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.


2 thoughts on “Query Critique 42

  1. This story sounds fascinating and heart-wrenching too. My only issue concerns the designation, “Half-black” David. This comment may sound nitpicky (sorry!), but I think it is important to think about how to address race in any query.
    As a biracial (black/white) person, I was a little taken aback by the modifier half-black. I know all multiracial people identify ourselves differently, but I think Half-black is a tricky one, because we don’t automatically assume that the other half is white. (Most biracial people I know bristle at the idea of being half anything.)There’s also something that feels a little archaic about putting a racial label in front of the character’s name. (E.G. “Black Joe”), especially for the 1990’s.
    Also, I know as query-ers we’re all trying so hard to be brief, but what if you say something like: “In the 1990s, David, a young biracial (black/white) man, escapes his crazed mother …”
    Or, something like “In the 1990s, David, who never met his black father, escapes his crazed, white mother …”
    Of course, that’s assuming he never met his dad. My point is to identify the races of his parents, and imply David’s. (Also, then you’d have to explain why his mom is crazed.)
    Sorry this was long. I don’t mean to be preachy, or take up too much of Kyra’s blog either. You have a great story here!

    • Thanks for this!
      This is something I struggle with too. Obviously, there’s a push for diverse books right now, so if your book is diverse, you want to let it be known. At the same time, we want the characters just to be themselves. We want you to know they’re X race without putting a big neon sign over them. Like you mention, it’s also difficult because everyone has different ways of identifying themselves. Definitely can be tricky to tackle, and I’m no expert at it.

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