Workshop Wednesday

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jul 06 2011

By repeated request we’ve started Workshop Wednesday. It will definitely play out through 2011, and beyond that we’ll just have to see. We’ve received well over 200 queries at this point, but we are choosing at random, so 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.

Before I get started, I want to tell you how excited I was to get this query for the workshop. I’m pretty sure it’s the first nonfiction query we’ve received, and while I suspect our audience consists primarily of fiction authors, that doesn’t mean everyone is writing fiction.

Dear BookEnds:

You know, you know. Use my name rather than a general title. I simply repeat this on the off chance someone pops in, reads only one query, and never returns.

When people mature, they may become more concerned about leaving a legacy for their children and future generations. They want to be remembered; they also want to give their loved ones the benefit of their experiences and advice. An excellent way to share that information is through an ethical will, or a love letter to their family.

I think this is fine, although you might want to explain a little more about what an ethical will is and, more important, are people really doing this these days or is this something you made up? More information on whether this is becoming popular or trendy would be good.

Write Your Ethical Will the Easy Way is a non-fiction how-to book with 50,000 words, including a complete ethical will workbook to simplify the writing process. While an ethical will is a non-legal, non-financial document, to a family it is priceless. The four main components are: 1) History – Past and Present, 2) Lessons from Life Experiences, 3) Personal Values and Beliefs, and 4) Hopes for the Future. By providing direction, writing guidelines, and a wealth of actual samples, this book enables the reader to easily create an ethical will that is a lifelong treasure for their families.

Is the term “ethical will” a commonly understood term? If not I would suggest you call it, and the book, something else. In my mind it’s about willing something ethical, not family history, to your family. Honestly, it feels to me like this is a book about writing your family history, which then doesn’t make it anything new. However, back to the query, I think you did a great job in this paragraph. You defined the parts of the book, how the book will be written, and what an ethical will is.

As a professional Personal Historian, I write life stories for people and teach them how to capture memories. A logical offshoot of that business has been teaching clients how to create ethical wills. Over the course of teaching teleclasses and writing workshops, I developed the workbook that formed the basis for the book. It explains the basic content of an ethical will; in addition, by including memory prompts and writing guidance, I enable writers to gather relevant stories that express what is important to them.

It seems to me this information in the paragraph above could have been summed up in two sentences.

The ideal audiences for Write Your Ethical Will the Easy Way are aging Baby Boomers, grandparents, parents, community leaders, and anyone who wants to share their values and life experiences. An ethical will can be created at any time of life, but is often considered before or after milestone events, such as births, deaths, marriage, divorce, graduations, major accomplishments, serious illness, and end of life.

I think you could skip this paragraph. You’ve definitely lost me at this point. It feels like you’re repeating yourself and, frankly, it seems to me that the audience of baby boomers, etc., is a given.

Emphasis on the writer’s personal story makes this book stand out from the competition. Some books, such as Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry Baines, M.D. and The Wealth of Your Life; A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will by Susan B. Turnbull, nicely explain the contents of an ethical will. However, they do little to help the writer delve into their own experiences and family heritage. Write Your Ethical Will the Easy Way offers guidance for readers to truly speak from their heart to formulate a heartfelt communication to their loved ones.

I would save this information for the proposal.

Years after graduating from the University of Illinois, I studied Memoir Writing and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. My professional writing experience includes biographies, family stories, technical and training documentation, and contributions to the Association of Personal Historians, websites, and historical or genealogical newsletters.

I would take the paragraph above about your profession and add it to this so you have one bio paragraph (or course shorten and condense).

I thoroughly enjoy sharing my message through speaking engagements, newsletters, blogs, and on my website, [redacted]. Together, they will make a strong platform to market the book. Upon your request, I am prepared to send a full proposal, including the Table of Content, fifteen chapters outlined in detail, and several full chapters and appendices.

Again, this information should be in your proposal and the website can be combined in your one bio paragraph. I don’t need the details of the proposal since that’s standard to what a proposal should be.

Thank you for taking the time to consider representing my work. I look forward to hearing from you. Please write or call if you have any questions.

This is fine and good work on including both your email and phone below your signature.



8 responses to “Workshop Wednesday”

  1. Avatar Stephsco says:

    Interesting to see a non-fiction proposal! I think all the suggestions were great and it sounds like a good idea for a book. I have a family member who is practically expert-level geneologist, and she gets questions all the time for people looking for an easy way to share family history. This is a great way to do that to add to a family's historical records.

  2. The first line somehow reminds me of a certain trend of freshman English papers, a sort of lifeless generalization that feels flat. "When people mature, they may be more concerned about…" doesn't draw me in.

    Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I'm on a bumpy road to success my own nonfiction proposal, but I'd be more drawn in with a personal touch, something that shows why ethical wills are important to you, your story of how you became excited about ethical wills, some intrigue for the reader.

    I also think the comparable titles work against you–if there are already ethical will books out there, you don't do much to show the personal style that makes you the right person to do the next one. And perhaps it's because of your own title. That is, if I saw two books on the shelf, one called "Write Your Ethical Will the Easy Way" and the other "The Wealth of Your Life; A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will," I'd be more interested in the "wealth of my life." I wouldn't want to do it easily, but to do it thoroughly and personally. I'd want something with meaning and depth, something with care and personality, rather than something that suggests I want to get this over with as painlessly as possible. I'd want the easy way to file my taxes or make an insurance claim; I'd want the sincere way to share my own values and stories with the next generation.

  3. Jessica,
    Thank you for the specific feedback on my non-fiction query letter. I admit getting conflicting advice on just how much detail to include in it.

    I especially appreciate knowing I need to better clarify what an Ethical Will is and is not.

    The information on your blog is quite informational and useful. I look forward to all your updates.

  4. Thanks for the comments on Jessica's critique and the encouragement to keep going. It helps to hear what other people think about the topic.

    Andrew, I've tweaked the opening line several times, but wanted to avoid starting with a question. The title is also a work in progress, trying to make it stand out from the competition while conveying the content.

    I appreciate all the feedback!

  5. Thanks for all the detailed feedback! For two years I obsessively checked email and US Mail only to recieve rejection after rejection. Reading your reviews is giving me a better understanding of the flaws in my queries.

  6. Avatar Sheila Cull says:


    I agree with your comments 100 percent.

    Sheila Cull

  7. Avatar Lucy says:

    It might help to explain what an ethical will is in your first paragraph, even if briefly. I spent the whole paragraph thinking that it had something to do with morality or fairness in dividing up your property between relatives.

    You're right that it isn't usually advisable to open the query with a rhetorical question. Those invite negative answers.

    I think if you incorporate some facts about ethical wills, per Jessica's suggestion–explaining what they are, and demonstrating that they're becoming a trend (stats, anyone?)–you'll be on stronger ground.

  8. Only two things bothered me.

    First…I still really have no idea what an ethical will is.

    Second…I found myself counting how many times "ethical will" is mentioned (13 times).