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.

That dreaded query letter …

Oh, the dreaded query letter! It is, in my opinion, the hardest thing in the world to write. Writing an effective query letter takes the ability to ignore your creative urges and write in a way that‘s totally foreign to your instincts.
books art-writing
Remember how you used to write book reports in grade school? You’d take someone else’s work and boil it down to a one-page review. Hard, right? A query letter allows you that same one page, except it also has to include some personalization, your biography, comparable titles, and any other little thing a specific agent wants to see. So, in reality, you have about a half-page to work with.

To condense a book of 80,000-120,000 words down to its most basic elements in three paragraphs (or as one agent recommends, 5 sentences!) verges on the impossible. Add in your voice, the stakes, and a hook that makes the reader say, “I’ve got to see more of this!” — and, well, you’ve gone right over the cliff.

My query letter for LET THE CANYONS WEEP has undergone more than a dozen transformations. I’m still not totally satisfied with it. But the other day I heard what I believe is the most pithy and on-point advice since I figured out “show-don’t-tell”.  And it’s this:

Nouns do not create characters.

Huh! Was I trying to create a character with nouns? Or have I stuck to the basics and used lots of verbs? Let’s see if I can change something and make my query letter stronger.

I took a long hard look and realized that, though my query letter did not contain a lot of unnecessary nouns, there were a number of adjectives. But more to the point, I was not putting enough emphasis on the verbs. Take this sentence for instance:

Jesse is small, fragile, and shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

Reading it over, I realize I’ve put as much emphasis on the descriptors “small” and “fragile” as on the action “shunned”. The first question I asked myself was: Is it necessary for the reader to know that Jesse is small and fragile? The answer (at least in my unqualified opinion) is “Yes”. However, a simple re-wording of the sentence could move the emphasis.

Small and fragile, Jesse’s been shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

The readers still know what they need to know about Jesse physically, but now the emphasis is on “shunned”. This version, I believe, creates a more emotional response in the reader. And when you’re trying to get someone so interested they can’t help but want to know more, you need that emotional response.

Half a dozen small tweaks like that one have, I believe, made my query better. How about you? Are you in the query trenches? What do you think the strongest thing about your query letter is?

Bad News, Good News (2)

I got another personalized rejection in response to a query letter recently. If you remember, the first agent liked the characters and plot of LET THE CANYONS WEEP, but she felt my writing was too brusque. I’ve taken steps to correct that.

The new agent likes my writing and the plot, but rejected it because she did not “connect with the characters” within the first few chapters. And that, to me, is a much more critical problem.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I shared the results with a good friend, also a writer, who read the first few chapters for me and felt the problem might be too much backstory. The portions of these chapters that told the family history were too long. They interrupted the flow of the story and prevented the characters from becoming the centerpiece of it.

Her recommendation was to remove some of it and “sprinkle” it through the later chapters.

“Sprinkle”. I really like that concept. Like you do for the lawn. If you just put the hose out there on the lawn, a small portion of it will be waterlogged, while the rest suffers drought. But if you set the sprinkler up to reach the entire lawn, all of it will be healthily saturated.

So I am again editing, and this time, I’m sprinkling the family history around. Perhaps the next agent who requests pages will find them irresistible. I live in hope.

Slainte!  And a tip of the Stetson to T. C. B. (You know who you are!)

Bad News, Good News

Sometimes bad news is a very good thing.

A little background: my manuscript, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, was (in what I thought was a cut and polished state, like a rare diamond if you will), 120,000+ words long. But feedback from many quarters said “That’s too long”, “It’s not the optimal size for publication”, “Agents will reject a first novel of more than 100,000 words”.

I needed to optimize my chances at publication, right? So I managed to cut the novel down to 104,000 words. And then the queries went out, the contests were entered, and a request came in for the first 25 pages. Wonderful news, right?

Not exactly. A few weeks later, the agent replied:

Thank you for the opportunity to consider LET THE CANYONS WEEP. I like the tone you set in these pages and I can see the potential for greatness in the characters. However, I found the writing to be abrupt; I couldn’t become fully immersed in your story because of the brusqueness.

Wow! Characters with potential for greatness! WOW!

But abrupt? Brusque? Never heard that before. But then, all but one of my advisers and beta readers had looked at the long version. I didn’t wait for everyone to re-review it after the cut. Could it be true?

A very quick look told me, yes, it was true. In fact, I’d have to say the agent was very nice about it. The 25 pages I sent her read more like bullet points than a story. I had gotten so caught up in reaching the magical 100,000 word mark, I didn’t stop to let the true composition of the work affect me. I was blind to the fact that the essence of my style got away. I was paying attention to the number of words rather than their quality.

So how is this bad news good? If the agent hadn’t taken the time to give me her personal critique (which she was under no obligation to do), the short version of the manuscript would have gone out to every future requester. It would have continued to be rejected, and rightfully so. But I might never have known why.

I’m going back to the long version of LET THE CANYONS WEEP, making some minor adjustments (because there were short scenes and some verbiage that actually absolutely needed to be cut). But if the end result is 118,000 words, then that’s what it will be. I’d much rather be rejected for a novel that’s too long than for one that’s poorly written.

So you’ll have to excuse me now — I have a thank-you note to write.