Friday, May 25, 2007

Query Critique #5

Six months past Hurricane Katrina, barista extraordinaire Alice Baies is finally enjoying a normal workday at Café Au Lait in uptown New Orleans when she discovers the corpse of a co-worker painted with a blue X stuffed under the café's back steps, thus forcing Alice to unravel a trail of deception and murder in the still-traumatized city. The 62,000-word cozy mystery entitled The Barista Sees the Blues is the first in a proposed series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Featuring the amateur sleuthing duo of Alice and her retired schoolteacher aunt Trudy Baies, The Barista series will intertwine coffee lore and tips, New Orleans' famous cuisine, and mouth-watering recipes set against the backdrop of the historic city.

To put it plainly, this is a mess. If this crossed my desk there’s no way I would ask to see more. If this writing is indicative of the writing in your book it’s not strong enough for me to even spend time on.

Six months after, not six months past. Does Hurricane Katrina fit into the story at all or is it just a time stamp? If it’s not a part of the story take it out. Be careful not to time stamp things with major tragedies—September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, etc.—unless they are integral to the story. By using Hurricane Katrina you imply that it is part of your hook, which doesn’t come through in the rest of the letter.

With this kind of book I would simply get to the hook: As a barista in a New Orleans coffee shop Alice Baies is an unlikely detective. But in The Barista Sees the Blues, the first in a cozy mystery series, Alice and her best friend set out to solve the crime of a murdered co-worker. In addition to an appealing mystery, the Barista series will include coffee tips and mouth-watering recipes. This is an example of how to get to the point. I would recommend though that your hook be even stronger. My version is only a rough example, and would still need a lot of work.

I would also change your title and your series title. Neither “say” mystery to me. If you look at other cozy mystery titles you should get a good idea of what I’m talking about.

Alice is impelled to investigate when another barista, flighty irresponsible Cassy, cannot be found, but the overworked and understaffed New Orleans Police refuse to search for her. Alice enlists the help of her aunt Trudy to help find Cassy and discover who has a grudge against the baristas. Their main suspect, Simon Dupré—the shifty general manager of Café Au Lait and the owners' only child—is brutally murdered and Alice finds herself the prime suspect. With a little help from friends, including a tarot-card reading witch, Alice tracks down the real killer, figures out the meaning of the blue X, and saves Aunt Trudy just in time from being the next victim.

I don’t know if you need all of this. You should be able to give me the highlights in one paragraph. I don’t need the details of the crime or mystery, I just need to know what makes you book distinct.

Did you know there is already a coffee shop mystery series? You should do your research and tell me how your book is different. Don’t think you can pull one over on an agent. A good agent knows the market and what books already exist. She’s not going to pretend there’s not another series like yours, she’s going to use it to her advantage to sell yours. So be upfront. Know your competition and let the agent know how you plan to beat it.

As a native New Orleanian, living north of Lake Pontchartrain at the time, I experienced firsthand the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Working as a barista/coffee master at the local branch of a large national chain, I was able to offer help and comfort to those in need. I graduated from the English program at the University of New Orleans, where I was also the editor of the college newspaper. Since then I have been an editor, English teacher, and coffee master. I've published in multiple English as a Second Language teaching journals.

Again, unless Hurricane Katrina plays into the story directly, don’t bother mentioning it. Stick to your writing and publishing credentials.

Thank you for your time.

Instead of thanking me for my time, since you don’t know if I even bothered to give you any, why don’t you let me know that the rest of the manuscript is available for review? That’s a much stronger ending.


Check back next week for more query critiques!


Aimlesswriter said...

Since the query is much harder to write then the book--thank you for this! Sometimes I just want to say, "Here's the book, hope you like it." Instead I toil for hours over that letter.
Queries scare me silly. So do agents. To an unpub writer an agent is the great gatekeeper to a world we can only dream of. We fear saying too much and making fools of ourselves. Or not saying enough and you miss our hook.
I can't wait to read more on queries.
Thanks again!

Jennifer McKenzie said...

It's tough to know WHAT to include and what doesn't matter. These query crits have been giving me good examples.
And Jeannie, queries scare me silly too.

Kimber Li said...

It does sound more like a synopsis than a query, but it is a work-in-progress. I have one thing to add. Every agent likes something different, so it's a good idea to visit all the agents' blogs for examples of what they like. Then, when you really are submitting try to tailor whatever you submit to each agent's preferences.

For example, this agent doesn't believe thanking her for her time is necessary. Hop over to another agent's blog and she states we should *always* thank an agent for her time at the end of the letter.

Anonymous said...

Are brutal murders and yummy recipes a good mix?

(I'm not being rhetorical.)

Anonymous said...

You're critiquing more queries? Nice!

Grace Draven

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing these critiques, Jessica! Gaining an understanding not only of query mechanics but of market preferences is truly enlightening.

As Kimber An says, "Every agent likes something different."

Evil Editor put up his reply to the debated issue of including a "thank you." He says of agents thanking the publisher: "I can't recall receiving a letter from an agent who didn't do so."

If Jessica doesn't mind the plug, Evil Editor also has query critiques -- nearly 400 of them now posted, and a new one or two added pretty much daily -- so if Jessica doesn't get to yours this time around or you missed being able to post one here, visit his site at:

For reference, the "thank you" editorial just posted is Q&A 111.

Laura K. Curtis said...

Phoenix mentioned the "thank you." While I agree that this particular letter needs a stronger ending, I wonder about the fact that more than one agent has mentioned there's no need for "thank you." But my mother would horsewhip me if I didn't say "thanks!" I certainly say it to the waiter every time he refills my water glass, and that's his job (which he gets thanks in the form of a tip for), too. it actively wrong to thank an agent in a query, or simply uneccesary?


P.S. Thanks for doing these critiques...*this* I know is not in your job description!

Anonymous said...

I actually thought that life post Katrina in NO was a pretty good hook. I thought it was very relevant to the whole story, not just some random time stamp.

Anonymous said...

I agree with last anonymous. I think setting a book specifically in post-Katrina New Orleans is relevant and interesting. I guess is could be argued that "of course it's post-Katrina!", assuming it takes place in the present. But still, I found it hooking my interest...