Friday, August 8, 2014

Stephen Tremp's Current Query Critiqued

Today we have Stephen's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear [Agent Name], I am writing you because according to _______ you are a big fan of mystery suspense thriller genres featuring average characters in extraordinary circumstances. My 80,000-word novel, Murcat Manor MURCAT MANOR, inspired by the mischievous nocturnal cats in my parents’ one hundred year old house, is one I hope you will also become passionate about.

Bob Stevens has plenty to worry about. I would recommend you cut this. You're telling us something you're about to show us anyway, so that means it's just wasted words. Besides, if your protagonist doesn't have plenty to worry about, you don't have a story. Stories = CONFLICT.

When Bob and Debbie Stevens lose their idyllic jobs, Vague. Just tell us what they did. What's an idyllic job, anyway? And are they hiring? home, and savings, the only opportunity left to rebuild their lives is to open Murcat Manor. I thought they lost their home? Is this a different property? How could they afford it? It's one of the few bed and breakfasts in the region, set on twenty five rural acres in the rolling hills of southwestern Michigan. Legends of curses, ghosts, and nineteen deaths from two burned down houses once occupying the land do not diminish their dreams of raising a family while earning a living. Raising kids in the same house you're running a B&B? Now there's a setup for conflict.

I'm not sure about this as an opening paragraph. You've got some good ideas, and it's certainly not a setting or premise I've come across before, but there's very little sense of CHARACTER, and the inciting incident seems incredibly vague. I would recommend you start with a little more about who Bob and Debbie are before their lives fall apart and their story starts.

But Bob has unforeseen conflicts far beyond his ability to manage. A belligerent mother-in-law who co-signed the three million dollar loan on Murcat Manor wants him to relinquish his interest. Aha! Okay, this is good, see? Specific. Meaty. Something we can sink our teeth into. Thirteen psychotic killer cats, possessed by souls of disembodied daughters of witches hung at the Salem Witch Trials, are killing his guests. Wow! This is crazy, and a little bit ridiculous, but also pretty awesome. I love that it's so unique. Before long, two local detectives want to arrest him for the murders.

Okay ... so. Things are getting weird now, but it's kind of cool. It's hard sometimes to separate a query critique from a story/premise critique, but I'll try to keep myself divorced from focusing too much on the idea of this story.

You do have an interesting and clearly defined CONFLICT getting set up here, though, and that is certainly a requirement of any good query. There are some questions and confusions to work out, like why would disembodied daughters of Witches killed at Salem travel all the way to Michigan to do their haunting, and how exactly do little old cats kill anyone, but that's okay, because you've got the bones of a decent CONFLICT here, and that's the most important fundamental of a query letter.

Thirteen kittens, found in the burned out rubble from the previous farm house, had seemed like the perfect pets to keep their guests company. But the Stevens soon learn these are no ordinary cats, and the cycle of terror and murder begins again with each new wave of guests.

Yeah, so ... this is just weird. But I can't help but kind of like it. Your working title MURCAT MANOR, sounds really tongue-in-cheek, so I was initially thinking this would be some kind of campy/comedy horror or something, but it seems like you intend for it to be a mystery and thriller to be taken seriously. I would recommend you maybe consider a more serious title. Even MURDERCAT MANOR, as silly as that sounds, is a little better (only because the TV SHOW, MEERCAT MANOR, is one of the most adorable things on television).

Murcat Manor will appeal to readers of the mystery, thriller, suspense, and paranormal genres.
Or .....
Murcat Manor will appeal to fans of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and Jeffery Deaver.

I don't like either of these, to be honest. I mean they just come off sounding a little lazy. If you're going to compare your work to heavyweights of the industry like this, at least make sure it's clear you know what you're talking about. Compare your manuscript to a specific title, and make it obvious that you know your genre because the title is a logical comparison. Stephen King has several books that might work. CUJO, and PET SEMETARY, for example. I don't know Dean Koontz as well, but the man has written something like a hundred books, so surely there's one that fits.

I have a B.A. in information systems and an MBA in Global Management. Why is your bachelor's degree not capitalized but your master's is? Also, shouldn't an information systems degree, which is a subset of computer science, be a B.S., not a B.A? I'm not doubting you, but it looks weird. With a background in information systems, management, and finance, I can draw from my varied and complex experimental knowledge What is experimental knowledge? to write one of a kind thrillers. Merging science and the supernatural is my specialty.

I wouldn't worry too much about this paragraph because honestly, you should cut it all. If you were querying a manuscript that had hacking or international corporate espionage in it, this stuff might be more relevant, but it's not important to why you are the best writer to tell this story.

I have previously written and published The Breakthrough Trilogy: The Adventures of Chase Manhattan, The Breakthrough Trilogy: The Adventure of Chase Manhattan; There is some debate about this. In my experience, conventional wisdom says that WORKING TITLES of unpublished manuscripts go in ALL CAPS in query letters, and Titles of Published Works go in Italics, but lately the industry seems to maybe be moving toward using all caps for both. Do your research, but whatever you do, don't put titles in Plain Old Text. that have been in Barnes and Nobles and Borders Books across the country with 10,000 physical sales and downloads due? in part to countless book signings and relentless marketing on my behalf. I would be careful about this. 10,000 sales is a good number for self-publishing. But is that 10,000 total sales of 3 volumes in a trilogy, combined e-books and print copy sales? 10,000 sales is 10,000 sales, and you should certainly be proud of that, but if you're going to use it for leverage in a query, make you are as specific as possible. Please view my Media Kit for more information, at:

I write a blog where my focus is science, science fiction, writing, and promoting. Link to your blog. I have also taught at online schools and symposiums. What are the names of them? Link to evidence.

Thank you in advance for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon. I have included the first ten pages. The entire manuscript is available upon request.

Okay, so in summary I think you're off to a good start here. Your middle is pretty strong, and although the beginning and the end need work, they're not a complete mess or anything.

I would recommend you open with a paragraph that introduces a strong sense of CHARACTER first, so that we can care about Bob and root for him in his struggles, before you get to anything about hook, inciting incident, or the subsequent CONFLICT.

Finally, some sense of a sadistic CHOICE would help entice the reader to want to move on to your sample pages. I mean, it's probably easy to infer that the Stevens could decide to try to kill the cats, or sell the B&B, or any number of other options, but if you clarify for us a sense of what they actually choose in the story, if would help this query end on a high note.

That's it!

What do you all think? Anything I missed? Anything you would add?


M. L. Swift said...

I read the original query the other day (yesterday?) and your updated post with the suggestions. Spot-on. I wondered these same things myself.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like your suggestions, including the new name. And since the storyline is so quirky, that needs to shine in the first paragraph as well.

Stephen Tremp said...

Matthew, just waking up here on the left coast and appreciate very much your feedback. And everyone else's!

One of the most frustrating things about writing a query letter is you know the answer to the questions posed are covered in the book. But thanks for highlighting them just the same as I'll have to find a way to address them succinctly in the query letter.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Yes, I had some of the same questions -- how did they both lose their idyllic jobs and house, yet at the same time find the money to buy a B&B? The loan is explained later, but I still wonder why buying opening Murcat Manor is their "only" opportunity? Not many people lose their jobs and home and say, "Darn. Now we have no choice but to buy a B&B." Maybe the phrasing needs to be tweaked to say that they jumped on a unique opportunity?

I also think finding the thirteen kittens in the burned out rubble needs to be mentioned before the thirteen, possessed killer cats. When I read it this way, I thought at first it was *another* set of 13 cats, for a total of 26!

Lots and lots of really unique ideas here. If I were an agent, I might request it just to find out how kittens kill people! But I think the presentation of information needs to be juggled.

Matthew MacNish said...

@ Stephen - that's exactly why queries are so hard! You have to distill thousands and thousands of words into a summary that could never truly represent the whole thing.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt hit it out of the parka s usual. And Diane had the same question i had, about how they were able to afford the B&B. Yes that's explained later, but i think it needs to be explained right away, otherwise you risk losing your reader.

I would try writing this more chronologically - they lose their jobs, the mother in law helps them buy the B&B, they find the kittens, shit starts to hit the fan (as opposed to, they lose their jobs, they move into the b&b, the mother in law helps them buy the b&b, shit hits the fan, they find the kittens, if that makes sense)

Stephen Tremp said...

Diane, I love the "hey jumped on a unique opportunity." And Sarah, I can see now writing the first section more chronologically.

Thanks again! You're awesome.

Patchi said...

Great comments, Matt.

I wouldn't worry so much about why Bob opens the B&B. If the query starts with the opening and finding the cats, then you'd have enough space to get the plot and stakes across.

Good luck!

mshatch said...

I concur with Sarah, but, I have to say I have a hard time picturing kittens as wicked/evil, but hey, I guess it could happen!

Great crit, Matt, as always.

Stephen Tremp said...

mshatch, like Matthew said its so hard to boil down an entire book into a short query letter. The kittens are found on the day ground broke and building Murcat Manor and almost a year goes by before it opens. So the cats grow and are not kittens when the killing begins. And the cats are in their sixth of nine lives and have five previous lives spanning four centuries of mischief and murder.Sigh. Query letters are tough tough tough to do.

Denise Covey said...

What a difficult task to write this query, Stephen, and what a sharp critique from Matthew. Well done both of you.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Queries are really hard, and your comments here really highlight why. Dude, you should work in an agent's office as like a slush pile reader.

Stephen Tremp said...

Thank you Matthew and all for the critiques! Much appreciated. I still have some work ahead of me and will get down to business refining the query letter with your feedback this weekend.