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Chasya’s Slush Week entry

by Chasya

(For details on Slush Week, see Chasya’s introduction.)

We’ll start with the query on its own, then the response after the jump:

Dear (Agent’s name):

When Elisabeth Starr was five years old, there was a day that changed everything, an irreversible moment that tore apart her family and sent her life and her sister’s life in two very different directions. For twenty years she has held on to the secret of what truly happened.

Now, returning to her childhood home in Western Massachusetts, Elisabeth learns that her mother plans to send her developmentally disabled sister, Kate, to an adult home. Determined not to let this happen, Elisabeth decides to take responsibility for Kate’s future and, together, they embark on a spontaneous road trip across the country. As she struggles with the dark secret about her role in Kate’s disability, Elisabeth discovers that it’s not Kate’s future that needs saving, but her own.

Spared is a 76,000 word work of Women’s Fiction about finding the right way just before it is lost forever. This is my first novel.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.

(Author’s name)



Dear (Agent’s name):

When Elisabeth Starr was five years old, there was a day that changed everything, an irreversible moment that tore apart her family and sent her life and her sister’s life in two very different directions. For twenty years she has held on to the secret of what truly happened.

This opening feels kind of awkward to me, particularly “there was a day that changed everything.” There’s a bit too much happening in the first sentence. The element of mystery that you’re trying to convey here could be more dramatic if the opening were a bit shorter and structured differently. For instance: Elisabeth Starr was only five years old on the day her life changed forever. In an instant, everything she knew would be torn apart, etc.…

Now, returning to her childhood home in Western Massachusetts, Elisabeth learns that her mother plans to send her developmentally disabled sister, Kate, to an adult home.

This is not the first mention of her sister but the first mention of her condition. That threw me for a bit of a loop and I had to go back and reread this sentence. I’m also assuming this is the same sister, but is there a way to better clarify? Also, why is Elisabeth returning home? We don’t really know anything about her at this point and little more information might sell me on her character.

Determined not to let this happen, Elisabeth decides to take responsibility for Kate’s future and, together, they embark on a spontaneous road trip across the country.

Again, I feel as though this adventure could be conveyed in a more exciting way. The action she takes here is a pretty dynamic one, and the sentences should reflect that for the maximum effect. This feels a bit flatter than a description that could grab my attention.

As she struggles with the dark secret about her role in Kate’s disability, Elisabeth discovers that it’s not Kate’s future that needs saving, but her own.
 
I’m not sure that the trauma that Elisabeth has experienced should be held off until the end of the query. This is one of the more interesting elements, but it’s buried.

Spared is a 76,000 word work of Women’s Fiction about finding the right way just before it is lost forever.

Good to mention the word count. Be careful about capitalization; genres should be lowercase. I’m not entirely sure the tag line accurately sums up the rest of the query for me. What does “the right way” mean? We don’t really have enough information to put that into context. Perhaps something more descriptive would serve the query better here.

This is my first novel.

Good, we like to know as much info as we can about your publishing history.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my submission. I look forward to hearing from you. 

(Author’s name)

Thanks for being such a good sport and partaking in slush week!

15 Responses to Chasya’s Slush Week entry

  1. Anonymous says:

    Chasya, would you have asked to see more? What would you have said to the prospective author?

  2. Anonymous says:

    instead of spending time critiquing the query, why don't you read the damn manuscript? after all, this author is trying to write and publish a book not give you a blow job …

  3. Anonymous says:

    yeah, i agree (not necessarily about the blow job, but I see what you're saying). it just doesn't make much sense that agents spend this much time dissecting every syllable in a query letter when they could be getting a better feel for the author's voice and the work itself by actually reading it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    That is uncalled for. They are trying to help writers looking to get published, and most of us appreciate this contest! It's very helpful to see how they view the query letter. They aren't going to read the manuscript if your letter doesn't wow them. That's the whole point of the critique here.

  5. Empty Refrigerator says:

    Like Anon #1, I'd love to know whether you would have requested pages, Chasya. Could you post a follow-up comment and let us know?

    Thank you so much for doing this exercise – I find it so helpful.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Agree with Anon 12:25. Seeing an agent's reaction to a query firsthand is extremely helpful. Thanks Chasya and the rest of DGLM!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hi, and I'm a new Anonymous.

    Why critique query letters? Well, first of all, I suspect they wouldn't usually do it, they're doing it here to help people.

    Agents and publishers get thousands of queries. It's a waste of everyone's time, including the authors', to send full manuscripts in as a first step.

    It's really important that an author can make a case for their novel, that they can sum it up in a way that makes it exciting, that they can identify the selling points and what makes it special. Not because the big, bad world is obsessed with commercializing everything (although, by definition, if you want to be published, you want your book to be commercialized), but also because it helps the art – if you know what your book is and what it isn't, and give some thought about who might read it and why, it'll be a better book.

    All three of the entrants so far have been a little generic, there's nothing that's made me, at least, go *wow!*. Or, to put it a little more cruelly, there's no point reading the manuscript.

    Might the actual books be a lot more dynamic and brillant? Possibly. But a great writer, you'd think, would be able to get across that greatness in a query letter.

    It can appear a little artificial – just like people sometimes complain that the ability to do well in a formal interview is not a good indicator of whether someone's good at a job. But Dystel are doing their best here to make the process more transparent, to explain what they're looking for.

  8. annerallen says:

    I think it's a shame we have some trolls here. This is an incredibly useful service, since our careers rest on query letters. This series is providing insight into how agents think. The comment about flat writing helps me. When we're trying to pack in a ton of information while being "professional", sometimes we forget the importance of voice.

  9. My2Cents says:

    It is extremely obvious that a couple of the "Anonymous" commenters are one of two things:

    1. Don't know a thing about this business or how it works.
    2. Aren't serious about their work or about getting it published. If they were serious, they'd know why these critiques are being done and that most of us seek out this kind of information. In addition, they'd be well-informed about this whole process by joining writing boards, writing organizations, critique groups and the like and then wouldn't have to go around commenting like trolls as mentioned previously.

    Critiques make you better. Who doesn't want to be better at what they do.

    Thanks Chasya and DGLM for your time and guidance in helping us be better.

  10. Kristi says:

    Thanks for doing these – I think it's awesome when agents take the time to help aspiring writers. It's not like they get paid for doing these free critiques. I think the point of the query is to get your foot in the door. It doesn't matter how brilliant your book is if you can't sum it up in a succinct manner. Thanks DGLM!

  11. franklycreative says:

    I agree with the majority of the comments. Thank you, DGLM for rendering this service! I would, however, like to see an example of desireable query–or as close to a good example as you can find from that slush pile. So far the two samples you have critiqued seem very similar in their weaknesses. I would also like to see more variety.
    Thanks.

  12. Andrea M. Bodel says:

    Query letters are a great opportunity to showcase your writing skills, and few people develop that skill well enough. I'm surprised to see criticism over this helpful service. I for one, will be using these to help being my query letter into tighter focus. My writing style for query letters is very similar to this one, I think my next query will be better off for it.

  13. Bethany says:

    Wow – this isn't the first query critique I've read but it is the first one that gave me a great idea of where to flesh out my literary fiction query: where the agent would be a good sort of curious and where the agent would remain disengaged for lack of information. Thank you!

  14. Mary Witzl says:

    I've been reading and (I believe) profiting from these too — and kicking myself for not getting my own query to you in time; it could use a good roasting.

    Please do this again and don't be discouraged by the odd troll or two.

  15. Anonymous says:

    This is great, don't get me wrong, but the lesson so far is that they don't really need to do it again. The query letters all have the same sort of faults, the same things missing, and in the cold light of day those are pretty easy to see.

    It's useful to make this part of the process transparent, but it's also interesting to see that it's not just subjective, it's not just some evil gatekeeper or some arcane rules that outsiders haven't been initiated in – the standard just isn't there. The ideas are original or coherent or forcefully-expressed enough.

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