Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Kathleen McLaughlin's Current Query Critiqued

All right. Here we are with the critique you've all been waiting for. Or at least a couple of you. One of you, surely, at least, was waiting for it.

Anyway, I have some new readers here, so before we get to work I'm going to go over a few basics. A query letter is a strange and unique animal. It's part business letter, part resume, part creative essay, part evil synopsis, and part shrinking padded room. Many people hate query letters, the fact that they're necessary, and the act of creating them. I'm not going to say I blame you if you feel that way, but my relationship with the big Q has grown and morphed over the years to the point where I now hate to love them.

Right. So a standard query letter is a one page document, usually around 250 words long, that includes some kind of housekeeping information about your novel like: genre, word count, WORKING-TITLE, and so on. This information comes along with a sort of synopsis-y section that creatively describes your story, your characters, and uses voice to convey the tone and style of your novel. Finally, there really ought to be some kind of personalization that explains to an agent why you choice to query them in particular, even if you're using a poorly disguised shotgun approach (which is not recommended). This can technically come in any order, but I always advise to get right to the story, and then follow with housekeeping and personalization.

Now, in case you haven't seen one of these posts before, Kathleen's query will be in plain text below, and my thoughts, feedback, interjections, hallucinations, and mad-man's ramblings will be in blood red.

Let's do work:

Ms. So Anne So
Ural Writers Agency
1234 Publishers Avenue
NY, NY 55555

I just want to point out that I find this to be hilarious. Obviously Kathleen won't put this addressee in her real query, but why not have some fun with the example?

Re: Blood Clouds

Awesome working title, but it should be in all caps: BLOOD CLOUDS. And also, since you put the "re:" I'm assuming this is your subject line. You need more than this is your subject line. I would suggest this: Re: QUERY - BLOOD CLOUDS - Kathleen McLaughlin. But, you should also read this hilarious post on the subject, by Nathan Bransford: link.

Dear Ms. So Anne So,

Okay. So here we get to the meat of your query. The important part. The part that talks about what actually happens in your book.  Let's see what we've got.

In the quaint hamlet of Raven's Corner, Detective Jordan Ireland profiles a serial killer, but her night terrors hint she's connected to the killer.

You usually want to open up a bit differently than this. There are queries that break all the rules and break them gracefully, but let's try to follow standard procedure here. You want to open with a hook and a strong sense of character. You've got some hooky information here, which is a good start, but its presentation could be better, and except for a possible occupation (someone who profiles serial killers, possibly professionally, possibly not. NOTE: I say possibly because although we know she's a detective, we don't know who she works for, or whether the profiling is her hobby) we've got almost no sense of who your character is.

I would suggest a few changes. I'm not sure you want to call Raven's Corner a quaint hamlet. To me hamlet is an archaic term, which technically refers to a small village that does not have its own church, and the phrasing here gives your setting a tone that I think you do not intend. Unless you do.

I would also add "Raven's Corner, Washington," to it, so we have a familiar sense of place.

The next thing is that I would add more information about Jordan's occupation. Is she an FBI agent? A detective for the local Sheriff's Office? There are lots of different kinds of detectives and unless she works for a large agency, it's unlikely her job actually involves profiling serial killers. It's clear you've done your research, but be more specific in your query.

Next, I want to know more about what kind of person Jordan is. Is she a divorcee? A single mom? A young professional? Often just one word to describe her personality can go a long way.

Finally, you should re-word this sentence: "profiles a serial killer, but her night terrors hint she's connected to the killer." The repetition of the word killer sounds odd here. I realize you may not want to use the pronoun "him," to replace the second instance, but you could consider using another term like "the murderer," or something like that.

So here's an example:

In the quiet Pacific Northwest village of Raven's Corner, Washington, ambitious young County Sheriff's Detective Jordan Ireland profiles serial killers even when she's not in the office. One particular murderer becomes her focus when her night terrors hint at a personal connection to him.

That's just an example, and a bad one, but it does show you how only a few more words can convey a lot more needed information.

Okay. I promise not not analyze the rest of your paragraphs so deeply.

Jordan generates the serialist's what does this mean? I looked this word up, and it either refers to a writer of serials, or a composer of serial music. Do you mean the serial killer? profile, but repressed memories vex her. When the murderer expands his hunting grounds to the emerald hillocks love this. I'm from Seattle, and I grew up on one of those emerald hillocks. of Seattle, Detective again, we need more information about his job. Is he a detective for the Seattle Police? The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension? Generally (at least to my knowledge) serial killers are handled by the FBI. Blaine Davis enters Jordan's world, but he wants to exchange more than profiling notes. She cools his ardor, focused on the killer eluding her. This whole bit is vague. I get that there's a romantic element here, and that's fine, but be specific. How does he hit on her? How does she spurn him? When the serialist there's that word again. This may be a known term for serial killers among experts in the field, but most people would not be familiar with it. I think you should just use the term "serial killer." targets Jordan's loved ones, which loved ones? the tragic events what tragic events? He actually kills her loved ones? rush her repressed memories to the forefront. She fills in the missing pieces of her own past and discovers the killer is her own brother. Wow. Now that's a shocker. It actually sounds like an awesome twist, but I think you need to work on how you present it. Talk about some specific memories, some actual example of how she figures it out. Right now it's just a bunch of vague language with a nice specific punch at the end. Stressed to the breaking point, she wonders if she's courageous enough to revisit a childhood best forgotten to face down the killer. When Davis why use his last name? is taken hostage, Jordan faces the love she can no longer deny. Wait. So now she's into him? When Jordan deduced watch your tense. This is past tense all of a sudden. she is the killer's psychological trigger, it forces him up close and dangerous. The psychological thriller, Blood Clouds, is 100,000 words.

Okay. So it's obvious you've got a great story on your hands here, and the premise is certainly an interesting one. The problem is that you're burying it under some vague and confusing language. Get specific. Show us why she get's stressed, how Blaine tries to win her love, why she's the killers trigger. Explain their occupations with more detail, so we can understand why a small town detective and a big city one would meet.

I'm college educated in criminal law and criminal justice and researched criminal profiling and serial killers. This sounds weird. Why is it worded this way? Do you not have a bachelor's degree or an associate's? If you do you should just name your degree. It should also say "haved researched ..." As a former publicity agent, lecturer and instructor and having been interviewed for print and television, I bring the professional experience needed to promote my books. Additional completed manuscripts in the series show my commitment to future projects. Don't put it this way. You need to focus on this book. If you are offered representation, then you can discuss other projects, but a query letter needs to focus on one book, even if it's in a series.

Renowned serial killer expert, Dr. Steven A. Egger, Ph.D. endorses Blood Clouds. BLOOD CLOUDS “A very good read! You obviously have done your excellent writer!” Dr. Egger is the published author of, The Need To Kill, The Killers Among Us and Serial Murder.

Hmm. I'm not sure about this paragraph. I'm not an expert in this field, so my lack of recognition of Dr. Egger probably means nothing. Let's Google him ...

There's a Tru TV article about him, but no Wikipedia page. The fifth result returned is your blog, but that may be because Google knows I've been there.

Bottom line is I'm not sure Dr. Egger's endorsement of your book is going to mean much to an agent. At least not in a query letter. If you choose to leave it in, it probably won't hurt anything, but you might want to consider letting your story and your background stand on it's own.

Also, if you keep it in, don't call him a "published author." If he's an author, then's he published. If he's not published, he's just a writer.

Please find enclosed a synopsis and sample chapters. Thank you in advance for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

You don't need to include a synopsis unless they ask for one, and your sample pages should be specific and match exactly the agent's submission guidelines, but this is just a sample query, so I'm sure you customize that in each letter. Otherwise this ending is fine.

Most sincerely,

Kathleen McLaughlin

I think you're off to a great start here, Kathleen. You've obviously got an interesting premise and an exciting story going on in your novel, and with a little work I think you can polish your query to match. Try to focus on Character, Conflict, and Choice, and be specific when you describe plot points.

That's it!

So what do you guys think? Feel free to disagree with me, but if you don't maybe help us out by suggesting another wording for Kathleen's opening hook?

Otherwise please leave your feedback in the comments, and let us know what you think.


Shain Brown said...

As always, great job Matthew. And to Kathleen, Matthew is right, you have a great premise. Try working on being more specific we as readers want to love your character, and in order to do so we need you to share more about her.

Unknown said...

Wow, you did an awesome job analyzing that, Matt. I know with your help, Kathleen can make it truely stand out.

One thing to watch out for is the part about re: QUERY. Don't put 're:' in the subject of the email or the agent will think you're responding to HER email (which you aren't).

Nighfala said...

Here is a comment. I'm @ work so I can't be any more intelligent than that @ the moment. :p

Bryan Russell said...

I think Matt has a lot of great suggestions, and I also think this sounds like a really interesting story. My main concern is that it feels like the query is still talking about the story, rather than showing it.

It discusses the conflict, the characters, and the twist, but it's sort of abstracted from the plot. I think it helps to think of the plot in terms of the story arc. Opening incident/hook, character, conflict, rising action, climax (which can be hinted at rather than explained in a query). I think this would help show the story, rather than merely comment upon it. What does the character do? What is the result? Follow the chain of events and I think the story will come to life. We'll see the story as it flows, rather than as periodic flashes.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Matt did a great job. Listen to him, he won't steer you wrong.

Anonymous said...

Precise and helpful, as always, Matt. Great critique. I think Kat has a great premise, and I agree with your comments on specificity. One thing I learned: personalize the query at the end? I thought it was the beginning. Now that I read your comment, my gut says you are correct to open with story. It's the story, stupid! :D (Me, not you!) Thanks for your insight! <3

Carolyn Abiad said...

Spot on, Matt, as always.

I think we need to know why she repressed the memory/identity of her brother in the first place. Or at least have a strong hint.

PT Dilloway said...

Critiquing query letters for style and content is largely pointless since agents accept manuscripts with terrible queries all the time. But there are some basic dos and don'ts that are helpful to communicate.

Talli Roland said...

Fantastic job as always, Matt. I actually think the query reveals too much, making me feel it's a bit more of a super short synopsis. If I'd been writing it, I wouldn't have included the twist that the killer is her brother -- unless that happens in the first half-ish of the novel.

Becky Mahoney said...

Great advice as always, Matthew. I think Kathleen will have an amazing query once she tweaks it a bit - it sounds like she has an amazing book to go with it!

Cynthia said...

I love how you sunk your teeth into this work, great advice!

Kristen Wixted said...

I'm really curious about the first part, and how the bad dreams she's been having connect her to the killer--that's the hooky part, right? I like the idea of making sure that first paragraph really tantalizes.
It's so delightfully creepy.

mshatch said...

Matt, as always you've given great advice and delivered it in a kind way. I really love how you explain why something doesn't work as well as give an example of how it might be made to work better. Super crit!

Old Kitty said...

Mr MacNish!! I love your dissection of Kathleen's query letter. Yes the quaint hamlet must definitely go! I was also uneasy about having a quote form this Dr Eggers and for me this just had the opposite effect of being impressed. Sorry!

But like I said yesterday - there's a great story here bubbling to be read! Good luck Kathleen! Take care

Michael G-G said...

I agree with Talli Roland--the best queries I've read leave the agent/editor wondering what the twist at the end will be.

Matt, you've done an awesome job. The only other advice I could give is that the style of the query should match the style of the novel. I think Kathleen is going for fast-paced psychological thriller, but the writing in the query is quite measured. Get into a bookstore and read some flap copy off the books where your novel will one day be shelved!

And, more than anything, research agents' wants and needs before you query them. If you're querying Janet Reid, for example, Matt's "put the story first" is the only way to go. But quite a number of agents specifically request the "housekeeping" upfront. That, more than fawning over their blogs/tooting their clients' horns, is the needed personalization.

Don't quote the "expert" unless he's world-renowned. Writing org. memberships are more important, in my view. Also, compare titles: "this will appeal to fans of xxx

Thanks for sharing, Kathleen, and good luck!

Gina Ciocca said...

Matt, your comments are great. I agree accolades probably shouldn't be included, unless maybe they're from an editor. Queries aren't really the place for blurbs. Fascinating premise, though. Good luck Kathleen!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great suggestions Matt. I especially liked how you suggested a rewriting of the first sentence.

I wondered if Kathleen should tell that the killer is her brother or just leave it a bit unknown so the agent wants to read more.

Matthew MacNish said...

That's the biggest question for this query, Natalie. Most agents say they don't need the ending/twist in a query, but it's such an integral part of Kathleen's hook.

I can't decide which way I would go.

Anonymous said...

TO MATTHEW AND BLOG MEMBERS - BLOOD CLOUDS QUERY LETTER - I so looked forward to Matthew's query critique and comments with a learning mind and an open heart. Life is one long journey of learning. One can never learn enough in one lifetime. At first as a human being I was frightened of critiques, like it was negative about my baby and a personal statement about me, but I no longer feel that way. I looked forward to learning today. I took Matthew's critique and everyone’s comments as valid and valued. I understand and agree with every point. I will review the query with a critical, objective eye and rewrite according to the suggestions. I crave the rewriting process. I'm glad everyone was honest with me because I wear big girl pants--or at least I try to fill them out. I can’t grow as a writer, nor will my work improve, if I don’t get honest feedback. The hardest part of the query letter was the showing, not telling. The creative juices freeze up when writing synopses. I know the synopsis sounds as exciting as a back of the book blurb of a textbook. I've got to punch it up to reflect the fast-paced psych thriller. Will copy and paste critique and comments into a word doc and get to work to address each issue. Thank you all so much for your insightful input of what didn't work and how to fix them. I look forward to getting to know each and every one of Matthew’s 800+ blog members! Yes, every one of you! Most sincerely, Kat

Wine and Words said...

Um, I've stated before, I have no writing aspirations other than to release into blogdom the idiocy of my fingers. I am ever so glad that Query Letter is not on my list of to-do's. Kudos to Kathleen for being open to critique, and to Matthew for being so thorough and constructive!!!

Angela Brown said...

Pretty much everything that needed or could be said has been said. But I wanted to applaud and thank Kathleen as well. It's a bold choice to open yourself up for critique. It's par for the course when publishing is the end goal. By Kathleen choosing to open her query letter to critique, it gives not only her but others of us a benefit so we can know how to improve as well.

Many thanks to Matt and Kathleen.

Shannon said...

Wow, Matt, your analysis on the query is spot on. I can't think of a single thing to add.

Again, thanks to Matt and Kathleen for sharing this with us. You two rock.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I liked that the manuscript's description was short, although the lead-in line needs work.
I just read on someone's blog yesterday a quote from an agent that stated the query should only be three to four paragraphs long: the intro paragraph; one to two paragraphs for synopsis; and final closing paragraph. (Sorry, don't remember where I saw that yesterday!) I think Kathleen's on the right track with the length.

Hannah said...

I always wonder about telling too much in a query. I mean, I know you're supposed to tell all in a synopsis, but the query always leaves me dumbfounded. Good thing you and Sarah are geniuses at them...don't think I won't tap into that genius, because I'll totally tap into it.

This is all sounding wildly inapproriate and I'll stop talking now.

Christina Lee said...

Matt, I actually really like the hook you came up with.

I agree, no RE:

I was getting caught up in some wordage used (some archaic sounding).

I think you helped whip it ino shape--good luck!!t

Christina Lee said...

Gosh, I've got some spelling issues lately--GEEZ! I'll take this opportunity to say that Kathleen sounds like a nice lady!

Ashley Elston said...

I agree with Matt about the endorsement. Unless the person is widely known, I'd leave that off.

Hart Johnson said...

Matt-I think you did a great job. My feeling on this was it needed more specifics-- and the places you pointed that out seemed in line with my thoughts. And I think the brother piece, unless the reveal is in the first 3rd of the book, is giving away too much. That's the only place I'd be more vague 'a family connection' or some such thing. If it's early, fine, as the book is dealing with aftermath, but this came across as a huge spoiler.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I've add this critique to my favorites list. Excellent advice, and hopefully things I'll be able to use myself soon.

"If he's an author, then's he published. If he's not published, he's just a writer."

Best. Sentiment. Ever.

I think you hit the nail on the head with anything that rubbed me the wrong way. "Serialist" was high on the list of things that sounded awkward. Question: Is the mention of a possible Jordan Ireland-Blaine Davis even necessary in the first instance? I understand there's purpose toward the end of the write-up ("When her partner is taken hostage, Jordan must face the feelings she has tried to ignore." or something), but his flirtations seem superfluous to this synopsis. Maybe that's just me?

Mel Chesley said...

Good job Matt and Kathleen! I think all of Matt's points are pretty spot on, but it is easier to see the work of someone else than it is to actually do it.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Matt said everything i would've said, as usual. Serialist, even though i knew what you were getting at, pulled me out of the query narrative.
Otherwise i'd really focus on getting more specific in the query.
Good luck!

Elizabeth Janette said...

Just a couple of things to comment on. I think you could slightly clarify how profiling the killer leads to repressed memories that link her to the killer. Does the killer leave something behind that triggers the memory? Also, I doubt the big city detective shows up in town just to woo her. Isn't he there to join or take over the investigation? And lastly, I think you could really play up the internal struggle she must be going through at the end. To save her new boyfriend she must kill her brother. I'm assuming she'll basically have to choose which one dies and which one lives. What a terrible dilemma to be placed in! I think the story sounds great and with a few more tweaks the query letter will be ready to go. Good luck!

Lydia Kang said...

I'm coming late to the critique, so I have nothing new to say. I think Matthew's crit and the commenters have some valid points. It is an interesting story. I think polishing it up with these ideas in mind will help, particularly strengthening the core story para.

Carolyn V said...

What great suggestions. I love the crits, they are so helpful.

LynNerdKelley said...

Kathleen, your story sounds awesome.
Matt, this is so impressive. You gave Kathleen great feedback. I learned a lot from your critique of her query. In my humble opinion, I say include the twist because it does pack a powerful punch. Reading that definitely drew me right in.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Mat, yo udid a great job with this critique.

Kathleen, I agree that you've got an interesting premise - but my main concern, like Bryan Russell's, is that this is fairly dry.

It reads as if you've written it as a synopsis, and you don't want to think about the "meat" of your query as a synopsis. A synopsis' job is to summarize in a few paragraphs what happens in your book. Synopses are boring - they give the facts without any interesting bits.

That's not a query's job - a query's job is to entice. Write your query as if you are writing the jacket flap copy on the inside cover of your book. Make it exciting, and give away just enough to entice the reader to open the book. And yes, as Matt said, be specific. Give us the interesting bits. If she's attracted to Det. Davis, why does she put him off at first? Tell us this stuff.

Also: make it match the voice of your book as much as possible. Do you use words like "hamlet" and "ardour" in your book? If not, don't put them in your query.

Finally, I agree about not quoting the expert. It doesn't matter what he thinks - it's the agent's opinion that counts here. However, if you have any memberships in professional writing organizations, you should list them.

Let us all know how your revisions go, and best of luck with your querying!

Slamdunk said...

Valuable insight Matthew.

It is difficult to adequately describe one's academic or professional credentials in a letter like this (where get to the point is the charge). I like your suggestion of specific (name the degree, experience or professional association that is relevant).

LTM said...

A very thorough and thoughtful critique. Nicely done. And I especially like Matt's new & improved first sentence.

This sounds like an interesting story with a cool twist. Let the writing endorse itself (i.e., I agree w/Matt--save the celebrity for the book cover).

Best of luck to you, Kathleen! :o)

Write Life said...

Matthew, simply are a superstar!! What a great critique!
I send along my best wishes to Kathleen. Gosh, you've got some great input here! :)