Ask Daphne! About my Query

August 13th, 2008 • Kate

I’m heading out to San Francisco this weekend for a one-day conference, where I’ll be giving a presentation on query letters. To that end, although my presentation will differ, I thought it might be interesting — both for my readers and for me — to break down my reaction to a specific query. Diane wrote in some time ago looking for help with her letter. While it’s not in a genre I’m specifically looking for, as with any query, it’s about hooking the reader’s attention and getting them to want to read more. With her permission, here’s her letter:

Dear Agent (to be personalized),
It’s August 1968 in Westbruk, California and somebody’s trying to murder Dessa Lechmann, the fire phobic, Dear Dessa Dreams advice columnist. A Turkish carpet merchant, a runaway from a harem in Zanzibar, and a hookah smoker from Cairo tell Dessa that a match-lighting man is the villain. Dessa doesn’t believe them. Because in her dreams the match-lighting man is not the culprit. Besides having ordinary dreams about flying backwards, tsunamis, and upside down coyotes, Dessa dreams about past events she couldn’t know about, set in places she’s never been. Her dreams are as vivid as Technicolor movies and true. So if the match lighting man isn’t the culprit, who is?
In 1906, Liesl-Marie conceived a son. Her priest told her he was not only her lover, but also her father. Any child of theirs would be a monster, he said. Now it’s 1968 and the eighty-two year old Liesl-Marie has septicemia and is about to die. Having a match-lighting son (the match-lighting man described by the carpet merchant, harem runaway and hookah smoker) and suspecting that she has grandchildren and great grandchildren, Liesl-Marie starts fires to slay her monster progeny for the good of mankind. Mistakenly, she thinks Dessa is her granddaughter.
Will Dessa be able to fight through her fears, figure out what kind of childhood trauma caused her to be afraid of fire, deduce who the arsonist is, and save herself and others from the high rising flames of Liesl-Marie’s last fire? Of course! And in KILLING THE MONSTERS (FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND) a literary mystery of approximately 64,000 words, she’ll employ ingenious methods to do so.
I worked on KILLING THE MONSTERS (FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND) in the UCLA writing program under the tutelage of Caroline Leavitt, Kris Neri, Jessica Inclan and Leslie Lehr. During the course of my studies I auditioned for and was admitted into three advanced classes. My freelance non-fiction articles have appeared in numerous magazines such as AMERICAN CAREER, PORTHOLE and ACTIVE TIMES. KNIGHT, a professional company, produced two of my plays.
I’ve read that you like mysteries and I’d be delighted to send you all or part of KILLING THE MONSTERS (FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND).
Sincerely,
Diane

OK, first reaction: I can’t follow this. You’ve got two different time periods introduced in your letter where you only need to focus on one — the one in which the bulk of the action of the story occurs. If Dessa is your main character, introducing Liesl-Marie in a similar fashion (the structure for both paragraphs is very similar) makes me feel like she’s on an equal footing with Dessa. In addition, the quirky introducing of the Turkish carpet merchant, the harem runaway, and the hookah smoker from Cairo also feels extraneous — and certainly doesn’t seem to need mentioning twice! You also mention prophetic dreams, and then drop that thread.
Consider if you need the para on Liesl-Marie. Can you focus the query on Dessa, and tell her side of the story, while leaving some of the mystery to be unveiled in the book itself?
Beyond the book description, I might cut out the names of your teachers at UCLA, and just focus on the program itself. Also, “I’ve read that you like mysteries” is too generic. Where did you read it? Was it an interview with the agent? In a book like the Writer’s Market? Can you make mention of any of the agent’s specific clients whose work may be similar in some degree with your novel? Also, offering “all or part” of the novel is overkill. I don’t know any agents who ask for a full after reading a just letter. Try “a selection from”.
Diane, I hope this was helpful. Readers, please add your comments as well. Would you wan to read more if you received this letter? Why or why not? What would you change about it if you were sending it out?
If we get a good discussion going, I’d be open to considering a query review like this on a more regular basis, so if you like to see the inner workings of my mind (oooh! Peep-toe pumps! and a Pony!), chime in!

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9 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About my Query”

  1. Scott Says:

    The first paragraph made me think the story is so odd that it's either really cool or a mess. When you introduce a second character and time, it pulled me out of the cool weirdness of the first paragraph and made me lean toward the "mess" side.
    I think Our Host's comments were spot on, especially about the parts to cut. The whole letter feels too long, and I automatically skimmed after the first couple paras.
    Unless you're sure the agent has heard of the profs, I wouldn't mention them.
    If this were mine, I would focus on the quirkiness of Dessa's story, while trying to make it accessible and coherent by showing that there's a story here and not just a host of wonderfully bizarre characters. Then, I'd focus on agents who I knew loved quirkiness.

  2. Emily Says:

    oops my comment just disappeared so I hope this doesn't appear twice (sorry if it does)!
    I think doing a query review every so often would be great and very helpful. I'd really appreciate it.
    On to this query:
    I have a few suggestions and a few comments.
    I'm not sure if it's necessary to mention all the types of people who tell Dessa about the villain. I think you might have put it in to make the query fun, and to show that your story has some exciting characters but since they don't appear later on in the query, and don't really seem too important, it might be better to leave them out (this would also help make the query more concise).
    Also, I like that you described the different dreams Dessa has, but you combined the dreams about flying backward in the same sentence as the dreams about past events, and said they're true. But I don't think you meant to say her upside-down coyote dreams are true, did you? I'm not sure how Dessa distinguishes between the ordinary dreams and the dreams that are real.
    Finally, I'm a little confused about the match-lighting man. Does he burn anything down or just light matches? Is there a legitimate reason for the Liesl-Marie to fear her own son?
    Overall, this story seems interesting, but I agree that you should maybe try to stick to Dessa's story if you can.
    This is just my opinion, so take my comments with a grain of salt.
    Good luck!

  3. dust Says:

    I just can't tell whether I want to read this or not; it sounds like the author isn't sure what the book is about and what tone it should take. I don't mean it doesn't sound interesting; it sounds not-tied-together.
    I want to know in the first paragraph:
    – What kind of person is Dessa? Wise? Airheaded? Off-the-wall? There's a lot of difference between advice columnists. (I expected a ditz from the first paragraph.)
    – What kind of story is this? Humor? Adventure? Romance? Parody? What flavor is it? (I expected it to be a zany adventure from the first paragraph.)
    Second paragraph:
    – Son is 62. I would think the question of monstrosity would have been settled by then.
    – How will setting fires to objects that are not her progeny solve the situation?
    – Why is it set in 1968?
    – Why does L. think of D. as her daughter? Why reveal that it's "mistakenly"?
    Third paragraph:
    – Why don't we learn about fears in first paragraph?
    – Why spoil the ending with a flippant "of course"? (By this paragraph, it doesn't sound like there's any humor in the book, so the flippancy seems out of place.)
    – Why not show us an example of how ingenious D. is?
    Also, I want to see perfect grammar, as well as a tone that reflects the writing style consistently.

  4. Carrie Says:

    I'd agree with the comments that it feels a little too long. I felt like the cool quirky things about the book got a little muddled in too much detail, and in addition to what the others have mentioned, I'd suggest running through the entire thing to see what details are really necessary. For example, I can understand why you'd want to tell us that she's pyrophobic, since she's dealing with an arsonist. (And are the arsonist and the potential murderer the same person? I got lost there.) But do we need to know that she's an advice columnist in this query? Is it relevant for us to know the name of her column to understand the gist of her story? I think that by striking some of those details you'll end up with a tighter query that really highlights the strengths of what promises to be an interesting story.
    Those are my thoughts, anyway. Queries are tough to write; good luck with it and hats off for having the guts to submit it for a critique!

  5. jeanoram Says:

    Hi!
    Congrats on your courage to put your query out there Diane.
    I would focus first, on my hook. The hook should, in my non-expert opinion, be based on the premise of your story. Then you need two to three strong sentences that back up your premise/hook.
    Keep your query as brief as you can. You job is to sell. Go into a computer store/used car lot and listen to different pitches. Which ones are the best? Short and to the point with all the main highlights covered, right? Same goes here.
    So, something like:
    Advice columnist, Dessa, can find the answers in her dreams, unfortunately she can't see who is trying to kill her. (Only you would write it much better and spend hours picking perfect word after perfect word…)
    Then back it up with a couple of sentences that add the most interesting and relevant tidbits. If you can do it without names, cool.
    And remember, you don't have give it all away, just catch a busy agents attention and give them enough to have them ask for more.
    Your story sound unique. Don't give up. You can do it!
    Jean

  6. Julia Says:

    Seconding jeanoram, Diane – congrats on your courage to put your query out here for comments/critiques.
    Too much information, I skimmed everything after the first couple of sentences! A query letter's hook (at least from what I understand) ideally is just a hair's breadth longer than a 30-second elevator pitch. Capture the essence of your story in a few sentences (not paragraphs) – like the blurbs in Publisher's Weekly on deals. (A good place to see how various books are blurbed.)
    The previous posters have given you a lot of good advice. Good luck in perfecting your pitch!
    Daphne – I think frequent query reviews are a good idea!

  7. Trish Says:

    I have nothing to say about this query that hasn't already been said, but I like the idea of query reviews. Another cool thing might be to post a query that did work for you and point out why.

  8. Amie Stuart Says:

    Agree w/the other commenters. IMO the part of your query that's actually about the book should not only set the tone but also kind of sound like a back cover blurb for a book…who is your character, what do they want and what stands in their way. Is there some sort of internal conflict for Dessa (great name btw) and does it tie to the whole arson/pyrophobia thread?

  9. anne_tosa Says:

    Maybe the query needs work, but I'd sure like to read more. Sounds like a great porch book to me.