Friday, June 15, 2012

Jackie Layton's Current Query Critiqued

Here we are. It's Friday, and who doesn't love the smell of critique in the morning? Right? Am I right? No? Okay, well let's get to work anyway. My feedback will be in red.

The letter:

Dear ______,

What if a beloved member of your family couldn’t get their life-saving medication because of a conspiracy?

No. Don't ask questions in query letters. Especially not rhetorical questions. There are a lot of sources on the internet that talk about why, one of the best being Nathan Bransford, but basically, the reason is that you don't want an agent reading your query to actually answer these kinds of questions in their head. Let's consider some of the potential answers to this question:

"I'd kill myself, but then there wouldn't be much of a story."

"I'd go on a rampage, ala Michael Douglas in Falling Down, and really eff up the establishment - is this going to be that kind of story?"

"I'd sue. It'd be just like John Grisham's The Client, which is going to make this manuscript a tough sell."

See how rhetorical questions can cause problems? Don't ask an agent to figure out what your story is about, show them.

Lacy Williams moved to Lexington, Kentucky to live close to her diabetic grandmother. Queries are often written in present tense, but there's no rule that says you can't use past. That being said, I'd like to know more about who Lacy is, before we start to hear about what happened to her. The plan was to spend a few days settling into her apartment before starting a new job. Upon her arrival she finds Nonna, her grandmother, passed out in the bedroom. Passed out sounds a little weak to me. Unconscious? Comatose? Rushed to the hospital, Lacy learned her grandmother stopped taking her diabetes medicine, Diamet. Is this a real brand name drug? If so, you might want to consider using a made up one.

This isn't a bad opening. Your inciting incident is certainly tense, traumatic, and full of the potential for conflict, but I think this would all sound better in present tense. For example "After being rushed to the hospital, holding her grandmother's hand in the back of an ambulance, Lacy discovers her grandmother stopped taking ..."

Although, I should point out, if Nonna stopped taking her meds voluntarily, that kind of defuses the conflict, doesn't it? I thought we were looking at some kind of big insurance company refused to pay type of story. I'll be interested to see where this goes.

Also, to get back to your opening hook, we need to know more about Lacy. Who is she? A 24-year-old recent pre-law grad? A 19-year-old high school grad hayseed who's decided to enter the work force? Telling us more about her character up front will ensure we care about her story.

Lacy’s fiery temper is resurrected from childhood as she learns that a law firm contacted Nonna claiming Diamet causes bladder cancer. Is is a present tense verb. Queries sound better in present tense, so I suggest you change it all to match. Lacy finds Blake Thompson, Nonna’s personal attorney, and accuses him of sending the letter. He denies the accusation.

Once the letter is found, Lacy sees the law firm is based in Chicago. She wonders how they knew what medicine her grandmother took. In her quest for the truth, Lacy discovers a possible connection between the law firm and Nonna’s insurance company. Even though it’s hard to imagine, it’s a clue she feels must be pursued. You could almost cut this whole paragraph. Or distill it into one sentence. This query is long as is, so just give us the vital info.

Lacy begins a blog, Diamet Dilemma. Through comments left on the blog her belief in a conspiracy is strengthened. The only people she can find who received a personal letter from the law firm have the same insurance company as Nonna. You probably only need the last sentence on this one too. I mean the blog angle is interesting, and you might keep it if it features a lot in the novel, but otherwise all we really need to know is the confirmation of the conspiracy.

Trusting no one, cut but each other, Lacy and Blake decide to work together to discover the truth. Why would she trust him? I thought all evidence pointed to his firm? Their lives are threatened, and others die as they search for answers. The conspiracy trickles down from Chicago, to Lacy’s neighbor, and a link to Blake’s law firm. A further link? Together they learn to trust God and each other to survive. Whoa. That kind of came out of nowhere. Is this Christian fiction?

Blake mapped out his life at a young age, and Lacy doesn’t figure into his plans. You're switching POVs here. I don't necessarily have a fundamental problem with bringing romance in, but you've got to do it from Lacy's POV. He never knows what to expect when she’s around, but he realizes she’s brought life into his dull and predictable world. Lacy hadn’t planned to fall in love, but time after time Blake is there for her. If they can survive, they may find themselves facing the biggest adventure of their lives. May or do? Because if it's only may, there might not be much of a story here. And if people are dying, I'd say it's do.

The completed 60,000 word manuscript is targeted for Love Inspired Suspense I'd never heard of this genre, but apparently it's popular at and is available upon request. Thank you for your time.

Okay, so to summarize, you've got the bones of a good story beneath this. You just need to bring a few things to the front.

First and foremost, Lacy. Who is she? Why should we care about her? Present us with her character right up front, and everything that follows will automatically be more interesting.

Second, but equally important, your conflict. We can figure it out, which is good, but you need to clarify and heighten it. It's muddied up by a lot of side details we don't need, and you want to get right to it.

Finally, there should be a difficult decision at the end. Also, if the romance is an important part, you might want to introduce it a bit earlier in the query.

That's it.

What do you all think?


Kristen Wixted said...

I can't say how many tweets I've read in the last 2 months where agents say "Please don't start your query with rhetorical questions! Just tell me what it's about."
Yeah, they don't like it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Knew you'd have something to say about that opening line.
Definitely needs needs tightening - seems a bit muddled - and the tension upped.

Sarah said...

Yep--the rhetorical question must go. Definitely take that advice.

As for the rest:
When I read this yesterday, my initial impression was that it was too synopsis-like. A query is meant to tantalize, not to cover 85% of the plot, and this query felt a bit long to me, like it was trying to tell me the whole thing.

Regarding the tense thing: be very careful. You do switch from past to present to past tense in that inital paragraph, and that will be a big red flag to any agent. Keep the entire query in present tense. The ONE exception would be to do something like you did (She moved to Kentucky for some peace of mind, but NOW she's ..."), but after you get to the present tense--stay there.

Also, be very careful with your grammar. For example: "Rushed to the hospital, Lacy learned..." indicates Lacy is the one rushed to the hospital, not her grandmother.

Using Matt's advice, I suggest you rewrite this query. Because it appears that this story is a dual POV (Blake and Lacy ... I say this because 1) most romances are, and 2) part of the query appears to be from Blake's POV), I suggest a structure in which you have ONE paragraph from Lacy's pov (setting up the story), a second para from Blake's pov (upping the tension and adding to the plot/conflict from his pov, NOT just explaining his feelings for Lacy, though that should be included), and the third wrapping it up with the big choice/stakes, etc. And that's it--3 paragraphs, 250 words, enough to tantalize an agent into reading or requesting pages.

Best of luck with this!!

Weaver said...

Matt, as usual, has some great advice here. Sounds like fun story. Good luck.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Think of a query letter as the literary equivalent of an amuse-bouche. They're meant to be a brief preview of the manuscript. A two or three paragraph tease that an agent shouldn't be able to resist. In this crazy publishing world, if you give an agent the opportunity to resist, they will. Agents often don't read queries looking for one to say yes to, they read them looking to say no. Your job is to make sure that they can't say no.

Both Matthew and Sarah have already done a great job of breaking down the query, so I just want to offer broader suggestions. This query was all over the map for me. Pick your biggest, most important bit of the plot and focus on that. If it's the mystery, go there, if it's the romance, stick with that. You can mention other things, but only in an offhand way. Like, if you're describing the mystery, you can mention the romance with a sort of, "along the way she finds love with the attorney she swore not to trust." You don't even have to name the guy, because, frankly, at this juncture, his name is unimportant. All you want to show the agent is that there is a romantic subplot.

Almost every query can be written in 4 paragraphs:

1. Introductory paragraph (Where you say hi to the agent and, in one line, tell them why you're querying them).

2. The core part of the story (where you lay out who your character is and what they're doing)

3. The complications (where you tell the agent what roadblocks the protag is going to face and how those are going to make the story really juicy)

4. The closing paragraph (where you tell the genre, word count, and thank the agent for reading).

Heather Brewer's query was the first and most helpful that I found back when I was querying. I used hers as a template for my own. I ended up having a 90% request rate for my first query, and looking back on it, it wasn't even very good. If you keep it simple, infuse it with some of your own style, and let the work speak for itself, you'll do well.

Good luck!

S.A. Larsenッ said...

As always, Matt has done a great job. I want to second, third, or whatever the comments about starting with a question. I know it's tempting at times to start with a question and then explain, but a query is to entice an agent/editor to read on. Tell them the most fantastical element you've created; tell them that first and let them develop their own questions. This should lead them to want more and hopefully request your work. ;D

JeffO said...

Here were the thoughts I had yesterday when I looked at this:

-I try to Never say never, but loads of agents say 'never start with a question.'

-The query felt too long, and too synopsis-like. There are a lot of plot points, and extras. It's okay to say Lacy accuses Blake of being in on the plot. Saying 'he denies the accusation' is unnecessary.

-In the next to last para, you say 'if they survive, they my face the biggest adventure of their lives.' I thought they were IN the biggest adventure of their lives.

-Basically, I think you need to do a lot of tightening. Cut out unnecessary plot points and get down to the core of the story, which is Lacy trying to stop a conspiracy that could (presumably) result in thousands (or more) deaths.

It's got a lot of potential -- Bad lawyers, evil insurance company, sick granny, and love--you just need to bring that out in the query a little more efficiently, I think.

Bryan Russell said...

I concur.

Stina said...

I agree with the others about the query feeling like a synopsis. You want short and to the point since agents don't have much time to read queries. You want to entice not tell the whole story. Save that for the real synopsis.

I'm assuming the drug name is made up, otherwise you'll be facing major lawsuits. Make sure it's not similar to a drug already out there for diabetes. Pharmaceutical companies take these things very seriously. When I left my old company, I had to sign an agreement not to talk about anything to do with the company. And they have big scary lawyers. You don't want to mess with them.

Good luck with the story!!!!

L.C. said...

Yeah, did feel like a synopsis--gotta keep it feeling like a teaser, not a play-by-play. Maybe play up the blog angle, too? I think that would help your query stand out. Other than that I agree with Matt on all counts.

Hope all the feedback helps! Good luck with the query, Jackie!

Angela Brown said...

It's interesting how you can learn so much from reading the query critique of other brave writers. Actually, I'll be somewhat brave very soon myself. Eek.

The advice presented here is honestly, extremely helpful.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I agree with Matt and the comments above. The query reads like a synopsis. If you tell the agent everything that's going to happen, why would she/he request the manuscript?

Also, if the genre is Love Inspired Suspense, then the love story needs to take center stage in your query, with the suspense factors swirling around in a tantalizing mist, raising the stakes and the tension so that the agent feels invested enough to want to read more.

As a final note, comb through the query very carefully for grammar snafus, because agents will judge your writing style based on this query.

"Rushed to the hospital, Lacy learned ..." This means Lacy was rushed to the hospital, not the grandmother.

"Lacy’s fiery temper is resurrected from childhood as she learns ..." I think this should be "when she learns" and "resurrected from childhood" suggests that childhood is a form of death. How about: "The fiery temper Lacy overcame as a child is resurrected when she learns ..." or something like that.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I can't help but think cutting this to just 3-4 paragraphs would make all the difference. I'm curious but unaware of what the real focus is.

Sarah Ahiers said...

yep, i agree 100% with Matt. I actually just saw an informal poll on twitter the other day between agents about rhetorical questions and the response was that, not only do they not work, they put many agents into a rage lather.
I would also cut the entire last paragraph from Blake's POv. You don't need it, and it just drags the query out further.
And i definitely think you need to end with some sort of choice - what is at risk for your MC? What does she risk by uncovering the conspiracy? And what does she risk if she doesn't uncover the conspiracy? That's your choice right there, and if you end on that, it will make the agent want to read more.
Good luck!

Nicole Zoltack said...

If the story is in both Blake and Lacy's POV, I would have a paragraph about Lacy, a paragraph about Blake, and then another paragraph that ties them together and shows the conflict, obstacles, and stakes. Good luck!

Nancy Thompson said...

Matthew hit on nearly everything I was thinking from beginning to end. My biggest remaining comment is that this reads like a synopsis which you do not want. They're dry. If you took out all the superfluous info, it would be tighter & more exciting. And Matt's right, we need to care about who Lacy is to care about her story. As far as the genre, if you want to appeal to more agents, and why wouldn't you, then call it romantic suspense. Lastly, be very careful about both POV & tense in your query. If you can't remain consistent in a query, the agentight fear your writing suffers the same. Good luck! It sounds like a story ripped from the headlines!

Jess said...

I agree with Matt. With the length and detail you go into, this feels more like a synopsis than a teaser to get the agent to want to read more. But as far as the story goes, it sounds like you've got a thrilling mystery with heart as well. Best of luck!

Elise Fallson said...

I'm always a good "17 opinions that matter" too late. Not that being first would matter much. All I can offer is encouragement. You've got all the tools and advice to make this into an excellent query. All the best and good luck! (:

Jackie Layton said...

Matt and everybody,

I can't thank you all enough for taking the time to help me with my query.

I've learned so much from your comments.

I will definitely rewrite my query.
No questions. Tighter. Present tense. One POV. Not like a synopsis. And so on and so forth.

Tight and crisp.

Thanks again!


Arlee Bird said...

Not much that I can add to your critique and the excellent comments. Jackie Layton is in some good hands here.

Tossing It Out

Wendy Lu said...

Matthew, it's nice to meet you! I've navigated through your blog and you give incredible feedback on critiques. Totally following you now!

I definitely agree that rhetorical questions are a no-no, not just for the reasons you specified but also because they can be sound so cliche. And cliche is always something to avoid!

This isn't a bad query letter. I think the beginning would need some work, especially if the writer wants the agent to keep on reading. The threshold questions in agents' minds, I feel, are: "What makes this story different from others? Why would I want to read about these characters?"

By the way, I'm hosting an awesome blogfest and critique giveaway at my blog from June 22-24 if you're interested! :) Hope you have a great day.

~Wendy Lu

The Roarin' Twenties Poetry Blogfest + Chapter Critique Giveaway (hosted by The Red Angel)