Friday, November 2, 2012

Liza Salerno's Current Query Critiqued

Morning, QQQE Massive. Sorry I'm so late getting this up, but I had to drop the kidlets off at school this morning, and then I had to take the Honda home, and pick up the Ford, because the Honda's radiator was smoking.

Ahem. Anyway, here is Liza's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

Fourteen-year-old Melanie Foss is sick of family secrets. Normally, I would say I like this, but when I glance down at your housekeeping paragraph, I worry that this opening sentence is going to make agents think upper MG or lower YA.

Her single mother Bethany refuses to discuss her past other than to admit she was voted Honeydew Queen in Virginia in 1974, but skipped town as soon as she received the crown. This is interesting, and I like the idea of this character's backstory, but I'm concerned that some agents would stop reading at this point. You only have a few lines to grab their attention, and so far, we don't know who your story is actually about, or why we should root for them. I'll say more about queries for books with multiple POVs, in a minute.

When Melanie’s eighth grade social studies teacher assigns a genealogy project worth half her grade, she makes up her family story, a project that creates a crack in the wall her mother has built around her former life. Melanie discovers more when Bethany, diagnosed with a serious illness, enlists the aid of Harrison, a grandfather Melanie has never met. With his support, mother and daughter relocate to Bethany’s hometown; Wait, what? I thought this was going to be a story about the genealogy project, and how it unearthed skeletons from the family closet? If they move away, why would she even continue with the assignment? And conversely, why would they move in the first place? Surely it can't be only to research this project? I'm sure this plot element makes sense in the book, but in the query, you've got very little room to convey the story, so you've got to make absolutely certain everything progresses logically from one point to the next. keeping their presence hidden from Old Meredith, Bethany’s controlling mother, until an accident brings them together and circumstances force a reluctant Bethany to agree to move back to her childhood home. As far as content goes, I really like all the elements here. Family drama, and family secrets, and hiding from family is all intriguing, entertaining stuff, but the execution here continues to follow the problems of this query. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of twists, but we still don't know whose story it is, or what the actual main conflict is going to be.

There, Melanie stumbles upon a clue leading her to initiate a clandestine introduction to the man she assumes is her father. Their disastrous meeting triggers the revelation of a heartbreaking mystery What mystery? You can be specific and just tell us. That's fine in a query. surrounding Bethany’s long ago flight, a tale that alienates Melanie from her mother. Why? Again, be specific. Vagueness is your number one enemy in a query. A shocking loss Vague compounds the teen’s resentment until Old Meredith realizes history has repeated itself. To keep the relationship between her daughter and granddaughter intact, she must decide whether to share the reason behind her own demanding behavior, which she employs to hide a crushing tragedy of her own. Okay, I like the sense I get of the stakes building to high levels, but the problem here is that we're left wondering what actually happens, what the secrets are, and how any of it justifies such a dysfunctional family.

HONEYDEW EVER AFTER (93,000 words), a work of women’s fiction, is written in three points of view, alternating between Melanie, Bethany and Old Meredith. Okay, let me talk about multiple POVs, and how to tackle them in a query. Basically: don't. I mean it's fine that you mention it here, it your housekeeping stats and details, and I certainly think that story format fits for the tale you appear to be telling, but writing the meat of the query in such a way that it tries to focus on more than one character rarely works.

I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm sure it's been done, and done well, but I've never read a query that worked better focusing on multiple characters than it could have been by focusing on one. Try to consider who the main main character is. Is it Melanie? Is it Bethany? It certainly doesn't seem to be old Meredith.

The point is, the best queries open with a character, and characterize that character in such a way that the reader immediately sympathizes with them, and cares about whether they achieve their goals in overcoming whatever conflict they're thrown into.

I am a freelance writer and have been published in Boston Globe Magazine Boston Globe Magazine, Adoptive Families Magazine Adoptive Families Magazine, South Shore Living Magazine, and I'm not going to edit every one of these publications, but the point is published works, and the titles of the publications they've appeared in, go in italics in query letters. In addition, I authored a monthly column for a local publication, the Cohasset Mariner. HONEYDEW EVER AFTER is my first novel. There's no need to mention this. If you don't bring up other novels, it's assumed this is your first, but there's no need to bring it up.

Thank you for your consideration.


Liza Salerno

So, in summary, my biggest problem with this query is its lack of focus on a character. I would argue that this query would work best if it focused on Melanie, and her investigations into her family's past. Introduce us to her right away, show us what kind of person she is before the story starts, and make us care about her. 

When it comes to plot, and conflict, you've got a lot of cool elements, and I think it's clear there is a great story underneath this query, but it's hard to tell what actually happens. You don't necessarily want to give away all your twists, or the ending, but otherwise you should be as specific and as open in a query as possible. Give us the details, so we know exactly why this family fell apart the way it did, and so that we can understand why it's so hard for them to face the truth.

That's it. 

This was a tough one. I think this sounds like an awesome book (reminds me a bit of The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Berry, without the witchcraft), but the query does need a little work.

What do you all think? Have you ever read a query that focused on two POV characters, and made it work in a couple hundred words? Do you disagree with any of my points?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good points! I was a little confused with this one and not sure what was happening or why.

Sarah said...

I wrote a successful query with dual pov (the book was 1st person alternating pov between the male and female protagonists), and I think it can be done, but this one was difficult in part because of the disparate age of the protagonists.

When I started reading, I totally thought it was MG. I was confused when it seemed to switch povs and also described a plot that is, frankly, unlikely to entice that audience. That was going to be my feedback until I got to the end and saw that it's women's fiction from three povs!

I think Matt's feedback is excellent. Both more specificity and focus is called for here. In reading it a second time, the first part feels like backstory and could be summarized or cut, which might also lessen the likelihood that the agent will dwell under the misconception that this is MG. If this is women's fic, starting with the kid might not be the best way to go.

Best of luck with this!

Patchi said...

I would suggest writing 3 queries, one from each POV. Then pick the one with the highest stakes.

I think Bethany might be the one to focus on because she seems to have the most to hide. She is also the link between the other two main characters. Plus, you don't run the risk of the novel sounding MG.

Bryan Russell said...

I agree about the vagueness. I can smell the story, but I want to be able to taste it, too. Thousands of stories have "secrets," but only this one will have this particular secret. It's the uniqueness of the secrets and mysteries that will capture attention, that will separate it from other stories and their generic secrets. Particularity is what stands out.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I recently got feedback on my multiple POV project from a respected editor. She said: Add a line at the bottom listing the POVs.

ie: Written from the perspectives of x,y, and z.

That way you can focus on the main issue of the manuscript in the query.

Also, does one of the characters have a stronger arc than the others? Are the other two supportive? Perhaps you can simplify by answering those questions.

Hope this helps.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with Matt's suggestions. I also have a manuscript from multiple POV, and it's important to stick with one character's story for the query.

There's just too much information here. It almost reads more like a synopsis. I suggest sticking with one plot, a couple of obstacles, and mentioning fewer characters. Focus on what's important.

I agree that the fist line yesterday made me think it was a YA too.

Good luck with revisions.

maine character said...

I liked the beginning with the mystery and possible conflict.

In the paragraph about Old Meredith, I got lost the first time through. It might be better to refer to Bethany here as the mother. What might add to the confusion is how both Melanie and Bethany are three syllables and sound alike.

I also didn't understand why they moved the first time through. It's there, with the mother's illness, but it could be clearer that that's why they moved, for the grandfather to help with that.

What Matt and Bryan said of vagueness is key, and they covered that well.

What’s great is there’s plenty of drama and emotion and conflict and mystery. And with three points of view, it’ll have even more depth, with three generations of perspective.

JeffO said...

The shifting POV in the query is a problem. I also think the wrong details are highlighted. Is it important for the query to know Bethany was Honeydew Queen? It seems the starting point is either Melanie's genealogy project (and how does the made-up story put crack's in Bethany's walls?) or the illness that forces them to hook up with gramps. Pare down unnecessary details, shine up the needed ones.

farawayeyes said...

Wow, did I ever learn a lot here today. I too, have a WIP with multiple POV's, but it is still one characters story. It would seem a decision needs to be made, as to who exactly, this story belongs to and stick with that particular POV.

I too have a problem with vagueness. I must get it into my head that it is NECESSARY to tell ALL in the query. Hook that agent or editor.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Matt has some great points. If you're going to stick with Melanie's POV, you'll have to be careful to make it clear this is an adult book. Right away I assumed it was a MG or YA story because of the POV character's age. Not sure how you do this if you stick with Melanie as the focus of the query. Matt might have some suggestions on this.

I have seen queries with 2 POV characters. The fist paragraph in one POV character, the second paragraph the second POV character and the 3rd wrap up paragraph ties it all together.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

My initial thought, when reading through the query, was that the repetition of the names Melanie, Bethany, and old Meredith was laborious and made the writing in the query sound clunky. But I wasn't sure how to get around it, because with three female characters, it can get confusing if you just say "she."

When I got to the end and saw that the manuscript is from multiple viewpoints -- and not a YA book -- I thought of a solution.

I agree with Matt that you need to focus on one character in the query, even though it is a multiple POV story. And the one to focus on, imo, is Bethany. Start the query with her. As someone says above, she has the most to hide and the biggest stakes. Plus she is an adult character, and this is an adult book.

It also means you can sometimes refer to Melanie as "her daughter" and sometimes refer to old Meredith as "her mother" -- thus breaking up the repetitive use of the names.

mshatch said...

I can't add anything to what's been said except that I agree with the suggestions and comments. I, too, got a little confused by all the names and think Dianne's idea to focus on Bethany is a good one.

This definitely sounds like an interesting story (who doesn't love a secret?), now you just have to get your query to show it.

Jessica L. Foster said...

Excellent advice. Having so many characters does sort of bog it down a bit. I agree that picking one character for the query might be best. I'd say try writing a different query from each pov and pick which ever one makes you think "ooo." aka the character with the highest or coolest sounding stakes. It sounds like a cool book to be written from three very different generations of pov characters. Good luck!

Liza said...

Thank you, Matthew and all who commented. This query has been a real struggle for me, and your constructive criticism will help me to get to a tighter, more focused letter. I am grateful for the thoughtful suggestions.