1. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343

    Cover Letter Critique

    Discussion in 'Query & Cover Letter Critique' started by LostThePlot, Feb 10, 2016.

    So I've been working on a covering letter for my completed manuscript. This is a dark, introspective book about the nature of love, parenthood and taboo. It is weird and different and runs in a direction that is going to be uncomfortable for most. Duly warned, let's see what I've got.

    ---BEGIN---

    When she couldn't get pregnant Judith joined a cult, looking to escape the world outside. But inside the cold walls of the Advent church she found her baby; Ellie, son of the prophet, the only child in loveless, adult world. But now he's becoming a man and taking his father's place and Judith has to face the realization that one day mothers have to let their children go. Her baby, the only thing that ever stopped her crying.

    Children Of God is a 110,000 word coming of age story set inside an oppressive Christian sect following a fraudulent, self-appointed prophet. Ellie is the prophet's fifteen year old son, heir to the churches fortune and thousands of followers across the world. He has never known a world outside the church, only leaving the building to preach. He has never been to school, never spoken to a non-believer and never had a friend. He can't remember his mother and he barely knew his father. Judith is the only person who ever really cared for Ellie, raising him by herself.

    Ellie alone knows how monstrous the church truly is and as he takes over he immediately strives to change it. At every step he is opposed by the disciples, his father's lieutenants, bullying and ignoring him. Judith teaches him how to be a real leader and make changes. Despite constant friction Ellie succeeds; allowing followers to contact their families and opening a homeless shelter. But Ellie still feels unfulfilled. He doesn't understand how to say that he's lonely.

    Judith encourages Ellie to work at the shelter and meet more people, to start having his own life. She's torn to feel that soon he won't need her but she's happy to see him spread his wings. Soon he is asking her how to kiss someone but she's stunned when Ellie kisses her. In a moment she see's how unhealthy their relationship has been for years. She explains to him she probably isn't the girl for him, but she doesn't pull away from kissing him, flattered that this wonderful young man is attracted to her.

    As time passes a chaste romance begins to form between them. But the disciples are plotting in the shadows. With Ellie's focus elsewhere there's no-one to stop them as they work to tear down the reformed church. Will Ellie be able to stop their machinations and keep his new love or will he and Judith be forced apart by a gentile world that won't understand them?

    ---FIN---

    Like I said at the top this is a dark book with complex and uncomfortable themes but I have no idea if I should be more directly signposting that in the covering letter and if so how to do it. Is that something for a synopsis? Is that something worth mentioning at all? It goes very much against my grain to be shouting about something that really should be self evident and if it was me reading submissions someone saying 'there's great characters in it' would be responded to with a skeptical look and a muttered 'great are they? i'll be the judge of that'. Clearly i'm supposed to be selling my work here but the last thing I want to do is turn people off before they even get to my sample and to me at least overselling makes me judge a person so much more harshly than underselling and being pleasantly surprised.

    As for the rest; does this work for you? Does it make you want to read it? Is this how I should be selling it? Should I be talking about themes over plot? Too long, too short? It's been hard getting it this short and I have no idea how to slim it down further. It already feels painfully blunt in how it's written and cutting it further I really don't know how.

    I have no idea what genre to pitch this as. It's absolutely a coming of age story first and foremost but that's not really a genre. It is a love story but it's nothing like a traditional romance. It's written about a teenager but it's certainly not a teenage book; in fact most parents would probably prefer to keep their children away from it. By default i've been calling it literary fiction but that's about all I've got.

    On a slightly different topic: I worry that the title, Children Of God, sounds a little generic. It's incredibly fitting for a number of reasons (not least of which that Ellie is literally the child of god) but, well it is a bit generic. Every time I really think of it I just come back to seeing how well it fits the material but I think it's worth discussing changing it if that would help.

    Anything else come to mind, let me know.

    If any of this makes you want to read the book (presumably because you are someone of refined and dare I say exotic tastes and believe that positive perspectives of incest is a criminally under served genre) then get in touch. It would be nice to know if I can write worth a damn before I send it off.
     
  2. Tenderiser
    Offline

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2015
    Messages:
    4,281
    Likes Received:
    5,150
    Location:
    London, UK
    My own foreword: I SUCK at queries and I hate them. But I have read literally hundreds of them, accompanied by agent comments explaining why they're good or bad, which is why I don't feel like a complete fraud commenting on yours. Just remember I'm in no way, even a little, teeny bit, an expert on this. I'm just imagining I'm an agent looking for a great book to sell, and I'm someone who reads the extremest of horrors so taboo/dark doesn't turn me off.

    Can't get pregnant > joins a cult isn't a logical sequence of events. I know one of the trickiest things about a query is balancing detail with brevity, but I think you're going to need to explain this one a bit more.

    And again - if it's loveless, why did she join?

    Last sentence is incomplete and I don't think you need it anyway - it's inferred.

    For me, Ellie is a girl's name. Maybe that's a regional thing.


    Now it reads like Ellie is the main character. Either reword this so it's from Judith's POV, or reword the opening so it's from Ellie's POV. Even if the book is from multiple POVs, the query really needs to be from one (advice from the QueryShark as well as my own experience trying to write a query for a dual-perspective book).

    If it's a coming of age story, Ellie is surely the protagonist? In which case, we don't need his mum's backstory in a query.


    Really, really unbelievable. Cult members who've been born and grown up in a cult do NOT see how monstrous their cults are. If this is Judith's influence, it needs to be explained and even then, it's going to sound far-fetched.

    Further into the realms of this-isn't-how-cults-work.

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is a completely different book!

    Now you've really lost me. What's the core conflict of this novel?

    1. Judith letting Ellie go.
    2. [Whichever one is the protagonist] escaping the cult.
    3. Ellie's coming of age.
    4. An incestuous relationship.

    I strongly advice you to pick one for the query and run with it, and I advise #4 since if an agent asked for it based on 1, 2 or 3 and found out it was about incest, I'm pretty sure you're going to get an instant rejection.

    Cover 1, 2 & 3 in a couple of sentences - emphasising that the cult background is why they have a screwed up relationship - and then focus on the real conflict.

    Don't mention themes in a cover letter or synopsis. They should be clearly inferred from the cover letter and synopsis, but not stated. As it stands, your query covers so many themes it reads like 3 books rolled into one.

    My guess, from reading your query? Literary. Is there a market for it? No idea.

    For what it's worth, I really like it. It works for the cult aspect and it works for the incest aspect, since Adam and Eve's children must have procreated unless there's another part of the Bible where God sends a couple more people for them to breed with.
     
    123456789 likes this.
  3. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    Going down broadly in order -

    Judith's motivation has been cut down for brevity. Her whole life all she wanted was a child, something she always felt was what she wanted to do with her life. She tried to have a baby with almost every boyfriend she ever had and trying and failing for a decade was a major factor in why relationships broke up. Finally finding out that she couldn't ever have children was the last straw for her and it put her into a spiral of depression that eventually lead her to finding some solace in religion, and thence out into the more fringe and prescriptive sort; a place that made it feel like there was still a plan for her. And all of this happens off screen before the book starts; it's hinted to in the first chapter (which is set just after she arrives, ten years before the main plot) but otherwise it's not a huge part of the book. It already feels like I'm spending way too long on the setting rather than the actual plot of the book itself. Any ideas on how better to present the setting/set-up would really help!

    Ellie very much is a girls name here too. His full name is Elijah but he isn't addressed as that a single time and it felt natural to contract it to 'Ellie' as something his mum might call him, especially locked away from the world where there were no other kids to tease him for it. Again; trying to present this in a short space is not easy. It feels wrong to waste the space explaining it and incongruous to introduce him as Elijah then never calling him that in the book. It's something explained about a dozen pages in and all that really matters for the story is that that's his name.

    Ellie is the main character but the focus is on their relationship, not on just on him growing up. Him growing up is the catalyst for change but it's not the story by itself.

    You are correct - Judith raised Ellie singlehandedly, including teaching him about faith. Ellie's father almost totally ignored him and everyone else in the church was too scared of breaking the rules to try teaching Ellie anything without being told to. The church isn't really a cult at least as most people think about them. They are a strict christian sect but they are closer to Jehovah's Witnesses than Branch Davidians. Nothing they teach would seem out of place to any other evangelical group, as such. The people who live in the church building itself are the churches monks and their lives are built around the benedictine model (peace, prayer and work). That's why there are no other children living inside the building; everyone but the prophet is celibate. As the first child ever born inside the building no-one has a clue what to do with Ellie. Almost all of them were quite fragile, unhappy people before they found the church (and took the opportunity to leave their lives behind) so for many of them Ellie feels like an intrusion; a reminder of the families they left outside. Mostly they just keep to their work and pretend he isn't there. There is a wider church membership outside the building across the country and as far as those followers are concerned they are just like any other little evangelical offshoot banding around a charismatic central figure. They have rules to stick to and adhere strongly to the idea of 'making themselves separate' (as Jehova's Witnesses and some Baptists and Presbyterians do) but they don't feel their church is different particularly to any other they have known. They really don't believe anything weird; they just celebrate their faith in a different way. Ellie's father is absolutely not a prophet; he's a charismatic huckster with an eye for a quick buck, and that's why the church isn't especially weird. As long as people send him money he isn't too fussed about making them drink the koolaid. Hopefully that makes it clearer; again trying to compress this into less than a page is hellishly difficult.

    As I say; the story of the book is Ellie and Judith's relationship more so than anything else. I guess this is a case of trying to write a letter the way that everyone keeps saying you are supposed to instead of actually accurately explaining the book. Everyone says that you need a good strong hook or no-one is going to read it but in trying to do that I've clearly given you the wrong idea of what happens. Right from the get go their relationship is written to be unhealthily close, something that they both see as normal but to the reader stands out as weird. Judith's character development is accepting that Ellie was never really her child, starting to see him as a young man and and discovering that she can be happy without being a mother; that runs the whole length of the book in parallel to Ellie's growth.

    You are absolutely right about which of those points the book is about (at least it is pseudo-incestuous) and I agree with you that it's not something to hide away. I wasn't trying to do that, more just trying to tell the story as the story happens. I have absolutely no idea how to put that story point into the top line of the pitch, or even anything close to it

    There's actually fewer things going on in the book than you might imagine. It's complicated, sure, but it's very focused on the relationship. There's a lot of things being touched on in the pitch that really are just scenery, things that are there to set the scene that aren't much to do with the story. I suppose that means I need to trim those bits off because just having them in this very sternly abridged format gives them as much prominence as the actual story itself.

    Thanks for taking the time. Seriously appreciated.
     
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2016
  4. Tenderiser
    Offline

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2015
    Messages:
    4,281
    Likes Received:
    5,150
    Location:
    London, UK
    I feel your pain. How do you condense 110,000 words into 300?! The best advice I got is:
    • The pitch doesn't have to reflect the book totally accurately. It shouldn't be completely different but you can use a bit of poetic license. Thanks to @BayView for that one.
    • The purpose of the query is to get the agent/publisher to want to read your manuscript. Thanks mostly to QueryShark for that one. This follows on from point one - if you need to bend things a little to make it sound a more enticing read, then do it, as long as you aren't setting up false expectations.
    • Choose one character and focus on their conflicts, challenges and goals. In your case, Judith's backstory should hardly feature at all. Her being infertile is relevant, because it explains her attachment to her adoptive son, but you can literally call her "Ellie's infertile adoptive mother" and that's all the backstory we need.
    If I were you, I'd try a version that goes:

    Para 1 - 2/3 sentences setting up why Ellie has an unhealthy relationship with his mum (her infertility, he was raised in a cult, she was the only one who bothered with him)

    Para 2 - How his whole world changes when he leaves the cult - the inciting incident.

    Para 3 - Kissing his mum. Leave the agent thinking "where the hell do they go from there?"

    Just a suggestion.
     
  5. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    I think that does put quite a different spin on things - Trying to dial in to focus on the most critical stuff alone to get a striking image that fits inside 300 words probably is a better idea than trying to cram the whole story into that space.

    Looking at it from that perspective I suppose that what I've been doing has been (in broad terms) getting a bit too caught up in the context. For whatever reason I always seem to focus on why their relationship is quite so tight even though that's established long before the plot is actually set. It doesn't help that Judith is by far a more interesting character for me. Both of them really are damaged by the church but Ellie has never known anything better and, if you want to look through that kind of lens, he is almost literally Jesus (son of god; reforms the old faith; he kicks moneymakers out of the church). There's plenty of depth to him; this sweet, quiet, nervous kid with all this power being forced to grow up very quickly and encountering a whole lot of things for the first time. But his conflicts are very external as he butts heads with the world where Judith's are very much internal and thus much more interesting to me. Perhaps that more than anything is why she is always where I choose to start.

    Still; I cut a hundred thousands words out of this; I can get it down to 300.
     
  6. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    Something that just occurred to me that may well be screwing with me - As I mentioned in passing the first chapter is the night when Ellie and Judith first meet. That's where we get most of Judith's backstory as well as the set-up for the church. It's from her perspective and it's a really beautifully sad chunk of writing (if I do say so myself) and I'm really happy that this is the first thing anyone looking at a sample will see. I think it really sells the overall mood of the book as well as getting across very concisely the relationship they form. I think as a result I've been trying to write a pitch that leads well into that first scene, at least so it's recognizably the same story.

    Should this be a thing I care about at all? I mean, even just in a 30 page sample you'll get a good chunk from Ellie's perspective as a teenager, just as he takes over the church so maybe it's not a problem but I could definitely use another perspective.
     
  7. Tenderiser
    Offline

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2015
    Messages:
    4,281
    Likes Received:
    5,150
    Location:
    London, UK
    I feel like I'm monopolising your thread, but since nobody else has answered - from what I've read, this isn't a problem. Queries should be from one POV, even when there are multiple in the book, and it doesn't have to be the Chapter 1 POV.

    What I would recommend is that in the query, you state it's dual perspective. Perhaps in the 'housekeeping' line - "Children of God is a 110,000-word literary novel told from both Judith and Ellie's perspectives" or "...told from multiple perspectives" or however you want to phrase it. That way, the agent won't find it odd when they start off with Judith's POV.
     
    Lifeline likes this.
  8. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    I think you're probably right. While that first chapter clearly isn't in Ellie's voice it's still very clearly part of his story so just a few words to make people expect to see another perspective should be enough. They meet on the first page so it's not like they have to get through a bunch of exposition about someone else to get to him.

    Don't feel bad about monopolizing the thread; just talking it through is really helpful to me.
     
  9. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    Ok, take 2.

    ---START---

    Ellie is a prophet. He's fifteen and grew up in the cult his father founded. He knows god doesn't talk to him but he didn't want to let anyone down. When his father dies Ellie is left to run the church. He's just a kid who never went to school or had a friend but now he's a religious idol, suddenly responsible for the lives of hundreds of people and no-one can ever tell him no.

    No-one ever prepared Ellie to take over the church. He never knew his mother and his father ignored him. He was raised single handed by Judith, one of the church's followers. She couldn't have children and raised Ellie like her own, teaching him everything he knows.

    Ellie has to grow up quickly just to keep the church running but he's still a teenager and all he really wants is to fall in love. He begins to meet new people but they only care that he's the prophet and don't want to get to know Ellie as a person. But there is someone he starts to have feelings for, the only person who ever loved him for him. It just feels so natural to him when he tries to kiss Judith.

    Children Of God is an 110,000 world literary novel about Ellie and Judith's relationship told from both of their perspectives. The plot covers eight months as Ellie takes over the church and becomes a young man which changes their relationship forever.

    ---FIN---

    This one is 247 words but I actually felt I was more stretching it out than anything. Not sure if that's a bad thing or not. I had a version that was a very slender 180 words (it doesn't take long to say 'Ellie is a prophet, Judith is his mother, he grows up and falls in love with her') which was certainly very focused but I don't know if that actually helps anything to make it so much less than the standard kind of 300ish words.
     
  10. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,583
    Likes Received:
    5,068
    I think if you're presenting it as a literary novel, you need to make the query sound a bit more literary. This is very prosaic (clear, but not exciting) writing, which doesn't seem to match the "literary" label.

    It also feels like most of this is backstory. What happens in the book itself? He meets some people and falls in love. What's the conflict? Where's the drama?
     
  11. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    Are you talking about the first one? Or the second one?
     
  12. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,583
    Likes Received:
    5,068
    Second.
     
  13. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    Ok the point here is he's in love with his mother. And yes, they are going to get together. The whole thrust of the book is exploring why.

    I can slim down the back story but the scene needs to be set for it to make sense. I can put more plot in but I thought the point of these letters was to hook someone's interest and I think tenderiser is right that having that reveal that he fancies his mother is the best thing to hook around.
     
  14. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,922
    Likes Received:
    5,458
    I agree that the prose is very clear and simple--probably too clear and simple, and I say that as someone who likes simplicity.

    Also, I think that "Ellie" being "he" is going to be very, very distracting. Is there a reason why he can't be "Elijah" in the query?
     
  15. LostThePlot
    Offline

    LostThePlot Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2015
    Messages:
    431
    Likes Received:
    343
    I'll have to think about how to make it more I guess... Evocative? If that's the right word. Am I looking to talk about how he feels or his motives or what he does or what? I know that sounds kinda obvious but I really don't know if I should be saying Ellie is sad and lonely or what really.

    He can be Elijah in the pitch. I refreshed my memory on the first chapter and it does introduce the thing with his name the first time he appears so it'll fit ok. It still feels weird to me, since he's always Ellie in the book but it will make sense to a new reader. It bugs me a bit because him having a girls name is something that comes up quite a few times but I can understand why it'll be simple that way.

    One more specific question - Is it clear enough that the book is about him and his mother (and thus that the book is about taboos and transgressing societal norms and exploring why we revile such relationships even if they are happy and consentual) or does it need firmer sign posting? If someone is going to pay attention to it it'll be because it's exploring this weird, dark area from a different perspective and if someone misses that (as @BayView did) then they aren't going to be interested.
     

Share This Page