Saturday, December 5

Real Life Diagnostics: What Might Improve This Query?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Three 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through December 26.

This week’s question:

Do you have advice on how to improve my query, or do you see any problems that an agent might find that will make them ultimately pass on the project? 


Market/Genre: Romantic women’s fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Note: Some details redacted for privacy

When the Smoke Clears is a 76,961 word romantic women’s fiction novel. I invite you to read the manuscript and consider representing me.

Melissa King, a mousy librarian, discovers her fiancĂ© Ben in the midst of a cornfield infidelity. She confronts him with a belly full of humiliation and clumsiness. Sitting in the ashes of her ex’s apartment she exiles herself to Key West so she doesn’t end up in jail.

In Key West she meets a limber octogenarian, and Jake, a tourist bar singer, who has seen her criminal side and still finds her irresistible. Melissa chucks her past and re-imagines her future with Jake, but a secret interrupts their burgeoning romance and propels her into the arms of someone from her past. Will Melissa return to the safety of the cornfields in Ohio or take a chance and forge a new life in Key West, with or without Jake?

I worked for ten years as a mousy librarian in XX academic and public libraries. I earned an MLIS in 2005. I am an active member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association where I belong to a critique group. I contributed a chapter to the e-book anthology XX, released in August 2015 by bloggers XX to benefit XX.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Thoughts in Purple:

When the Smoke Clears is a [76,961] 77,000 is fine word romantic women’s fiction novel. I invite you to read the manuscript and consider representing me.

Melissa King, a mousy librarian, discovers her fiancĂ© Ben in the midst of [a cornfield infidelity] I don’t know what this means. Could be voice, but I don’t get that impression She confronts him with a belly full of [humiliation and clumsiness] This doesn’t say “angry enough to end up in jail” to me to transition smoothly to the next line. Sitting in the [ashes] did she set fire to it? Unclear of her ex’s apartment she [exiles herself to Key West so she doesn’t end up in jail.] Is it an exile or does she run? I’m struggling a little to parse what this first paragraph is saying

In Key West she meets a [limber octogenarian] this is funny, but this character doesn’t seem to affect anything so I wonder why she’s(?) there, and Jake, a [tourist bar singer,] reads awkwardly [who has seen her criminal side and still finds her irresistible] I feel like this glosses over the meet-cute, an important part of a romance. [Melissa chucks her past and re-imagines her future with Jake, but a secret interrupts their burgeoning romance and propels her into the arms of someone from her past.] Reads awkwardly, and again glosses over the key points. What’s the actual conflict? Will Melissa [return to the safety of the cornfields in Ohio or take a chance and forge a new life in Key West, with or without Jake?] This is stated like a choice between two men, but it’s really three choices. So I’m wondering what the real issue is.

I worked for ten years as a mousy librarian in XX academic and public libraries. I earned an MLIS in 2005. I am an active member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association where I belong to a critique group. I contributed a chapter to the e-book anthology XX, released in August 2015 by bloggers XX to benefit XX.

The question:

1. Do you have advice on how to improve my query, or do you see any problems that an agent might find that will make them ultimately pass on the project?


There are some cute things in this query. Betrayed Midwestern gal with a shady past ditches her life for the sunny, wilder life in the Keys. There are some fun possibilities there with her growing as a character and playing the fish out of water role while she discovers the craziness that is Key West. It’s a great setting for someone to re-learn who they are and find themselves alongside kooky characters.

What’s not working for me right now (readers chime in), is a clear sense of what the book is actually about. I can’t tell what the conflict is—is it deciding between two men (one who cheated on her and a new guy) or her deciding if she wants a relationship or just a new life? Where is the plot going to come from? What are the problems Melissa will spend the book resolving?

(Here's more on deciding what to put in a query letter)

A pure romance would focus on the romance aspect, but as romantic fiction, I suspect the real conflict is about her dealing with a problem in her life, and the romance is a smaller part of that. I’m reminded of the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, with Diane Lane. The story was about her changing her life and renovating a house in Tuscany, symbolizing her rebuilding her life after her husband cheated on her. I get a similar vibe with this, but I’m not yet seeing what Melissa is doing to fix her problem. She goes to the Keys for a reason. Why? That why is likely central to this story.

I’m unsure why she “exiles” herself to Key West. Is it really an exile or is she actually running from the cops? Why does she choose that city? What is she looking for as a character? This feels like an important moment that triggers the entire novel, but there’s not enough information for me to understand what’s driving Melissa to act, so I’m not yet seeing a story question I want an answer to. Right now, it’s “Melissa might choose between two guys, or just might stay in Key West.” That’s not enough to draw me in. There's nothing at stake and no conflict to drive the story.

(Here's more on building the core conflicts)

I’m also a little confused over the details of the story. With a query, you want to be specific so agents can see why this book is different from the hundred other queries in the pile. You don’t have to give everything away, but aim for a solid sense of who the characters are and what the story is about. I can see that Melissa has a “criminal past,” but not what that means, or how Jake finds out about it. This also contradicts the “mousy librarian” image of Melissa. Is she mousy or is she someone with a dark past on the run? How does the secret fit in? Is that a critical part of the plot or just backstory?

It’s possible Melissa snaps and sets fire to her ex’s apartment, and this is the “criminal past” the query refers to, but it’s not clear yet, so I’m not sure who Melissa is as a person. Some details almost feels like humor and voice, but they also might be real. Is “so she doesn’t end up in jail” her using hyperbole to show how angry she is, or does she do something that would get her arrested? (The ashes comment makes me think she does do something).

Nothing is lining up in a way that shows what kind of story I’d get if I picked up this book. The contradicting and ambiguous details also make me unsure about the tone of this novel. Is this a light-hearted story with romantic elements or something darker and more serious? This could be a fun beach read or a serious tale about a woman overcoming her past to find happiness—and those are two very different books.

I’d suggest pinpointing the key elements of this story and revise to make those more clear. Try focusing on:

  • What’s the core conflict of the novel?
  • What’s Melissa trying to accomplish?
  • What’s in her way of doing that?
  • What’s at stake if she fails?
  • What’s the unique aspect of her character that will make readers (and agents) love her?
  • What’s cool about this novel that will make people want to read it?
  • What tone do you want to convey?

(Here’s more on writing a strong query)

Overall, I suspect these elements are all there in the novel, they’re just not showing up in the query yet (very common, as queries are tough tot write). I think if you focus more on the conflict and inciting event, show a little more about who Melissa is and what she wants from life, this will develop nicely.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

8 comments:

  1. I agree with Janice. Great sounding story but not presenting well enough in the query.
    For what it's worth, I think there are too many names in this query. Is Ben's name necessary?
    Also it's better just to say straight out that she set fire to her unfaithful fiancee's apartment and needs to flee to Key West. (hope I got it right?!)
    The love interest Jake is buried somewhat. If he is the main character alongside Melissa I think he should be up in paragraph one.
    Good luck. Sounds like fun.

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  2. As most agents advise, keeping the heart of your query to three sentences, is all most have patience for. Be clear, exact and to the points of interest only.

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  3. Thanks to the author for offering this opportunity -- Janice has touched on every point I can think of...so will just add a couple thoughts from my experience.

    I often have authors contact me for help with query letters. If I haven't done the edit of their book, I will do a quick read through to become familiarized with the material. I will then re-write the query and send it back with some feedback.
    Most authors ultimately comment about how 'easy' it was for me to create the new query...and I assure them that it has nothing to do with my writing skills! The key advantage I have is that I'm able to be objective -- I have distance from the book that allows me to more easily 'see' the summary and high points.

    This is, to me, what an agent wants/needs to see. The continuity of story line, the high points that are pivotal to that story line, and how the characters push the plot forward. The 'fun' part, where your book's voice can come through, is in presenting characters.

    In this generously offered example, the 'mousy' part of the MC just doesn't mean anything -- unless you shove it up against an action that represents an dramatic rip in the character's psyche. I got the cornfield reference, taking it to mean coming across the infidelity out in the fields somewhere -- though sex in a cornfield, in reality, would be realllly uncomfortable!
    Also, it's tough to grasp who the MC is/was from cornfields and 'belly full'. I would rather consider a woman who has given her life to the library, found a guy she thought would be hers, planned a mundane path through life -- and then stumbled across a coupling that blew her mind. A mind-blown librarian who burns down her unfaithful boy friend's apartment is something pretty interesting. Makes me wonder what else she might be capable of -- especially now that the orderly life she had pinned all her future on was gone.

    But then again, if she burned his apartment -- what about all the other tenants? Did she try to kill the guy? Did she care if others might die in the flames? Was it an accident? --- Or...is the fire not real? The 'ashes' are how she views the relationship now?

    Personally, I like the darker path -- librarian gone psychotic, runs to Florida, meets other broken folks, re-builds values/life, finally moves forward with new perspective of the world, romance, relationships. The infamous tempering of the spirit/trial by fire thing.

    Good luck with this! Keep re-writing it until it resonates with you -- until you feel the core of the story is covered and each character that is important to the story is given a voice. If the character doesn't move the story, they don't get to play.

    Oyes, there's nothing wrong with lining out the entire story -- beginning, middle, and ending. The agents I've worked with have all indicated that nothing will be 'spoiled' for them by succinctly telling the whole story. Secrets don't have to be revealed, but the story line does.

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  4. This query also points out another danger of poorly written letters. The agent is compelled to assume the manuscript is written with the same degree of skill. That may be unfair but what else is an agent expected to think.

    I was at a seminar with Robert McKee, author of STORY. He was clear about slush piles. There is no competition for a compelling story that is well written. I believe him. I think the same is true of query letters.
    Now all I have to do is learn how to write one.

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  5. I'm afraid that I was confused by the "cornfield infidelity and "belly full of humiliation and clumsiness." I didn't clearly see what you were saying with either. That confusion made me want to stop reading. Janice has already said anything I could possibly think of (which I didn't!) and I also agree with Brian. We have to present our absolutely best writerly foot forward when we hit send. Thanks for bravely putting this out there!

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  6. A couple different things I noticed. The limber octogenarian I took to be a guy. And I thought she might be looking for a sugar daddy. :-) Which kind of made for an interesting play on two guys. So might need to say female or male for this character. Sitting in the ashes, I didn't take literally. I thought it meant her relationship had fizzled to ashes. The cornfield infidelity, I did take literally, but now thinking that might not be the case. All this points to clarity trumps all (including cute metaphors) in a query. Thanks for sharing the query and the great critique, Janice.

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  7. This could be a great read but...there seems to be a lot of vague details, mis-directions, figurative & literal statements that lead me to have questions. Not curiosities but confusions. If I was an agent, I'd probably set it aside with intent to read later. But that can be dangerous. Janet's fix-it ideas would work for me.
    Gale

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    Replies
    1. What's with the "limber octogenarian"? And how did Jake see her "criminal past"? Did he read it in the paper in Key West?
      Gale

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