Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Workshop Wednesday

Thanks to all of your contributions, Workshop Wednesday has been a success. We're going to continue on with it for as long as we have entries and the energy to comment on them. If you haven't yet submitted but are still interested, don't be afraid to participate as per the guidelines in our original post.

For anyone wanting to comment, we ask that you comment in a polite and respectful manner, and we ask that you be as constructive as possible. If you can be useful to the brave souls who submitted their query and comment on the query, that's great. Please keep any anonymous tirades on publishing or other snarky comments to yourself. This is and should remain an open and safe forum for people to put themselves and their queries out there so that everyone can learn. I'm leaving comments open and open to anonymous posters, as I always have; don't make me feel the need to change that policy.

And for those who have never "met" Query Shark, get over there and do that. She's the originator of the query critique, the queen, if you will.

Dear Ms. Editor

I would like you to consider working with me on the following manuscript.

We have agents here, not editors. And nobody here has the last name Editor. This makes me think you haven’t done your research. Also, and this is just my personal opinion, but something about your first sentence makes me feel a bit condescended to, as though you’re commanding me to do something in a nice way. “Please consider . . .” might be more effective.

Landing in New York in 1910, Martin Crain fell in love with the American Dream and reached out for it with both hands. Determination, hard work and his own inate loyalty, made him rise from chauffeur to the personal assistant of a wealthy industrialist.

Misspellings and errors in grammar and punctuation in a query are a pet peeve of mine. In a 100,000-word manuscript, errors are more forgivable, but you only had to write half a page and you’ve misspelled something any email program or word processor would highlight. Now you look lazy.

We meet his employer,whom Martin calls "the Mister"; the Mister's great love - Miss Ellie, his wife, his brother; Martin's son, Mo and Mo's cousin - DoeDoe (through whose eyes and memories the story is told).

If DoeDoe (whoever he or she is) is the narrator, why don’t we know more about him or her? What gives this person the authority to tell the story?

We’re halfway through the query and I know all the characters’ names, which mean nothing to me, but have no idea what they do (or even what the narrator’s gender is) or what conflict is presented.

This story follows Martins life, and those of his family in the Irish neighborhoods of mid-Manhattan, and through the homes and lives of his wealthy employers.

This might be interesting. But I’m thinking, “And?” Are there comparisons between the extreme poverty and social stigmas the Irish suffered in 1910 and the comfort of the wealthy? Because it sounds like there might be, and this is fascinating to me. But you haven’t given me a chance to see it.

When tragedy struck and Martin's grip on his dream slipped, his loyalty never faltered.

Aha! I see a glimmer of conflict. I can tell it is there, but you haven’t told me what it is. What tragedy struck Martin and his grip on his dream? Indeed, what is his dream? The American Dream is relative—it could mean a picket fence and a golden retriever, or it could mean ownership of a filthy deli in Hell’s Kitchen.

Through betrayal, deaths, murder, persecution, failures and personal misery, Martin was never known to speak a word of blame for his beloved "Mister".

Why would he blame Mister? This is the problem here. I get a vague sense of what this book is about, but in order to want to read more, I need specificity. What happened and how was it rectified, if it was?

They say 'no good deed goes unpunished', but perhaps in the end, Martin's devotion would be rewarded?

Well, is it or isn’t it? And in what way? Because my opinion of the story hinges upon knowing what happens, I do not like having the ending dangled in front of me like a carrot. I feel like you’re saying to me, “If you really want to know the answer and can’t stand the suspense, you’ll request my proposal.” And that feels sneaky and tricky. If you had confidence in your own plotting and the ending of your own story, you would have been too willing to tell me all about it. And I honestly wanted to hear it.

Thank you for taking time to read this.

I like this closing. Simple and respectful.

I would reject this because even though I like stories that show the polarity of American socioeconomics, and I like stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York City, I can’t tell from your query what the meat of the story is.



Colin Smith said...

Spelling and grammatical mistakes aside, it seems to me the writer is trying to tell us what the novel is about without really doing much showing, or, more importantly, enticing us to read it.

For all the rules and guidelines about writing queries there are out there, the simple (and yet most difficult) rule is *make the agent want to read your work!* And it seems that is the biggest problem with this query. I would advise the querier to stop hinting at conflict and nibbling around the edges of the real story. Introduce the main character, the main antagonist, and give us conflict.

And spell/grammar check. :)

Kristan Hoffman said...

I could be wrong but I don't think this writer was trying to be sneaky. This query simply read, to me, like a first effort.

I think the key is, as Lauren said, specificity. Give us the DETAILS that make this story unique. Don't try to sell us on its themes or setting; sell us on the individual character/s and their journey/s.

Julie Daines said...

The query needs to be pared down to the main character and his/her conflicts. Forget the rest and give the meat.

(As Lauren already said.)

Anonymous said...

It appears to me that this query is a first attempt, or is intended for an actual editor and not an agent.

Writer Artist said...

Thank you. I feel like I can venture out and write a query letter with this as a guide. I am able to write fiction, but my own synopsis, or any promotional writing frankly scares the heck out of me.

Dani Nosek said...

If I were an agent I'd probably reject this. It doesn't read well to me. Although I feel that this story could be very interesting, the query is not well written.

I love tension and I think even in a query tension can be showed. I think if the writer took out the extraneous details and homed in on the conflict this might entice a request. IMHO.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

I also found the writing a bit awkward. Here's an example:

Determination, hard work and his own inate loyalty, made him rise from chauffeur to the personal assistant of a wealthy industrialist.

Besides the spelling error already pointed out, the second comma shouldn't be there. And "made" isn't the right verb. "Enabled him to rise," perhaps. But really you want your sentences to have the character as subject. Otherwise he sounds passive.

This story follows Martins life, and those of his family in the Irish neighborhoods of mid-Manhattan, and through the homes and lives of his wealthy employers.

There needs to be an apostrophe: Martin's life. There's at least one extraneous comma. The last part of the sentence, "and through the homes and lives of his wealthy employers," makes it sound as though Martin is going through their homes and lives. It reminds me of a neighbor I had who, as soon as my back was turned, would be going through my dresser drawers or reading my mail.

My first drafts tend to contain sentences like the ones in this query. Probably everybody's do. If your manuscript is written like this then it probably needs a serious overhaul. If it's not, great! You just need to fix the query so it doesn't give that impression.

Tracy said...

I don't know. I don't think it sounded bad. I can see where more of the story needed to be told, though. To me, it sounds like she wanted to tell about the whole story, encapsulate everything with generalities, when really she should hatheft used on the driving force behind the novel, not 'about' the driving force behind the novel.

But I think the word choices were fine. She clearly knows how to write a sentence. And I'm betting, that last sentence wasn't meant to taunt. I bet she wrote it that way because query letters are supposed to resemble back cover blurbs. I know I've heard several times not to tell the ending on a query letter because it takes away an agents enthusiasm to read on. Maybe in some cases it works and others it doesn't.

Personally I dislike stories where servants give their hearts to their employers. It feels oddly like people volunteering to be pets. But this query is not all bad. There are good points. And I kind of have a feel for the story despite nothing being said about it, which is something. Take heart writer. There is a definite nugget of goodness here. You have something to build on.

Kristin Laughtin said...

The listing of characters confused me a bit, because I felt the relationships could have been presented more directly. I'm assuming the great love and the wife might be separate characters, but it took me a moment to get there. Also reading that DoeDoe is Martin's son's cousin obfuscates their relationship. Especially since Martin is the center of the story (even if DoeDoe is, for whatever reason, the narrator), wouldn't it be better and more direct to simply label DoeDoe as his niece or nephew?

I suppose this is related to the need for more specificity in relating the plot deals. All of these descriptions work around the story, rather than relating it directly. Even if you don't want to give away all the plot points in order to be enticing, more specificity is allowable and could possibly be even more intriguing. I don't think this is the worst query by any means, but as others have said, it reads as more of a first draft.

Anonymous said...

And there didn't seem to be a hint of love story anywhere. I'm not talking about a romance...but a love interest. Seems anything in books and films always has this element.

newmancht said...

I think the author has a potential book. However, (frankly) about all I got from this query was the urge to stifle a yawn. Aside from massive character name dropping, there wasn't any effective information to tell me about this story.

The author should start completely over and follow the (more or less) golden rules of the query:

What does the protagonist want/need?

What or who is keeping him from getting it?

What choice/decision does he face?

What terrible/great thing will happen if he chooses to do _____?

What terrible/great thing will happen if he doesn't.

In other words, who is the protagonist and antagonist and what is the conflict?

I'd recommend starting with simple sentences that answer these question directly, then add your prose to fine tune it. Also, if DoeDoe cannot be effectively inserted into this query without adding confusion, then DoeDoe needs to go away until the synopsis is requested.

I made the same mistake in my fist 8000 query revisions - trying to put entirely too much of the story into the query, which only leads to vagueness, confusion and telling - not showing. (Okay, maybe 8000 was an exaggeration, but that's what it feels like....)

Last, you need to really be careful with the extra/incorrect commas and other punctuation snafus. Also, errors in spelling are absolute no-no's.