That Dreaded Query Letter: Critique by an Agent

Today I received an agent’s critique of my query letter, and it was pretty positive. She said it did a nice job of presenting a complicated plot succinctly. Hooray for that!

However, she felt the “stakes” weren’t quite high enough. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that after Adam Donovan kills a bank robber, he decides to tell the outlaw’s family of the death himself. The agent asked why he would do that, and further posed the question:

“What makes his moral code run so deep?”

I’ve been pondering over that all day, and I really don’t know how to answer it. I’ve confessed before to being a very literal person, and the question literally seems to me to be unanswerable.

It seems to me that a moral code is something a person has or doesn’t have. There are those who have set standards for themselves, and those who have not. That’s not to say that some standards aren’t flexible, or that some aren’t closer to being “wrong” than “right” (think Hannibal Lecter). But those without a code seem to do whatever appeals to them at a particular moment, while those with a code can usually be expected to react in a similar way to similar situations.

I consider my own moral code to be fairly rigid. It’s based on the ideal that I would never intentionally harm another being, or allow another being to come to harm if I can prevent it. (Kind of sounds like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, doesn’t it?)

So what causes one to adopt and adhere to a moral code? I believe that it’s first made up of the total of our lifetime experiences, including education and parental guidance, but I know that can’t be all of it.

My sister and I were brought up by the same parents in the same house and had essentially the same education. We were both well-loved, we were both occasionally spanked (all the kids of our generation were – we never thought it meant we weren’t loved). We ate together, played together, went to church together. Our birthdays fall only one day apart (so there goes the astrological explanation). Why then are we so different?

My sister worked one job for over 30 years; I changed jobs every 3 to 5 years. She worked in pre-school; I worked in finance. My sister still practices the religion of her youth; I don’t. She’ll “go with the flow”; I prefer to map things out. I tend to collect evidence and examine it from all sides; she’s more likely to follow her instincts. My sister inherited red hair and blue eyes; for me, gray eyes and brown hair.

We both love to read and we’re both optimistic.

So is it genetic? Part of it must be, don’t you think? If the corporal identifiers are so different, doesn’t it stand to reason that the internal processes must be different as well? What leads one to be more accepting, another more inquisitive, when all other factors would seem to be the same?

Can we ever know? Will brain mapping ever tell us why even identical twins have different interests or laugh at different jokes?

Or is the answer to the original question a whole lot more simple? Could it just be that the men I admired most in my young life – my father, my grandfather, my uncle – had a moral code that never broke? Could Adam be the reincarnation of them – my wish to have them all live again, if only in print?

I think that may be true. In fact, after further thought, I’m sure it is.

But it still leaves me with absolutely no idea of how to answer the original question:

What made their moral codes run so deep?

If you have a theory on this, I’d love to hear it.

3 thoughts on “That Dreaded Query Letter: Critique by an Agent

  1. I’m no expert by a long shot but years of experience dealing with those who cross the “right and wrong” legal line have shown me there is no easy answer. Criminals come from every social, religious and ethnic corner. The decision to cross the line and violate the law can be motivated by circumstance, duress or simple meanness. And they KNOW it’s wrong. The real mental exercise comes in when behavior is not regulated by statute. What stops you from lying, cheating, purposely treating another cruelly or any of the many other things considered morally wrong by many? What is the consequence that would keep you “in line”? Some of us have religious strictures to guide our behavioral limits with clear consequences spelled out if we stray without reconciliation. But what about those without faith or those who follow a faith that condones behavior that others would consider wrong? It’s a soup with many cooks, this old world we live in.

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    • Oh, Mike, you’re so right: so many people doing things they must know are wrong! But I don’t think it’s always faith that keeps us in line — after serving in three wars, my uncle recanted of his, yet he was one of the most morally upright men I’ve ever known. There’s a line some of us won’t cross ever, but it seems to mean too little to too many people. I personally think deliberate cruelty is the worst of it, whether it’s in the name of war, or religion, or just plain “I wanted to.”

      And so the mystery remains … why do some of us strive to stick to the line when others don’t?

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  2. That’s a very good question. It’s the kind of thing pros say to writers that really jog the old thought-cogs into action. One agent said to me that my MS lacked ‘a certain urgency’. That little phrase served me very well on a rewrite.

    In relation to your experience, I am going to ask this very same question of my own protagonist and see what I come up with. Thanks

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