1. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Query Letter The Submissions Department,

    Discussion in 'Query & Cover Letter Critique' started by Selbbin, Mar 25, 2014.

    I still have to create the synopsis, but this is the summary for the query letter to an agent that I will be submitting to shortly. The letter needs to be as damn well perfect as possible. I'll skip the writing background paragraph. This is just the opening and summary. It is addressed exactly as per their official requirements.


    The Submissions Department,

    I am pleased to submit the first three chapters from my 63000 word literary fiction manuscript entitled, Martyr; an often brutal story about a homeless girl fighting to earn love and acceptance.

    Soon after running away from her neglectful mother, fourteen-year-old Mykhaila Podrebinsky survived horrific abuse at the hands of a scheming Junky. Now suffering from anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, she has a tense relationship with Dan, an overweight security guard who lets her sleep in the cemetery on the grave of her identical twin, who died just after birth. When not with Dan, Mykhaila cares for neglected and lonely souls in a poverty ravaged neighborhood dubbed Needle Town, using Mother Teresa and her late grandfather Yosyp as inspiration. A Ukrainian academic, Yosyp worked as a Gulag guard before moving to the west as a human-rights campaigner, encouraging Mykhaila’s love of books and learning. Craving love and acceptance, Mykhaila daydreams of a wealthy girl she sees in a café every week, fantasizing about an intimate, beautiful relationship. She is naturally attracted to girls, but is too scared to make a move. Mykhaila’s fragile world quickly falls apart when Dan drags her into the same nightmare that she managed to escape. When he struggles to accept his own darkness and commits a gruesome suicide in front of Mykhaila, she is weakened to the point where she loses faith in humanity, love, and mostly importantly, herself. Consumed by hopelessness, she sees only one way to escape. The story is primarily told in first person, with splashes of second and third.
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    That's a heavy story. I have no expertise in query letters so I'm interested in the replies you get. My first purely uninformed impression is there are a few too many details. So I await to hear what people who actually know what they are talking about have to say.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it's too long for a query summary... and wordy, so paring it down to essentials is essential...

    as i'm a professional nit-picker, i have to mention that the word total needs a comma and the semicolon should be a comma... and if 'junky' is the word and not the person's name, it should have no capital... neither should 'gulag' as it's only a common noun... of course, if some of those things are done differently down under and you are querying an australian agent, not an american one, then i will stand corrected on my corrections...

    also, it's not your place to deem your work 'literary' quality [it's not a genre] and 63k is too short for a first novel by a new and unknown writer... again, unless it's ok there and you're seeking publication in australia...
     
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  4. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Thanks Maia. Yeah, it's way too verbose, which is part of my reason to post here. I need to strip out more and leave the details for the synopsis. Still not sure what to rip out though.

    I'm seeking an Australian agent with international reach, with one in particular.

    I think it's OK here to describe it as literary as we tend to use that instead of drama. But I'm going to rip that out to be safe. You make a good point and it's best to be safe.

    The capitalized junky was a dumb typo, but Gulag is correct. The Gulag is used for the system as a whole and is not a common noun. There was only one Gulag. It began as the name of the government body that was in charge of running the prison camps, based on acronyms. So while people think that Gulag means a prison camp, it actually refers to the government body and the group of camps as a whole, which the historical references I've used, such as The Gulag archipelago and Gulag: A History, always capitalize. As does good old Wikipedia. Perhaps I need to rephrase the sentence.

    I'm not worried about the length, and luckily this isn't my first rodeo. It is my first attempt at snaring an agent, but that should be made easier now that I have a feature produced and sold and been published in print before.

    Thanks again! I'll make some adjustments.
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2014
  5. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Agreed. I need to strip it down. Ideas?
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm responding as a reader, not as anyone with any experience with query letters. Some comments:

    - In the US, the word would be "junkie". Are you sure about your spelling?

    - Also, I most often see it as obsessive-compulsive disorder. That is, with the dash and without capitals.

    - Something feels faintly circular about the "shortly after...survived..." I might rephrase it as: ...ran away from a neglectful mother only to encounter an abusive..."

    - Expanding that same concern, I feel that the summary needs to be focused on a tighter theme--right now, it seems to be a somewhat un-linked sequence of ideas. Is the plot about her desperate desire for human connection, so desperate that she goes from one dysfunctional connection to another? Is it about her desperate need to feel like a good person after she loses the one person who valued her in her childhood? Or something else? Mental illness? Unresolved grief?

    The details that you remove would be determined by that focus. For example, the OCD doesn't seem relevant to either of my two main ideas, and neither does the guard's overweight status, or even the guard's connection to the grave. The twin's grave seems relevant to the need for a human connection, but not to the need to see herself as a good person.

    The grandfather should, I think, be introduced earlier but much, much more briefly; unless there's some sort of prison or migration theme, we don't need to care that he was a guard or that he migrated. I would see him as either a lost relationship (on the human contact side) or someone who valued her (the good person side).

    And so on. I may be misunderstanding what this sort of letter is supposed to be like, but it seems to me that the concepts need to be tied together in a clearer structure.

    - Also, the title Martyr doesn't seem to fit much of the summary. If you are going for the "good person" side, perhaps to a rather extreme extent where she actually seeks to suffer as part of her good deeds, it might fit.
     
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  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Just an idea from out in left field here, but have you had any beta readers read the entire MS?

    If so, they might have an idea of what they think stands out most about your story, and which of these details that @ChickenFreak mentioned may not be vital to a synopsis.

    As the writer, you might be too close to this, at least right now.

    I know I have nightmares, thinking about trying to make a synopsis of my novel. I really can't see how to condense it down to a paragraph or two. I will definitely be looking for input from my own betas, when the time comes.
     
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  8. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Hmmmm, I really need to start from scratch.

    It's spelt differently here. Burroughs' book is spelled both Junkie and Junky depending on where you buy it.

    I'll probably change that one.

    Yep. It's shit. It needs revision.

    Absolutely.

    That's an excellent idea. I'll review the main points and remove the irrelevant details.

    Again, good ideas. Thanks.

    It just needs to grab their interest enough to read the sample chapters. And while the title is relevant to the story, for exactly the reason you describe, it's not vital and a publisher can change it to whatever they like.
     
  9. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    There have been, but not in the way that is useful. I was pitching the story to a reader and that was useful. I am too close though and asking a few beta readers what elements seemed strongest and most interesting might be the silver bullet.
     
  10. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Hmmm... looking over successful query letters, and a useful website that does public reviews and edits of query letters for people who need help, I think it's best this one is started from scratch.
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I'd start with what your story is about, not the details, that's how you told the story not what the story is. What is the story you wanted to tell? I hear myself in your query letter when people ask me what my book is about. I don't have an answer for you because I'm still working it out for me.

    I know how I'm telling my story, that's the synopsis. But if you just wanted to know what the story is about, that would be my protag's inner conflict, it's the society's conflict imposed on it's members. And it's how my protag grew and how she impacted the society, and where she failed, or did she?

    I don't have my own answers yet, but they're in there. They're in that story I'm telling, I just need to articulate them in a way that communicates what I know I feel, what I know I want to do with this story but can't yet quite verbalize.
     
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  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Query letters are hard to write, and I think this is why. Unless your story is written to fit a formula, it's difficult to articulate the exact reason it exists—and that reason is what you need to tell a prospective agent.

    You want the story to do its own job. You want to say: "Read The Damn Thing. If I'd wanted you to figure it all out in two paragraphs, I'd have written just two paragraphs...grrr..."

    Of course that's not how it works. So you grit your teeth and 'condense' it as much as possible. But that doesn't really work either. It then becomes a boring exercise in 'telling,' which doesn't engage a reader's attention at all.

    I suppose the best thing is to read the 'blurbs' on the back of any book you buy. In essence, that is what needs to go into a query letter. The kind of 'blurb' that makes the potential reader (or agent) want to buy the book. Study what is said and what isn't said.

    Maybe it would help to write 'blurbs' for other books you've read, just for practice? Pick 10 of your favourite books and pretend you're writing a query letter for them. How do you encapsulate the 'meaning' of the book in a way that grabs attention? I'll probably try doing this myself.

    In any case, even if you self-publish, you'll need to create a blurb for your book, so you might as well play around with it. I think you've done a great thing, putting your effort up on the forum, @Selbbin. It's a good way to get feedback on whether it works or not. And the best thing is—nobody needs to have read your book in order to give this kind of feedback. In fact, it's probably better that they haven't. That's the whole point.
     
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2014
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  13. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Ok, this is what I have now:

    Exploring the dark side of human nature and the struggle for good to prevail, Martyr is the story of Mykhaila Podrebinsky; an idealistic fourteen-year-old runaway. Despite growing up neglected by her alcoholic mother and experiencing months of sexual abuse at the hands of a scheming junky, she firmly believes in forgiveness. Inspired by her late grandfather, a Gulag guard in Siberia before moving to the west as a human-rights activist, Mykhaila spends her days caring for neglected and lonely souls in a crime ravaged neighbourhood dubbed Needle Town. But greed and desire constantly undermine her values, through Mykhaila’s own actions and those of the men who exploit her. After witnessing a gruesome suicide she loses heart and reaches a point of helplessness that may leave her with only one option to find peace.
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think this is basically very good, but there's still a little too much backstory detail, in my opinion. This is the kind of detail that's not well-absorbed from an introductory blurb. I feel it's better to focus on the forward thrust of the story, rather than backstory, when writing a blurb.

    The reason I've included the name of the city is I feel it's necessary to know if the story takes place in the USA, Russia, Europe, etc. And the name of her grandfather should nail Mykhaila's ethnic background (if his surname is the same as hers, we'll know he's her paternal grandfather ...if not, it's probably her mother's father), without swamping us with detail about what he did before coming to the 'west.'

    So...

    ......................

    Exploring the dark side of human nature and the struggle for good to prevail, Martyr is the story of Mykhaila Podrebinsky; an idealistic fourteen-year-old runaway (in what city?) Despite growing up neglected and abused, she firmly believes in forgiveness. Inspired by her late grandfather (name?), a human-rights activist, Mykhaila spends her days caring for neglected and lonely souls in a crime-ravaged neighbourhood dubbed Needle Town. But greed and desire constantly undermine her values, and after witnessing a gruesome suicide she loses heart and reaches a point of helplessness that may leave her with only one option to find peace.

    .......................

    It's bloody hard, isn't it? Reducing an intricate plot and multi-dimensional characters to a couple of sentences. Aargh. I hate doing this!
     
  15. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Thanks. :) I really like your brevity. That's getting there and very helpful. It reads much better without that grandfather back-story as you suggest. It's frustrating that after all the sweating over the query letter this is still the best I've been able to do!

    The city is fictional in a way so is never named, which is a bit of an issue. Hopefully the content is vague enough that it could be any number of western nations. Or I'm just being idealistically naive.
     
  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, right. I didn't know you hadn't named the city. Well, never mind, just leave it out. It's just that I did wonder, especially after learning her grandfather had moved 'to the west' from a specific locale (Siberia.) I just assumed there was a 'real' destination you were writing about.

    I've been working on and off on my own query letter/blurb thingy. My main character has a lot of background, ethnic and otherwise, that is pertinent to the story ...but I've veering around to the idea that I'll just not make it an issue in my blurb. It's what he does when it all gets going—and the consequences of what he does—that makes the story. I think I'll focus on that, rather than the setup.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
  17. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I guess we need to remember that the ONLY function of the query letter is to get people reading the submitted chapters/manuscript. So all those details will eventually be discovered, but may not be needed as selling points. It's interesting, because they seemed so important until they were cut out.
     
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  18. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ...it's better, but still too wordy... can be pared down considerably by taking out the fillers and fluff...
     
  19. Alix465
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    Alix465 Banned

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    While query letters vary a little depending on who the agent is (and their guidelines) and what type of book you’re writing (novel, nonfiction, poetry, etc.), there are many elements that remain the same. That’s why I’ve developed this list of dos and don’ts to help you navigate what’s really important to include in your pitch and, also, what should be avoided at all costs.
     
  20. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Urgh. It's still shit. I'm really struggling with summarizing my story. I don't actually know what the most important bits are!



    The Submissions Department,

    I am pleased to submit for your consideration three chapters from my 63 000 word fiction manuscript, Martyr.

    Despite growing up neglected and abused, thirteen year old street kid Mykhaila Podrebinsky firmly believes in forgiveness. Inspired by her late grandfather, Yosyp, a human-rights campaigner, Mykhaila spends her days caring for discarded and lonely souls in a crime-ravaged neighbourhood referred to as Needle Town. But greed and desire constantly undermine her values, and after witnessing a gruesome suicide she loses heart and reaches a point of helplessness that may leave her with only one option to find peace.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2014

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