, 'When Ricky wakes up, he claims to remember none of this. Suspicious, Gillian spins a tale of a family they never had and so forth.'

Finally, I don't quite know where this is going. Does she find herself falling for the 'new' man her husband claims to be, but remains suspicious that it's just another trick? Has she met someone else while he was comatose? Does she want to leave him, but feels responsible for caring for him? I think you need to show us just a bit more of where this is going to entice an agent or editor into biting.

Good luck!