Workshop Wednesday

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 25 2012

Thanks to all of your contributions, Workshop Wednesday has been a success. We’re going to continue on with it for as long as we have entries and the energy to comment on them. If you haven’t yet submitted but are still interested, 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 Jessica,

After struggling with epilepsy since childhood, twenty five year old [redacted] hit rock bottom and decided to go forward with a major brain surgery that changed her life forever.

I think for this to be more powerful it would be helpful to know a few more details. What exactly was rock bottom? What happened that would make you want to undergo such a major surgery.

Independent to the point of stubbornness, [redacted]’s biggest challenge was admitting that she needed help. Over the course of a year, she learned to depend on her family, letting them hold her hand, spoon feed her in the hospital when she was too weak to move, a gauze turban covering her exposed brain, help her begin to walk again and finally figure out what it means to lead a genuinely full life.

I’m not sure this has the pull you intend it to. Unfortunately, a lot of people regularly experience major medical trauma and are forced to rely on others for help. What makes this different? What makes your experience stand out from all others?

[redacted] ’s memoir chronicles her painful journey from frustration, to fear, to ultimate acceptance. LIVING IN A BRAINSTORM is expected to be 100,000 words in journal entry format.

Memoir, like fiction, needs to be completed before querying. A memoir is written like fiction in the sense that you need to create “characters” that come to life for the reader. I’m concerned that the journal format will read like a journal and not a story, which is what a memoir should be. That being said, I know others might not have that same concern.

[redacted] ’s writing has been featured in publications by the Epilepsy Foundations of both Minnesota and Colorado. Through her blog, [redacted], she has been sought out for her help and advice by people with epilepsy and their families as well as non-epileptics who need someone in their corner as they face their own limitations.

This is good. If you’re getting a large number of blog readers you should mention that as well.


Overall I’m not completely wild about this query. It doesn’t have that oomph for me that makes it stand out from the many other memoir submissions I get from people who have faced serious medical trauma. What about your story makes it different from someone else who has gone through something similar? Sometimes that can be your voice and writing, but I don’t get that here.


7 responses to “Workshop Wednesday”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    If this is a memoir, then I assume [redacted] is the patient. Referring to herself in the third person seems a little strange to me.

    And yes, my reaction was "I know plenty of people who have been through worse things." It needs a focus to make it more interesting besides just the experience of recovering from major surgery. The focus could be epilepsy, the particular kind of surgery (if it's experimental), the particular hospital/surgical team… something.

  2. Avatar Rosemary says:

    I do think there's real potential here, though. Her platform is strong for memoir/non-fiction, and that counts for something.

    Her detail about the gauze covering the exposed brain was compelling–perhaps the most compelling line in the query. If she can get the level of writing to that quality, she'll have something. Of course, she does have the pesky task of finishing the book first. . .

  3. Avatar Jeff Carney says:

    I'd be inclined to think of it the way you would think of fiction. Right now, the sense of movement I get is like, this happened, then this happened, then this happened . . .

    I think readers will relate more if you think of it as a series of challenges that need to be overcome. First, my goal was X. Then this got in the way, and this is how I faced it. Then this other thing got in the way, and this is how I faced it. . . .

    It is very common for non fiction to tweak the actual sequence of events, emphasize something, de-emphasize others, in order to make the narrative more compelling. As long as you're not outright lying, of course.

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I agree with the first commentator, that this is about defeating epilepsy in specific. I think I would want to read something about the epilepsy experience, such as parallel histories of current prominent people who inspired (readacted) — I'm thinking how political strategist David Axelrod (Obama's 2008 adviser) frequently mentions his family's interest in that, while he's on TV to be interviewed for his point-of-view on politics. So the focus could be broadened to be something about the political context, the health care costs or politics about U.S. health care from the point of view of a person overcoming epilepsy, aocial policy debate. Background on brain science advances might help pitch the proposal toward medical non-fiction markets too.

  5. This could be a really compelling story, but we'd never know from the style of the query. It's very "this happens, and then these are some general things that happen over the rest of the book". Sell it to us with even more specifics and the voice of the memoir. The writing is technically proficient, but make it shine so that it is more compelling to the reader than any other overcoming-a-terrible-medical-obstacle memoir.

  6. I had a journalism professor who used to harp on the need to tie life experiences to something broader. The example she used was Terry Tempest Williams who wove a story of breast cancer with a threatened bird population (Refuge).

    A more popular example, Seabiscuit wasn't just a story about a horse, it was a story about the depression. Can you weave your story into something broader that's about more than just you?

  7. Your blog, Query Shark, and others are very helpful. I would, however, love to see what a successful query looks like. Could you post some queries that some of your published clients have submitted that really grabbed you?