Query Critique 42

In the 1990’s, half-black David escapes his crazed mother and flees to Chicago with the dream to become Gatsby, not work as a janitor and live in the city slums. He can’t entirely despise janitor work, though: he met Mary after sweeping the floors together, and months later they exchanged rings in the most romantic marriage the Chicago Courthouse ever witnessed.

But then their seven-year-old daughter is diagnosed with a rare, organ-destroying disease that can only be treated by a costly medicine. With no way to pay for Penelope’s life, Mary resorts to desperate tactics to get the money—and David’s desperate for her to stop. What desperate tactics? Be specific. His mother’s words crash around his mind once again, “Don’t be black, they’re worthless,” and with a white wife who seduces their white insurance manager, David feels nothing but worthless. The transition into this idea feels a little awkward to me. This time, Mary’s can’t heal him. Mary’s what? This is the paragraph where we really get the first taste of conflict. While the first paragraph establishes some relevant information, it’s lacking in conflict. You may want to consider reorganizing your query so that  more of the conflict found here appears in the first paragraph to grab your reader. Also, be specific about conflict. 

Their wallet gets tighter and the only other option to save enough money is to move to the Chicago south side, almost entirely made up of blacks. How are these south side folk going to help them get the money they need. Who are they, and what is their connection to David and his family? Cue David’s sleepless nights and sweat-drenched pillows. But the thing is, these south side blacks aren’t who he imagined. In fact, they might do the most to save both Penelope and David. This paragraph could use some elaboration.

SAVING PENELOPE is an Adult Contemporary with a strong literary bend. Neither adult nor contemporary needs to be capitalized. It is complete at 76,000 words and, if it was nonfiction, would fit easily in Jonathan Cohn’s SICK. Italicize Sick to set it apart from your title.

Voice Spotlight: Me Before You

Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

First of all, I adore this book on so many levels. You should read it. It will make you feel things.

One particular thing I liked, though, was the voice. This was interesting to me, because in a lot of ways Lou Clark isn’t that interesting as a character. She’s been a waitress her whole working life, she doesn’t have a lot of ambition, and her relationship with her long-time boyfriend is lackluster at best. Her life is fairly unremarkable. And yet Moyes is still able to give her a voice that is engaging.

me before you

Character Exercises: Theme songs

This exercise comes to on behalf of the lovely Cynthia Leitich-Smith. I took a class from Cyn at the WIFYR conference last summer. In preparation for the class, we were asked to come up with a theme song for our protagonist and our antagonist.

I know a lot of writers make playlists for their books, but it’s slightly different to have to come up with one song that completely defines a character, a song that screams THIS IS WHO MY CHARACTER IS. Now I do this for all my characters. Very fun, very helpful. I highly recommend it.

Voice: Why character is so important

I feel like I’ve harped on this a lot, but understanding your character is CRITICAL to creating good voice. Your voice needs to match your character. I think this is true even if you’re writing in third person, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The point is, voice is all about sounding like a believable, unique individual. And before you can sound like a a believable, unique individual you need to be well acquainted with said individual. Otherwise, it would be like trying to do an Elvis impersonation without ever having seen Elvis perform (I don’t know what rock you have to be living under not to have ever seen Elvis, but I think the metaphor still works). In the next couple of posts we’re going to be getting into the mechanics of voice, all of which rely on knowing who your main character is.

What about third person (I told you we’d talk about it). If you are writing in third person, your voice still needs to match your main character. Quite often, the third person narrator will sound a lot like what the main character sounds like. If not, the narrator needs to have a distinct voice, almost as if they were a character. Either way, the narrator voice needs to compliment the character.

Okay, I will stop beating this very dead horse. Just remember. Character needs to happen.

Query Critique 41

Dear Secret Agent Man:

Lily Monroe survived the end of the world. Most would say she’s lucky. She’s not so sure.

The plague left surviving males virtually sterile and the hope of rebuilding society nearly nonexistent. Now, stuck with her ex-fiancé Garrett in a rural cabin in Tennessee, Lily is ill-equipped to survive whatever comes next – until what comes next arrives in the form of Cash Walker. This is good over all. I’m a little confused why she’s in a cabin with her ex-fiancé. Are they together despite a falling out? Or if there was no falling out, why is he her ex-fiancé?

Tall and trim and tough, Cash is exactly the kind of man who can get Lily and Garrett to one of the government-sanctioned survivor colonies. But Cash, tormented by his past, seeks only the solitude of the Louisiana bayous he calls home. Guiding two city-slickers through a landscape of burned-out buildings and mass graves is the last thing he needs on his post-apocalypse plate, and his attraction to Lily is a complication he wants to avoid as much as the plague itself. Yet Lily’s maddening mix of stubborn independence and kind-hearted determination proves more than he can resist. How does Cash end up in Tennessee? And if all he wants is to get down to Louisiana, why would he stop to help out this random couple? The only reason given is his attraction to Lily, but before that develops, what reason does he have to get involved.

As they trek deeper south, Lily sees the kind of man You’ve already used this “kind of man” phrase once, so it sounds a little repetitive here. Cash Walker is: broken, tortured, determined to fight off anyone who gets close. But Lily has spent her life healing broken creatures, and she’s convinced love can heal Cash, too, if only he will let it.

But when their arrival at the first colony ends in disaster, Cash saves her by leaving a severely injured Garrett behind. Feeling betrayed by his choice, Lily must choose: strike out alone or follow Cash to Belle Terre, a plantation colony in south Louisiana. Lily is torn between her anger with Cash and her growing feelings for him. When she learns she’s carrying Garrett’s child – possibly the last unborn child on earth – the rift between them widens and leaves Lily doubting the one thing she’d always believed – that love can heal any broken heart. Good. Stakes are established.

THE BEAUTIFUL EARTH is a 108,000 word adult post-apocalypse romance – the kind of romance created when a Deep South author reads Gone With the Wind and The Road in rapid succession. The novel can be read as a single manuscript or as the first of a proposed trilogy focused on three couples struggling to build a new society in south Louisiana. Thank you for considering it for representation.


Southern Harm

This query has a lot going for it. Good conflict and stakes. Just look into tying up some of the loose questions, and you should be good to go!

Character Exercise: Setting Swap

Try placing your character in a completely different setting. If you really have a grasp on their personality, you’ll be able to successfully transfer them into a new environment. Reimagine your high fantasy character as a modern high school student. Put your contemporary MG hero in a comic book and think about what type of superpower they’d have. Rewrite your period romance character in a science fiction environment.

When you change the setting for your character, you may be forced to consult aspects of their personality you might not have to otherwise. Asking “What would this character study in college?” forces you to consider the character’s interests and skills. Probably this has come up in your original setting. If not it probably should have. This exercise is a good way to check that you’ve figured it out.


If Hamlet was a college student, he’d major in philosophy. For Halloween he’d dress up as a skeleton.

If Emma Woodhouse was on a starship, she’d be in charge of communications. Half the crew would be in love with her.

If Don Quixote was in a horror novel… I’m actually not sure on this one, but I’m pretty sure it would be simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

What is Voice?

Agents everywhere are always saying they’re looking for voice, but they can be annoyingly vague on what they mean when they say that. For the next few weeks on my blog, I’m going to be focusing on voice. I want to start off the discussion by talking about what exactly voice is.

The simple way of putting it is that voice is the thing that makes the narrator of the story sound like a real, distinct person.

One time I stumbled across a blog by my friend. It sounded exactly like him. So much so that I read it in his voice. When a story has good voice, I read it in the character’s voice rather than my own. I can think of a scenario and imagine not only what they would say, but how they would sound saying it. That’s good voice.

Good voice is powerful, because it makes the reader feel like they know a character personally, an impressive feat since the character isn’t a real person. Because character is such an important part of voice, we’re going to be focusing a lot on character development as we talk about voice. Check back for characterization exercises and examples of voice from published books.