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Query Saturday: No. 1 Brokeback 1919

Inspired by the Fangs, Fur and Fantasy Query festival, we are offering up the first of who knows how many queries for Query Saturday.   The query is anonymous.   Anyone is welcome to comment.   Published authors may do so under their own name or anonymously.   Readers, though, the way that I look at it is this:   If this were on the back of a book, would you buy it?   If you would, what interests you?   If not, what would make you pick it up?

  ****

I’m attaching my 115,000-word manuscript, Whistling in the Dark, for your consideration. The story is a romance set in 1919, about two men who survive the war, to find themselves struggling to cope with life in the aftermath.

Sutton Albright survives a brief stint in the Great War, but comes home with an injury which derails his hoped-for career as a concert pianist. Returning to college, he becomes entangled in an affair with a teacher and after refusing to reveal the man’s name, is expelled from school. Believing his father will try to dictate his future if he goes home, he runs to New York to live life on his own terms.

While fighting overseas, Jack Bailey loses his parents to influenza. He hopes to save his family’s failing novelty shop by starting a program on the radio, a new medium on the brink of becoming something more than a novelty, itself. When Sutton loses his job, Jack gives him a place to stay. Sutton takes up the piano again to play on the radio for Jack. As Jack and Sutton’s feelings for each other grow, Jack fears he will lose a homesick Sutton to his family back in Kansas. Complicating matters are old boyfriends, a back-stabbing childhood pal, and a bootlegger who’d like to turn Jack’s shop into a nightclub-‘not to mention the shellshock Jack’s dealing with and the grief he isn’t.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

40 Comments

  1. Richard Dickison
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 00:23:15

    Hold on here! The Great War??? Complicating matters are old boyfriends???

    That’s seeing a lot of action (both in battlefield and every guy they date) for such a repressed time period too. I thought people spent more time in the same place back then with maybe one big adventure in their lives? Not to mention… How many guys are you dating in a small town before you start being called a Man-Ho?

    You know reading this thing will have you suddenly launching into song.

    So it’s the laaaaaaughteeeer
    We will reeeeememmmmmber
    Whenever we reeeeememmmmmber…
    The way we weeeeeere…
    *cast arm over face and emote*

  2. stephanie feagan
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 00:50:45

    Aw, lighten up, Richard. (Or are you mostly teasing? Hard to tell online.)I think it sounds like a good read. There’s a certain element of suspension of disbelief necessary to buy in, but I could get there with this storyline. I really like the radio aspect.

    I’m curious, however, if most of that first paragraph is backstory? Or are these things that take place within the story? If so, and if it’s supposed to be a romance, it’s going to take a long time for these two to meet up – and nothing makes me more batshit crazy than romances where the principals don’t meet until the middle of the book.
    If this is more literary, or mainstream, then okay, no problem.

    Overall? Good query. But I’m always easy, so I’ll be curious to see what others say.

    Stef, who has no life on a Friday night…pitiful, just pitiful

  3. Jane
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 00:51:36

    First, is it me or is the manuscript really long? I thought the average book was around 100,000 words? The title Whistling in the Dark seems almost too lighthearted for a romance about two men who survive war and are coping with the aftermath.

    Is the Great War the first World War?

    Complicating matters are old boyfriends, a back-stabbing childhood pal, and a bootlegger who'd like to turn Jack's shop into a nightclub-‘not to mention the shellshock Jack's dealing with and the grief he isn't.

    This makes it seem almost too complicated. I am not a great purchaser of m/m books but I have to wonder with a historical setting whether you can deal with all of that – the old boyfriends, the backstabbing friends, the bootlegger, the PTSD as well as the social stain around being a homosexual. I remember the famous Oscar Wilde trial that took place at the turn of the century and the suggestions that after the trial, public sentiment turned against same sex relationships, of any nature.

  4. Anon
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 01:18:17

    Actually the average romance is 85-90 now, I think.

    To be honest, despite the fact that it’s man-on-man romance right after WWI, I think it sounds boring. Where’s the big conflict? Where’s the sweeping romance? I want more.

    Jack sounds slightly more interesting than Sutton (who sounds dry as toast) but still wouldn’t win me over. I wouldn’t pick this up.

  5. Janine
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 02:03:08

    The setting sounds very interesting, but I agree on the need for more conflict and for clarity with regard to how much of this is backstory.

    I also want to comment on the writing style, which I know is a subjective thing. Sentences beginning with gerunds tend to annoy me. This query has two in a row with this same structure:

    Returning to college, he becomes entangled in an affair with a teacher and after refusing to reveal the man's name, is expelled from school. Believing his father will try to dictate his future if he goes home, he runs to New York to live life on his own terms.

    I don’t mean to seem unkind and I’m genuinely saying this to help. The rhythms of these two sentences, one after another, make me want to stop reading. Again, I know this is subjective, but I would prefer more variety in sentence construction — a different structure altogether to at least one of these two sentences.

    Personally, I would refrain from purchasing the book not only because of the plot issues mentioned above but because the rhythms of these two sentences are a clue to me that I’m not likely to enjoy this writer’s voice.

    Again, I hope this helps.

  6. Janine
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 02:05:20

    Is the Great War the first World War?

    Yes, that’s what the war was called back then.

  7. Bev Stephans
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 02:17:41

    As a reader, I wouldn’t buy it based on the blurb on the back cover. Too long, too boring!

  8. Janine
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 02:45:46

    In addition to a more polished writing style, I think this query also needs more cohesion. The setting sounds wonderful and the characters have potential to be interesting. But right now the story sounds too episodic, and I feel that I don’t really know what it’s about. What is keeping Sutton and Jack apart? Right now it sounds like this:

    Jack fears he will lose a homesick Sutton to his family back in Kansas

    But if this is the main conflict, it’s buried under a lot of backstory and side characters, which makes it sound like a minor detail. The query needs to be focused around a central conflict in my opinion, and it needs to be a compelling one.

    So I would say: figure out what the central conflict is, and put it front and center.

  9. SusanL
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 03:32:52

    I think the plot has potential.

    I am curious as to why the author chose to set this story post WWI instead of WWII. IIRC, post WWII was the time when same sex relationships became somewhat more, more —– help me with a word here —– Evident? Open? Recognized? Public? And even then, only in larger metropolitan areas. My history may be completely off, but it seems like this storyline might play better after WWII.

  10. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 06:30:48

    Personally, I would refrain from purchasing the book not only because of the plot issues mentioned above but because the rhythms of these two sentences are a clue to me that I'm not likely to enjoy this writer's voice.

    My problem wasn’t with the rhythm of the sentences, but with the word-choices. The outcome would be the same, though, as it would suggest to me that “I'm not likely to enjoy this writer's voice.”

    derails his hoped-for career as a concert pianist. Returning to college, he becomes entangled

    First you’ve got Jack’s career being described as a train which goes off the tracks. Jack presumably gets out of the derailed train and promptly becomes entangled in something. One metaphor here would be acceptable, but to have two in such close proximity begins to look like carelessness (to paraphrase Lady Bracknell).

    I also noticed this: “he runs to New York.” I very much doubt he really does.

  11. Jackie
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 07:17:28

    Keep in mind that back cover copy is different from a query letter. A query needs to be short and to the point. Its purpose is to convince the agent (or, if going directly to the publisher, the editor) to read the partial. It’s not a synopsis. It’s a hook — and that’s it.

    While I think this is a good draft for a brief synopsis (or possibly for back cover copy), it’s too long for a query. The first thing you should do is figure out your elevator pitch. If you were in an elevator with an agent/editor, and you had about 10 seconds to answer “So what’s your book about?” how would you answer? Once you have this pitch down flat, you have the hook for your query. Then it’s a matter of writing a tight paragraph that makes the agent/editor absolutely want to read the first few pages.

    Some specifics about this query:

    Length. I think Jane is correct about 115,000 words being too long. Unless you’re writing fantasy, which this clearly isn’t, anything over 100,000 words for a debut author is risky. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, of course. But keep in mind that at 115,000, you may be limiting yourself to a very small number of agents/editors who are willing to give a doorstopper book a shot.

    Audience. While your copy is hinting at literary fiction, I’m not 100% clear who the audience is for the book. You may want to name one or two bestselling authors whose work this would be shelved with — “TITLE would appeal to fans of AUTHOR and AUTHOR.”

    Closer. You don’t really end the copy; it simply stops. You need to end the query (the meat of it, anyway–the part about the book) on a WOW of a high note. Again, the sole purpose is to pique the agent’s/editor’s interest enough to make him/her request a partial.

    You’re off to a good start. There are some interesting concepts here. Figure out your hook and your audience, and then I think you’ll be on your way.

  12. Erastes
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 07:27:09

    I would certainly buy it, but then I’m probably the biggest flag waving encourager for gay historical fiction and any addition is a bonus. I’d want to read and review it for Speak Its Name.

    Plotwise it sounds a little like The Boy I Love by Marion Husband, but I’d certainly give it a read. But there are biggish issues here, and I wouldn’t want them swept over.

    As to the query itself, it’s ok – covers the salient facts, a query is a different animal to a book blurb, after all. It could be a little sharper, and needs a bit of a rewrite. The ending line is a little peculiar.

    not to mention the shellshock Jack's dealing with and the grief he isn't.

    Why mention something he’s not dealing with unless he’s repressing it, and in that case make it clearer.

  13. Nora Roberts
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 07:32:58

    I don’t know from queries, but on word count my mm originals tend to run about 115-120,000 words and hardcovers come in at about 150,000.

    So it doesn’t seem long to me.

  14. Tumperkin
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 07:47:55

    Honestly? I wouldn’t pick this up. It’s not the story itself, but the way the story is summarised, that suggests to me that it’s going to lack something – oomph, is the best way I can describe it.

    I worry that the pace of the action is going to be slow and that the story (with the various side-plots referred to) is going to lack focus on the main protaganists. Also, I’m assuming (since this was sent to Dear Author) that the author anticipates this being marketed as a romance – but this doesn’t read like a description of a romance.

    Frankly something much briefer that just alludes to the various plot elements would be more enticing to me. For example:-

    “Sutton Albright flees to New York City in 1919 to escape the scandal that has seen him expelled from college. Homeless and unemployed, he meets and is inexplicably drawn to Jack, a shell-shocked fellow-survivor of the Great War. Passion flares between Sutton and Jack but can they overcome their demons to find lasting happiness together?”

    Now THAT I might pick up and have a closer look at.

  15. Jackie
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 08:01:29

    I don't know from queries, but on word count my mm originals tend to run about 115-120,000 words and hardcovers come in at about 150,000.

    So it doesn't seem long to me.

    Yes, but you’re not a first-time novelist. ;)

  16. Sara
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 08:22:54

    Also, I'm assuming (since this was sent to Dear Author) that the author anticipates this being marketed as a romance – but this doesn't read like a description of a romance.

    Tumperkin, I agree with you. I’d think this would end up with literary fiction, where the descriptions of the historical period are more central than the relationship. I still might be interested in the novel, I just wouldn’t be expecting the genre conventions of a romance from that description.

  17. DS
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 08:59:11

    Too much detail I think. I started asking myself questions as soon as I had read the second paragraph. “Brief stint”? Why? I wouldn’t need to know at this stage how long his war was. Also I started wondering about what sort of injury would end his concert piano career but would later let him play on the radio. Severe facial scarring? If his adjustment to that is part of the conflict then it would be worth it to mention it– scars have a long romantic history after all.
    Unless the teacher he has an affair with is going to make another appearance I would pretty well gloss over this also.

    However, it was on the edge of the Roaring Twenties and frankly not a repressed era at all in large metropolitan areas. While Paris was probably the place to be for sheer decadence, the US was not homogenous even then.

    I really like Charles Todd’s and the Annette Meyers series set post WW I.

  18. DS
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 09:16:13

    Oops, hit the wrong key and it posted.

    Anyway, would post out briefly decadence of era. Novelty shop sounds a little dull. Makes me think of the things that used to be advertised in the back of comic books– soap that stains your hands, joy buzzers, etc.

    There’s no real indication of sexual detail involved. As a general reader I might be interested in this as a romance or simply a novel. Badly done sex and I would probably give up– I do this with het romances also, but the last two books I read with erotic m/m content had sex scenes (both books) that a) did not engage me emotionally and b) (the book written by a woman) made me think she needed to do a little more research about m/m sex.

  19. Jia
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 09:24:19

    If this is a blurb for a query, I agree that it is too long and frankly, a bit boring. It lacks that certain punch that gets me excited and makes me want to read more.

  20. ChoptLiverz
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 09:37:38

    :waves:

    There is a They Fight Crime website that randomly creates a story seed. You get ridiculous combinations such as “He’s an immortal Jewish vagrant from the Mississippi delta. She’s a mistrustful nymphomaniac bodyguard who dreams of becoming Elvis. They fight crime!”

    The query is kind of like that. It reveals just enough to entice the agent/editor to ask for more.

    Your query, unfortunately, fails to create the sense of suspense. The novel typically has two conflicts: internal – a conflict within the character and external – the main conflict of the plot. The query marries those two conflicts, leaving a question in the reader’s mind.

    Frex Star Wars: there is an internal conflict of Luke becoming a Jedi and finding out the identity of his father and external conflict of the rebels fighting the Empire.

    Or Mr. Impossible: there is an external conflict of rescuing the brother and internal conflict of falling for Daphne falling for Rupert.

    So I ask you, what are your conflicts? What really prevents these two men from being together? What do they have to overcome, what obstacles lay in their way? If you comment and let me know, I will be able to better advise you on your query. As of now, I see no conflict. Just minor bumps along the way.

  21. Jill Sorenson
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 11:16:37

    Based on the query, I would be interested enough to read the first page and see if it grabbed me. Agree that the Kansas conflict is weak and would rather see the characters deal with society’s views about their (secret?) relationship than battle old boyfriends.

  22. Keishon
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 11:57:51

    As a query, it hooked me. I’d read it.

  23. Robin
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 13:20:40

    Complicating matters are old boyfriends, a back-stabbing childhood pal, and a bootlegger who'd like to turn Jack's shop into a nightclub-‘not to mention the shellshock Jack's dealing with and the grief he isn't.

    This is where the query began to take shape for me, and it’s the last sentence. I liked Tumperkin’s distillation paragraph because it provided a lot of conflict and emotion in a few sentences. In the query, though, the last clause is really the meat of things for me, and it’s introduced with what seems almost a throwaway phrase. Maybe starting with that last paragraph first, revising that and writing from there might push the conflict more directly.

    OTOH, I love the time period and the m/m aspect. They didn’t call WWI “The Great War” because it was a fabulous time, and I can imagine all sorts of riveting emotional and social issues these two would have to deal with in the aftermath of such a brutal war.

  24. Chicklet
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 13:22:38

    As a reader, I definitely would investigate this book further, but the sheer amount of elements listed in the query makes the book sound like it could be flabby. I don’t mean the word count necessarily, but more the lack of one or two central conflicts that would focus the story. There’s a lot going on here that would be interesting and/or necessary for a historical m/m romance, but I worry that all of them in one book might feel too long, without being an actual epic (where an author can get away with an episodic story structure).

    For my money, the real story is Sutton and Jack’s attempt to build a relationship within the society and culture of their time; their war experiences would provide emotional depth, and Jack’s attempts to save his parents’ legacy add to that. The old-boyfriend plot seems unnecessary and sounds too much like an element from a contemporary romance. I think the conflicts in this story should be mostly internal (between Jack and Sutton and within themselves) instead of external (old boyfriends, bootleggers, back-stabbing friends).

    But there’s definitely something worthwhile here, for my money. I’d be much more inclined to read it if the plot were streamlined a bit.

  25. Shannon Stacey
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 13:34:27

    I wasn’t going to comment because I personally don’t feel this is the right forum for this kind of thing, but I’m trying to figure out what the target market is.

    115k is considered long for new writers in the NY romance market, so in the very first paragraph there are three red flags for the editor—word count, gay romance and WWI. Add in an unknown author and it adds up to highly unmarketable.

    If it’s lit fiction or epublishing, then it’s a different story.

  26. Ciar Cullen
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 15:53:50

    Liked it, would buy it. Love the era, love the idea of someone breaking into to the new medium of radio. Would imagine it’s just the angst-ridden m/m stuff that would float my boat. A great cover would seal if for me.

  27. K. Z. Snow
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 18:29:23

    You got me at a vulnerable time. I just recently viewed Brokeback Mountain for the first time and read the Annie Proulx story, so I have a HUGE hankerin’ for some equally powerful gay romance.

    But, regarding this book, I’m not getting a strong sense of the central love story, much less the degree of its emotional punch. It sounds busy-busy-busy: too many seemingly extraneous plot elements and characters. In addition, I rarely if ever make book-buying decisions based on blurbs alone. I need to read an excerpt, get a sense of the author’s prose style, before I’ll bite…if I do.

    Nice, though, to see this seldomly explored historical period as a background.

  28. Marianne McA
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 19:10:44

    No, if that was on the back of the book I wouldn’t pick it up.
    I am buying books set in that time period, so that interests me.
    The fact that one of the protagonists has lost his family to influenza would be a selling point. It’s something I’ve wondered about – how people who survived the war coped with those losses at home.
    But there’s too much happening – concert pianist, novelty shop, radio programme and then the bootleggers… It almost sounds like a P.G.Wodehouse plot.

    I buy romance for the emotional journey, so the busy plot wouldn’t sell the book to me. Tumperkin’s synopsis would sell me the book (though I’d wince at the phrase ‘passion flares’ which I’d interpret as ‘too many sex scenes’).

  29. Robin
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 20:10:20

    I buy romance for the emotional journey, so the busy plot wouldn't sell the book to me.

    I like a well-developed, even complex, plot, but I have to be hooked by the way the plot is presented. For an author, I can imagine it must be a difficult balance making their ms appear novel enough to get noticed but genre enough to appeal to a wide audience. I mean, let’s face it: if you reduced most Romances down to their emotional journeys, there would be very few differentiations between books. But on the other hand, too much plotting detail can bury the emotional aspect or sound a bit kitchen sink-y. I like that the author here has a number of quirky plot details — count me as someone who liked the novelty shop aspect, for example — but that doesn’t mean I felt that the query itself was coherent in terms of creating a cogent flow of plot, character, and conflict. I think the author could recast that query with a lot of the original detail in a way that sounds much more compelling.

  30. Janine
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 20:15:00

    but that doesn't mean I felt that the query itself was coherent in terms of creating a cogent flow of plot, character, and conflict. I think the author could recast that query with a lot of the original detail in a way that sounds much more compelling.

    Agreed.

  31. Anon
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 21:56:57

    Not for me.
    Too long, and the story is too static sounding.
    Also, homosexuality was illegal then. Not a lifestyle choice. But the story sounds a bit tedious, although I have the feeling that’s mainly the blurb working against it.

  32. Leah
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 22:18:51

    I have to say that I probably would not be interested in a gay romance, because the topic seems a little “heavy,” but I found the time period interesting, the college episode interesting, as well as the back-stabbing friend. The big turn-off to me, really, was the bootlegging subplot–it just sounded too goofy. Also, just thinking about it, how many ex-boyfriends could there realistically be at this time?

    I have been a lurker for several weeks and have decided to come out of the shadows for “query Saturday.” It’s a great idea, and maybe I’ll get up the guts to submit one myself. I have read many times that a writer has to develop a thick skin–and this would start one! I love the site and have learned so much here already. Thanks to all!

  33. azteclady
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 23:37:15

    I would be interested in a m/m romance set in that time and place, but I’m not sure about all the elements cluttering the story.

  34. Dear Author’s Query 1919 « Speak Its Name
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 04:30:24

    […] Jump to Comments Dear Author have started to showcase Query Letters on a Saturday and this week they have a query regarding a m/m story based in 1919 New York.  The Query Letter itself needs a little work, but I think the story could be as good as any of […]

  35. Robin
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 11:26:05

    I would be interested in a m/m romance set in that time and place, but I'm not sure about all the elements cluttering the story.

    I think that’s why cover blurbs have so few plot details, lol. But isn’t the purpose of the query different, and therefore the amount of detail an author must provide (more summary, for example)? But with both you still have to “hook” your identified audience, be that reader, agent, or publisher.

  36. whey
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 12:01:25

    Historic M/M, I’m in. And the blurb is interesting until the last sentence. It makes me skeptical that the writer is going to focus on characterization and the relationship between the two main characters. Instead, they’re going to have a serious of events instigated by “bad guys” that they’ll have to respond to, when dealing with stigma of their relationship in that era (let alone falling in love), returning from a war (and dealing with mental/physical problems because of that), losing your family, embarking on a new, risky business… all of those seem like there’s more than enough for a lengthy book.

  37. snarkhunter
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 21:26:06

    I’d read it, absolutely. I agree with most of the comments on the style of the blurb, but I do have one quibble with my fellow commenters. Semi-closeted (as in “everyone knew, but no one talked about”) homosexuality was much, much more common in urban areas in the early twentieth century than anyone here seems to think. The Oscar Wilde trial, which happened during the last decade of the nineteenth century, was something of an aberration. While same-sex love was not socially acceptable by any stretch of the imagination (though it was, admittedly, more acceptable when it was f/f), it’s utterly naive to assume that no one had “ex-boyfriends” or experimented. In fact, in many ways the 1910s were a less repressed time than the one in which we live now. (Or maybe they were just repressed in different ways.)

  38. allison
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 11:28:30

    I agree with snarkhunter – m/m couples were much more common than thought. It just happened to be that no one acknowledged anything other than “special friends”. There are some amazing published photography collections that feature these couples.

    As for the blurb – I’m interested but, really, it sounds like too much going on and not enough space to take care of it. Give me one or two issues and I can see it. Add in the multiple careers for each all at the same time and I’m a bit lost about what’s important to the main story and what’s not.

    In addition – I have to agree that the bootlegger subplot sounds a bit hokey/contrived.

    The last bit (not to mention the shellshock Jack's dealing with and the grief he isn't.) sounds awesome and keeps me interested in following up on this one.

  39. Shannon Yarbrough
    Feb 10, 2008 @ 12:23:03

    Eh, definitely a little long for a manuscript about this subject matter. An editor will fix that.

    I think phrases like “to live life on his own terms” and “struggling to cope with life in the aftermath” are a little too generic and sound like a high school book report.

    And I agree with Jane, the last part makes it seem a bit too complicated.

    Good luck!

  40. Just when you thought my query posts had ended… « Shannon Yarbrough
    Feb 10, 2008 @ 12:23:57

    […] Just when you thought my query posts had ended… Thanks to my friends at a clever blog called Speak Its Name, I came across this post called Query Saturday at DearAuthor.com. […]

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