Ask Daphne! About My Query LVII

May 21st, 2010 • Kate

1970sshoesWelcome back to another edition of About My Query! Today’s contestant is the adorably-named Chumplet. Won’t you give her a warm welcome?

Dear Daphne,

I am seeking representation for my novel THE YEARBOOK, a character-driven women’s fiction that alternates between present day and the transitional seventies.

Sixteen-year-old Rebecca is sick of her nomadic life. When her busy father relocates the family to Mallorca, Spain in 1974, her already shaky self-esteem takes a downward turn. Not only must she help her ill equipped, hard drinking mother handle family matters in another unfamiliar place, she also has to learn Spanish.

The beauty of the island holds little allure until she sees Luke for the first time. She falls hard for the handsome and aloof boy, but he already has a girlfriend. Desperate to get his attention, Rebecca fights off her debilitating shyness. She dives into student life at this small, tightly knit American school with the help of her new friend Katie, a girl from Iowa with a big heart and a filthy mouth. Rebecca’s infatuation leads to heartbreak when she inadvertently sets off a chain of events that sends Luke away, presumably forever.

Thirty years later, Luke had been moving from city to city to escape the pain of losing his wife to cancer, much to the chagrin of his son who wants only to stick to one place and maybe get a dog. He meets Rebecca by chance in Toronto and she recognizes him immediately, but he doesn’t remember her at all.

When he discovers Rebecca’s son suffers from Neuroblastoma, a deadly childhood disease, Luke readily offers to help the single mother. She seems to appreciate his support but sometimes she pushes him away. He doesn’t know what he did in the past to cause her animosity. If he can repair the ever-shifting rift between them, perhaps she’d give him a reason to stop running from his grief and set down roots for the sake of his son, and himself.

THE YEARBOOK is complete at approximately 70,000 words. My previous publishing credits include [NOVEL1] ([Publisher], 2007), [NOVEL2] ([Publisher], 2008) and [NOVEL3] ([Publisher], 2009).

I would love to send you sample pages or the entire manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Regards,
Chumplet

To start with, the opening line doesn’t do much for me in hooking me with the story. It’s all about the setting, and for a novel that you tell me is “character-driven”, I want the hook to be about the characters. Something like, “In my novel THE YEARBOOK, Rebecca is given a second chance to correct a childhood mistake and win again the love of her life.”

The wording of the phrase “When her busy father relocates the family to Mallorca, Spain in 1974,” is also confusing. It seems as if Rebecca’s father moves the family to Spain in 1974 from somewhere and someWHEN else. How important, and how BIG is the section of the book set in the 1970s? Is it an introduction, or a full half of the story?

But those are tiny, nit-picky things. Before I go deeper into that level, I have a bigger picture question: Would you consider using the query to just sell the present-day story? Of course, you’d have to mention that part of the story is set in the 1970s, but it seems to me that the events of the past are influencing the actions of the characters in the present, but that the main PLOT happens in the here and now.

I’m also confused as to how much is meant by Luke not remembering Rebecca. Are we talking a blank slate, or just that he didn’t place as much import on whatever Rebecca thinks she did in the past that caused him to leave Mallorca? And what can you tell me about their current relationship? Why does Luke offer to help Rebecca when he discovers her son is sick? Is he a doctor? It is because of his wife’s recent death?

For me, this query doesn’t quite provide enough of a hook to really stand out for me. If it’s women’s fiction, I want to spend less time in the past with Rebecca and Luke as teens than in the present, dealing with adult issues, both of them struggling to open up and have a relationship.

Readers, what do you think? How would you rewrite the hook, and what would you focus on in the query? I look forward to reading your comments!

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21 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About My Query LVII”

  1. Jaya Lakshmi Says:

    If it were me, I've been taught to start with the summary, and then add the title unless the editor specifies otherwise. Also, there's no transition between the old and the new.

  2. Creepy Query Girl Says:

    I think your hook is fine and I really enjoyed your premise. The only info I feel might be a little too much info is about her friend on the island. The rest all seems essential to the overall of your book. Good luck! Sounds to me like you've got a winner here.

  3. Janet B Says:

    Lead with the main conflict, not the backstory, as Kate said. Weave-in the 70s as needed for the story to make sense, but hook us with what is happening now.

    How about something like, "When single mom Rebecca [Surname] meets her high school crush, Luke [Surname], after 30 years, sparks fly. She's relieved he doesn't remember her. Back in 1974, she told a terrible lie that got him expelled and she is sure that when he realizes who she is, he'll turn his back on her. For Rebecca, that means a lost second chance at first love, but that's no big deal. She is used to her romances failing. For her son though, it could be a death sentence. Rebecca's only child suffers from terminal Neuroblastoma, and Luke, a medical researcher, holds the key to the cure."

    The facts are obviously made up at random to try to create tension. Try something like that with the real ones. Good luck!

  4. Katie Says:

    I think Janet's advice is sold as far as the main part of your query.

    At some point, you should mention that your ms oscillates between past and present. I would do that toward the end of your query and I would think really carefully about how your phrase your description of the ms' style.

    Are the past bits flashbacks, where something that is happening in the present has mad Rebbecca or Luke reflect on their time in Spain? Are you simultaneously telling the story of how they met the first time and paralleling it with what is happening now. How you describe the past excerpts will go a long way towards explaining their importance in the ms. The way your query looks now suggests that your ms is split fairly 50/50 between past and present and since you are using the past as your hook and detailing it first it actually implies that the past is more important.

    Also, there is no indication of any tension in your query. I think you could explain in more detail what she did to Luke that forced him to leave. And, since you've given your protagonist a child with a deadly disease, I'm assuming that this disease plays a larger part in the ms than simply serving as the 'meet cute.'

    Right now your ms sounds slow and it sounds like half of it is a YA. You don't need to say much about the 1970s bit, in fact the only important thing that comes up there is that Rebbecca feels responsible for something that happened to Luke- keep that bit (but explain it so it actually says something cause right now you are telling me nothing… I don't know if she accidentally killed his girlfriend, or got him expelled, or burnt down his home, or ate the last piece of pie… from what you've told me it could be any of those things).

    Find the important details, the things that propel your story forward and the things that make it different from the other women's fiction out there and put those in your query. Get rid of everything else.

    Hope it goes well.

  5. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    Wonderful suggestions so far. Daphne, you showed me the parts where an agent can get confused. The 70s isn't back story, it's half the book, told in alternating chapters and points of view. I have since moved that to the end. I figured starting with the past and segueing into the present would help set the tone.

    Janet, your hook example is something to think about – to add depth to the plot I will certainly keep this in mind.

    Katie, you seem to understand the structure of the novel. It is evenly split between past and present, and I had hoped to illustrate their equal importance without getting into themes, etc.

    The following is a version that has garnered a couple of requests for the full. I know Daphne allowed me to submit an updated version before this was posted, but I'm afraid it slipped my mind! I also followed your suggestions and cut a few unnecessary bits:

    Sixteen-year-old Rebecca hates her nomadic life. When her busy father relocates the family to Mallorca, Spain in 1974, her already shaky self-esteem takes a downward turn. Not only must she help her ill equipped, hard-drinking mother handle family matters in another unfamiliar place, she also has to learn Spanish.

    The beauty of the island holds little allure until she sees Luke for the first time. She falls hard for the handsome and aloof boy, but he already has a girlfriend. Desperate to get his attention, Rebecca fights off her debilitating shyness and dives into student life at this tiny American school. Just when she gains the confidence to make her move, a family crisis leads her to inadvertently get him expelled and deported.

    Thirty years later, Luke had been moving from city to city to escape the pain of losing his wife to cancer, much to the chagrin of his son who wants only to stick to one place and maybe get a dog.

    Luke meets Rebecca by chance in Toronto and she recognizes him immediately, but he doesn't remember her at all. His fond memories of Mallorca are mostly restricted to basketball, his girlfriend and the occasional toke.

    When he discovers Rebecca's son suffers from Neuroblastoma, he puts aside his aversion to illness and offers to help the single mother. Their tenuous connection strengthens, yet she still holds him at arm's length. While he wonders why he should continue such a tempestuous relationship, she could persuade him to stop running and set down roots for the sake of his son, and himself.

    At 70,000 words, THE YEARBOOK is a character-driven women's fiction that alternates between present day and the transitional seventies. Thank you for your time and consideration, etc.

  6. honeysock Says:

    Hey Chumplet,

    Since your book vacillates between past and present– is there no way to do that in the query too? It would offer a glimpse of the style of the book and be refreshing, maybe. But then, maybe it would be confusing. Just a suggestion!

  7. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    I'd love to do that, Honeysock, but it would probably work better in a synopsis than a query. Thanks for chiming in! Hugs, Chumplet.

  8. Sarah Laurenson Says:

    Hey Sandra,

    Love the rewrite much better. Great details that make it pop.

    This sentence seems off like there are words missing:

    While he wonders why he should continue such a tempestuous relationship, she could persuade him to stop running and set down roots for the sake of his son, and himself.

    Good Luck!

    Sarah

  9. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    How's this, Sarah? "While he wonders why he should continue such a tempestuous relationship, Maybe she'll persuade him to stop running and set down roots for the sake of his son, and himself."

  10. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    Oops, no caps on Maybe…

  11. Sarah Laurenson Says:

    If she's holding him at arm's length, is she also trying to persuade him to settle down? Seems like a conflict there and if the conflict exists, maybe you should explicitly point to it.

    Or is he hoping she'll persuade him to settle down?

  12. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    Ah…. he's hoping. I must make that clearer.

  13. Meredith Says:

    Hi Sandra! Sounds like a great story! The one thing that might be confusing is the point of view. I know you said in a comment above that the story alternates chapters and POV, but the query doesn't explain that. I could see someone reading it and being a little confused as to why you started off talking about Rebecca but then shifted focus to Luke halfway through. I might clarify in the query that it's a multi-person POV so people aren't making assumptions.

  14. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    I could put that in the last paragraph with the alternating chapter information. Thanks, Meredith!

    It's amazing how much and how little one may put into a query, huh? I'd like to thank Daphne for this opportunity. I think my query will be much stronger with everyone's wonderful feedback.

  15. Red Boot Pearl Says:

    I read this yesterday but didn't have time to comment. It didn't strike me as something I'd want to read, but I really liked the second version, it's much stronger. Now, I'm totally intrigued by what kind of family emergency could have the kid expelled. I'm hooked, I would read this. It's amazing what a little tweaking can do!

  16. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    Wow, Pearl – that's great! I'm so glad this critique session is working. I hope the newer version will strike gold.

  17. Janet B Says:

    I am reluctant to chime in again, but I don't think version 2 is terribly different from version 1. I understand that the story covers the teen and single mom years of one woman but you need to decide who is your target audience and focus on either the present conflict of the adult woman and blend in the YA/backstory of first teen crush. The agent will need to know the market is women's fiction so make that the focus of the query.

  18. Sandra Cormier (Chum Says:

    Janet, I'm labeling this book as women's fiction for the time being. Since the YA part is set in the past, I feel it might appeal to the older audience because of its nostalgic elements. I can certainly explain this in the query, but I'm hoping the agents I target will see my intent.

  19. Sandra Cormier Says:

    I'd like to thank Daphne and everyone who participated in my query critique. You've all been a great help!

  20. Amanda Says:

    The phrase I was most confused by was "tightly knit American school"; I thought we were in Spain? Where did this come from? I agree with Daphne saying that the query should focus on the adult life, unless of course most of the story is when they are teens in which case you may want to reconsider which genera this book is in. I am very interested in this story and would like to know more.

  21. Sandra Cormier Says:

    Ah, I didn't realize the school was plunked into the middle of the paragraph. It's an American School in Spain, one of a network of international private schools.

    The chosen market is indeed my biggest dilemma!