Workshop Wednesday

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jul 13 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.

Dear Ms. Faust:

When her father is murdered by Union soldiers in 1862 Kentucky, nineteen-year-old Julienne Dalton is left an orphan with a heart for vengeance. She joins a ring of Confederate informants bent on ousting Union forces. Her daring forays slake her thirst for revenge, but her main concern is keeping her family’s fabled horse farm from ruin.

This paragraph is really interesting at first. I thought I was reading a query about an amazing young woman who stands up against a restrictive and patriarchal society to avenge the wrongful death of her father. But, judging from the rest of your query, this does not describe your book at all. Now I feel misled. For the story the rest of your query describes, the only thing I need to know from this paragraph is Julienne’s age and the period in which she lives. The rest is just backstory.

Julienne is smitten when she meets charming British expatriate Alexander Caulfield. But unbeknownst to her, Alex is in the employ of the Union War Department, charged with ferreting out Rebel spies. Julienne tries to deny her growing feelings for him, and is shocked when he professes his love for her. They marry after a whirlwind courtship, but Julienne’s happiness is cut short when she discovers Alex’s treacherous double life. Convinced that he never loved her, she flees the country and settles in a small English village.

Halfway through your query and I still don’t know the conflict. You should cut right to the chase and delete the first two paragraphs.

Julienne meets Lord Richard Ashby, and with his help she begins to assemble a stable of fine horses with hopes of returning to her family’s farm. Their friendship turns to romance, and Julienne is torn by thoughts of loving anyone other than her husband. When Alex unexpectedly arrives in the village, he incites a battle for Julienne’s affections. She must make a choice between the two men—and the loser will turn up dead.

Why will the loser turn up dead? That makes it sound like there are some pretty high stakes, but what are they? I’m not sure I see where the conflict in this story is. You’ve spent half the query on backstory, so I can’t help but wonder if half the book will be spent on backstory.

The Enemy Within is a 110,000 word historical fiction. I minored in history at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina and work for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. I appreciate your time and consideration.

It might be just me, but knowing your minor and not your major in college makes me wonder why you chose to tell me only half of your background. Also, the phrase “work for the…” is very vague, so I wonder what your job title is. You could be the director and know every last thing about the Civil War, or you could be a janitor and know nothing. The funny thing is, the inverse could be true, and it doesn’t matter anyway, so this paragraph does nothing for me but make me wonder why you were so vague.

I would have rejected this because I don’t know what your book is or what drives it.


19 responses to “Workshop Wednesday”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    This query gives me no sympathy for Julienne at all. She sounds like she uses people.

  2. Avatar Kristan says:

    Wow, I read this totally differently. To me it sounds a bit like Gone with the Wind — a sweeping romantic saga set against the backdrop of the Civil War. I agree that I don't understand why one of the two men will end up dead (a duel? something about the spying?) but the rest of it seemed fairly straightforward to me.

    This is not my usual genre, but I was actually pretty engaged by the story as described here. I'm no agent, but I would have been interested to read this.

  3. Avatar Rowenna says:

    I have a question–when I see "backstory" I think of something that happens either before the book starts, or perhaps in the very first couple chapters setting up the conflict. This sounds like what you've called "backstory" might be half the book. If that's the case–is the problem that the book really does sound like half-backstory, or that the writer needs to make those first plot points sound more like plot points and less like backstory? I guess I'm confused because I read this query as a story in three acts–first she's a spy, then she marries, then she has another love interest, but the parts are all connected. Is the connection missing?

  4. Avatar Joyce says:

    I'm with Kristan. It sounds like a sweeping historical saga. It's long for a query, but I didn't think any of it was backstory. I'd read it.

  5. Avatar Stephsco says:

    I agree the query probably needs some editing, it's a paragraph too long I think. I also don't think what's described here is all backstory; if anything, some of the description weighs the query down. I think we need to see more of an overview statement about the main character herself and a condensed telling of the plot.

    I love the idea of a historical saga like this. It has a lot of potential and could be a great read. Thanks to the query writer for sharing!

  6. I'm very interested in the answer to Rowenna's question. I hear this all the time on agent blogs: "This is all back story; the story starts here here." But how do you know that? Perhaps half the story IS how she got to that little village English village. Why is it that THAT part of the story is back story & the rest is not? It's the author's story & she says there is a part that takes place in the US. Aren't all stories set up that way? First A happens, which sets up B then finally C. A & B don't seem like back story, just the first 2 acts. I'm just looking for some clarity. Thanks!

  7. Avatar Laura W. says:

    This seems like an epic romance, which reminds me of epic fantasy in terms of plot. What you might think of as "backstory" is really just parts 1 and 2, and I agree with whoever said that the query reads like it's describing acts of a play. I think it's very clear what the action is; the query just needs to be more concise.

  8. Avatar wry wryter says:

    I want to read the story described in the first sentence.

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The Query isn't good, but the stroyline of the novel is good. If the Jullienne wants to avenge the death of her father she sould join Ashby in the battle and kill Alex. Her real conflcit is to choose between Love for Alex and Avenging her Father's death.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    i'm with you kristan.

    although this isn't what i would normally choose to read, it made me want to know more.

  11. Avatar Annette says:

    I do think the query could be tightened and focus a bit more on character and conflict, perhaps, but I'm still intrigued enough that I'd like to read this. As a matter of fact, it has some similarities to the novel I'm writing now, though mine is set in ancient Greece. I wish the author the best of luck with this story.

  12. Avatar Lauren Ruth says:

    Rowenna and Nancy – to answer your questions:

    Backstory is information the reader will need in order to understand the character, her motivation and her emotions. Since the real conflict presented here – that Julienne must choose between two men and loser will turn up dead—has nothing to do with the death of Julienne’s father, her involvement with the Confederacy, Alex’s involvement with the Union War Department or the horse farm, all of this serves as backstory. Unless it actually does have to do with the major conflict in the story, and the author neglected to flesh out the connection properly, which might very well be the case.

  13. Based on the query, this story sounds disjointed. The first paragraph makes me think it will be a revenge saga rather than a romantic one, and I picture the protagonist as cold and hard. (I was actually really interested in this story!) The switch in tone to a sweeping romance is abrupt and surprising, and I also wonder how sympathetic our protagonist would be. But then it goes against the traditional romance route when Julienne leaves her husband and falls in love with another man. I'm not sure what to think. The first two paragraphs together sound like they could be a darker or a redemptive romance if the protagonist is written well, and the second and third paragraph together sound like they could be a more traditional love triangle. Having all three in one story sounds strange. It might very well work in the full saga, but seems random in the query.

    Another reason the third paragraph seems so odd to me is that it doesn't seem to fit in the same context as the first two. Does Julienne's past as a Confederate informant matter anymore? Does the fact that the husband, whom she feels so guilty for betraying, work to ferret out people like her still matter, or does she just feel guilty for some moral reason?

    I get the feeling that this probably all works better in the manuscript, but the query needs to show better cohesion between all the plot elements. Right now, even though one event drives another, they feel like random stages in a person's life. This is what happens in real life, but in a story, all the elements need to relate back to each other. If it's important that she was driven by vengeance in the beginning, this needs to come into play at the end–even if it's just the protagonist deciding that life is too short for vengeance or something. It needs to be part of the conflict.

  14. The second query needs love.

    If this person had added some plot details, a more complete accounting of his/her education, and a job title that's relevant in some way to his/her story, then he/she would be set I think.

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I read this as a saga, the complex story of a woman's life, and the many obstacles — conflicts — she faces. Why does there need to be only one major conflict? Couldn't surviving a number of setbacks be the conflict?

    While I agree the query needs tightening and more focus, the story itself, the many passages in the heroine's life, intrigues me. I'd read it.

  16. I think this situation is precisely why starting off a query with the word count and genre is very important. If the query started with "The Enemy Within is a 110,000 word historical fiction.", would it have changed your reaction to the plot details?

  17. Avatar BettyZade says:

    Actually sounds like an great story. If I liked the writer's "voice", I would be interested in reading it! It may not have been pitched properly, but professional mistakes aside, it's piqued my interest.

  18. Avatar Cassandra says:

    I actually agree with all those who see this as a epic/saga romance (though 110K words may be a bit short to pull it off with depth). The query, however, has potholes. First we're told that the most important thing to Julienne, even more than avenging her father, is saving the family farm–presumably this means the land, not the horses, as it seems likely that the father was killed trying to prevent them from being taken by the Union soldiers. Yet, when Alexander's secret is revealed, she instantly abandons the farm, and the Cause, and flees to, of all places, HIS country. ??? And what about her secret? Does he discover she is also a spy, and is this why she runs away?

    How does she have the wherewithal to get to England anyway, much less buy prize horses? Why does she think she even has a choice between the two men? She's already married and divorce would be very difficult, even if possible. Surely she's not thinking of provoking a duel or something in the hope that her husband (toward whom we're told she does feel some obligation) would be killed?

    It's possible that this all actually works fine in the manuscript, but it doesn't show in the present query. Maybe this is a case where the "one-page query letter" rule could be relaxed a bit …

    Author, keep trying. You've got a real story here.

  19. That first sentence is something which made me think I should read it. Very catchy.