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Query Saturday: Running from Your Past

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?

***

(Agent Name)
(Agent Address)

Dear (name):

This is a fiction Running from your Past fifty-one chapter’s and about two hundred pages. The book follows Samantha in her search for peace an escape from the sister she lost and the torment of her own mind in dealing with what she has become.

Her life fell apart in a single moment and five years later she is still running from the truth. Somehow the past always seems to catch up with you and now it seems to have caught up to her and the illusion she has built around herself and falling to pieces.

Samantha is a cold-blooded killer paid to hit her mark but after five years she is still unable to let go of her sister. It is career choice she never envisioned for herself but that was five years ago when Lilly was still alive. A time when Marcus didn’t control her as if a puppet on the end of a string. She lets her legs carry her away always running from her demons intertwined in the whispers of her dead. She is now torn between the only piece of her past left and a new beginning a way out but before she can chose she must find out who waits for her in the shadows before her own time runs out.

She is torn between Kyle the one she left behind has now found his way back into her life, however he is being played as if a pawn easy to move and expendable. Michael the one with the empty eyes who only wants to save her from the life she had come to know and a death not even she can run from.

She is led down a path with more turns than she can see with more deception than she has ever known. The truth that she had been searching for all these years will not only shatter the world she has come to know but promises to leave her breathless.

My name is xxxxxx I have been writing for years however this will be the first that I have summated to an agent. I am a full time student at xxxxxx University. I am an avid reader of many genreas’ and love creating something new that I believe others will enjoy just as much. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

xxxxx

***

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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

29 Comments

  1. Ann Somerville
    May 24, 2008 @ 04:42:42

    Oh, god. Spell check, grammar check this before it goes *anywhere* – ‘summated’? That’s not even a word.

    As for the story, it’s so incoherently described, my eyes kept wandering away from the text. The heroine is ‘torn’ a lot, that’s about as much as I can tell.

    “I am an avid reader of many genreas' and love creating something new that I believe others will enjoy just as much.” Apart from the spelling and punctuation problems, this sentence adds nothing. Drop it.

    I’m afraid this query tells me nothing but that the author’s first language isn’t English, and that her mastery of English is poor.

  2. NKKingston
    May 24, 2008 @ 04:53:39

    This is probably going to sound quite harsh, and I am sorry for any feelings I hurt, but any who queries with a letter like this is shooting themselves in the foot. The sheer volume of errors in this would put any agent off immediately. It’s not the occasional typo; there are grammatical and spelling errors scattered throughout. I get the impression the author isn’t familiar with basic rule of punctuation and syntax, and that the spelling errors are symptomatic of someone who isn’t aware s/he’s getting the words wrong. It needs a lot of proofreading; as it is, I’m concerned that the manuscript might be the same, which would render it almost unreadable.

    To nitpick the first and last paragraphs:

    This is a fiction Running from your Past fifty-one chapter's and about two hundred pages. The book follows Samantha in her search for peace an escape from the sister she lost and the torment of her own mind in dealing with what she has become.

    – That first sentence makes no sense. It’s clearly missing a few words, and ‘Running From Your Past’ needs commas around it.
    – “peace an[d] escape”

    My name is xxxxxx I have been writing for years however this will be the first that I have summated to an agent. I am a full time student at xxxxxx University. I am an avid reader of many genreas' and love creating something new that I believe others will enjoy just as much. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    – xxxxx should have a full stop after it. Years should have a comma, and “summated” should be “submitted”.
    – “genreas'” should be “genres”. No clue why that apostrophe is there.

    As for the content… It could be interesting, but the description is so vague that I can’t really tell. The blurb doesn’t really tell me where the plot starts or ends, what sort of growth the main character goes through, or what actually happens at any point. The repetition of “torn between” and the multiple male characters (I suspect having a ‘Marcus’ and a ‘Michael’ might be a mistake in itself) aren’t drawing me to the heroine; I’d rather hear more about the sister (who might be dead, I’m just not sure from this) and what her current job actually entails and how she copes with it. There’s some wonderful turns of phrase – “a death not even she can run from” and “The truth that she had been searching for all these years will not only shatter the world she has come to know but promises to leave her breathless”, for example – but overall the plot as described lacks structure, and many of the sentences are clunky or confusing.

    If this was thoroughly proofread, and the description of teh plot tightened up with a few more details, it would definitely be worth reconsidering. As it is, I don’t think many agents are going to read past the first paragraph, due the the errors in it.

  3. Anonymous
    May 24, 2008 @ 05:09:18

    This entire query was written without the use of a single comma. The comma is a very lovely piece of punctuation that should be deployed in a variety of situations.

    If I were an agent, I would read precisely this far:

    This is a fiction Running from your Past fifty-one chapter's

    Whooops–apostrophe error! End of game. If I somehow managed to get to the end of the sentence, I would still stop reading–because you’ve shown that you don’t know what agents really want to know. They don’t want to know that it’s “fiction”–they want a specific genre. Yours sounds like a romantic suspense, so that’s what I’d call it. And they certainly don’t care how many chapters it is, and pages . . . pages of what? Times New Roman 11 point type, single spaced? Courier 12 double spaced? Zapf Dingbats 28 point, 1.5 spaced?

    Give them a word count. Don’t stress out about whether you use computer word count or Courier 12/25 lines per page x 250–just give a word count.

    Something like this would work instead:

    RUNNING FROM YOUR PAST is a romantic suspense, complete at 90,000 words.

  4. JustAnotherAbsoluteWriter
    May 24, 2008 @ 05:38:43

    Query letters can be a pain. The only thing more brain sucking is that of the synopsis. It’s hard to suppress a whole book into a few words but there’s a few tricks I picked up as I wrote (probably) hundreds of them to publishers and agents over my writing life.

    Think of it in terms of this: you only get one chance to catch the eye of that agent/editor so you want to do it right off the bat with a hook. Even in your query, you want to make sure you show the reader the character’s lives rather than telling “them this is what happens, then this, this” and so on. There’s a lot going on in this query letter that tells what Samantha does and how it affects her, but you want your reader to feel her journey and show what’s at stake rather than alluding to vague things to come. Remember, agents want a clear idea of the story so they can know how to sell this particular work to editors. Also how it will fit in the marketplace with other competitive books in its genre.

    The best way I’ve found is using the Who, What, When, Why and How questions to establish character, why we should feel for them and what major stakes they have to overcome throughout the book to make us want to read the heroine’s story from beginning to end.

    A few other suggestions I have are on the technical side.

    This is a fiction Running from your Past fifty-one chapter's and about two hundred pages. The book follows Samantha in her search for peace an escape from the sister she lost and the torment of her own mind in dealing with what she has become.

    This reads a bit vague and more on the amateurish side. Even if you are an amateur, you don’t want the agent to think this of you. You want to put your best professional foot forward when presenting your work to agents and editors. Remember you only have one chance and you want to wow them with that first impression.

    I suggest trying something like: Running From Your Past is a 90,000 word suspense thriller combining elements of mystery, romance and redemption. Samantha Morton is a cold blooded killer despising her empty existence. After losing her sister more than five years ago, Samantha….(then set up the situation, conflict and ultimate resolution or what’s at stake for Samantha to attain her goal). Another way to open is (again) using a hook. Think of the opening taglines in movie trailers to entice the viewer’s interest.

    Notice in my example I used word count, the genre of the story and what kind of situation a reader can expect when they pick up the book. Those ingredients will probably work better than stating the novel is fiction (which said agent would probably already know if they rep a popular genre), chapter length and book page count which isn’t very reliable for determining book length.

    Another thing, in your closing paragraph you state:

    My name is xxxxxx I have been writing for years however this will be the first that I have summated to an agent. I am a full time student at xxxxxx University. I am an avid reader of many genreas' and love creating something new that I believe others will enjoy just as much. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    You may want to rework this paragraph as it screams beginner and would likely turn an agent off right away. Don’t let them know this is your first time submitting. (Also summated should be submitted and genreas’ should be genres) For the last paragraph in a query, most agents suggest stating any awards you’ve won, past writing experiences/publishing credits or anything of the sort to be added here. If you don’t have any, best to leave it out and just focus on ‘selling’ them the book. If the agent has asked for a synopsis or a few pages of the book to be added with your query letter, state that you’ve included the items based on their guidelines from their website or wherever the guidelines are posted. Good move thanking them for their time and such.

    You may have to write your query letter over and over until you get it right. But don’t fret and only send it when you’re absolutely certain that the letter is clean of any errors and gets your story across the best way possible. Sometimes I save mine in PDF then have the computer read it back to me in Adobe Reader or read it aloud myself to catch errors. Also have others read it for you to give feedback which can help immensely (like posting here on DA :-)).

    Study as many query letters as you can; one’s that worked and ones that didn’t. Also be sure to check and recheck agent and publisher’s guidelines before you submit to make sure you’re not wasting your time or theirs.

    Hope this helped you out a little. Apologies in advance for any errors I’ve made in this post (I should be in bed, ahh!).

    Have fun, keep writing, write from the heart and don’t ever give up. :-)

    ~JAAW

  5. Anion
    May 24, 2008 @ 05:38:49

    Oh, dear. I’m sorry. If this query is, as it should be, a sample of your writing and a preview of what the agent can expect to find in your ms, you really have a lot to learn.

    That’s okay. Lots of us started out with a lot to learn. You need to read more. Set aside this project and read a lot more professionally published paperback and hardcover books. Study them. Notice how they’re structured. Notice how they use commas and apostrophes. Notice how they aren’t full of long vague paragraphs which express nothing, as this query is.

    Again, I apologize. I don’t mean to be cruel. But this query leads me to suspect you don’t actually read at all, given how basic some of those errors are. Good writing can be learned but it should on some level be instinctive; a good writer should be observant enough to at least have some sense of where commas and apostrophes belong, or how sentences should flow together, simply because they’ve read so many books that do it right.

    Really. This isn’t well written at all and the story is incomprehensible; you haven’t told us what it’s actually about. You’ve repeated phrases like “the past would catch up with her”; you’ve given us grammatically awkward platitudes about “running from her demons” and cliches about “time running out”. But what is the story about? What is the event which sets the plot in motion? Who is coming after her and why? Why is time running out? You need to actually say what the book is about.

  6. Erastes
    May 24, 2008 @ 05:41:49

    Others have said it better than I – a query should be spell checked and preferably beta-ed with as much care and consideration as the book itself. More so, actually.

    Anonymous has it right, the agent/publisher won’t get further than the first (or if you are lucky) the second typo.

    That being said I’ll critique the summary section.

    Her life fell apart in a single moment and five years later she is still running from the truth. Somehow the past always seems to catch up with you and now it seems to have caught up to her and the illusion she has built around herself and falling to pieces.

    This needs to be the second paragraph, and it also commits the crime of being far too woolly. It’s OK for a blurb (just) but tells the agent NOTHING. When querying you need to tell the agent what your book is about, not tease them with clichés that don’t mean anything except possibly to you.

    Here’s your first part of the synopsis:

    Samantha is a cold-blooded killer paid to hit her mark

    She wouldn’t be an assassin if she wasn’t paid to hit her mark.

    but after five years she is still unable to let go of her sister. It is career choice she never envisioned for herself but that was five years ago when Lilly was still alive. A time when Marcus didn't control her as if a puppet on the end of a string. She lets her legs carry her away always running from her demons intertwined in the whispers of her dead.

    What?!!? Apart from the part about not letting go of her dead sister this needs a stern rewrite. I get the gist of what you mean, but it needs clarification.

    She is now torn between the only piece of her past left and a new beginning a way out but before she can chose she must find out who waits for her in the shadows before her own time runs out.

    Again. Woolly, irritating and vague. And where’s the punctuation?

    She is torn between Kyle the one she left behind

    Behind where?

    has now found his way back into her life, however he is being played as if a pawn easy to move and expendable.

    Again, unnecessary. A pawn is easy to move and expendable. Don’t dumb down to your agent/publisher. Or, in fact, your reader.

    Michael the one with the empty eyes who only wants to save her from the life she had come to know and a death not even she can run from.

    Who the hell are Michael, Marcus and Kyle? TELL the agent/publisher the story. At this point, I still don’t even know what genre this is.

    She is led down a path with more turns than she can see with more deception than she has ever known. The truth that she had been searching for all these years will not only shatter the world she has come to know but promises to leave her breathless.

    She’s probably breathless due to the lack of commas.

    But seriously this entire query tells nothing about the book. Nothing. We don’t know any more than:

    1. She’s an assassin
    2. She’s got 3 men in her life
    3. Her sister’s dead

    That’s not enough to intrigue anyone, sorry.

  7. Tracey
    May 24, 2008 @ 06:09:18

    This is a fiction Running from your Past fifty-one chapter's and about two hundred pages.

    Right away I spot four errors in the first sentence.

    1) “This is a fiction.” You can say that person is telling a fiction. That means the person is telling a lie. If you’re talking about a genre, say what kind it is. This sounds like contemporary romantic suspense.
    2) The correct capitalization is Running From Your Past.
    3) You do NOT form plurals by adding apostrophes! This error alone would make me throw the proposal straight in the wastebasket. I don’t have to read one bit more to know how appalling the work will be.
    4) ABOUT two hundred pages? You wrote the manuscript. I want to know the exact number.

    The second sentence is no better.

    The book follows Samantha in her search for peace an escape from the sister she lost and the torment of her own mind in dealing with what she has become.

    5) Not “peace an escape.” Peace AND escape.
    6) Why is Samantha searching for escape from a sister that she doesn’t have anymore?
    7) “The torment…in dealing with what she has become”? Very awkward sentence structure. It doesn’t speak well for the work.
    8) And what has Samantha become? A schizophrenic? A were-plankton? Or just a really whiny woman? At this point, I’m plumping for number three.

    Her life fell apart in a single moment and five years later she is still running from the truth.

    9) This is the first sentence that is grammatically correct. Regrettably, it lacks clarity. I assume that Samantha’s life fell apart when she lost her sister, but the author hasn’t told us this. Nor do I know what “truth” she’s running from.

    Somehow the past always seems to catch up with you and now it seems to have caught up to her and the illusion she has built around herself and falling to pieces.

    10) The first part of the sentence–“sometimes the past always seems to catch up with you” is unnecessary and should be deleted.
    11) I can see how the past could catch up to Samantha, but how is the past catching up to an illusion?
    12) Also, how is the past catching up to falling to pieces?

    Samantha is a cold-blooded killer paid to hit her mark

    13) As opposed to all of those cold-blooded killers who are paid to MISS their targets?
    14) A cold-blooded killer is having all of these issues because of one missing sister? Mwahaha!

    but after five years she is still unable to let go of her sister.

    15) That must make aiming guns at her targets very difficult.

    It is career choice she never envisioned for herself but that was five years ago when Lilly was still alive.

    16) It is A career choice THAT she never envisioned.
    17) Delete the “for herself.” It’s unnecessary.
    18) Yeah, yeah, we get the point about everything changing five years ago. Can we move on, please?

    A time when Marcus didn't control her as if a puppet on the end of a string.

    19) Who is Marcus?
    20) Who is the puppet, Samantha or Marcus? The sentence structure is ambiguous.

    She lets her legs carry her away

    21) This makes me think of the old Calgon ad. “Calgon, take me AWAY!”

    always running from her demons intertwined in the whispers of her dead.

    22) How do you intertwine demons and whispers? This is a very bad mixed metaphor.

    She is now torn between the only piece of her past left and a new beginning a way out but before she can chose she must find out who waits for her in the shadows before her own time runs out.

    23) There should be a comma or a dash after “beginning.”
    24) It should be “before she can CHOOSE.”
    25) “Choose” should be followed by a comma.
    26) “Shadows” should be followed by an ellipsis. (Three dots.)

    She is torn between Kyle the one she left behind has now found his way back into her life, however he is being played as if a pawn easy to move and expendable.

    27) If she were torn between Kyle AND the one she left behind, I would suggest adding an “and.” But Samantha isn’t. She’s torn between Kyle and Michael, even though Michael doesn’t show up until the next sentence fragment.
    28) The punctuation mark after “life” should be a period.
    29) “However” should be capitalized and should begin a sentence.
    30) “However” should be followed by a comma.
    31) “If” is unnecessary. Delete it.
    32) “Pawn” should have a comma after it.

    Michael the one with the empty eyes who only wants to save her from the life she had come to know and a death not even she can run from.

    33) There is no main verb in the sentence. The subject for “wants” is “who”–not Michael.
    34) “Michael” should be followed by a comma.
    35) “Eyes” should be followed by a period.
    36) “Who only wants to save her” should be “He only wants to save her.”
    37) “The life she had come to know” should be “the life she HAS come to know.”
    38) “A death not even she can run from” should be “a death FROM WHICH not even she can run.”

    She is led down a path with more turns than she can see with more deception than she has ever known.

    39) She can see with more deception than she has ever known? Commas, writer. Commas are our friends.

    The truth that she had been searching for all these years will not only shatter the world she has come to know but promises to leave her breathless.

    40) The emphasis is wrong. The truth should not only leave the protagonist stunned, but also affect the world. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for the heroine if the truth is destroying her world and all she can do is gasp. Start with the heroine’s case and then move up to how this truth will affect everyone.

    My name is xxxxxx I have been writing for years however this will be the first that I have summated to an agent.

    41) The person’s name should be followed by a period.
    42) “Years” should be followed by a period.
    43) “However” should be capitalized.
    44) “However” should be followed by a comma.
    45) “The first” should be “the first MANUSCRIPT.”
    46) “Submitted.” Not “summated,” for God’s sake!

    I am a full time student at xxxxxx University.

    47) “Full-time.” Don’t forget the hyphen.

    I am an avid reader of many genreas'

    48) “Genres.”
    49) Don’t claim to be an avid reader. It’s obvious that you’re not. I’ll explain why later.

    and love creating something new that I believe others will enjoy just as much. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    50) The next-to-last sentence was structured awkwardly. However, the final sentence was grammatically correct.

    There are far too many mistakes in this letter. You have not punctuated properly; you have run-on sentence after run-on sentence; your sentence structure is awkward; and while you claim to be an avid reader and to have been writing for years, you don’t seem to have learned what constitutes poor writing and what doesn’t. At the very least, you should have employed Spell-Check; at the most, Spell-Check AND a nerd who’s good at spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization, and who can catch the errors that Spell-Check cannot.

    The letter is so poor that I suspect that the manuscript is of similar low quality. No agent worth the name would be interested. The only attention you would get would be from the scam artists.

    I suggest that you do what you said you were doing. Read. Read a lot. Get a Spell-Check program for your computer, if you don’t have one; they’re available as freeware. And take a remedial English class while you’re at it. You need to learn the building blocks of good writing. You don’t know them yet. But you can learn them.

  8. Ann Somerville
    May 24, 2008 @ 07:10:06

    Tracey, some of your ‘corrections’ are ones with which I would disagree, frankly (points 16 and 38, for example) and I don’t think the sarcastic comments (‘Calgon take me away’ etc) are going to help this author sort out what is poor English from what is poor writing.

    There is also no contradiction between someone being an avid reader and not being a strong writer – one does not lead to the other. Even being a critical reader doesn’t make you a good writer (having an Arts degree with an English major does diddly squat for me in terms of knowing how to tell a story.) Writing, and receiving criticism, writing more, and reading with a knowledgeable eye – in other words, know what you are actually looking at in terms of craft – is how you learn to write. Reading critiques of other writers, talking to them and also to readers is also very important. But simply reading good books won’t teach you the actual skill.

    I also think advising someone to find a ‘nerd’ who can help the author with her writing, is derogatory. The word is either ‘beta’ or ‘editor’. You don’t need to be a ‘nerd’ to be good at editing, corrections and advice.

    Ripping apart a query letter line by line is not, in the end, going to help a weak writer. The query letter isn’t the real problem here. I think the young person who had the gumption to put this letter forward is to be commended for attempting something this ambitious in a language not their own – it never ceases to amaze me how many very good authors I know whose first language is not English. That ambition and courage will stand her in good stead if she can put more work into the basic craft. The work, however, is unavoidable.

  9. Anonymous
    May 24, 2008 @ 09:08:09

    I don’t disagree with Ann’s comments about the disparaging tone and some of the corrections…. but I think Tracey is giving some well-intentioned tough love.

    The main point of Tracey’s message is right: If the rest of the writing in the book is on par with this query, the only person who would agree to represent the author is a scam artist out to take her money.

    This is a subjective business. Opinions differ. But even in this subjective business, there is some objectivity: This query is so laden with errors that any publishing professional would get a size 16 migraine reading more than a page of it. I think it’s important that this person hear that her writing appears, at best, to be remedial.

    But remedial can be remedied.

    I once heard Debbie Macomber say that she had serious problems writing–she is dyslexic, and always believed she was stupid. To this day, she needs someone to go through her manuscripts to correct errors that she herself cannot catch. But she believed she could tell a story, and kept doing it, and kept doing it…. and now she’s a mega-best-seller. Just because you’re missing a few skills doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story. But face that you have a problem, and figure out what to do about it.

    So don’t get discouraged. Do get remedied.

    For those of you who corrected “peace an escape” to “peace and escape,” I had assumed that was a comma error:

    The book follows Samantha in her search for peace, an escape from the sister she lost, and the torment of her own mind in dealing with what she has become.

    I agree with whoever it was who said that you have a few really beautiful turns of phrase, and when I put commas in your sentences for you, I really like the cadences of your prose. You have a good sense of rhythm. You just need to address your weaknesses–because at this point, they’re deal-breakers.

  10. Fae Sutherland
    May 24, 2008 @ 09:08:27

    I couldn’t get past the “51 chapters, 200 pages” part. 51 4 page chapters? I think that bodes badly enough, not even adding in all the mistakes. Good luck to you, writer, but please do not send this query to anyone else. You’re doing yourself more harm than good.

  11. Anon
    May 24, 2008 @ 09:15:44

    First mistake is starting the query with the type of book it is and chapters. Need a hook in the first line. Later you can add the genre and word count. Four-page chapters? Huh??? Then the spelling and grammar? Gah. I’d toss it on that alone because if the query looks this bad, what’s the book going to look like?

  12. Tracey
    May 24, 2008 @ 10:22:50

    Writing, and receiving criticism, writing more, and reading with a knowledgeable eye – in other words, know what you are actually looking at in terms of craft – is how you learn to write. Reading critiques of other writers, talking to them and also to readers is also very important. But simply reading good books won't teach you the actual skill.

    But it WILL teach you some of the mechanics, Ann. I’ve seen far too many beginning writers who claimed to be avid readers but who, after being questioned, admitted that they weren’t familiar with the following:

    * Paragraphs. Indeed, I’ve spoken to young writers who didn’t know what paragraphs were for, and who thought that the extra space between paragraphs was a waste.

    * Punctuation. When I see a young writer who is unfamiliar with commas and apostrophes, this makes me suspect that she hasn’t seen them used in print very often, and certainly not used correctly. Many young writers I’ve spoken with do not know how to use punctuation, and do not even know what the punctuation marks are for. A common excuse is, “Oh, those are just for English class! I don’t use them in REAL writing.”

    * Articles. A surprising number of inexperienced writers claim to stick articles in at random after they finish writing, to make their writing “look more polished.” I think that if they read more, they would realize that “the”, “a” and “an” are not to be scattershot across the page.

    * Sentence structure. A great many young writers feel that run-on sentences produce more immediacy in their work, making it more compelling. Run-on sentences can work that way, but they don’t always, and the more you read, the more you’ll see when a run-on sentence conveys a sense of panic and when it’s merely confusing.

    I also think advising someone to find a ‘nerd' who can help the author with her writing, is derogatory. The word is either ‘beta' or ‘editor'. You don't need to be a ‘nerd' to be good at editing, corrections and advice.

    I would describe myself as a nerd, so clearly I don’t find it derogatory. However, regardless of what you think of the word, my objective was clarity.

    You see, I have tried telling inexperienced writers many, many, many times that they need ‘betas’, ‘beta-readers’, ‘proofreaders’ or ‘editors.’ This throws them into a panic. They tell me, “But I don’t know any proofreaders!” and “How am I supposed to find an editor when I haven’t been published yet?” and “What’s a beta? Isn’t that a fish?”

    Therefore, in the interest of clarity, I now tell them to find someone to proofread the story for them–not a friend who will tell them how much she loved the story even if she didn’t, but the nerd/geek/whatever you wish to call it who knows spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization inside out. This may not sound quite so professional as “editor,” but they understand it, and that, for me, is the point.

    Ripping apart a query letter line by line is not, in the end, going to help a weak writer. The query letter isn't the real problem here.

    It tells her what her weaknesses are as a writer and why the query letter isn’t any good.

    I think the young person who had the gumption to put this letter forward is to be commended for attempting something this ambitious in a language not their own – it never ceases to amaze me how many very good authors I know whose first language is not English.

    Exactly where do you see any indication that the writer’s native language wasn’t English? Actually, most of the people I know whose first language isn’t English write it flawlessly. Most of the poor writers I’ve run into have been native speakers of English.

    That ambition and courage will stand her in good stead if she can put more work into the basic craft. The work, however, is unavoidable.

    Which, if you note my last paragraph, was what I said. I urged her to read more–something that can help any writer. I advised her to use Spell-Check and to obtain it if she didn’t have it as a program. (It is commonplace for young writers who are poor spellers to insist that they don’t HAVE Spell-Check. At this point, I advise them to get a freeware version of Spell-Check if they don’t have it; that eliminates that excuse.) And I told her to learn the mechanics of English–which, if she’s in a university, most likely WOULD be available in a remedial program. She will not get such information in an upper-level English course.

    She does need to keep writing, yes. But she also needs to build up what Stephen King refers to in On Writing as “the tool box”: vocabulary, grammar, form and style. Right now, she doesn’t have many tools, and she’s not getting the best results from the ones she does have. It would be cruel to encourage her to pursue agents and publishers at the moment. She needs to improve if she wants to write professionally, and she needs to improve radically. It’s better that she know that right up front, before she gets sucked in by Poetry.com or PublishAmerica–scams that will be only too happy to laud her writing to the stars.

  13. Anion
    May 24, 2008 @ 10:40:05

    I think Tracey’s comments are spot-on, frankly. Perhaps a few are a bit more harshly worded than they need to be but I think her intent was genuinely to help, and to be thorough.

    And with all due respect, Ann–and I genuinely mean that, as I have always enjoyed your comments here and elsewhere–I disagree that it’s possible to be an avid reader without picking up some grammar and spelling. Something should “not look right” or “not feel right”. While being an avid reader certainly does not automatically make one a great or even a good writer, it should make one at least capable. And while I agree there are some mistakes reading may not be able to assist one with, I really do believe at the very least the lack of punctuation here is a mistake that would not be made by anyone who truly reads professionally published books for pleasure on a consistent basis.

    JMO, though.

  14. Angelle
    May 24, 2008 @ 10:40:08

    If I were an agent, I wouldn’t read past four errors you have in your opening sentence. Time’s too valuable, and there are hundreds of queries to read.

    You must learn basic English grammar. Sorry. There’s just no way around it.

  15. Friend of the writer
    May 24, 2008 @ 10:54:21

    Being the best friend of the writer, I can in fact tell you that she isn’t foreign. She speaks English as plain as day.

    Having read the entire manuscript, I can honestly say that with a lot of hard work, it could be REALLY good. And CW…please take everyone’s advice as a means to help improve your writing(including mine) because they only want to help you. With that said, I’m going to reiterate what I have told you before.

    Your storyline is awesome- the writing just needs to be improved.It sounds exactly like how mine did when I first wrote my novel. But with tough love from T, I read each line out loud and kept re-working it until it flowed smoothly. Heck, I even opened a few novels laying on my table to see how they structured their sentences.

    T can help you with your grammar. She is the Grammar Queen! Couldn’t tell you how many times she took a page of my book, then returned it to me with the whole thing looking like one big red scribble(thanks T).
    And you know that I’m morbid enough to make those fight scences of yours totally rock!

    So chicka, don’t get discouraged by reading all this. Just think of it as constructive criticism. If you keep re-writing it, it will eventually evolve into something spectacular:)

  16. Libby
    May 24, 2008 @ 10:58:31

    I think Tracy is right on.

    I would highly suggest that the writer go to Absolute Write and post an ad for a mentor. Another suggestion I have, and this is something that helped me tremendously when I first started writing, would be to sign up for Critique Circle. I learned so much about writing just by reading through somebody else’s work, because I learned to think critically about how the work is structured. The people on that site are also wonderful, and I think she would learn a lot from them.

    If the query letter is anything like the manuscript, she is going to need to put a lot of work into making it fit for submission. Again, Critique Circle is a great place to work on this. People of all writing levels both submit and critique there, and it’s a great place to start out.

    Because she is a university student, she should take a look at the English department offerings and see what she can get into with her existing prerequisites. I am working on a writing minor, and my university has a writing lab that is staffed by grad students. If she has such a thing, she should definitely get in there and put those exorbitant student fees to good use! Although they won’t be able to help with the manuscript, they will very likely have suggestions of great writing reference books or classes she can take.

    My university is awesome because it has dozens of creative writing classes, but I will also say that the non-creative classes have been incredible learning tools (I just took a persuasive rhetoric class that was out of this world, and next semester I’m taking one on style, for example). Most of the time you don’t have to be a major/minor to get into them, but usually a quick meeting with the department head will open all sorts of doors. They LOVE students who want to learn to write well, no matter what major they come from.

    Best wishes!

    Libby

  17. Fiordiligi
    May 24, 2008 @ 11:09:03

    And with all due respect, Ann-and I genuinely mean that, as I have always enjoyed your comments here and elsewhere-I disagree that it's possible to be an avid reader without picking up some grammar and spelling. Something should “not look right” or “not feel right”. While being an avid reader certainly does not automatically make one a great or even a good writer, it should make one at least capable. And while I agree there are some mistakes reading may not be able to assist one with, I really do believe at the very least the lack of punctuation here is a mistake that would not be made by anyone who truly reads professionally published books for pleasure on a consistent basis.

    Anion, I fully agree with your statement. I have been steadily improving my grammar and vocabulary knowledge through years of reading in English, looking up unusual phrases, and giving attention to syntax and collocations.

    As a non native speaker I dare say that even long before I gave special attention to linguistic matters, my eight years of mostly reading in English (outside my studies), helped me understand the language as no intensive studies of grammar books could have done. I don’t mean to imply that the latter isn’t important, but, IMO, absolutely nothing compares to learning a foreign language, or, for that matter, one’s own, by studying how favourite authors use it.

  18. Shannon C.
    May 24, 2008 @ 11:39:34

    Lots of good advice here. But here’s my take on your query, coming purely from a reader’s perspective.

    As a reader, if I’m going to be interested in what a book is about, I need a description of the actual plot. I really couldn’t tell from reading this what your book is actually about. Somebody died? Someone else is a killer? Someone is controlling somebody? Tell me exactly what your story is about. Save the overblown cliches. The advice someone gave up thread about using the five W’s–who, what, when, where, and why–seems appropriate because that’s exactly what I would want to know before I committed to picking up the book and reading it.

    Also, I agree with people’s comments about using resources at your university. The people in the writing labs may not be able to help you with your manuscript, but they do get paid to help you with areas that you’re having trouble with as far as basic grammar goes, and if you have a good grasp of grammar, not only will that improve your writing, but it’ll help you immensely in other professional endeavors.

  19. Anion
    May 24, 2008 @ 13:22:45

    As a non native speaker I dare say that even long before I gave special attention to linguistic matters, my eight years of mostly reading in English (outside my studies), helped me understand the language as no intensive studies of grammar books could have done. I don't mean to imply that the latter isn't important, but, IMO, absolutely nothing compares to learning a foreign language, or, for that matter, one's own, by studying how favourite authors use it.

    One of my ex-boyfriends was Cuban; he didn’t move to the States until he was five years old, and neither he nor either of his parents spoke English (his parents still didn’t when we were dating). He always said school helped him get the basics, but he actually learned by reading. :-)

  20. Jill Sorenson
    May 24, 2008 @ 16:26:33

    I recently met Christie Craig and heard her speak about her struggles with dyslexia. She learned some of the most basic writing skills as an adult. At the end of her speech, she showed the audience two big mailbags full of rejections. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Now she is a multi-published author.

    Any obstacle can be overcome if you are willing to work hard enough, and it doesn’t hurt if you have a lot of raw talent and ambition.

    Good luck to you.

  21. Janet Mullany
    May 24, 2008 @ 17:08:32

    Having read the entire manuscript, I can honestly say that with a lot of hard work, it could be REALLY good. And CW…please take everyone's advice as a means to help improve your writing(including mine) because they only want to help you.

    Please, please don’t submit a query for a ms. that could be really good. You’ll set yourself up for a lot of stress and disappointment. Far better to submit a ms. that is really good, the best you can do, with a killer cover letter (and I’m not going to make further comments b/c god knows you have a lot of great advice here–you lost me at that first misplaced apostrophe).

    Grammar is not rocket science. It can, and should be learned. Meantime, you find your voice and let it rip. Good luck.

  22. JulieLeto
    May 24, 2008 @ 17:34:49

    Listen to Janet. If the query is any indicator, this book is no where near ready for submission.

    My critique partner, who has now published over 40 books, wrote her first manuscript without a single comma. She also didn’t have chapters. She did, however, have an advanced degree from a major university…meaning she was extremely educated and, by the way, an avid reader. She’d just never learned the basics of grammar. Once she did, well…she sold a ton of books to many publishers.

    Listen to the advice here. It might be a little harsh…well, publishing IS harsh. Best to develop a thick skin now. It doesn’t get any easier later on.

    BTW, I learned grammar best from a linguistics class in college. Look into it.

    Good luck!

  23. Janet/Robin
    May 24, 2008 @ 18:23:54

    I disagree that it's possible to be an avid reader without picking up some grammar and spelling. Something should “not look right” or “not feel right”. While being an avid reader certainly does not automatically make one a great or even a good writer, it should make one at least capable.

    I would wholly agree with this sentiment, except for the fact that I read SO MUCH poorly edited “professional” prose these days. So I am slowly losing faith in the automatic and indirect mentoring that reading can provide to a budding writer.

    I am a TERRIBLE proofreader; my boss even had to proof my dissertation for me because I was so beyond being able to catch any mistakes after having written it. That problem persists to this day.

    Without focusing specifically on this query, I will give some pieces of advice that I have found valuable over the years:

    1. Read your prose out loud. It is amazing how many errors in syntax you will catch this way. And when you pause in your speech, look to see if you have a comma, semicolon, period, colon, or some other marker on the paper. If not, put one there. Punctuation is all about cuing the reader about when to stop, pause, read through, etc. That’s all. You wouldn’t send a driver on a dangerous road without posting signs warning of the dangers, and writing is the same way. Guide the reader, warn the reader, assist the reader in getting the most out of your prose. The easier something is to read, the less criticism the reader will immediately register.

    2. Wait at least overnight before proofreading your work, and then read it out loud (then have someone else read it out loud to you).

    3. Call your local college or university and speak with the English department. An advanced undergraduate or graduate student can often be hired for a reasonable fee for proofing services. A graduate student who is teaching composition is really a treasure, if you can find one. They’re generally poor and really conscientious about grammar and punctuation rules.

    4. Change the font and/or color of your document and read it that way. Also, changing line spacing can help, too, because it forces your brain to see something different when you look at the page. So many mistakes happen because the eyes see on the page what the brain intends, rather than what’s really there.

    I was two years into graduate school before I understood how to use a semicolon (I was a serial comma splicer). It wasn’t until one of my professors called me on the carpet for the error and taught me the rule. Ever since, I’ve carried on a rather passionate affair with the semicolon. I love that little dickens, let me tell you, and it has made a huge difference in my writing clarity.

  24. K. Z. Snow
    May 24, 2008 @ 19:33:06

    Harsh as this may seem, some people — even most people, I dare say — are not cut out to be writers. They may ache to be poets or novelists. They may believe this is their calling in life. They may even be able to dream up interesting plotlines. But the fact remains (and it’s a fundamental, unavoidable fact), a certain mastery of language is required in order to convey one’s vision in a comprehensible and engaging way.

    I’m sorry, but having good ideas for stories just isn’t enough.

  25. Jessica Barksdale Inclan
    May 24, 2008 @ 19:47:01

    Everyone above has made excellent editing suggestions, and you have to believe them. I started to read your letter, and really, I was unsold after the first little paragraph. This phrase made me stop: fifty-one chapter's

    I thought, if this letter is at this “final” stage and we have a posessive and not a plural, something is wrong. We ALL make mistakes like this, but not in a letter in which you try to sell your book.

    So take the excellent and generous advice above and redo–and look to your manuscript first. If these problems exist in this letter, I don’t know why your manuscript would have escaped.

  26. Erika
    May 25, 2008 @ 02:46:31

    Most of what I’ve got to say has already been said, but here’s recommended reading:

    Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Granted, she’s a bit harsh on grammatical mistakes, but she’s funny, and she does get the proper uses across pretty well.

    (Is it wrong that my first response to seeing someone suggest hiring a student as a proofer is to want to ask if I could serve in said position?)

  27. Anion
    May 25, 2008 @ 05:53:03

    K.Z., that’s exactly what my agent says. He says a lot of writing skills can be taught, but all of the things that add up to writing a good, publishable book cannot; you either have it or you don’t.

    It would have been a really interesting discussion but I was too busy blushing and stammering to say much. It felt immodest to agree, but the fact is I do agree.

  28. Janet Mullany
    May 25, 2008 @ 07:48:32

    Eats, Shoots and Leaves is pretty good but a lot of it is English (UK) usage. I’d suggest The Great Grammar Challenge and/or a zillion websites out there.

  29. Kerry
    May 25, 2008 @ 12:43:05

    I like Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire.

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