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Saturday, October 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Would This Query Letter Make You Ask for Pages?

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 we 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: Four


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 17.

This week’s questions:

1. I am wondering if it is too familiar at the start. I am aiming this particular letter at a specific agent as you can see. I will amend the letter for other queries.

2. Am I using the correct format?

3. Is my plot clear enough?

4. Do you have any suggestions to make this query stand out?


Market/Genre: Query Letter

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear Agent’s Name,

You have the dubious honor of being the recipient of my very first query letter, for my very first novel.Your obvious affection for the mystery genre and skill at sharing your abundant expertise (I’ve read all your books on writing) and the fact you read Cherry Ames, made you my first choice.

I am seeking representation for my adult fiction novel, which is a 62,000 word, historical mystery, MURDER ON THE NIGHT RIVIERA. My novel is a cozy mystery similar in tone to Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series.I hope it also has a touch of Elizabeth Cadell charm. The setting is Cornwall during World War I.

Alberta Holdaway, air raid warden, Voluntary Aid Detachment worker and vicar’s daughter, leaves her job at British Red Cross Headquarters to escort her father (who has lost his pastorship) to the small village of Lanmorech in Cornwall.To reach Lanmorech they board the Night Riviera, a sleeper train that runs overnight from London’s Paddington Station to Penzance.

The first thing Alberta and her father do upon reaching Lanmorech is attend a “Sale of All Work,” where the Red Cross Pearl collection is on display. At the sale, the dead body of Flora Hicks, Red Cross VAD, is discovered, pearls clutched in her hand. A few days later, the police determine the murder happened on the train and they have an eyewitness. Vicar Holdaway is arrested.

It’s up to Alberta and a few quirky locals, which include Dowager Lady Beatrice Penrose, gypsy Morvah Best and her son Constable Saben Best, with charm and wit in abundance, to sift through a barrage of clues and ferret out the real killer who committed MURDER ON THE NIGHT RIVIERA.

Please see the attached first ten pages of my complete manuscript.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Very Sincerely,

Author’s Name

My Thoughts in Purple:


Dear Agent’s Name,

[You have the dubious honor of being the recipient of my very first query letter, for my very first novel.] This does feel too familiar, and sets you up as being unprofessional. First novels carry a stigma, and while plenty are very good, many of them aren’t ready for publication. Your obvious affection for the mystery genre and skill at sharing your abundant expertise (I’ve read all your books on writing) and the fact you read Cherry Ames, made you my first choice.

I am seeking representation for my adult [fiction] all novels are fiction novel, which is a 62,000 word, [historical mystery,] MURDER ON THE NIGHT RIVIERA. [My novel is a cozy mystery] which is it? There’s a difference between these two genres, and at 62K words this sounds more like a cozy than a historical similar in tone to Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series. [I hope it also has] own it (grin)—“with a touch of…” a touch of Elizabeth Cadell charm. The setting is Cornwall during World War I.

Alberta Holdaway, air raid warden, Voluntary Aid Detachment worker and vicar’s daughter, leaves her job at British Red Cross Headquarters to escort her father (who has lost his pastorship) to the small village of Lanmorech in Cornwall.To reach Lanmorech they board the Night Riviera, a sleeper train that runs overnight from London’s Paddington Station to Penzance. There’s a lot of time spent on who these people are, but none of those titles or jobs seem to have any bearing on the story or plot. Are they all necessary? Is it important that we know in the query he lost his pastorship?

The first thing Alberta and her father do upon reaching Lanmorech is attend [a “Sale of All Work,” where the Red Cross Pearl collection is on display.] Perhaps readers of this time period will know what this means, but I’m confused At the sale, the dead body of Flora Hicks, [Red Cross VAD,] same here. All the titles is also making this difficult to keep track of what matters and what doesn't of is discovered, pearls clutched in her hand. [A few days later, the police determine the murder happened on the train and they have an eyewitness.] Something about “a few days later” lessens the tension [Vicar Holdaway] it took me a minute to remember this was her father. Perhaps remind readers? is arrested. I'm not sure what the setting of the sale has to do with anything if the murder was on the ship. There's a disconnect here, especially when so much attention was spent on the Red Cross angle. 

It’s up to Alberta and a few quirky locals, which include Dowager Lady Beatrice Penrose, gypsy Morvah Best and her son Constable Saben Best, with charm and wit in abundance, to sift through a barrage of clues and ferret out the real killer who committed MURDER ON THE NIGHT RIVIERA. This paragraph is too clunky and difficult to read. I like the idea of quirky locals sifting through clues, so perhaps break this into several sentences and add a clearer goal for Alberta. I’m also not sure you need the names, as they don’t tell me much. You could accomplish the same thing with just “A feisty dowager, local constable, and his gypsy mother…”.

Please see the attached first ten pages of my complete manuscript.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Very Sincerely,

Author’s Name

The questions:

1. I am wondering if it is too familiar at the start. I am aiming this particular letter at a specific agent as you can see. I will amend the letter for other queries.

Yes. Unless this references a conversation you had with this agent and they’ll get the humor, you’re immediately establishing yourself as someone who is brand new to writing, and doesn’t believe in their own work. Agents also get queries from people who claim “it’s a honor to get the chance to work with such a brilliant writer” in all seriousness, and you really don’t want to be grouped in with them (grin).

(Here’s more on what your query letter says about your book)

2. Am I using the correct format?

Yes. Queries have some leeway, but this is formatted fine. The one thing I did question was the target market. You say it’s a historical mystery and a cozy, which are two different things. The word count suggests a cozy set during WWI. “Historical mystery” suggests a much larger story with a deeper plot. Perhaps just say “historical cozy.”

(Here’s more on how to find an agent)

3. Is my plot clear enough?

Mostly. It’s clear this is a mystery and that Alberta will have to catch the killer, but it doesn’t state she has to clear her father’s name or save him in any way. It might not matter since it’s implied, but since that’s where the stakes come from, it seemed odd not to mention it. Alberta wouldn’t be doing this if he father wasn’t in danger of going to jail.

(Here’s more on what to put in your query letter)

4. Do you have any suggestions to make this query stand out?

I think it’s close, but there are a few muddy areas that are difficult to follow. The number of titles and mentions of the Red Cross could be cut back some, especially since none of that seems to matter to the story itself. It’s setting, but more time is spent on that than on the crime or what Alberta is actually doing. I wanted just a few more story details and fewer titles.

Overall, it’s nearly there, and with a few tweaks to clear the clutter and make the pertinent information stand out, this ought to be good to go.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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6 comments:

  1. I'm not a fan of your first lines either; they do draw too much attention to your first-timer status, and lump you in with amateurish writers. You can study up on how queries normally open, and you can use that to find safer ways to play up the connection you feel to this particular agent.

    "Historical cozy" does sound like a good way to describe the genre. I wouldn't call it an "adult" novel, though, that has some risk of sounding like erotica, when simply saying "novel" and the other genre points make it clear enough.

    Mostly, I agree with Janice that the plot description isn't focused on its center. You might start with something like "Alberta Holdaway, an air warden and Voluntary Aid Detachment worker, has just arrived in the small village... with her father. From the moment they step off the overnight train..." and try to work in her father's job change in the next line so the first sentence isn't too crowded. That sets up her title, her father's change in status, and the train, ready to be referenced when you need them (eg call the victim "a VAD worker like Alberta" so the reader doesn't miss the kinship). But that setup covers it quickly so you can put almost all your focus on the mystery and the sale and quirky town where it happens. I like to think of any kind of promotional description as a matter of pacing, of having just so much space and filling it out in a perfect arc. So you don't want to spend two-thirds of your plot description on setup and the first reactions to the body.

    This sounds like a fun story with a careful, creative mind behind it. You've worked out so much about how a query works, I hope you bring the same attention to smoothing these over.

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  2. Be careful with gypsy. I'm under the impression it is a slur and not what people call themselves, unless your research into the ethnic group in Cornwall indicated otherwise. (I'm sure it's what everyone around them would be calling them in the time period, but as an insult.)

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  3. I totally agree with leaving out the first sentence stating the agent is honored, and the first book comment. Also deleting I hope...as others stated. I thought the comments about the story were too long and involved. I even lost track. One good paragraph would be plenty. After all, you're attaching pages. You don't want to bore or confuse them with too much. Just enough to peak interest.

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  4. I agree with the suggestions from Janice and the awesome comments from Ken and Anon.

    One thing I didn't see mentioned is, "I am seeking representation for my adult..." I'm under the impression that agents may find this statement redundant. If you weren't seeking reputation, you wouldn't have queried them. It's a pet peeve of at least one agent I follow, along with "fiction novel." ;)

    The way I usually see this "housekeeping" paragraph structured goes something like:

    'MURDER ON THE NIGHT RIVIERA is a 62,000 word historical cozy similar in tone to Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series with a touch of Elizabeth Cadell charm. The setting is Cornwall during World War I.'

    You definitely know your market, which is great!

    If you're struggling after all these different suggestions, you might take a peek at the blog Query Shark. There are archives of hundreds of queries with critique from agent Janet Reid.

    Good luck, and thank you for sharing your query!

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  5. From my experience listening to many agents in conferences, they are mostly looking for a reason to ditch a query and move on to the next, as the quantity they receive is overwhelming. Because of this, a query being sent with no external connection (meeting the person at a conference, being asked for the ms, etc) needs to be clear, professional, and have a catch.
    Like the others before me, I find the first sentence way too cozy and probably an immediate turn off to an agent - because it shows the sender does not understand the agent market.
    While the novel sounds interesting (and bravo to you for writing it!) I would suggest looking at Janice's sound advice and really fine-tuning your query.
    You may also want to look at Query Shark (an on line blog on query's ) for some ideas and fixes. Good Luck!

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  6. Thanks to everyone for the helpful comments. I will heed all advice and check out Query Shark for sure.

    ReplyDelete