Friday, June 22, 2012

Jeff O'Handley's Current Query Critiqued

Before we get started, let me point you to a guest post I wrote for Misha Gericke. Her two blogs, Taking Charge of My Life, and My First Book, are both worth visiting and following, even when I'm not making an appearance. It's an appropriate post for today too, somewhat, because she asked me to write about queries. Back now? Great, let's get to work on Jeff's query. My feedback will be in red.

The query:

Dear Agent,

For high school senior Chris Burke(,) life has never been better. He's college bound, more popular than ever, and finally ready to tell best friend Madison Cooper how he really feels. This opening is good, in the sense that it's full of setting, provides some backstory, and sets up some potential for both romance and conflict (if Madison doesn't feel the same), but if you examine it closely, you'll see that it's all about what happens to Chris (and what he might do about it) but doesn't tell us anything about who Chris is. We need a strong sense of character, right up front, so that we know who Chris is, and why we should care about what happens to him. But when long-time nemesis James LaValle is it key to name this character? Glancing through the rest of the query, I'm not sure. takes his feud with Chris too far and kills Madison's dog, Chris kills or murders? This is kind of critical, because we need to know what the circumstance is. Self-defense is one thing. Accidental manslaughter, another. And pre-meditated (if justified) murder, a third. James and loses everything but his life. Other than the things I've mentioned, this whole opening paragraph is pretty good. I mean it certainly ends with a shock, and makes it clear how high the stakes of your conflict are.

Thirty years later, Chris has paid his debt to society and is a free man. Whoa. Okay. I'm not sure about this. Your opening paragraph usually introduces the character as they are when the stories occurs, and then the inciting incident that begins the conflict in your story. In this tale, the character is Chris as a middle-aged man, and the inciting incident is him being released from prison. I'm not saying this unique set-up won't work, it could, but you're definitely breaking the rules of standard query writing here. Now a counselor for troubled teens, is this the kind of job convicted felons are usually allowed to have? he leads a quiet, anonymous life, shared with his parents and a few close friends, and that's good enough for him. Until Madison calls. I like this. A new angle, a new option for tension and conflict. My only problem: this is kind of where your story begins. You've spent almost two full paragraphs telling about everything that happens before your story even started.

Madison needs Chris to help her come to grips with her lingering guilt over her role in James' death and the testimony that helped put Chris in prison. Her unexpected return brings old memories to the surface and, with them, feelings Chris buried long ago. Seeing her, he realizes not all prisons come with barred doors and wire-topped walls: the past can hold you as securely as any penitentiary. And it doesn't grant parole. The rest of this final paragraph is pretty good. A little vague, a little cliche-ish, but it also has some good voice, and hints at Chris having to make some tough decisions.

Complete at 93,000 words, PARALLEL LIVES is a work of literary/commercial fiction. Its past/present narrative traces Chris' changing relationship with Madison, his inevitable collision with James, and his struggle to reintegrate into a society unwilling to forget. Whoa. All right, I guess the rest of your query makes more sense now. I'll talk about this in my summary. A story of friendship, forgiveness, and taking ownership of the past, it might appeal to readers who enjoyed HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET and THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS. This is good.

Okay, in summary: your query has some strong points. It's written cleanly, with strong, direct language, and it's clear that there is a powerful story here, with plenty of potential for conflict, tension, and difficult, painful decisions.

Now, things are going to get subjective. I'm not exactly sure how you should rework this. For me, overall, the query isn't working. I think the reason is that reading the meat of the query, the part that describes the story, before we get to the housekeeping details, I get one impression of what the story is about, that it covers one part of Chris' life, but then at the end, in the housekeeping, I find out that's not the case at all. I'm concerned an agent would not like that kind of surprise.

But, that could easily be my subjective opinion. I wonder if maybe it would work better with the housekeeping info coming first? I know, I usually suggest against that, but if I knew about the "past/present narrative" up front, the meat of the story section of the query would probably work better for me. If that was the case, many of the things I tripped over or suggested changing might work much better.

The notes I place in the body of the query are what comes to my mind as I'm reading, so I'm thinking that maybe if you re-ordered everything, this would all make more sense?

Let's see what my readers think.

That's it.

Man. This one was tough. The details are solid, in the sense that even in spite of my confusion, I can still see a powerful story underneath. I just got lost in the chronology, and I'm concerned some agents might have the same problem. What do you all think? Did you have to go back and read anything again yesterday for it to make sense? Do you think the housekeeping details coming first would help?


Karen Baldwin said...

I got genre mix-up. First though, let me say this - the story sounds amazing. I love all the conflict and the prison with no parole. But at first I thought it was YA. Obviously not. Then literary/commercial? Um, isn't it one or the other. But let me say again...I LOve the story.

Nick Wilford said...

Em said what I was just going to! I thought it was YA at first. Then it completely changes tack. I agree with a lot of what you said, Matthew. The structure of the overall story needs to be upfront so we don't get confused. I think what may be helpful is if we have an idea of whether this will be told chronologically, or through a series of flashbacks. It does sound like a great story and I'm intrigued to know more!

Matthew MacNish said...

@ Em - It's rare, but a novel can be both literary and commercial. One example might be The Silence of the Lambs.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Another excellent critique! And your advice at Misha's was great.

LM Preston said...

Great critique. I love looking at others so it can help me get mine in shape.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

Already visited Misha's site! Great job. Love this crit, too.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I agree with Matt. I think the chronology of the query needs to change.

To be honest, after reading the query, I had little interest in reading the book because there was no suspense for me. The author told us everything that happened, and all that was left was for Chris and Madison to come to grips with it. Where was the conflict?

Then, when I read that the story flashes back and forth between the past and the present, I got a very different impression. I can see the conflict being Chris's reintegration into society in the present and his rivalry with James in the past. In other words, the story doesn't start by revealing the incident of the dog and the murder -- and neither should the query.

The query needs to start with Chris's release from prison, probably, and then tease us with hinting at what put him there and how the phone call from his old girlfriend Madison disrupts his quiet, anonymous return to life. His old feelings for Madison should be mentioned, as well as his rivalry with James, but I don't think the query should tell us Chris's crime.

You want the agent to request the manuscript to find out, right? Or do I have the wrong idea?

Lisa Regan said...

I just want to say a few things, actually having read Jeff's book which was extremely powerful and ridiculously well-written. One is that in my experience agents don't want to be left hanging or teased. They want to know what your book is about right up front so that they can make an informed decision about it in as little time possible. While it works better for readers to not know about James killing Madison's dog, I am not sure a QUERY is the right place to withhold that information. So while I can see peoples' points in having Jeff reorder this so that maybe the first paragraph comes second, I agree with his choices. You're not going on a first date with an agent, you're marrying them. You have to let it all hang out.

farawayeyes said...

Since more than anything I'm trying to learn here, I was feeling a little confused about this query and the suggestions.

Lisa's statement about 'not going on a first date with an agent but rather marrying them' is what I thought we were doing in a query. Personally, I'm more about writing book blurbs that 'tease' you into reading the whole enchilada, BUT isn't that exactly what we're NOT supposed to do in a query.


All that said, it does sound like an amazing story with so many possibilities.

Eliza Tilton said...

Having gone to a query workshop at backspace, I can say that 1) every agent is different and 2) the query should end with some kind of stakes.

I liked the concept and query. I agree with others that the story starts with him leaving jail, the rest is backstory even if the book switches from present to past. All this needs is a bit of rearranging.

Carrie Butler said...

Matt had some great points. A little rearranging might do the trick! :)

Good luck, Jeff. We believe in you!

L.C. said...

Hmm. While I do like your opening, after reading the query, I'm not sure when the actual narrative would start--when they're young, or when he's already out of prison. Even if you attach pages and it's obvious from those, I think the query should still reflect where your story physically begins. Great critique, Matt, and good luck, Jeff!

Michael G-G said...

Yup, I got that genre mix-up too--thinking this was going to be YA.

I like the points Dianne Salerni makes. Personally, I would start the query with Chris's life after being released from prison and the reappearance of Madison. (And is this set in the future? Chris and Madison are, if my understanding of the chronology is correct, about 48 in the "present." How many near 50-year-old Madisons are out there? Another reason I thought this was a contemporary YA.)

The writing is solid throughout, which might lead me to ask for pages. I particularly liked "the past can hold you as securely as any penitentiary. And it doesn't grant parole." This shows me the guy can write literary fiction.

However, I'm not sure literary/commercial is a genre. Where do you see it being shelved in Barnes and Noble? I'd be tempted to skip the categorization and write Complete at 93,000 words, PARALLEL LIVES is a story of friendship, forgiveness, and taking ownership of the past. It might appeal to readers who enjoyed HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET and THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS. I know you lose the info about the past/present narrative, but you might want to have that mentioned earlier in the query anyway.

Good luck with this Jeff. I enjoyed your blog yesterday and look forward to hearing about what I'm sure will be your forthcoming success.

Steve MC said...

As said above, the opening makes it seem like a romantic YA, and so the turn at the end of that paragraph comes as a jarring shock.

I’d start with “Thirty years ago,” so we know it’s about adults.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

As Matt points out in his critique, 30-years is a huge jump in time. I'd be concerned about this.

Johanna Garth said...

I think my main issue was the first sentence made me think we were going to talk about one kind of story and then the rest of the query took me someplace unexpected. Good in a book but not in query.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

I think everything is there, but rearranging the query might work better.

I love the story premise.


JeffO said...

Thanks Matt, and everyone, for taking the time and effort to comment on my query. I am very grateful for your input. I've spent hours writing and rewriting this query until I thought my eyes would explode. Fortunately, they haven't yet, or I wouldn't be writing this.

You've given me a lot of food for thought, which included confirming some nagging suspicions. I'm going to spend some time letting your comments sink in and simmer, and then it's back to the proverbial grindstone. Thanks again, and have a great weekend!

Angela Brown said...

I read the query and the notes and noticed that when I re-read it as Chris at the start coming out of prison for the first part of the query, then his run in with Madison, then the pieces seemed to fall into place: his feelings for Madison, his thoughts on making the move that got him in prison then, on top of it all, how to deal with these emotions while trying to get back to the norm of living as a productive member of society.

So maybe shifting the prison info the the beginning may help establish that it isn't a YA novel. When I first read it, that's what I thought it was but changing the sequence should help a lot.

Weaver said...

Jeff's story sounds compelling, but my first thought yesterday is the same one you raised, Matt. So much of the beginning is backstory. I wonder if Jeff can take the current story and mix in enough of what happened before with the current conflict.

jerichas said...

If the books really does switch between past and present, i might like to see that in the query a little more. I thought maine character's simple suggestion about starting the whole thing with the words "thirty years ago" was definitely interesting, and cleans up some of the issues - I ALSO thought it was YA, and I don't think you want that. It should be clear from the start.

Nobody else has said much about James, but for me, there's a whoooole lot going on with the words "long-time nemesis." Most happy, popular high schoolers don't have a nemesis. And "long-time" means he's been important to Chris's life. So when you kill him off right away in the query, I feel a little bewildered. Is he actually a major player in the book? Then he needs to come back in the query, or have his presence strengthened. I'm assuming he's important, because whoa, Chris killed him That's a big thing for a teenager to do, and I want to know more about the kind of kid who's capable of doing that. I have this feeling like there's all this tantalizing characterization hanging around just at the edges here, but juuuust out of sight - and without it, I have no idea who Chris is - cold-blooded killer? young thug led astray? nice boy pushed too far? What kind of a kid kills somebody over a dog? I need to know that before I can start to care about what he's like when he comes out of prison. It makes a difference in how Madison views him, how society views him - and without knowing who he is, I have no idea who anyone in the book is. And I'd like to, because you've got a great feel for language and it sounds like quite a story.

Jackie Layton said...

Hi Jeff,

It sounds like you have a great story. I'm trying to figure out how to write a good query and enjoyed reading all the comments.

Because so many people, myself included, read and re-read the query I think you should rearrange it.

Where does your story begin? With him getting out of prison and adjusting to being a free man again? It seems like that's where you should begin your query.

Good luck on perfecting your query so you can get your story published.


DL Hammons said...

I too was confused with the genre mix, seemingly contradictory, and also agree that there was too much revealed in the query. In my opinion the query should tease and entice an agent to ask for more, then the actual pages will seal the deal. There's not enough tease here.

It does sound like a powerful story though!

Elaine said...

Very nit-picky, but I don't think we need last names for anybody except maybe the MC.

It's been a while since I read it, but would Jason Wright's "The Wednesday Letters" be a comparable title? There are some similar elements of past transgressions, young love that never died, and a chance at redemption...

This sounds like a fascinating story!

Misha Gerrick said...

I know what you mean, Matt. I'd suggest that the author rather starts the query where the MC leaves the prison and then explain what got him there and how he lost everything and the girl he loved.

And then he could bring the rest of the query pretty much as is.

I.E. I'd say that the whole first portion of the query should go and be reworked into the rest of the query.

Thanks again for your great guest post!

Angela Ackerman said...

This is a really great query, but I think like Matt that the opening needs some work to make it clearer immediately that this is a past event. Otherwise the person reading may feel like they've been targeted with a YA not an adult novel. Certainly as they read on they'll see that it is for adults, but the even three second belief that this is a YA could taint their view, especially if their guidelines state they only take adult fiction. No sense ruffling feathers if you don't have to.

Starting with a line that suggests the past might help a transition here--something to the tune of: A single mistake can have lasting effects (but something fresher and compelling, of course). This way, the reader is set up that they will see the event that changes everything but isn't the heart of the story. Part of it is the tense of the opening leads us to believe it's all happening right now. I guess it depends on how much air time you actually give to the past events. If it isn't much, you might just be able to start your query with his release, and allude to what sent him there in a quick summary.

Good luck with this--it sounds like a very compelling, layered story. :)

Angela Ackerman

Daisy Carter said...

I really love this query crits that you do! So valuable! I'll be linking over here tomorrow during my query round robin!

Anonymous said...

I feel for you, Jeff. I face the same issues with my novel: past/present/starting in the past, looking like MG/how to convey that frame-like setting in the query, etc, etc. When you nail it down, let me know. :-) I'd love to read your book someday.

JeffO said...

Just dropping back by once more to say thanks to everyone who took the time to wade in and comment. I appreciate your time and energy!