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Query Saturday: No. 4 For the Most Part

Welcome to Query Saturday. Individual authors anonymously send a query to be read and critiqued by the Dear Author community of authors, readers and industry others. 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: Would the hook itself interest you in reading the book. If yes, what interests you and if not, what would you change to make it more appealing?

***

Dear ________:

For the most part, what is it about Christmas that forces us to forget the weight of our daily stresses and ignore the complex quandaries of our lives, if even for just one day, to celebrate a traditional holiday with our families?

For the Most Part is a fictional story of the White Family Christmas. Lorraine White, recently widowed, is looking forward to spending a traditional holiday with her five children. Yet, each of her kids is wrestling with skeletons in their closet. Martin, the eldest and a school teacher, has had a short affair with a student who is now missing. Ellen, the oldest daughter, strives to save her marriage after having her name dragged through the newspapers for being sexually harassed by her boss, a county judge, and for the trial that followed. Travis, the middle child and the central character, is gay and mourning the loss of his longtime companion, Justin, who has died of brain cancer. Sebastian, the younger son, is a recovering drug addict haunted by a girlfriend who overdosed in his bed. And Clare, the youngest, is raising her biracial son, a product of rape. Despite the fragility of her children, Lorraine is not without conflict in her own life. Still clinging to fragments of the joy of yesterday, she begins dating a new man but has just discovered she has cancer. Doctors have given her eight months to live, but she refuses to tell her children now for fear of ruining what will be their last Christmas together.

As each character reveals their past while preparing for the upcoming holiday at home, they find themselves clinging to their family members for support and grasping for memories of the happier days that now seem so far away. Travis stresses over going to visit his dead lover’s parents, who in turn pray he will come visit because he is the last living memory of their son. Martin obsesses about the disappearance of his student being blamed on him, even though he had nothing to do with it. When her lewd boss dies in prison, Ellen can’t stop going to visit his grave, despite her husband’s wishes for them to get on with their lives. Clare discovers she’s adopted and wonders why the family is keeping it from her. Lorraine hopes they can all forget their past for just one night and have a meaningful Christmas, but when her new beau comes to spend the holidays with them, her peaceful evening quickly spins out of control and could tear her family apart forever.

Although my book takes place at Christmas, I do not consider it to be a holiday novel. I have written it to be more like a family saga or fictional character study, as each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view. For The Most Part is my first book and complete at around 83,000 words. Several of my short stories have been published in anthologies by Alyson Publications, and two of my short stories are featured in the Amazon.com Shorts program. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Warm Regards,

Author

***

Interested in participating as an author or an aspiring author? Send your query to jane at dearauthor.com. All queries are kept confidential.

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

43 Comments

  1. My Cancer Treatments » Blog Archive » Query Saturday: No. 4 For the Most Part
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 04:49:05

    […] Cancer Questions and Answers wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

  2. Erastes
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 05:29:12

    As a query you need to give the publisher/agent the nuts and bolts stuff up front, so the end paragraph, modified suitably, needs to go at the top, under your teaser, with the biographical stuff at the bottom again. The publisher/agent will want to know that information first and will scan down (thereby possibly missing your plot) to find it.

    It doesn’t grab me as a plot line, but that’s not to its detriment, I know loads of people who this would appeal to, it’s just that I’m not into family sagas and Peyton Place type of things. It would probably make a good film! It’s all a bit too much unremitting angst for me, but it would be right up a lot of people’s alleys I’m sure. Good luck with it!

  3. Anji
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 06:37:04

    As a reader, it doesn’t draw me in, so I’m assuming/hoping that the backcover blurb would be more engaging. The description of the family’s issues doesn’t really grab me and make me care. And it just sounds like some of the family craziness that I go through at the holidays, ugh, so if it were to come out at the holidays, I’d be unlikely to buy it.

    Plus, the laundry list of characters with tragedies in their life is a bit overwhelming. I’d rather have the description focus on Lorraine and the family’s growth in general than each character. Or at least integrate the character description with their challenges in the same paragraph.

    It also makes me think of other family & holiday movies, such as The Family Stone, Home for the Holidays, and it makes me wonder what is new and different about this story? It needs to distinguish itself from other holiday family stories.

  4. (Jān)
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 08:02:26

    As a reader I’d roll my eyes at this one, because it sounds like every movie of the week rolled into one. I mean, the only thing missing is the veteran with PTSD, but it looks like the only character available to have another disorder is the family dog.

  5. Teddypig
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 08:16:56

    Next! On a very special Quincy M.E.

  6. Treva Harte
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 08:59:13

    I was about to say it’s not erotic enough and then stopped to think — oh, there are other genres out there. Then I thought again. I’m not sure what genre this is. Romance? Women’s fiction? An editor will want to know–and so would a reader.

  7. Laura Elliott
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 09:32:56

    I found it to be long and wordy. Somewhere between a query letter and a synopsis. I don’t think you need to list all the characters.

  8. Jia
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 09:33:05

    I agree that it would help to know what genre this is. Is it women’s fiction? Is it literary? You mention that it’s a family saga but that’s not really a genre.

    As a reader though, I wouldn’t pick up this book because it sounds so depressing. So many bad things happening to one family, none of whom I can tell apart because it’s one member listed after another and it’s too much at once to absorb.

  9. Jill Myles
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 09:36:18

    I am a very A.D.D. reader, so as soon as I saw the lack of white-space in the letter, I stopped reading. Break it up, author! People like me automatically glaze over and go into autopilot. :)

  10. Mireille
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 09:39:30

    As a reader, I wouldn’t pick this book up based on that description. There’s too much drama, and it’s all Big Drama–Lorraine’s not just coping with being widowed, but also with terminal cancer. Clare isn’t just a single parent, she’s a single parent whose child is the product of rape– and she’s just found out that she’s adopted. And so on. It’s just too much.

    Especially when I see the word count is only 83,000 words. Six big dramatic storylines in an 83,000 word book means that some things are just going to be glossed over, and that makes me wonder why they’re there in the first place.

  11. TrustMe_2_Forget
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 09:49:43

    Uhm…is this a Lifetime movie? I couldn’t read it, not with the problems EACH of her childen have in their lives!

  12. Rachel
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:20:15

    I think it’s a cute idea, but, yeah, the query is WAY too wordy. I had a query letter like this, and it got about 5 rejections before I sliced it to 250 words. That one actually generated some interest. So briefer is definitely better!

  13. JaneO
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:25:26

    This may sound very picky, but I hate the mixture of singular/plural pronouns (each is struggling…their closet). I know this is increasingly common, but you might hit an editor as old as I am who will automatically think WRONG and dismiss you as an incompetent. It will be safer to rewrite the sentences to avoid the problem -‘ but please, not by resorting to “his or her”!

  14. Jeaniene Frost
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:28:02

    First, kudos to you for being tough enough to open yourself up to a critique. Aside from the length (agent’s read so many things that their eyes are permanently glazed, so less is truly more with a query) the main concern I had is this: “each chapter is told from a different character's point of view.” So, then, there’s no main character? That makes it hard for me as a reader to pick this up, since I want a main character to root for. As you say, this could be called a fictional character study as much as a novel, since each character gets equal billing and the book is a compilation of profile sketchs of ALL the family members. As a reader, I tend to want to follow a main character (or a hero and heroine) through a main struggle/main resolution. Sure, there can be issues with other family members, and those issues would be subplots, but with so many characters and no definitive protagonist, I’d have a hard time reaching for this.

  15. Jill Sorenson
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:28:40

    I agree that the light word count doesn’t seem to match the heavy subject matter. The storyline reminded me of Party of Five, which might be a good thing. A lot of people like family drama. But a little too much tragedy and too many details for a query letter.

  16. snarkhunter
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:39:32

    Oh, good God. If the family dog dies at Christmas, I think you’ll have hit every imaginable tragic scenario.

    Honestly, I wanted to laugh while reading the query letter, which I think is probably not at all the response you were going for. It’s just too much. Too, too much. Maybe if, as someone said above, you focused more on Lorraine and less on the other tragedies–maybe if you let them develop throughout the book? I don’t know. All I can say is too much, too much, too much. Each of these stories might make for a very interesting novel on its own. As a single novel, I think its overwhelming.

  17. azteclady
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:55:45

    Despite the fragility of her children, Lorraine is not without conflict in her own life.”

    Huh? Since when is one a condition for the other?

    Having all the family members suffering from oh so horrible and melodramatic tragic shenanigans makes me think of Taylor Caldwell’s family sagas… As a reader, I wouldn’t look past the blurb.

  18. Bev Stephans
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:56:13

    As a reader, this wouldn’t grab me. Way too much drama. When you have this many problems, you need a strong character to pull them all together. This seems to be missing.

  19. Tamar Bihari
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 10:57:07

    (This is my first time commenting here…)

    It’s become a cliche to open a query with a question. Agents all over New York groan at the sight.

    Other than that, well, I agree with everyone else’s issues: this much angst and drama in one family strains credibility and reader interest. And the query synopsis is WAY too long! Kristin Nelson (I think — or Jessica Faust?) recommends no more than four or five sentences. Total.

    The book sounds like women’s fiction to me. I suggest you look at novels about groups of women and check out their back cover blurbs. I’m guessing they focus on four characters at most. And many don’t delineate the particulars of every character’s emotional issues in the summary. In any case, it sounds like you may want to give your manuscript to a painfully honest reader, asking if they stay invested or if it feels too soapy.

  20. Julie Leto
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 11:05:54

    Too much melodrama–does this family have NOTHING good in their lives? As a reader, I wouldn’t buy it. As a writer who has dealt with many queries, I can’t see an agent or editor asking for more when so much happens in so few words. And the mulitiple POV on top of it? Where’s the focus?

  21. Tracy
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 11:29:50

    I’m commenting as a reader, so I have nothing to say in regards to the actual query itself (specifics on how it’s written, etc)

    I don’t mind a good family drama. I actually think I would love to read about all of these people, but as a series. Where each character could get their own book. 83,000 words seems way too short to deal with all of the emotions etc with each drama.

  22. Moira
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 11:50:43

    Again (because every other query has had the same problem) the resolution of the book isn’t made clear in the query. The editor wants to know how the book ends.

  23. Diana Pharaoh Francis
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 12:18:17

    As Jeaniene said, kudos for opening yourself up to this. It’s going to up your odds of selling.

    First thing that struck me and it’s a hot button for many editors is the “fictional story” and “fictional character study.” That’s a given. Drop the fictional.

    Second, you do have to indicate what this is and how long the novel is. It’s a signal to the editor or agent that you understand the business.

    Third, yes. Too long. Too many names, too much going on. Get to the heart of your story and make it pop with energy and interest. I’d suggest getting it down to about 100-150 words.

    Fourth, if it’s set at Christmas, it’s a holiday story. That will be a marketing decision. Don’t try to argue against it now in your letter. If they buy it, you can try to get around it, but don’t worry about that one until it hits.

    Fifth, too many characters in here. Too much to keep track of. You want to slim this puppy down and distill it to the essence of the story. Make it compelling to a reader–and that means something here has to be particularly sympathetic very quickly. Because you don’t have a specific POV character, that can be difficult, but it can be done. Or just pick one for the purpose of the pitch: Martin has come home for Christmas, searching for the family haven that has always been there for him. He’s stupidly had an affair with a student who’s gone missing, and now Martin is the prime suspect. He’s about to lose everything that matters to him. But when he arrives home, the haven he expected is a cesspool of . . .

    Anyhow, good luck.

    Best,

    Di

  24. Kathleen
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 12:25:55

    I’m sorry, but this one rubs me the wrong way. You have a gay couple where one half of the pair is dead, and you have a biracial rape-baby…in a situation where the family’s last name is White. And I know you probably didn’t mean anything weird by it, but why on earth was it necessary to mention that the baby was biracial at all? A child being the product of rape is horrible enough, but it feels like you tacked the biracial part on there to make it even more melodramatic — the baby’s not just a product of rape, but it’s NOT WHITE EITHER! Oh no! — and I find that actually kind of offensive. You’re putting being biracial on the same tier as rape, which…no.

  25. Ann Aguirre
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 14:11:18

    The query is too long. Like Jill, I glazed over partway through. Queries should be lean. I also think there’s too much going on, plot-wise, too much melodrama.

    Mainly, this query lacks a solid hook. How is this project different than any other family saga? You need to make the agent want more, and the summary provided, despite its dense detail, did not accomplish that for me. If you can’t sum up the book in three sentences, then something is wrong.

    Finally, I think people forget that a query should be written in a manner that reflects authorial voice. This letter needs zing.

  26. Jessica Inclan
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 14:22:01

    Pretty much everyone has found everything I would say–but I did want to tell a tale of my own “Thanksgiving” novel, told in the POV of characters who were going to/at the holiday dinner. There a lot of drama–the past was revealed, old hurts and wounds revisited–and it went nowhere. Currently, it hangs in the C drive. Readers found it too intense. My agent really does not like to talk of it.

    So I would remove at least one of these plot points–and develop it into a much longer story.

    Jessica

  27. Anion
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 14:24:13

    Moira, a query does not need to say how a book ends. A query is designed purely to hook a readers’ (by which I mean an agent or editor) interest. The synopsis is where you need to say how a book ends, and that is a separate document.

    This sounds very Maeve Binchy-like to me. You should check and see how some of her books are blurbed.

    And yes, get rid of the question opening and the word “fictional”.

  28. Stephanie
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 15:23:43

    A lot of people have made suggestions with which I agree, including dropping the word “fictional” from the description of your work and putting the genre and word count information at the beginning of the letter. I might suggest downplaying the fact that this is your first novel; an agent or editor could probably deduce as much from the remaining information you include on your career. Also, you mention in your first synopsis paragraph that Travis is the novel’s “central character,” so why isn’t he the focus of your outline, rather than his widowed, long-suffering mother?

    As a whole, this novel sounds a bit too sudsy for my taste, so I can’t say the hook works for me.

  29. Moira
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 15:44:40

    Every professional source of information I’ve ever seen on writing queries state the need for describing how the story ends. As I clearly haven’t read everything ever written on the subject, I can’t say there is no website or reference book put together by professional writers or editors that says it’s ok not to say how the book ends, but given the great number of sources that stress the importance of including the ending, it seems like shooting yourself in the foot not to include it.

  30. meg
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 16:24:39

    Congratulations on finishing your novel!
    I think the query is too long & not to the point. I’d hook with one to two sentences (probably not a question), then follow up with a details of word count, genre, target audience.

    Then you could go back to saying something about your book but more briefly than what you have. Parts of this read like a synopsis or a plot outline, which is not what I think of as a query.

    The plot as a whole doesn’t grab me. It really sounds like a soap opera, & there are too many wounded people in it. I think in skilled hands, some of your plot points could be workable, and I also am not totally against the different POV/chapter but it does take the work out mainstream fiction & into literary fiction, which is a much harder sell. You mention success in short stories & I have to wonder if this book isn’t really a bunch of short stories pastiched together. And I simply cannot imagine wrapping all these storylines up successfully in 83K words.

    I hope that some of the comments here will help you. Kudos for being so brave to put your work out here for our input, & good luck!

  31. Diana Pharaoh Francis
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 16:38:36

    Moira~

    You’re right . . . if it’s a synopsis. But in the letter, what you want is to get the agent/editor interested in reading the manuscript and the synopsis. So here, it’s the hook that counts.

    Di

    Every professional source of information I've ever seen on writing queries state the need for describing how the story ends. As I clearly haven't read everything ever written on the subject, I can't say there is no website or reference book put together by professional writers or editors that says it's ok not to say how the book ends, but given the great number of sources that stress the importance of including the ending, it seems like shooting yourself in the foot not to include it.

  32. Elly Soar
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 17:40:55

    I was going to comment about the child of rape being biracial but I see Kathleen has already done it for me. I find it offensive that you have qualified that the only reason this girl had a biracial baby was because of rape; the implication is that otherwise this pure White (lol) family would never have anything to do with people of color! On another note I completely agree that this is way too many people in one family suffering – the book would be more interesting to me if it was the story of one person in the family who wasn’t suffering and how they could possibly cope with such a depressing family life during the holidays!

  33. Kit
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 18:03:52

    As a reader, I’d have put this back on the shelf without a second thought. It’s just too depressing! I don’t demand sunshine and flowers, but I need to feel like there’s even a speck of happiness, a bit of hope for the characters. Otherwise, what’s the point? It would mean getting attached to characters at their lowest points just to watch them sink lower. No, thank you.

  34. Anion
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 18:37:15

    Every professional source of information I've ever seen on writing queries state the need for describing how the story ends. As I clearly haven't read everything ever written on the subject, I can't say there is no website or reference book put together by professional writers or editors that says it's ok not to say how the book ends, but given the great number of sources that stress the importance of including the ending, it seems like shooting yourself in the foot not to include it.

    Would you mind listing some of those, if it’s not too much trouble? I’m really stunned that anyone would be giving that advice. I have never seen an agent say they want to know how the book ends from a query. I’ve never put the ending in any of my (successful) queries. I’ve never known anyone who put the book’s ending in their queries. I’ve never seen a sample query on an agent or writer’s website that gives away the ending. Kristin Nelson even specifically says on her blog that a query should NOT include the ending:
    http://pubrants.blogspot.com/2007/10/pitching-and-all-that-jazz.html

    While there are differences between back-cover blurbs and queries, the principle s the same. A query is designed to hook an agent/editor and attract their interest, just as a blurb does for a reader. Would you buy a book in the store if the back cover tells you how it ends?

  35. Darlynne
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 20:16:40

    I am adamantly of the same mind as Kathleen (24) and Elly Soar (32). My internal alarm went off instantly at “White Family Christmas” for no other reason than “uh-oh, people of color need not apply.” Then, whoa, damn, look where we ended up.

    Any one of these issues is more than enough for one book, let alone one family. The student Martin had an affair with is missing? He’s a school teacher, for crying out loud, which means the student is NOT college age, and what, a SHORT affair is less reprehensible somehow? I didn’t realize this was a crime novel.

    I don’t know how you would pull this off, but I do know I wouldn’t read it. This is suffering on a biblical scale.

  36. Keishon
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 20:17:03

    For the Most Part is a fictional story of the White Family Christmas. Lorraine White, recently widowed, is looking forward to spending a traditional holiday with her five children. Yet, each of her kids is wrestling with skeletons in their closet. Martin, the eldest and a school teacher, has had a short affair with a student who is now missing.

    That’s where I stopped reading. Ick on the teacher/student affair thing and the hint of maybe, possibly, foul play or whatever with the “missing student” thing. NOT interested. Like everybody else said: too long.

  37. Leah
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 23:09:32

    Just as a reader….
    On the one hand, I did find the story line way too sad, and I tend not to want to pick up a book that promises to be a tearjerker. On the other, some of the stories seemed very interesting, and I found myself wondering what was going to happen–esp. the Travis plotline, which sounded like it could have some very touching scenes. As for the biracial child subplot…. I grew up in a biracial family in the 60’s-80’s, when it was not very common. Nowadays, even here in Podunk, Indiana, no one seems to give multiethnic backgrounds all that much thought.

  38. Dear Author: Query Saturday « Shannon Yarbrough
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 10:12:16

    […] Author: Query Saturday I stirred up quite a wasp nest over at Dear Author yesterday when they posted my query letter for For the Most Part as part of their Query Saturday post.  Some […]

  39. John
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 13:07:51

    Kathleen #24:
    I'm sorry, but this one rubs me the wrong way. You have a gay couple where one half of the pair is dead, and you have a biracial rape-baby…in a situation where the family's last name is White. And I know you probably didn't mean anything weird by it, but why on earth was it necessary to mention that the baby was biracial at all? A child being the product of rape is horrible enough, but it feels like you tacked the biracial part on there to make it even more melodramatic -‘ the baby's not just a product of rape, but it's NOT WHITE EITHER! Oh no! -‘ and I find that actually kind of offensive. You're putting being biracial on the same tier as rape, which…no.

    Kathleen, I find your comments interesting, you have a problem with a biracial baby as a product of rape? What do you mean “the baby’s not just a product of rape, but it’s NOT WHITE EITHER!” HUH – you have done one thing right, you have an emotion from reading the story, but don’t blame the Author for your own pre-judgments. Why assume the family is black or white? And kudos for the Author giving the woman strength on keeping the baby and raising it as a single woman. Let’s stay focused on the writing issues, not judging the Author for his/her story line that we may or may not like.

    Kudos to the Author for opening this up to everyone’s opinions, and good to know people are reading!

  40. Peyton
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 10:25:08

    I second the “This sounds like a Lifetime movie” comment. Too much melodrama.

  41. allison
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 11:59:23

    I’m a big believer in bad news first so…

    Wow, that’s a whole lot of stuff going on. I wouldn’t read it simply because it sounds way too much like a Lifetime movie or a soap opera (neither of which I enjoy).

    Why not cut a bunch of these plotlines out – the biracial rape baby (I agree that this is a timebomb just waiting to happen), the icky icky ICKY student/teacher affair and subsequent missing status and the boss harrassment stuffs?

    On the other hand – good bits –

    Thank you for not having the gay partner die of AIDS. Thank you! It’s so nice to have a storyline with a gay man dying of something else.

    I think, if you focus on the mother and Travis’s plotlines – you’d have a fantastic story that would show mother and son bonding, something I haven’t read or seen a lot. Most books have mother/daughter bonding over loss so it’d be nice to see mother/son bonding instead. With both the previous loss and the future loss being from cancer, I really think you could play this bonding up.

    I wish you luck and applaud you for putting yourself forth like this!

  42. The Query Shark « Shannon Yarbrough
    Apr 25, 2008 @ 20:25:15

    […] Query Shark Well, we no longer have to wait for Query Saturday from Dear Author now to pick and poke at poor lil queries if we don’t want to. Janet Reid, […]

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    May 28, 2011 @ 22:11:24

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