Friday, July 20, 2012

Ray Kolb's Current Query Critiqued

Happy Friday, readers. Today we have Ray's query again, this time with my feedback, in red.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

A PRAYER BEFORE DYING is the story of an ex-priest investigating the murder of the Archbishop who kicked him out of the Church.

I'm not sure you need this little summary. I mean I get it, it does sum up what is obviously an interesting, unique premise pretty well, but you're going to show us all of this in the rest of the query, right? There's not much point in telling us, and then showing us as well, is there?

Former Catholic Priest Simon Voss has a gambling problem that has gotten him into trouble most of his life. I like this. It's a great introduction to an interesting, flawed character, and it tells a lot about what kind of person he is. If you remove that opening paragraph, you can just add a few words to the beginning of this one. After two years, Simon is coming out of a self-imposed exile when the Archbishop who defrocked him is murdered, the body staged like David’s The Death of Marat. The proper title of a painting like this should be italicized just like the title of a published book. Because of their rocky past, Simon is the number one suspect but the brutality and theatricality of the killing suggest someone else. Suggest to who? One thing that I think would help would be to ground your story in a setting. What diocese is this occurring in? Besides Simon, who is investigating? The FBI? The City Police?

I'm nit picking this query, because you've asked for a critique, but I have to say, I think it's already pretty good. You give us an interesting character right up front, and then you toss him into an inciting incident that is full of conflict and potential for high-stakes tension.

Because of his previous experience as an investigator with the military police, Simon is hired by the Church to find the Archbishop’s killer. So he's suspected by the authorities outside the church, but is trusted by the church to investigate anyway? I think that makes for a very cool contradiction, but you could work on clarifying it, because it could be clearer. Simon uncovers several suspects with reason to kill the Archbishop, but it becomes clear someone within the Church is the murderer. As more priests are murdered and their bodies staged like other death paintings, Simon uncovers the Archbishop’s secrets--a lover and a son, and a years-long mission to catch a killer among priests. Um, I can't think of any way to improve on these last two sentences. This is getting very good.

Finding the killer isn’t Simon’s only problem. I want this sentence to have one word that links it to the previous one. Just a "however," or an "although," or something like that. After several violent clashes with a loan shark’s thugs over past-due gambling debts, the loan shark wants Simon dead. I'm not sure exactly what you mean here. The thugs attacked Simon, but he survived and fought back? If not, and they just roughed him up, I'm not sure how that escalates to the shark wanting him dead. Loan shark's usually prefer breaking limbs so debtors can still pay up. And with the police claiming to have evidence linking Simon to the Archbishop’s murder, Simon knows he’s being set up. Ooh, nice twist. I like this.

While avoiding the police and the loan shark’s thugs, Simon must catch the Archbishop's murderer or become the subject of his own death painting. This is a great summary of the overall conflict, but it would be even better if you could add one more sentence about a tough decision Simon has to make. I mean sure, it's already implied, but it would be great if you could make it explicit.

A PRAYER BEFORE DYING is a mystery complete at 95,000 words and the first novel in a projected series. I have had several short stories published, most recently [list of latest publications].

Thank you for your time and consideration.



Okay. In summary, this query is already very good. I wouldn't change a whole lot. As I said above, I'm nit-picking it, because there is almost always room for improvement, and because you asked for help.

You really don't need to make any major changes. You've got a good sense of character conveyed, you've clearly got a great conflict going on, and even some excellent subplots explained without getting too wordy or going on too long.

The one thing I think you need to focus on is clarifying a couple of points. The two big ones for me are making the contradiction between Simon as a suspect to the authorities and Simon as being trusted by the church clearer, and getting more specific about exactly what goes down with the loan shark's thugs. Finally, it might help to know where this is happening, but it's probably not required.

That's it.

What do you all think? Doesn't this sound like a great read? Is there anything I missed that could help improve this query?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Another spot-on critique. Yeah, dump the first line and adjust a few things and she's got it.

maine character said...

I didn't think it could be improved much, but I really like your suggestion for the beginning.

All I really noticed were that there's two sentences in a row that begin with “Because of."

I really like how everything's set up in a logical order from crisis to further crisis. And how the gambling makes him no angel.

Only question I had was if the archbishop had been investigating this same murderer, his "years-long mission to catch a killer among priests," or if this was a new guy, since the paintings weren't used before.

But really, sounds excellent.

Jackie said...

Hi Matt and Ray,

I usually just lurk, so I'm pretty intimidated to leave the first comment.

Ray, I thought your query was good. When I read Matt's comments I was convicted once again at how great a job Matt does finding way to make a query stronger.

I like the sound of your story and hope your query wows the person you send it to.

Good luck!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Matt nailed this one! This is a very strong query to start with (if you get rid of that summary first line). Matt already noted the parts where clarification of conflict is needed, and Maine Character noted how two sentences begin with the same phrase. I have nothing to add. Good luck with this!

Sarah said...

Great feedback, Matt, and I agree this query is pretty clean. I guess I'd just add to avoid starting 2 sentences in a row (or close together) with "because," and also that the last sentence could use more punch. This seems like a pretty gritty read, so I want the final sentences to be short. Chilling. I want them to convey some urgency, as well as some of the voice. To do that, I would avoid beginning the sentence with a subordinate clause, and perhaps converting it to one or two brief, simple, pointed, and direct sentences.

Really, that's nitpicking, as Matt said, because this query is strong already. Best of luck with it!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yep this query is very good.
I would definitely lose that first sentence. Like matt said, you don't need to tell us what the query is about if you're just going to show us. An agent may read that first line and think "eh, i'm not intersted in the murder of an archbishop" and not even read the rest of it. Ditch it.
Also, in the second paragraph you use "uncover" twice. I'd change one.
And then, like Matt said, one more sentence at the end, highlighting his choice more, will give this a stronger punch at the end.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting concept. As I said yesterday, Matthew's notes were much better than mine, and covered any that I would have said.

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

I think this sounds like a really interesting story! (I'd read this.) But, as cool as the title is, I think it's been done before. It sounded familiar to me, so I typed it into Amazon and a few things came up. Just something to be aware of.
Good luck with this!

farawayeyes said...

I must be learning, because, I too, did not like that opening summary sentence, BUT the rest of this was pretty WOW.

Thanks Ray for sharing and Matt for the informative and helpful nit-picking.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Very good critique and the book sounds fascinating... Nice of you to share your experience of critiquing. Thank you.

Bryan Russell said...

Spot on. As usual.

Nancy Thompson said...

You nailed it! Definitely delete that telling intro. It might scare away an agent from an otherwise awesome query & story.

Jess said...

Wow, I have to say that I love the sound of this book~ I bet it's impossible not to read to the end :) I agree with Matt's suggestions and think you've got a really intriguing story here!

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I have no idea what the Death of Marat even looks like. So telling me in a query that a body is staged like this is really useless I think. Just say the body was staged like a famous painting.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query and critique. Like Marcy, I noticed the two "Because" sentences. I do think it needs to state a difficult choice at the end like Matt suggested.

Anonymous said...

Hello, this is Ray again.
First off, Matt thank you so much for the critique of my query. And thank you for the kind words.
Second, thanks to everyone for chiming in with their opinions, suggestions, and again for the kind words.

To the specifics:

Obviously, the consensus is that I need to nix the opening summary statement. Will do! :)

I read this query at least a 100 times before sending it off to Matt. When I read it yesterday here on the blog, it was first time I noticed the two sentences back to back starting with “because.” Weird how stuff like that happens. Will definitely be changing that. (And I completely missed the double use of “uncovered” - thanks, Sarah Ahiers!)

Regarding the Church hiring Simon, it’s actually one person within the Church but I couldn’t figure out how to say that succinctly without going into detail why this one person would do that.

Matt, your guess on what happened with the loan sharks’ thugs is exactly right. They meet (more than once), Simon resists and the violence escalates quickly to where the loan shark now just wants him dead. Your critique uses the right word I was missing in the query – “escalates.” I think that might make it clearer.

I’m going to have to figure out a last line about what choice Simon has to make. Sarah, I like your suggestion of making the ending with short, chilling sentences.

I really, really appreciate you taking the time to critique my query and all the comments were great. I’m looking forward to incorporating all the suggestions to make this a better query.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Matthew, I think you are right, this was a good query before you started. Your suggestions seem to be spot on. :) Best wishes to Ray with his manuscript.

Jericha Senyak said...

I think Matt's critique pretty much nails it, except for one small thing someone else mentioned - when the Archbishop's "decades-long hunt for a killer of priests" comes up I did a big Huh? I'm assuming that it's the same killer, but wouldn't those murders have got some attention? right away I start asking questions and it derails me from the rest of the query: why is it a secret? IS it the same killer? If so, what's different? How does this link the Archbishop to Simon?...etc, etc. Obviously it's important, but it's then totally dropped. I'd say either expand or delete, because it feels like a big jagged snaog in the middle of what is otherwise a very compelling query. Good luck!

Jericha Senyak said...

...and by snaog I mean snag. Oops.

cleemckenzie said...

Great suggestions. You continue to be amazing.

David P. King said...

Been catching up on what you're up to, and kudos for taking on so many queries lately. Having helped with a few recently, I better appreciate what agents must go through. :)