Monday, June 16, 2008


Second Revision:

Dear Query Shark,

If Liz McCall could change anything about her life, she’d change damn near everything.

Every Saturday, Liz regales the staff and clients at Margie’s beauty salon with her wit, wisdom, and imperious, down-home advice. Born in Mississippi, divorced from several well-heeled Texans, and the mother of eight disparate sons, Liz takes a special interest in Leah Starks, a twenty-six-year-old whose life has been burdened by abandonment issues and doubts about her self-worth.

When Leah’s emotionally distant mother is killed in an automobile accident, Liz unravels a secret that lies in the spelling of Leah’s name. These two events are not logically connected. The spelling of Leah's name is not a secret until her mother dies. Presumably Liz knows Leah's name already.

Margie’s husband, who had briefly dated the dead woman in high school, is Leah’s biological father. (so?)

Shortly after Leah’s joyful marriage to her former fiancé and an announcement that a baby is on the way, Liz is rushed to the hospital with a respiratory ailment. Four days later—with Margie, Leah, their husbands, and Liz’s youngest son by her side, Liz succumbs to pneumonia.

In a poignant letter penned before her demise, Liz reveals she has a daughter with whom she has had a loving relationship with for over thirty years. At the reading of Liz’s last will and testament, Margie and Leah meet the only son Liz had included and the illegitimate, biracial daughter Liz had given up for adoption fifty years ago. Following a life-threatening pregnancy, Leah gives birth to a special little girl after receiving a late night visit from a nurse. Although no one on the hospital staff knew who the mysterious nurse was, Leah knows that Liz never abandoned her.

Written for the women’s fiction market, saints and sinners learn that love has many faces, and sometimes an angel is disguised and is called a friend in my 80,000-word novel, WHEN HEARTS CRY OUT. (this paragraph doesn't make any sense to me. Start by breaking it into more and shorter sentences)

You're covering so much of what you think is the plot that you're leaving out the other ingredients. Who is the main character? Leah? Liz? Who's the antagonist? And no, it's not Leah's dead mother.

If Liz could change her life, why doesn't she? Why did she make the choices she did? How has regret shaped her life? You don't need long answers to these, but we need to get a sense of a some depth to these characters.

There has to be more to the plot than the discover of a letter that miraculously reveals things after a character dies.

Form rejection.

First Revision:
Dear Query Shark,

Married seven times, Liz McCall doesn’t vote, go to church, or believe in doctors. A purveyor of wit, wisdom, and life-changing advice for the staff and clients at Margie’s beauty salon, Liz fears the thoughts of having to live out her remaining years in a nursing home, dying alone, and having her wealth end up in undeserving hands.

The only Saturdays Liz misses her appointments at the salon are if the weather in North Central Texas is bad, if the salon is closed due to a holiday, and the two times a year she travels to Washington, D.C. to visit a black family she has known many years.

None of this has anything to do with the hook or the plot. It's all description and set up.

When twenty-six-year-old client Leah Starks’ emotionally estranged mother is killed in an automobile accident, Liz unravels a family secret, and Margie and Leah learn they have more in common than either of them ever imagined. Shortly after Leah marries her ex-fiancé and announces she is pregnant, Liz succumbs to a respiratory ailment at a local hospital.

Wait. The main character is DEAD? .

In a poignant letter penned before her demise,

and reveals the plot and the story in a letter? No. No. No

Liz reveals among other things, that the wife of the family in Washington is a daughter she had given birth to between her third and fourth marriages. The only relatives Liz includes in her will are the youngest of her eight sons, a cousin, and her daughter.

The answer to a question that had plagued Liz most of her life is in the last five words of the epitaph she had requested her daughter place on her headstone: There are six things in life that are free—the air we breathe, a smile, laughter, the wisdom of older people, the love we give to ourselves and others, and the grace of God.

Written for the commercial and women’s fiction markets WHEN HEARTS CRY OUT is an 80,000-word novel in which saints and sinners learn over a span of three years that love has many faces, and that angels are sometimes disguised and are called friends.


There's no plot here. It sounds like all the events are revealed in a letter after the main character dies. I can't begin to describe how un-energetic that sounds.

Why don't you just tell Liz's story as it happens on the page. Even if you bracket it with the beauty salon stuff, at least get the actual story on the page.

Dear Query Shark,

There are some things even a woman’s hairdresser doesn’t know for sure.

Married seven times, Liz McCall doesn’t vote, go to church, or believe in doctors, but loves lawyers. Burdened by her failure as a mother, she hasn’t seen or talked to seven of her eight sons in years. Aside from these “minor” character flaws as she calls them, the seventy-three-year-old beauty salon denizen is an infallible source of wit, wisdom, and life-changing advice for saints and sinners.

When Liz passes unexpectedly at a local hospital, a poignant letter she had penned before her demise, her amended last will and testament, and the words she had requested for her epitaph reveal a side of her the staff and clients at the salon never knew—and a family secret she had kept for almost half a century.

Written for the commercial and women’s fiction markets and complete at 80,000 words, WHEN HEARTS CRY OUT is about a woman who, during the last two and a half years of a relatively long life, resolves the dilemma of whose lives she wants to benefit the most: family or friends.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Steel Magnolias for seniors?
There's no plot here (also a problem in Steel Magnolias, but when Olympia Dukakis gets to lovin' her luggage, who cares.)

What you've got is a very general idea of what the book is about, but nothing of substance to entice me to read it. Even the language is dull for such a spitfire old lady.

This may be a great novel, but this query letter doesn't give me any reason to think so.

I suggest you start again and think about how Liz McCall herself would talk about this.


Kitty said...

Maybe it's because I just slogged through several posts before I got to this one, but I like the sound of this book. If I read this on the book jacket flap in B&N, I'd definitely open to the first page.

But that's just me.


Liana Brooks said...

Could you start the query with the family secret? Maybe explain why it's important and what effect all this will have? Honestly, all I got out of the query is that some lady changed her will and died. I have no clue what else might happen or why I should care.

Lehcarjt said...

Personally, I'm a little tired of family secrets.

Margaret Yang said...

I'm with Kitty. I didn't think it was that bad. Just personal taste, I guess.

Rodney Battles said...

Thanks for the positive comments and encouragement. I'll put some more thought into the query and give it another try.

Anonymous said...

I too would pick up this book and read it, based on the general storyline- I like stories about strong older women and they are hard to find, IMO. But I wouldn't want to feel like I had to rush the story just to get to the punchline (the secret).

Unknown said...

I really didn't like the first line. I mean, there's lots of things a hairdresser doesn't know for sure... it sounded as if the author was trying to be clever, but it flopped for me.

talpianna said...

Beth, your youth makes me believe that you don't remember the Miss Clairol ad of the 1980s:

The first Miss Clairol ads were originally written "Does she... or doesn't she? Hair color so natural only her mother knows for sure!" However, Clairol was concerned about alienating hairdressers by their attempts at selling retail. By changing the word "mother" to "hairdresser," the ads turned the hairdresser into an authority. So, the final ads read, "Does she... or doesn't she? Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure!" (Cummings, 1985). said...

I've said many times I think plucky, sassy, spunky heroines are way overdone, but when they're "older" women ... they're funny as hell. Convince me that your heroine is Olympia Dukakis, Shirley Maclaine, or Ruth Gordon, and you've sold a book. I hope you get the hook just right, because I'm betting this is a story worth reading.

Rodney Battles said...

Talpianna and Southern Writer, thanks for the comments. I'm working hard to get the hook and plot just like the baby bear's porridge. . . jussst right.

Kitty said...

Ruth Gordon -- YES! She helped make Rosemary's Baby "fun."

... said...

My personal Ruth Gordon favorite is Harold & Maude. There aren't many comedies blacker than it (I'll bet Janet likes it). She also "made" the Every Which Way but Loose Clint Eastwood series. They would not / could not have been the same without her.

And Rodney ... looking forward to it.

Unknown said...

Talpianna--Thanks for clarifying! I was born in 81 :) Definitely don't remember those...

talpianna said...

Beth, I barely remember the beginning of the campaign myself; it turns out it started in 1955! Here's some interesting stuff about Shirley Polykoff, the creator of the ad:

Does anyone else remember "Which twin has the Toni?" and the much-parodied "I dreamed I [?] in my Maidenform bra"?

Anonymous said...

Gosh, y'all are making me feel old. I remember those commercials vividly. I also remember the phrase being parodied endlessly, so when I read it in the query it sounded like a cliche to me.
And my favorite Ruth Gordon appearance is as a novelist/murderer on Columbo-

none said...

I didn't like that first line at all. Definitely an "eh?" factor. But then I don't go to hairdressers.

Maybe agents do :D.

Vacuum Queen said...

Um, I still don't understand how she married her ex fiance. I suppose I also married my ex fiance...he was my fiance, now he's my husband. Perhaps I'll start introducing him that way. "Meet my ex fiance..."