Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jericha Senyak's Current Query Critiqued

All righty then. We're back with Jericha's query letter, this time with my thoughts, in red. Let's get right to it.

The query:

Dear [Agent Name],

Somewhere in the heart of in a nameless city falling slowly into the sea, George Kepler, a shy bookbinder, is sitting sits in his attic with his books. I really like this. I mean sure, it's unconventional for a query, it's immediately even more present than the normal present tense query, but it's also beautiful writing, poetic, and oh so unique. He lives alone. He reads the books he binds. He doesn't have adventures. He dreams of geometry and harmonies and devils in the chimney. Did you leave commas out of this sentence on purpose? For rhythm? It's fine if you did, just make sure it's on purpose. He drinks coffee. He sighs a lot. He wonders if there is anyone left who remembers to praise the works of God but him. He wonders if maybe love's a better option (at least it's companionable). A better option than what? His ruminations? And love of whom? He chronicles the marvelous workings of the cosmos meticulously each evening, and wonders why divinity seems so very far away. I love that a character named Kepler ponders the cosmos. Feels like a lovely tribute to Johannes.

So, you're opening hook and paragraph are pretty moving. They break pretty much all the query rules, but the writing is so gorgeous, I think it works. You really set the setting up beautifully, and we know a lot about George's character from the things he surrounds himself with, but I think we need more about who he is. For one thing, I was picturing a somewhat elderly man, until the first sentence of the next paragraph. So maybe you could call him a young bookbinder, or, you know, somehow otherwise hint at his age. Then, it might be nice to have one or two words to describe his personality. We can infer a lot about his character from his profession, and the things he does with his time, but just a little more about the kind of man he is before his story begins would help.

But just when he finds himself distracted by the black eyes of his local barista, Lilya, a peach of a girl with sharp elbows and an obligatory dose of snide, two strangers come a-knocking who know a lot more about him than they should. Love this. Potential romance and mystery/conflict? Yes, please. Before he knows it, they've whirled George out of his sleepy life of prayer and sent him on a series of harebrained and beautiful adventures. As he pursues an unseen Klezmer orchestra through a driving snowstorm, falls off cliffs, uncovers the unlikely friendship of a Danish alchemist and a famous mystic rabbi , stumbles across a secret synagogue, and discovers a forgotten manuscript that might just be about the Golem, he's left with hardly any time to ask himself - are his new friends fun-loving fools, or are they after something? I'm teetering on undecided about all this. I mean it's lots of fun, and full of quirk, but I wonder how well it will work at enticing agents. It's a long sentence, and mentions a lot of cool sounding things, but it doesn't really give a strong sense of what the central conflict is. You usually want to convey a sense of what difficulty your MC will have to overcome. This feels like a lot of little trials, but you need at least one big one too. Are they angels sent from God or a pair of tricksy demons? Is he having the time of his life or beginning to lose his mind? Does Lilya think he's nuts or a just lovable schlemiel? And did he leave the front door hanging open? Hah! The rest of this is hard to decide about too. It's generally a bad idea to ask questions in a query, but somehow, I think you make this work. The Yiddish, and the humor, and the dichotomy of George's situation really finish this up with so much entertaining voice.

I'll talk about this more when I summarize, but this paragraph continues the theme of the first, which is somewhat along the lines of style over substance. I don't mean that in a bad way, because the writing is so good I'm guessing you'll get requests based on it alone, but you do need to keep in mind that at this point, I still don't really know what happens in this story.

A Fool For God A FOOL FOR GOD is an old-fashioned mystical romp, a brooding Eastern European meditation on belief thrust into a San Franciscan carnival of merry drunken adjectives. It's one part G.K. Chesterton and one part Bernard Malamud, the lovechild of a fantastical Christian allegory and an old Jewish folktale birthed on a festive night in the back alleys of a city that just might be your own. Hmm. It's done so well I almost want to say keep this, but it's generally a bad idea to tell an agent what your story is. Show them, through your query, and through your pages, and then let them decide for themselves. Complete at 70,000 words, it's a work of literary fiction for the wonderers and wanderers in us all.

Thank you for your consideration.


Jericha Senyak

This rest of this is good. So let's summarize. Your writing is so gorgeous, I think that if you left this query as is, you would probably get requests based on your writing alone, especially from agents who accept the first five pages along with the letter. In other words, this query is already very good, and I don't think you'd have to change anything for it to work.

But you came to me asking for help, and I do think there is room for improvement. Try to see if you can focus. Think about the three Cs that are the fundamental basis of most query letters: Character, Conflict, Choice. We have a decent sense of George's character, but we could use a little more up front. The first C needs the least work. You have lots of little (clever, funny, and brilliant) bits of minor conflict, and we can guess at something bigger, but you should avoid being vague in a query if at all possible. Is there something bigger behind this journey? Who are these strangers? It's okay to get very specific in a query. You don't want to keep things a mystery (except - don't give away the end). Finally, we don't have a sense of a difficult Choice George will have to make in order to overcome whatever the main conflict is. Sure, he asks himself some great questions, and there are some choices included there, but most queries include one tough, over-arching decision that summarizes how hard it's going to be for the MC to achieve his goals.

So the point of all this is - you're an amazing writer. Your way with words alone will probably sell this MS to a lot of agents, but if you want to improve this query, to really tighten it, you need to think about how to get even more specific about your story. You do have a lot of clear, specific details, and that's good, but they don't really connect to the main storyline - if that makes any sense.

That's it.

What do you all think? Ever seen a query with so much beautiful writing, and such a unique voice? Do you agree that it needs to be tightened, or do you think I'm off the mark?

Please share your feedback in the comments.


JeffO said...

I love the voice. And I love the opening line. I think my only argument with this query is the paragraphs are a little too long. Maybe she should cut two or three sentences from each of the first two paragraphs, but it's a tough thing: This query is delicately balanced, and taking too much out will disrupt its rhythm and voice.

Very nicely done, Jericha.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Breaking the rules with her style might just be what gets her noticed.

Rebecca said...

i kind of like the idea of breaking rules

LM Preston said...

Great critique!

Anonymous said...

Funny, I made the same not about the name Kepler. Otherwise, yes, the breaking of the rules might be the added hook. The only other thing is in the first paragraph, the contrast of the sentence without commas versus the two really short sentences right after it ("coffee" and "sighs").

farawayeyes said...

Matt you're the master, so your comments seem really good.

Jericha, I have to say I LOVE the style, voice and prose of this query so much, it's enough to completely sell me.

As a rule breaker myself, I would say go for it. As a novice, I certainly can't argue with Matt's suggestions.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I really loved this query and agree with matt that you'd probably get bites with it, especially if your opened pages are engaging.
I think, in the middle part where you're listing the adventures he experiences, i would cut a few out. It seemed to drag on, for me, a bit too long, and so i lost the focus. Maybe just keep it to 2-3 adventures, the really quirky or fun ones.

Good luck!

DL Hammons said...

I agree spot on with Matt's suggestions, but also Sarah's in pointing out the middle part where the adventures are detailed is too busy, overloaded somewhat.

But even forgiving that point, this query will elicit some requests! :)

Kimberly Gabriel said...

I really like your critique Matt. Best of luck in the query process Jericha!

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I know when reading this, the sentence detailing all the adventures, I read two of them and skipped to the next sentence. Just too long to keep my attention.

I love the premise of this. Hope the full requests start pouring in.

Bryan Russell said...

I concur. I love this, but there's a sense of randomness to the events, and it would be nice to have more of a sense of purpose. Why is all this happening?

But very, very intriguing. Also, I love Chesterton, so that might have sold me by itself. :)

Nancy Thompson said...

Yep, I agree. The one & only thing that bugs me is the length or amount of content. It's a bit too much & wouldn't suffer at all if you pared it down & focused more on the biggest, most critical event, conflict, or choice. That said, it's beautiful!

Michael G-G said...

Here's what would happen at Agency Corleone (if there were such a place). Jericha's query comes in the slush. Unpaid intern thinks "holy cannoli, this is different," and flags it for Vito's eyes. Vito thinks "this one here's a writer," and goes to the first five. That's where it's going to be make-or-break.

There will be those who are enticed by the whole lovechild of G.K. Chesterton and Bernatrd Malamud thang--some who won't. But at the end of the day, this is going places--just like Jericha, back to the Bay Area from Massachusetts. (See, Agency Corleone even went and checked her website!)

If you want a teeny, tiny improvement, I think the adventures in para 3 could be pared. How about the Rule of Three: "As he falls off cliffs,stumbles across a secret synagogue, and discovers a forgotten manuscript that might just be about the Golem..."

Good luck with this, Jericha. I look forward to reading your success story.

(N.B. All references to Agency Corleone are to do with me being the Middle Grade Mafioso.)

Nate Wilson said...

Despite the fine writing, I think the first paragraph suffers from the same malady as the second: length. All it gives us is a sense of who Kepler is before his adventures, yet it takes up half the query. Whereas, I suspect the vast majority of your story is about the zany, madcap adventures and how he changes because of them. I say keep the same feel but strip it way down to get into the meat of the novel faster.

With the second paragraph, carve out the excess to focus on only the most important bits (and as Matt said, be specific). Oh, and make sure to give us a why. We want to know what's driving him away from his simple life. Romps are great, but if you give the whole endeavor more weight, it'll really draw the reader in.

Weaver said...

That is gorgeous writing. I think you've mentioned before (and kind of touched on it here) the idea of selecting one conflict and focusing on it. While lovely, it's kind of all over the place for a query.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Oooh...I hadn't heard of the three C's...character, conflict, and choice.

That's good.

Johanna Garth said...

Your writing is so absolutely beautiful. I'm just blown away and have nothing to add to this critique except that I really want to read the book.

Anonymous said...

I agree it should be pared down, but leave the 1st 2 sentences as is. It's beautiful and says so much.

Reminds me of The Good Omens in its quirky kind of way.

Steve MC said...

Love that opening line – very poetic - and as Matt says, the writing throughout is superb.

Two very small suggestions I’m probably wrong about: “is sitting in his attic with his books” might be better as “in his attic of books,” and “wonderers and wanderers” is a little distracting.

There’s also bits on geometry and the cosmos, but no mention that he’s an astronomer or has such instruments except for his namesake.

But really, love the mix of science and spirit, and a hint of Old World fantasy.

Reminds me of a cross between Too Loud a Solitude and “Amelie.”

jerichas said...

Oh my goodness, you guys, thank you all SO MUCH. This is the perfect critique, really. I am grateful for the incredibly kind words about my writing and voice, but I also find myself nodding agreement over and over with the things you've all suggested to make the query sharper and tighter. I'm really looking forward to integrating all these ideas. Please keep 'em coming! I can feel it clarifying in my mind and it's a wonderful sensation.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great critique Matt. I like this but I agree it needs to tell us more the conflict and the stakes. You've already got such a great voice and writing style here so it shouldn't be hard to do. And also, I'd recommend not asking questions in the query.

Tara Tyler said...

every time i think i've got a good version of my query, i read a greater one!

nicely done and totally unique story!

Elaine said...

Lovely, unique query and a great critique. I agree with Matt- clarify the age of the MC early, trim a little, and consider removing some of the questions. Well done!

Kittie Howard said...

Yes, definitely break the rules! Everything hooked me, but it was the last paragraph that made me wish I could buy the book. (And I DO buy books like this.)

Stephsco said...

Your feedback is really great. I agree with the many of the others on paring down some of the details in teh third paragraph but keeping the rest of the unique style of the query. I would assume the writer is only going to send to agents who read similar genres, so I think once the homework on who to query is done, this will hit the right audience.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Very nice query letter Jericha. Matthew you make it look so easy!

Claire Hennessy said...

I so love reading your critiques of query letters, Matt. So insightful. Love the story, Jericha - as unusual and lovely as your name.

Rusty Carl said...

I went back and read yesterday's post first, before I read your comments here. And I left that post thinking that that first paragraph was as magically wonderful as it gets.

I kept thinking that if I were an agent I'd be asking for the full manuscript anyway - but as long as I'm playing the what-if game, I'd also be wondering if the novel might be a beautiful wreck - because the plot is still a bit of mystery to me.

Still, I'd take that chance in a heartbeat - I think the query promises something terribly wonderful.

Jackie Layton said...


I think this is a beautiful query with a unique voice. (I know you've heard that before.)
If your book is as beautiful as this letter, I think you'll do even better than The Shack.


jerichas said...

Gosh, this just gets better. So okay, first of all: thank you all (again) SO MUCH for the amazing feedback. It's kind of astonishing what you don't see when you're the one writing, and I can't thank you all enough (especially Matt! my goodness!) for taking the time out of your day to help me out. I hope you know that it is deeply appreciated.

Secondly, let's see if I can do a quick recap of the info I've received here. Basically, sounds like the writing seems solid & compelling, but I need to make the story sound like it matches the strength of the language. George could use some clarification as a character - both as to his age ("young bookbinder" is a great solution) and what he's all about. But more than anything, it seems like a clearer handle on the situation he's actually in - essentially, the "tough, over-arching decision" that all those "little trials" add up to - is what the query really needs to keep it from sounding like it might be a "beautiful wreck" (um, awesome term, Rusty).

It's really encouraging to hear you say that the writing is compelling enough on its own, but hearing that I need to make the conflict and the character stand up to it is an excellent bit of advice. I'll rework and send it back in. Endless gratitude to everyone who contributed. Your words mean so much.

Stina said...

There's nothing more for me to say that everyone else hasn't already mentioned. It's a great query, and will be even more so once Jericha follows through with Matt's suggestions. :D

Good luck with querying, Jericha.

Kristen Wixted said...

I got interrupted when I tried to comment on this earlier in the week. So let me just say briefly that I think it's fascinating but too long. If you're a good writer, and it seems that you are, you'll know what to cut (especially with all the help here) and how to cut it to make it better. Right now it's too much. Confusing.

Sorry it took me so long but I have been thinking about it and with the kids home from school I kept getting distracted.