Ask Daphne! About My Query’s Genre

September 12th, 2016 • Sara Megibow

AboutMyQueryToday’s AMQ post comes with thanks to Sara. Without further ado…

Hoping you’ll critique my query…

I liked your online bio and wishlist online and I think you might want to know how to become a Messiah.

PROFANE FIRE AT THE ALTAR OF THE LORD is about three men, each on a quest for fame and fortune at a time when the bones of heretics smolder on the auto-de-fe’. Each man is flat broke. One is a dwarf cutpurse named David who claims to be a prince of a lost tribe of Israel. The second man is Diogo, a down-on-his-luck actor, who joins the dwarf as manservant. The third is the Duke of Bourbon, a warlord whose King refuses to reimburse him for the cost of his army.

Paupers and kings, freemen and bishops, everyone believes the little man is a prince. He’s venerated, Jews whisper that he is the Messiah. The bogus prophets accept gold offerings without shame or remorse, reveling in luxury even as Bourbon’s rag-tag army marches on Rome. And why not? The food and beds are warm, the ladies are plump and willing. David and Diogo would face certain death if the truth was known.

As Rome is sacked by Bourbon’s men, and tired of playing second banana, Diogo breaks faith with David and claims to be the Messiah himself.

Weakened by years of war, and fearful of a Muslim invasion, the Pope sends David and Diogo to Germany with instructions to forge an alliance. A final crusade. Failure could open a pathway to the heart of Europe for Muslim invaders.

It’s a sprawling mix of fact and fiction, deceit, delusion and betrayal set in the time of Martin Luther, off-beat, upmarket fiction, a boy-book, 98,850 words. It is the kind of work my war-obsessed book club reads. Thank you.

XXXX

Thanks so much for sending this query for review! Let’s dive in…

When I read a query I skim immediately to the point at which the writer identifies the genre of her/his book. In this case, I skip the first three paragraphs entirely and focus on this:

“It’s a sprawling mix of fact and fiction, deceit, delusion and betrayal set in the time of Martin Luther, off-beat, upmarket fiction, a boy-book”

At this point I send the automatic rejection letter. I’ve not read the pitch, hook, bio or anything else – I see that the genre is incorrectly identified and I pass on asking to read any more of the manuscript.

Incorrect genre is a deal-breaker for me in a query letter. Why? Because that novel will end up shelved in a bookstore and the booksellers need to know where to put it. Should PROFANE FIRE AT THE ALTAR OF THE LORD be shelved in science fiction/fantasy next to THE COURIER by Gerald Brandt? (my guess is no) Should it be shelved in young adult fiction next to THE WEIGHT OF ZERO by Karen Fortunati? (nope) Should it be shelved in commercial fiction/ literary fiction with the book club books? (maybe) In a query, identify the genre of your book according to where it will be shelved in a bookstore. Incorrect genre is an easily-identifiable and easily-fixable mistake.

How can we fix this query to fit into our genre formula? Something like this would work:

PROFANE FIRE AT THE ALTAR OF THE LORD is a completed work of upmarket commercial fiction. At 98,850 words, it is the kind of work my war-obsessed book club reads.

Ok, we’ve tackled the big issue in the query. Now let’s dive a bit into the pitch itself.

“I liked your online bio and wishlist online and I think you might want to know how to become a Messiah.”

The narrative voice here is funny and shows me that the book probably has a sense of humor. But, I’d prefer the more professional approach. Try this instead, “I like your online bio and I think my novel might fit with your list.” (note that I don’t represent commercial fiction so, in fact, this book wouldn’t work for me. But, you get the idea.)

“PROFANE FIRE AT THE ALTAR OF THE LORD is about three men, each on a quest for fame and fortune at a time when the bones of heretics smolder on the auto-de-fe’.”

Can the query be a bit more specific? This is a generic description that leaves me feeling confused. Perhaps something more like this:

…three men, each on a quest for fame and fortune at a time in which being adventurous marks them as heretics.


“Each man is flat broke. One is a dwarf cutpurse named David who claims to be a prince of a lost tribe of Israel. The second man is Diogo, a down-on-his-luck actor, who joins the dwarf as manservant. The third is the Duke of Bourbon, a warlord whose King refuses to reimburse him for the cost of his army.”

Great! You’ve introduced the heroes – now we need to introduce the plot. I don’t tend to love the listing-of-characters approach but it’s not a deal-breaker. Leave this as-is and move on to the story itself.

“Paupers and kings, freemen and bishops, everyone believes the little man is a prince. He’s venerated, Jews whisper that he is the Messiah. The bogus prophets accept gold offerings without shame or remorse, reveling in luxury even as Bourbon’s rag-tag army marches on Rome. And why not? The food and beds are warm, the ladies are plump and willing. David and Diogo would face certain death if the truth was known.”

We should cut this entire paragraph and replace it with a compelling introduction to the plot. We’ve introduced the heroes in the previous paragraph (good!). This paragraph here only includes more character description and backstory which we don’t need. Delete.

“As Rome is sacked by Bourbon’s men, and tired of playing second banana, Diogo breaks faith with David and claims to be the Messiah himself.”

Grammar and sentence structure are weak here.

“Weakened by years of war, and fearful of a Muslim invasion, the Pope sends David and Diogo to Germany with instructions to forge an alliance. A final crusade. Failure could open a pathway to the heart of Europe for Muslim invaders.”

The writing in these sentences is weak. We’re also still lacking a hook and solid description of plot.

My recommendation would be to rewrite the pitch paragraph. Leave in the description of the heroes from the earlier paragraph, delete everything after that and write a new paragraph introducing the plot more effectively. Here’s an example of what I’m thinking:

David and Diogo are living a life of comfort because David is falsely claiming to be a prophet. If they are discovered, they will be killed, but the threat doesn’t become real until Bourbon’s men start sacking Rome. (or something like this)

After introducing the story, write just a sentence or two about how the three men meet, what the stakes are (above and beyond the fact that David and Diogo will be killed if discovered) and what the main conflict of the story is. That main conflict probably has something to do with the “final crusade” mentioned here – clarify that point.

Here are the four things I would recommend to strengthen this query: nail the genre, avoid backstory, make the plot clear and strengthen the quality of writing.

I hope this helps!
Cheers,
Sara

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