Monday, May 11, 2015

Query Critique Winner

This month's query critique winner is Melissa Alexander, who participated in the Backspace conference that I was a part of a couple weeks ago!  Here is her original query:

Dear Carrie,
I participated in the Upmarket Fiction week at the Backspace Online Writers Conference. You gave me terrific feedback on my first two pages, so I wanted to take a chance in your query contest. In Doubting River, a 100,000 word mainstream novel, an estranged uncle and his suddenly-fatherless nephew find a common purpose in turning an injured retriever into a field trial champion.
Charm Freeman ran away from home when he was sixteen. Now, eighteen years later, he returns to his old life after his brother-in-law’s unexpected death. Initially planning to fulfill his brotherly obligation and then disappear for another twenty years, Charm reluctantly agrees to stay and help with his sister's crippled son, Lucas. Drawn into the family against his better judgment, he finds himself at odds with his sister over how to best help the ten year old deal with the death of his father.Before the accident, Lucas and his father were training River, a neighbor's retriever, for a field trial. The boy desperately wants to fulfill his father's dream, but his mother believes anything to do with the dog is a setup for heartache. The past belongs in the past; the way forward is forward. Against his sister's wishes, Charm and Lucas join together to turn the injured retriever into a champion, a journey that forces the family to face the issues that tore them apart in hopes of finding salvation in the past they tried to forget.
An excerpt of Doubting River won the mainstream category of the 2010 Sandy literary contest. I am a former dog trainer and the author of Click for Joy, the winner of the 2003 "Best Training/Behavior Book" award presented by the Dog Writers of America. I am also the owner of the 6500-member ClickerSolutions (dog training) mailing list, and I have published numerous articles in the magazine "Teaching Dogs."
My contact information is below. I look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely,Melissa Alexander

And here is my critique:


Dear Carrie,

I participated in the Upmarket Fiction week at the Backspace Online Writers Conference. You gave me terrific feedback on my first two pages, so I wanted to take a chance in your query contest. [This is a great example of effective personalization in a query letter!  This is something we talked about at Backspace, and I think that as long as you have a relevant, real reason to add in a personal salutation, it can make your query stand out.  If you manufacture one by Googling random facts about an agent, it reads disingenuously.]  In DOUBTING RIVER Doubting River, a 100,000 word mainstream novel [“Mainstream novel” doesn’t really tell me much about how this should be categorized.  I would say “feel-good, commercial fiction” or something else instead.], an estranged uncle and his suddenly-fatherless nephew find a common purpose in turning an injured dog retriever into a field trial champion.

Charm Freeman ran away from home when he was sixteen. Now, eighteen years later, he returns to his old life home after his brother-in-law’s unexpected death. Initially planning to fulfill his brotherly obligation and then disappear for another twenty years, Charm reluctantly agrees to stay and help with his sister's crippled son, Lucas. Drawn into the family against his better judgment [I’m curious.  Why against his better judgment?  You mention something later  on in the query about their family being torn apart…hint at why here!] he finds himself at odds with his sister over how to best help the ten-year-old deal with the death of his father.

Before the accident, Lucas and his father were training River, a neighbor's Golden Rretriever, for a field trial. The boy desperately wants to fulfill his father's dream, but his mother believes anything to do with the dog is a setup for heartache. The past belongs in the past; the way forward is forward. [Just to clarify here: his mother doesn't want him training the dog because it was an activity that he was going to do with his father, and she wants him to leave his memories in the past, or because she is afraid he’ll be heartbroken if he doesn't win?  I don't really understand why she would be against him doing this.] Against his sister's wishes, Charm and Lucas join together to turn the injured Rretriever into a champion, a journey that forces the family to face the issues that tore them apart in hopes of finding salvation in the past they tried to forget. An excerpt of Doubting River [Either italicize or write your titles in all caps.] won the mainstream category of the 2010 Sandy literary contest. I am a former dog trainer and the author of Click for Joy, the winner of the 2003 "Best Training/Behavior Book" award presented by the Dog Writers of America. I am also the owner of the 6500-member ClickerSolutions (dog training) mailing list, and I have published numerous articles in the magazine "Teaching Dogs." My contact information is below. I look forward to hearing from you! 
Sincerely,Melissa Alexander

What do you guys think?  This seems like a very solid query letter to me.  One of the things I emphasized during my phone conference for Backspace was that the one aim of your query letter is to intrigue the agent reading it.  Think of writing your query as if you were writing the back jacket copy of your book, or the blurb for Amazon.  You don't want to give away the entire plot of the novel, but you want to tantalize enough with the meat of the story in order to get an agent to read those sample pages!


Comment with any thoughts or questions about my critique, and I would love to know how and if you choose to add personalizations to your pitch letters to agents!

34 comments:

  1. Carrie, as both an author and fiction editor I'm curious as to your thoughts about the information she includes regarding her subject matter expertise, and in particular her mailing list. Does this information influence your decision to request the manuscript? How much?

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    1. Hi Sharon. Usually that information doesn't sway me one way or the other; it's just a bonus. If that information hadn't been included, my interest still would have been piqued, and conversely, if I hadn't been intrigued by the body of the query, seeing something like that wouldn't have changed my mind about it. If you have any kind of subject matter expertise or platform for what you're writing about, you should definitely include it, though--it can only help!

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  2. Melissa and I have worked as members of a critique group for several years. I offer this critique on her precis. I know a bit more of the story, so I have a (small) advantage.

    Charm Freeman ran away from home when he was sixteen. Now, eighteen years later, he returns to his old life after his brother-in-law’s unexpected death. Initially planning to fulfill an obligation to his sister and in typical fashion, disappear for another twenty years, Charm reluctantly agrees to help with Lucas, his sister's crippled son. Drawn into the family that drove him away and against his better judgment, Chance finds himself at odds with his sister over how to best help the ten-year-old deal with the death of his father.Before the accident, Lucas and his father were training River, for a field trial that might bring back pride, prestige, and much-needed income. The boy desperately wants to fulfill his father's dream, but his mother believes anything to do with the dog is a recipe for heartache, the boy's and hers. The past belongs in the past; the way forward is forward. Against his sister's wishes, Charm and Lucas join together to turn the injured retriever into a champion, a journey that forces the family to face the issues that tore them apart in hopes of finding salvation in a past they tried to forget.
    An excerpt of Doubting River won the mainstream category of the 2010 Sandy literary contest. I am a former dog trainer and the author of Click for Joy, the winner of the 2003 "Best Training/Behavior Book" award presented by the Dog Writers of America. I am also the owner of the 6500-member ClickerSolutions (dog training) mailing list, and I have published numerous articles in the magazine "Teaching Dogs."

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  3. And yes, the query encourages me to see the rest of it. What I've seen so far is great... ;) My only concern is the transition. This is a mainstream novel and not a "how to train your pooch to stay off the sofa" book. Other authors moving from one discipline (genre) to another face this issue. Will best-selling credits be worth anything in other genres. I sure hope so--I'm one of them. ;)

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    1. That is a very interesting question! I think that having that more non-fiction experience definitely will improve your writing of it in a fictionalized story, of course, but in terms for having it count for something when you move to another genre, that depends. If you are Dr. Phil and have decided to write a fiction about a TV talk show host who gets involved in a string of murders, your name is definitely going to have weight. If you are an expert in a specific field and are writing a work of fiction that involves that, I think it will be a plus in an agent's or editor's eye because of the knowledge you will bring to your story. I don't think that I would see it as anything other that that, though, unless you are going to bring a devote audience across genres in some way. I hope that helps!

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  4. Here's a question for you: Is the word "crippled" socially acceptable again? On one hand, it seems antiquated; on the other hand, I can't think of a better word to use in its place.

    Also, I agree with you about the personalized intro. It's excellent. It would certainly draw the reader/agent/publisher in to take a closer looksie.

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    1. Do you know, I didn't even think of that! To me, there was nothing wrong with her use of the word "crippled," but perhaps either specifically saying what happened or replacing with something like "disabled" could be done.

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    2. Melissa AlexanderMay 11, 2015 at 5:06 PM

      His femur was shattered in the car accident that killed his father. It has been pinned together with external fixation. It will heal, but when Charm arrives, Lucas is just getting out of the hospital and is reluctant to even use crutches. He has a long road of physical therapy ahead of him.

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  5. Carrie, I thought your questions and comments were very helpful, especially regarding the mother's objections (which I also wondered about). I tend, like William, to wonder too about the dog training book credentials at the end. To me, these sounded as if Melissa's writing experience was all in the non-fiction or instructional context and that this was perhaps her first venture into fiction writing. Yet other contextual elements make the reader thing this isn't the case. Although I have no experience as a literary agent, I can imagine that the writer's experience--and possibly, prior success--in the fiction genre would be an important consideration.

    That said, the fact that Melissa is clearly a dog training expert lends credence to the believability of that crucial element of the story. My expertise lies elsewhere, however--I do a lot of research on genetic disorders and people with disabilities. From that perspective, the excerpt is very thin (and the description "crippled son" signals that she is likely to write about disabilities using language that isn't accepted by those in the disabled community). I would go so far as to argue that Lucas's disability will be a more familiar element of the story to many than the particulars of dog training, and I'd encourage her both to bring some clarity to that part of the excerpt and to talk with or read about families affected by the particular disability to make sure she's communicating their experiences appropriately.

    It's a fascinating story idea! I would certainly read it. :)

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    1. Hi Marsha--I mentioned before that I didn't really think that much about the language she used to talk about the son's disability when I read the query, but I do agree with you that it is probably going to hugely factor in to the story, and that is can never be a bad thing to do your research to make sure you are portraying a person and a community in an appropriate way! That is something I would encourage Melissa to do, but I also would have her focus that energy more on the story itself than the query, which I imagine she can successfully alter with a few changed words. Thanks!

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  6. I too wondered about the word "crippled". Would it be possible to name the disability? I assume (a dangerous thing) that it is an important part of the story and not just there for the fun of it.

    Also, as I read this I thought "ah, Horse Whisperer with a dog". Okay, that isn't exactly right, but it did make me think of that book/movie with some of the part moved about. If I thought of it like that, would a publisher? Should something be done to make sure it is not compared to that novel?

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    1. I've never seen Horse Whisperer, so I'm not sure why it would be a bad thing for the book to be compared to that specific movie, but in general, agents and editors use movies as comp titles all the time! I will frequently use movies or other books to quickly describe a project, such as "It's like THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL but for artists in China."

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    2. Melissa AlexanderMay 11, 2015 at 5:10 PM

      I have to laugh, because it's really Horse Whisperer meets Where the Red Fern Grows. Of course, that second movie is so old, it probably wouldn't be a helpful comp.

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  7. As someone who trains field dogs myself, I would love to read something like this! Am wondering--does this sort of book have commercial potential? I don't think I've found any books at all featuring dog sports and advanced dog training.

    Agree that the mother's motivation could be more clear. I was a little confused in the second paragraph when Charm was introduced and I didn't know he was the estranged uncle. I thought he was a third character until I got pretty far into that paragraph.

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    1. Hi Amy--thanks for your thoughts! I'm always interested in reading about subjects/lives that I know nothing about, so for me, the fact that this book is unusual is great, as long as there are solid relationships and a plot to keep the reader on course. I also know a lot of editors who love dog books, so I don't think it would be hard to find readers for something like this. This is the YA genre, but a Prospect client, Madaline Herlong, has been doing really well with her dog book BUDDY!

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  8. Melissa AlexanderMay 11, 2015 at 4:52 PM

    Carrie, thank you SO MUCH for the critique! I really, really value the feedback. Writing a query is tough!

    Thank you for the feedback on "mainstream fiction." I wasn't exactly sure what to put there. If it were a movie, I'd call it a family drama. To assuage your curiosity...

    Their father developed crippling arthritis that forced the family into dire straits financially, destroyed his dreams and faith, and sent him spiraling into alcoholism. (Father is dead now; mom is there and bitter.) Charm most fears being trapped in what he perceives as a stagnant, dream-killing black hole.

    Charm's sister wasn't fond of "River project" before her husband died in an accident on the way to a training session. Now she blames the dog for everything that's happening to her. She also understands that winning a field trial won't bring back her husband or in any way change anything, so she thinks pursuing the dream is just a setup for heartbreak for Lucas.

    Again -- THANK YOU for your time!!!

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    1. Thanks for entering!! I thought you had a great query, and you got such great feedback in the comments!

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    2. Melissa AlexanderMay 11, 2015 at 5:03 PM

      I know! I'm overwhelmed.

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  9. In your comments, you mention that you want hints about Charms reluctance in this query. I assume that this is a main part of the conflict in the book.

    In general terms if possible, are there any good rules for how much of your conflict to reveal in a query? Is there ever a case where more information about the conflict is going to push you away from requesting the book or is the primary limitation really just being appropriately concise in the query?

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    1. I think the best way to think of it is as though you're writing the back cover copy for your book. You want to introduce all the pertinent elements of the story and draw the reader in, but you also want to stay away from revealing everything in the plot so that there is nothing to surprise me when I read the manuscript itself.

      I don't think too much information would ever keep me from requesting something, but it will make my eyes glaze over a bit and mostly likely go into your sample pages interested to see how strong the writing is in comparison/if the manuscript voice also has a tendency to be long-winded.

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  10. In a previous comment, you reveal that the boy's injury is a shattered femur. There is already some discussion around your choice of the word 'crippled' and I don't want to belabor the point. My suggestion is to draw some parallels about the healing of the boy, the dog, and the issues of the past that drove Charm away. Upon my initial reading of the query, I thought the boy's disability was permanent.

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  12. Laura LaFranchi-BrownMay 11, 2015 at 6:10 PM

    I am wondering about whether the credentials as written would be helpful, or whether a more general comment on the area of dog-training expertise would be enough. The tone seemed to shift without warning or transition in the last paragraph; I almost wondered if it were the same query, for a moment, and had to reread the prior section to understand the context correctly. I'm not sure if switching the second and third paragraphs would do it, though. (This is coming from someone who has never even screwed up the courage to try submitting a query letter, though, so congratulations on that, too, Melissa!)

    As for the story, I agree that either something more specific on Lucas' disabilities or just not using the term "crippled" would be preferable. I think it sounds interesting, and not, as I at first feared, something that would end up as a "dead dog story."

    Finally, (and this is the pesky elementary teacher peeking out), a space needs to be added between the comma and your name in the close of the letter. It's a typo, but something that caught me off guard and looked off, and is not the impression you want to leave with anyone reading a query, particularly since it is the very last thing the reader will see in the letter.

    Thanks for giving me insights to how queries are done (addressing both Melissa and Carrie) -- I appreciate it!

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    1. Melissa AlexanderMay 11, 2015 at 6:15 PM

      Thanks so much for the comment. I want to explicitly say, it's most definitely NOT a dead dog story. I won't read books where the dog dies, so I definitely won't write one. :-)

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  13. Ugh.
    Recreating long comment...
    Keep in mind that a critic is the audience for this query, and not a cat-lover who doesn't write fiction anymore (me).

    1) Would you as a critic be interested in more of why Charm left, why staying is a bad idea, why exactly Mom is so bitter (I didn't know she was bitter until I saw Melissa's comment), and more details about Dad? Also, how is River injured, and what type of retriever is he?
    2) As a reader, "feel good" is a synonym for glurge (https://www.wordnik.com/words/glurge) and would make me decide to not read the book. (Perhaps I can take my shriveled black heart to the True Crime section of the bookstore.)

    I think the lost epistle focused too much on what I think the book would be like, and not writing the best possible query, so I will stop here.

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    1. I wouldn't mind more details about the various characters' mindsets and backstory, but it also wasn't something I thought was glaringly needed in the query.

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  14. This is more of a formatting comment, but I notice that the first one-sentence overview of the book happens at the tail end of the first paragraph followed by a longer description of the book in two longer paragraphs. Given that Query letters are likely to be scanned before they are read in detail, my instinct would have been to have the following layout:

    Intro para: who I am, what's my connection to you.
    Para 2: 1 or 2 sentence intro about book with title in all caps.
    Para 3: Act 1 summary
    Para 4: Act 2 summary
    Para 5: Act 3, conclusion summary
    Para 6: Awards, pre-publishing reviews or comments
    Para 7: Why I'm the best writer for this (Melissa's expertise, blog list, etc.)
    Para 8: Close and signature.

    As a Query recipient, how would this work for you? Do you scan first and then read in detail or go straight to reading in full?

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    1. I usually read the query letter in full, and I didn't have a problem with the way this was formatted! I think that your plan would well, too, though. It is true that in general, you want to state who you are and any personal relationship up front, and then go to a description of your work, and finish with any relevant experience, publishing history, and/or platform.

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  15. Congratulations to Melissa, who has won a 100-page critique, and thanks to everyone for their great comments!! Melissa, feel free to email me your 100 pages whenever you get a chance! :)

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    1. Melissa AlexanderMay 11, 2015 at 7:58 PM

      Thank you -- I AM SO EXCITED! Is it okay if it takes a week? I just entered work hell. Like pull-an-all-nighter-like-a-college-kid work hell. I'm not going to have time to eat and shower this week.

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  16. I'm a little late to the party, as seems to always be the case lately, so congrats to Melissa! A couple of thoughts from my own quick read of the original:
    .-that uncle/nephew thing in paragraph one confused me. When I got to the next paragraph, I wasn't sure which one Charm was, uncle or nephew, so I felt a little adrift. I'd recommend something more along the "a man and his nephew".
    -the middle paragraph has a couple of places where you could tighten things up a bit: "Eighteen years later, he returns for his b-i-l''s funeral. Intending to pay his respects and leave, Charm is...." Shortening in spaces like that might allow you to expand where you say things like "drawn into the family" and "at odds with his sister." I guess part of what interests me here (and I don't know if that's appropriate for the query or not) is what is that conflict? What's so wrong with what his sister is doing that Charm sticks his nose into it and stays?
    -"the past belongs in the past...":This line just hangs here and doesn't make a lot of sense to me in the context of the query.

    That's all I've got on this one. Nice job, Melissa, and best of luck!

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  17. Hi Carrie,
    First, congratulations, Melissa and thanks Carrie. Since I learn better by seeing how something is done, this has been a big help for me.
    Ciao,
    Pat

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