Sunday, May 18, 2008


Dear Query Shark

“Substitute Wives” is a literary women's fiction book and a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakout Novel Competition. Publishers Weekly had this to say about it: “This unflinching and at times uncomfortable story is told in a deft, sure voice”.

Resist the urge to quote contest reviewers in a query, particularly those who are anonymous. PW comments here do NOT equate to a PW review in the actual magazine. I give ZERO credence to these blurbs cause I have no clue who wrote them, and I'm absolutely convinced that no one says "this is crap" in one of these things. Not to say that yours is crap, but trust me, some of them were.

Semi-finalist is also the kiss of death. Finalist might be ok, but the only ones I'd truly want to read would be the top three at most. Why? Semifinalist means you're one of 100 or so, right? I can't sell something that is as good as 97 other things. I need something that is BETTER than 97 other things..the top 3%. More likely the top 1%. You're shooting yourself in the foot by mentioning this. Let the book speak for itself.

Joy is a twenty-three year old millionaire working as a prostitute as a penance to ease her guilt over the death of her ex-boyfriend. Raised by an undemonstrative mother, and absent father and an abusive uncle, Joy has relationship issues, so when she meets Matt - a married man - on the job and hears all the right lines, she falls for him.

Ok, I've stopped reading right here. When you throw "millionaire working as a prostitute" at me, you've got to realize that there's a leap of logic here that isn't clear to me. I can see her working in a soup kitchen, or giving away her money, but whoring? Not quite so believable. In fact, not at all.

When Joy receives news that her mother’s terminally ill, she knows it's time to go home. Haunted by childhood memories, will she find the way back?

And this has zero connection to what we just read in the previous two sentences.

Says Amazon Top Reviewer: “the story drew me in and made me wonder what the motivations of these women were. As we got further into the story, it was becoming clear that the reasons were not all black and white, and that there was definitely some deeper meaning behind all of it.”

Again, this isn't something that works in your favor.

The Substitute Wives is commercial fiction and the word count is 63,000.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious- isn't 63,000 considered short for either literary fiction or commercial fiction?

Janet Reid said...

It's short but it's not out of range. I sold a book with 34K; I'm getting ready to go out on something now that's 51K.

Anonymous said...

good to hear, since my writing style veers toward the spare...

Melissa Biemans said...

63k might be short, but sounds about the same as "the notebook" by sparks.... which was a best seller.

It'd rather read a fantastic short novel than an average length piece of drivel.

BuffySquirrel said...

Jane Austen Book Club was 65k. Which I might have realised before buying it, but they'd used lots of white space and BIG type to make it look like a regular-sized novel. Bah.

I can't help feeling you're just piling too much pain on the protagonist here. I know they're supposed to suffer, but, as presented, it kinda comes across as, "what can I do to her next???".

Also, the query will have its work cut out convincing me that Joy the millionaire prostitute is a credible character. At the moment, it doesn't come close.

R. Lyle Wolfe said...

Joy is a 23 year old millionaire prostitute who critiques queries online for writer's who are "almost there".
One day, out of impulse, she buys a baby chick.
As a gag, she lets the chick peck randomly on the keyboard.
Joy, after a drunken binge, comes home one night and finds that "Dee" has pecked out a novel.
Hilarity ensues when Joy gets the novel published, but then finds herself in court fighting Dee for the rights.
"Chick Lit" runs 139,000 scratches and can be flown to you at your convenience.

kitty said...

OMG, "Chick Lit"? Wolfe, you crack me up!


Jamie Hall said...

The second paragraph is quite confusing. First, why does she feel guilty over the death of her ex-boyfriend? Grief I would expect, but "guilt" implies that she's at fault for the death or believes she's at fault. Mentioning this and then dropping it makes for the confusion. Either it needs to make sense and be tied in to the rest of the query, or it needs to be omitted.

Second, why does she view being a prostitute as an appropriate kind of penance? Very few people would think that way unless they were very sexually messed up, yet Joy doesn't seem like such a person.

Then, we seem to jump into another story altogether, as we hear about the prostitute-falls-for-a-client plotline. However, there is no sense of development, as we immediately make another jump into what seems like yet another book - a separate plotline of the grown-child-attempts-to-reconcile-with-dying-parent sort.

As you've written it, it sounds as if you've got three completely unrelated stories about the same main character. Whatever plot elements you put in the query need to be tied together, so they collectively make sense and sound like a novel.

Furthermore, none of these plotlines are at all developed. We don't get a good idea of them from reading the query, in fact some don't fully make sense.

Even worse, there is no real sense of Joy as a developed character. We don't know what she strives for or how she thinks. We just know that a number of bad things happen to her, which she apparently just passively suffers through (or, in the case of the first two, perhaps even actively causes to begin with). Joy doesn't seem to do anything to get herself out of trouble, so she comes across as passive except that she sometimes instigates her own problems for reasons which are never made clear.

If the novel itself is like this, it would be difficult to sell it unless the writing is truly spectacular. People usually don't want to read about a passive (and possibly idiotic) character who keeps having bad things happen to her in an unconnected way. If the novel is truly like it sounds in the query, then you need a completely different query-writing strategy for making it sound like a great book (and then, the book itself will need to be in spectacular shape when agents request it, or all your query improvement will count for nothing).

If your novel isn't like this, then you need to rewrite your query so it gives the query-reader a good impression of what your novel is actually like.

Lehcarjt said...

Please don't mention Amazon "Top Reviewers". My first thought is Harriet Krauser(sp?). And that pretty much ruins the blurb.

BuffySquirrel said...

People don't need a reason to feel guilty over a death. It's a common emotional response.

Anonymous said...

"people" may not need a reason to feel guilty over a death, but I think a reader might- otherwise why write about it, or read about it?

Marian said...

Whoa - prostitute? She's risking jail time, physical and mental abuse, sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS) and psychos like the Green River Killer who prey on prostitutes. I could understand a heroine doing this if she had no other way to support herself or if she was forced into it. I'd need a lot of convincing to buy a heroine doing it if she was a millionaire.

BuffySquirrel said...

I think most people, or readers if you prefer, would be able to empathise with someone feeling guilt over a death, even without a specific reason attached. The reason is redundant.

Abby said...

I disagree. There are many real-life situations in which we don't require an explanation for someone's actions or emotions, but in fiction, that's unsatisfying. Although the reader can fill in the blanks, he shouldn't have to--and it'll more likely be read as a mistake rather than an editorial choice.

BuffySquirrel said...

Well, for me, filling in the blanks is one of the more satisfying aspects of reading--I hate having everything spelt out for me. So I guess we'll have to agree to disagree!


furrykef said...

I don't think a millionaire prostitute is entirely unbelievable. Do you think Ron Jeremy and Asia Carrera are in the poorhouse? I don't know if they're exactly millionaires, but they're clearly not just scrounging up money the only way they know how.

I'm not saying that it's necessarily easy to buy the concept of a millionaire prostitute, I'm just saying it's not inherently beyond belief (especially if we're talking something like a call girl with high-class clients, not a streetwalker). People do strange things. If anything, finding out why exactly a millionaire would choose prostitution could make for an interesting read.