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 WHISPERS IN THE CANYON 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?

Character Exercises: Personality quizzes

What a great idea — I bet we all could learn a little more about our characters! Who knows what new story it might lead to?

Captain (Query) Hook

There are personality quizzes all over the Internet. You’ve probably taken some of them yourself.

But have you ever tried answering the questions as if you were one of your characters? I totally recommend this approach. It forces you to really get inside the character’s head and think like they do. You may have to consider aspects of the character’s personality that you never would have even considered before.

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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 WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, 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!)

Cast of Characters (3)

It’s been awhile since I posted about the Donovan books’ characters, but now let me present:

The Siblings

John Patrick and Molly Donovan had ten offspring, Adam and Brian being the eldest and twins (see Cast of Characters 1).

When her sons were born, Molly had honored the Donovan family tradition of naming the first-born male of the new generation for the first man in the Bible. Then for her pride in her own family, she had named her second son for the greatest High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, from whom her father had claimed descent. A third son followed, and was named Conor, the honor going this time to John Patrick’s mother, Katie O’Conor Donovan.

Katie teased John Patrick and Molly about the names their first three children bore, calling them “my little alphabet”. But when the fourth boy was born, she suggested he be named Daniel. When their first daughter came into the world, John Patrick and Molly christened her Evelyn. The tradition continued: twin boys were born again, and named Frank and Geordie. Then little Henry, who died of influenza when he was two years old. Another daughter, Irene, and finally an eighth son, named John James and called “Jake” to distinguish him from his father.

Conor Donovan was nine months old when the family left Ireland. During the eight-week voyage he learned to stand, and then to walk, with a sailor’s rolling gait. Eventually he went back to the sea, the Captain of his own ship, the M‘Lady. Conor does not often get to visit his home and is sorely missed.

Daniel is essentially “odd man out” in the Donovan family. Neither farmer nor cowboy, he does not work the land he loves, and yet he lives closer to it than any of the others. He wears buckskins of his own making. The local tribe of Navajo have dubbed him The Woodsman for his skill in hunting and tracking.

Daniel is a sensitive, thoughtful man, slow to anger and quick to laugh at himself. His voice is deep and gravelly as the result of a childhood accident, and it is Daniel who is the first to discover Jesse’s tragic secrets.

Evelyn is the image of her mother. Tall, regal, with a generous figure and fiery red hair, Evelyn is Adam’s closest confidante. Willful yet persevering, she is first to volunteer when Adam wants to help Jesse Travers, and her kind-hearted empathy with the younger girl helps pave the way for Jesse’s acceptance of the family’s assistance.

Frank and Geordie, the younger twins, prefer farming to ranching. Like the older twins, they have totally different personalities: Frank with a mind always focused on money and a face and body always in motion; Geordie calm and seemingly detached, seeing much more than his family realizes. But when it comes to looks they are, as Brian puts it, “as like as two ears on a jackrabbit. One’s jus’ a little bit longer and does a sight more twitchin‘, but find ‘em standin’ still and it’ll take some doing’ t’ tell the right ear from the left.”

Irene is sixteen and as tall as Evelyn, worried about becoming taller still. With black hair, ivory skin and deep blue eyes, she is the female version of Adam, as lovely as he is handsome. Still the spoiled baby, not above pouting and sulking to get her way, Irene is also generous, soft-hearted and naïve.

And finally, Jake. At fifteen, his school days are over and he’s struggling with manhood. He apes his brothers, imitating Adam’s hint of brogue or Daniel’s deep southern drawl. He flashes from pillar to post with Frank or relaxes with Geordie, straws sticking from both their mouths as they lounge in the grass. And he follows Brian around like a puppy. Almost as tall as Adam and thin as a rake, with shock of bright red hair and freckled skin, Jake has an innate optimism that’s rarely shaken.

And there you have the Donovan siblings. Good people, hardworking, generous and instilled by their father with the belief that without family, a man has nothing. And without being a good neighbor, a man is nothing. And that’s the philosophy that lays the groundwork for their story.

Cast of Characters (2)

THE  PARENTS & “GRAN”

MOLLY DONOVAN. When the Great Famine of Ireland began in 1845, Molly (nee Mary Agnes O’Brien) lived with her two younger brothers and her parents. Within two years, her parents had starved to death and her brothers were close to it.

Excerpt from WHISPERS IN THE CANYON:
“Molly had been lucky enough to inherit a place on the road gang. Fifteen hours’ hard labor a day, breaking rocks to build a road that went nowhere, and her wages were still less than she needed to feed her hungry family. The distribution of Indian corn had been suspended, the soup kitchens inadequate. The English government had left Ireland to its own devices, and over eight hundred thousand would perish.   
          … Molly O’Brien trudged wearily through the streets of a tiny village in County Clare. She was willing to offer her wages, her body, her soul for food for her brothers, and wept because she could not find or beg a scrap. As she stood on the banks of the River Shannon, the miracle she prayed for appeared.”

JOHN PATRICK DONOVAN was the answer to Molly’s prayers. Sent by his family of ships’ chandlers to County Clare, he was to pick up a load of oats that had not been delivered by the Earl. He found, instead, that the Earl had returned to England, and had locked up his oats in a barn while his tenants starved. Trying to reconcile the vast army of starving with the tons of food he saw being exported daily from his home in Wexford, he walked down to the river. And there he saw Molly. With her fiery halo of hair, gaunt body and calloused hands, she tore at his heart. He married her that day and, when one of her brothers died overnight, he brought her and her one surviving brother home to the bosom of his family. John Patrick could not tolerate the callousness of his government, so eventually he emigrated to America, taking with him his wife, his three sons, and his mother,

KATIE DONOVAN. As the story begins, Katie is nearing 90 years old. Katie, or “Gran” to the family, is a little white-haired woman who is almost blind from cataracts, but her hands are never still. She knits, crochets, tats lace, and even occasionally makes a shirt for one of her grandsons. She is a wise woman who quotes Irish proverbs and Homer as well, and is wont to say that even that fine man would have been an Irishman, “had he a choice in the matter.” Katie has inherited the gift of insight from her Druid ancestors, and is considered the heart and soul of her family. Her insight is much needed with the advent of “Little Jesse Travers” into their lives.

Emigrant or Immigrant, that is the question …

“How do you know which word to use?” I’m asked occasionally. I have to admit that I looked it up every time until I had it figured out: you’re an emigrant in relationship to the country you (or your relatives or characters) come from, and you’re an immigrant in the country you choose to settle in.

Sounds easy, right? But there were still those times I’d get confused again. Eventually I created a simple mnemonic using the word “IN”.  In your New country, you’re an Immigrant.

My father’s family immigrated to the US from Ireland, and rumor has it that his uncle escaped the Black and Tans by the skin of his teeth.

Now, if you want to know why emigrant has one “m” and immigrant has two, I’m afraid I just can’t help you there …

Cast of Characters (1)

The cast of characters for these family novels is fairly large, so I’ll begin with the main characters in WHISPERS IN THE CANYON.

ADAM DONOVAN. This 32-year-old bachelor is considered by his family to be a cowboy with a poet’s soul. He’s tall, dark and (yes) handsome (what Irishman isn’t?), and has a quick hand with a gun. He’s always thought of his life as complete — he enjoys the cowboy’s role and doesn’t really look beyond the family for his happiness. He’s not a shallow man, though, understanding almost all there is to know about grief and sorrow. His family depends on him to help them with their troubles. He’s never seen a problem he couldn’t solve, until he meets Jesse Travers.

BRIAN DONOVAN. Adam’s fraternal twin, and a red-haired giant of a man. His patience is the envy of his twin, and his calm acceptance of what life gives him makes him much admired by his family. When he sees that Adam has fallen in love with Jesse, he works to bring them together, though he is deeply in love with her himself. He knows that it is Adam’s strength and understanding that Jesse needs if she is ever to recover from her horrific past.

JESSE TRAVERS. At nineteen years old, Jesse is no bigger than she was at twelve. When her father dies after hearing of his only son’s death, Jesse is left alone in a remote canyon. The ranch she inherits is bankrupt, or so she thinks. Abused by her brother for years, she is reluctant to accept help from the Donovans. It is only Adam’s persistence, and Brian’s kindhearted scheming, that convinces her otherwise. But her brother’s treachery has gone deeper than even Jesse knows, and when all the facts come to light, Jesse is in danger of losing her mind.

I’ll be presenting more of the characters in future posts, including Adam’s parents, John Patrick and Molly Donovan, and Jesse’s friend, a Navajo blacksmith named Tommy Twelve Trees.