Tuesday, March 17, 2009

#105-amended critique

Dear Query Shark:

In my novel, Both Sides Burning, Stephen Latimer is on the wrong side of history. The setting is the beginning At the start of the American Revolution, Latimer is a Loyalist, banished for his refusal to embrace the rebellion sweeping the American colonies. But instead of going quietly, he attacks his Patriot neighbor, the man he blames for his misfortune. He lands in Connecticut’s notorious Newgate Prison, sentenced to ten years in the dismal underground caverns.

I'm interested right away because the Loyalist perspective is different than the usual POV I see in historical novels. What puzzles me is that he's banished for his refusal to embrace the rebellion. A lot of Loyalists lived in the Colonies right up to the end of the war. It wasn't a crime to be a Loyalist. So, why is he banished? And why does he blame his neighbor?

NEW: There's a comment below that talks about the laws in Connecticut specifically. Including THAT specific info in this query will strengthen it.

NEW: I've seen this kind of thing before in historicals: a fact that isn't well known is the basis for a plot or a character. I read it and wonder if it's accurate. A line of explanation in the query letter would have been really useful.

(Loyalist info link here)

A couple more sentences here will help set the scene, maybe even just a few more words.

He engineers a daring escape, and as the smallpox epidemic of 1775-76 stalks the countryside, he makes his way home. He intends to retrieve his savings and take refuge with his brother on Long Island. (Fully half of New York is Loyalist so this makes sense) But a A chance encounter with his neighbor’s daughter, whose family is ravaged by smallpox, will change the course of both their lives, and cause him to question where his allegiance really lies.

I am a former radio and TV news reporter with an Emmy nomination for feature writing. I now work for the public library in (redacted), and sit on the executive board of the (redacted) Library Association. I believe Both Sides Burning will appeal to readers who enjoyed the adventure and romance of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

whoa. Hang on here. Outlander is set in Scotland in the 1700's right? It's about time travel, isn't it? This seems like a jarring comparison.

***After reading the comments section, I'm going to change my advice here. If you want to compare it to Diana Gabaldon's books you might consider adding that the later books in her series are historicals set in this time period. I don't think you can assume agents know that (I read the first books in the series several years back so I had the wrong impression here)

Both Sides Burning is my first novel. It is 139,000 words.

Yowza! 139,000 words is about 39,000 too many. I'm going to STRONGLY suggest that you get someone with an eye for slicing, dicing and paring to take a good look at this. Even if you like long ass books (and historicals can run long, this can probably be chopped by 20,000 words and be an easier sell)

I would be happy to send you the completed manuscript or a synopsis and sample chapters. This is a multiple submission.

You don't need these sentences. Use the space for more description in the first paragraph.

Thank you for your consideration.

I'd probably read pages on this one but I'm concerned that it's too long and there's not enough story. I like the concept though.


Kristin Laughtin said...

I agree. I was drawn in by the Loyalist perspective as well (although just as puzzled by the banishment). I'd want to see pages just to see if the writing holds up, even if it would need to be trimmed quite a bit.

Lehcarjt said...

This is exactly the kind of book I love and I'd totally read it. I even like the longer page length because historicals under 100K tend not to have enough room for the complex characters, plot, history, etc necessary to really bring the past alive for me. My favorite historical writers (including Gabaldon) all write humongous books and I wouldn't have it any other way.

**Side note: DG's books start in Scotland, but book number three moves the family to the Americas and later books deal with the Revolution. There is a time travel element, but the books are more historical than paranormal. In other words-- no magic, no telepathy, no vampires. Just a woman (and then her daughter) who go back in time and live there.

none said...

Almost any novel can be improved by editing (I'm looking at you, Wayne Johnston!). It just has to be the right kind of editing.

I'm totally not clear on why the smallpox should change the protag's political views. A little expansion there would have helped me.

Merry Monteleone said...

I love the idea but I think the query has to be a little clearer. I sort of assumed that the imprisonment had nothing to do with the character being loyalist, but the way it's phrased sounds like it does. It might be good to separate those issues and point specifically to what he was imprisoned for (and was he framed? where does the neighbor come in?)

And then mentioning the smallpox epidemic and specific years - I think it's clear you've done your research but you don't need it in the query letter. What does smallpox have to do with him changing loyalties or staying? Don't mention the epidemic years in the query because it sounds more like a history paper than a novel. The research should be impeccable, but it should still read like fiction.

That's my two cents, but I would definitely read this, I love that the character is a Loyalist and would like to see how the history is colored through that vantage point.

Peter said...

I had a question about this line:

'Both Sides Burning is my first novel. It is 139,000 words.'

Query Shark immediately 'jumped' on the word count and I wasn't sure if the first sentence should also be included. Is it necessary or encouraged to say something is a first novel? I know that publishing credits would be in the 'bio section' but the lack of them would signify as well.

'Both Sides Burning is a 139,000 word historical fiction' (or something along those lines)?

I can't imagine it would impress an agent to receive a query that said 'this is my 18th novel' only to realize that none of them are published.

Or is that just me? Thanks!

Sheila Deeth said...

It's so great to read an agent's thoughts like this. Thanks.

? said...

The American Revolution officially started in 1775. At the time, loyalists roughly equalled the patriots in numbers and current scholarship estimate that 1/3 of American colonists were loyalists, 1/3 were patriots, and another 1/3, mostly non-English immigrants like the Germans in Pennsylvania, were neutral.

My big question would be how Latimer could be banished for his refusal to embrace the rebellion-which was still very much in infancy stages. 1775 would certainly have been a tense year. Clashes between anti and pro revolutionary forces happened. But no one was being banished from here to there (yet). The banishment of loyalists and confiscation of loyalists properties occurred at the end of the Revolutionary war.

My suggestion is that you be explicit about what caused Latimer to be banished from Connecticut and presumably lose his worldly goods so early on in the Revolutionary War, especially as the British still controlled key cities and regions. An agent with a good sense of history might automatically send a form rejection at any indication of sloppy historical research.

I read a fair amount of historic fiction, and nothing irritates me more than someone who takes liberty with key facts about a given time period. You cannot merely drop a 21st century feminist into the 18th century without significant conflict among characters. But you can have an 18th century feminist, and there lies the challenge for any historic fiction writer.

JS said...

Tally has it spot-on.

Those of us who know a lot about the American Revolution are scratching our heads, because your scenario sounds a bit anomalous at that stage of the hostilities; those who don't know much about the American Revolution would be scratching their heads because your backstory is insufficient.

I would suggest finessing the whole thing and saying "Loyalist Stephen Latimer, wrongfully under sentence of banishment, attacks the neighbor he blames for his misfortune and winds up in the dismal underground caverns of Connecticut's Newgate Prison."

I don't know how "notorious" Newgate (which I've always seen rendered "New-Gate" in serious history) was in 1775, seeing as it had only been in operation for 2 years at that point.

Nonetheless, I think it's a fascinating setting and very Count of Monte Cristo-esque, seeing as it's a disused mine turned prison (for those of you who've never seen it, it's really astonishing).

pulp said...

With the Shark's revisions, this is a well constructed query.

Personally, I emit Homer Simpsonesque groans when contemplating reading about the Civil War or the American Revolution, but I was much intrigued by the Loyalist POV and, especially, the prison caverns.

I don't see the importance in the bio of your sitting on a library board, or the bare and vague fact of your working in a library. Doing what? If you're the librarian who evaluates and selects history or historical fiction, that matters. If you're processing materials, supervising personnel, or throwing drunks out of the bathrooms, you don't need this info.

lavellar said...

Tally, as I'm sure you know, Connecticut was never controlled by the British during the Revolution. In 1775, CT's General Assembly passed laws providing for confiscatioan of property and imprisonment for loyalists. It was indeed happening this early in CT. By 1777,the governor was offering pardons to Tories who wanted to return.

JS said...

lavellar, given that wholesale banishments of Loyalists was going on in Connecticut in 1775 (and I assume your information on this is accurate, but it was certainly news to me), why does Latimer blame his neighbor?

Again, you either have to explain the seemingly anomalous or finesse it for the query. Since you only have a couple of hundred words, finessing might be the right choice.

Beth said...

An interesting set-up, but it's a little thin on story.

IMO, 139K seems like a very reasonable, middling length for a historical novel. The trick is finding an agent who agrees with that. :) But they are out there.

(Fwiw, Diana G's last two books were about 500K each. And her first one, the shortest, is (I believe) around 275K. Compared to that, 139K is practically emaciated.)

(OTOH, her books are huge because they contain a _lot_ of story. Yours might, too, but we didn't see that in the query.)

Anonymous said...

Great premise, but the query left me a bit confused on where the story is supposed to head. The Shark is right about word count. The highest word count for any first-time novelist should be 110,000-120,000, and that upper limit usually applies to Adult and YA SF/FA. Yes, there are exceptions to that rule. Diana Gabaldon's first book is an EXCEPTION; however, by adhering to this rule, aspiring authors greatly decrease their chances of agents rejecting their work.

svostroff said...

I'm glad that Diana's agent didn't tell her to cut back her first book. Look what we would have missed.