Friday, March 20, 2009


Dear Query Shark:

WHISTLE BRITCHES is a southern term of endearment for boys with more energy than sense and who talk to hear their heads rattle.

Is "talk to hear their heads rattle" another southern turn of phrase? It jars me because heads don't rattle.

This middle-grade historical fiction set in Tullahoma, Tennessee in the summer of 1963 when the battles ravaging the land a century earlier were still felt, the Civil Rights Movement heated up, and the death count of the Vietnam Conflict started to climb.

This is an awkward sentence. It's also missing a verb.
The tense of the verbs seems off too: ARE still felt (not were), is heating up (not heated) and has started to climb.

I'm all for colorful writing, and I'll let you break every rule in the book, should that be your desire, but it's got to sound polished when you're done. This doesn't.

I'm not convinced that a middle grade book set in 1963 is considered "historical" but I'm not going to stop reading cause you categorize something in a way I think is wrong.

It's the awkward writing that will stop me cold.

When Will sees a WWI hero spit upon in his casket by the widow, his ten-year-old imagination spews out like a shaken co-cola.

Imagination spews out? Metaphors should illuminate, not confuse the reader.

Sent to his intense and serious grandmother as a punishment for his overactive imagination, Will sees another side to her.

whoa! I'm confused. We're not at the funeral with a spitting widow? That's just preliminary to the story? Get that OUT of the query. Focus on the heart of the story.

He also meets George Beatty, an old handyman, who has no schooling to speak of, but is the smartest man Will's ever met.

I'm afraid we've sunk into stereotypes and cliches now. The heart of gold, school of life handyman is such a stock figure that you must do something fresh and original with him to make him a compelling character.

Tullahoma in 1963 is a small town in which blacks and whites don't mix. But the kindness Will experiences on the other side of the tracks surprises him, especially because the hatred he observes in his grandmother's white Protestant church is such a contrast.

Will’s predicaments, his adversities, and the evasive nature of hope challenge him in formidable ways.

The evasive nature of hope? That's a phrase so awkward I don't know if it's hope or nature that's evasive.

I've been a magazine editor, ghostwriter, author, and nonfiction agent (for fifteen years). I now help my wife (a teacher and reading specialist) develop books in the education market. She is the co- author of (redacted). No no no. Helping your spouse, of either gender, is not a publication credit.

WHISTLE BRITCHES is the first of several middle-grade novels I hope to write ...

this sentences implies you have not written it. I sincerely hope this is not the case.

...and for which I'm seeking representation. As a recording artist of folk and children’s songs (six music CDs for -redacted-to be released May 28th), I hope to help promote WHISTLE BRITCHES and other forthcoming books by visiting schools for performances and readings.

Thank you for your consideration.

Reply: awkward writing, cliche and stock characters spell form rejection.


Sheila said...

Heads might rattle for any number of reasons. A screw so loose it's fallen into the works is probably the most common, followed closely by lost marbles leaving space for unaccustomed movement.

talpianna said...

I take profound offense at a story set in 1963 being characterized as "historical fiction." That was the year I graduated from college!

mumble*mumble*damn kids*mumble*mumble

WV: insan--am not!

? said...

A couple bits of information for you:

Combat units were first deployed to Vietnam in 1965, although American military advisors were involved starting in the early 1950s. Kennedy did send 16,000 military advisors, but in general the Vietnam war wasn't a major concern to the average US citizen, especially in small town Tennessee. That would change a few years later.

More Americans would be concerned with the Russians, as the Cuban Missle Crisis happened in October of 1962, and the growing civil rights movement.

Last but not least, Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963.

I agree with Janet Reid that your book has too many cliches. The heart of gold handyman is probably African-American? Why does the white Protestant church have to be filled with hatred? What is the grandmother doing as a member of a church filled with hatred?

For me, a more compelling would be the boy somehow forcing his grandmother's white church congregation to confront their own racial bias stemming from generations of Jim Crow and the tolerance of injustice, along with the growing public recognition of the contradiction between institutional racism and the Christian values espoused in the Bible. That conflict between tradition, inertia and changing values occurred in churches (and institutions) all across America in the 1960s and 1970s.

I don't get a sense of that conflict in your query letter. There is also the implication that you too blindly painted whole groups of people in one light, and hence, the cliches Janet spoke of. I too wonder if you are trying to use funny language in lieu of proper character development.

? said...

I also want to point out to you that there's no story in your query letter. You've described a few people, but where's the story?

How does Beatty influence the boy? Why does Beatty influence the boy?
What are the consequences of Beatty influencing the boy?

Answer those questions in the query letter, and you will give us the story.

Teagen said...

Did I miss the word count somewhere?

Also, I've read some great historical fiction novels for "middle grade" and they weren't anywhere near as confusing in the summary as this was. I'm not sure what kind of personal conflicts this character (Will, was it?) is going to face. He's going to see how pointless segregation and discrimination are, but what is his personal involvement in it? What does he do about it? And what drags him in to see this other side the world in the first place? There's nothing compelling me to want to potentially read this.

I do strongly agree that the sentence structures need to be cleaned up a lot as well. It could potentially be a very informative and wonderful novel, but the ideas needs to be more organized.

Teagen said...

Tally--This is relatively minor, I've always been told "African-American" is a good term, but most would prefer "black" (this from my mother who is black) because, while all are descended from people in Africa, most are not recently from Africa and the term is therefore misleading. Just as a general note.

For the author of this query--This is a good subject to do research on for the actual story because the preferences and used words then are going to be slightly different. I'm bringing this up because in your query you use "blacks" but the more popular term, I believe, was "coloreds". But I would check into that and that kind of detail would be necessary for a period story.

WV: vatepti--A funny foreign dance?

Taire said...

That is why you are so good at what you do, Janet. I would have never made it past "WHISTLE BRITCHES".

Sarah Laurenson said...

Having been a damn Yankee living in the South, I see some story promise here. But the query is not doing you any favors.

Anonymous said...

For me the biggest problem with this query was a lack of cohesion. The writer mentions many disperate incidents without really explaining why or how they're connected. I think the plot could be made clearer...

Anonymous said...

Helping your spouse, of either gender, is not a publication credit.

I've edited all my SO's published work. I've waded through the MS washed in a sea of red and purple editorial ink and ordered the promotional tidbits, called, emailed and in general made as many publicity waves as possible to promote the novels.

Is that relevant to an agent now that I'm seeking representation for my work? And if so, is there a way to list it in the query?

bryce k raffle said...


When Will sees a WWI hero spit upon in his casket by the widow, his ten-year-old imagination spews out like a shaken co-cola.

Should be "spat upon"
Also, what is co-cola? Is that anything like Coca-Cola? And if so, it's a brand name and should be capitalized and spelt correctly.

As for the 60s being history, yes, sorry to say to those of you who were still young adults during the 60s, it is now considered history. In fact, I took a course on the 60s in university.

Janet Reid said...

sorry, those are not publication credits. Pub credit are works that you've written that have been published.

What you've done is essentially learn the ropes. It's important but it's not something you'd mention in a query letter about your own work.

talpianna said...

Bryce: "co-cola" is Suth'n for any cola drink--in fact, perhaps it would also include non-cola carbonated drinks like root beer.

As for "African-American," it was a new term in 1963. In fact, the earliest I can remember hearing it was during the 1964 presidential campaign. Back then, "Negro" and "colored" were the polite terms used by whites, as opposed to various forms of the N-word and "coon" and the like.

WV: rudge

Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius, two fifths sheer fudge.

James Russell Lowell, A Fable for Critics

Sarah Laurenson said...

When I lived in the South, all sodas were called coke. I had to ask if my friends wanted a coke-coke or something else. Invariably it was something else. In PA, it was pop or sody pop. In NJ, it was soda.

Regional dialect can be extreme.

Lily Cate said...

I think "historical" needs to be adjusted when considering a child's perspective. To a ten year old today, anything from before about 1990 might have to be explained a little. The same way films now have to reach to explain away technology.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I love stories with regional flavor, but I've lived in the South my entire life and never heard "whistle britches." Co-cola, sure, but I was lost at whistle britches...and kinda rattled around from there.

JBarWriter said...

As a southerner the expression I'd heard growing up in the deep south wasn't to hear their heads rattle..."who talk to hear their heads roar." Meaning metaphorically they rather hear the sound of their own voice than to common sense of reasoning and logic. Would this not be a better metaphor and what do you think? An aspiring author reading Query Shark diligently.

“WHISTLE BRITCHES is a southern term of endearment for boys with more energy than sense and who talk to hear their heads rattle.”

JBarWriter said...

"Meaning metaphorically they would rather hear the sound of their own voice than to the common sense of reasoning and logic." Hope this is much better.

Julie Weathers said...

"I'm afraid we've sunk into stereotypes and cliches now. The heart of gold, school of life handyman is such a stock figure that you must do something fresh and original with him to make him a compelling character."

This made me laugh.

Dale Cramer discussed working on the wiring for an elderly lady. I understand he did quite a bit of carpentry work pro-bono for people in a certain community. Handyman with a heart of gold and all.

One of the guys working with him mentioned something about Dale's latest book.

The woman acted astounded. "Book. Our Dale? The carpenter?"

"Yes, you didn't know he's a writer?"

"Writer? I didn't even know he could read."

Anonymous said...

Ms. Reid, thank you! That tid-bit of information is priceless.

Unknown said...

My dad used to call me "Whistle Britches" because, when I was a young boy, my corduroy britches legs would "whistle" when they rubbed together as I walked.
Nylon britches do the same thing.
It's also a term used to describe someone who passes gas.
BTW, I've always lived in the heart of Tennessee, about an hour and a half west of Tullahoma.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Wow, talking to hear your head rattle is a common term here in SE Missouri. IMO it adds to her voice. It's weird to hear so many people have never heard that phrase before.

I have always enjoyed hearing other people's lingo. I think that's why I love hearing Britians and Austrailians talk, and I love books written from other areas. I am always learning new and exciting terms that way. That's how I learned the word pop, we call them cokes or sodas, no matter what brand the are.

Beth said...

bryce k raffle said: When Will sees a WWI hero spit upon in his casket by the widow, his ten-year-old imagination spews out like a shaken co-cola.

Should be "spat upon"

Not unless you change the all the verbs in the sentence to past tense. As currently written, "sees" is present tense, as is "spews" and "spit."

This might be a heart-warming, life-affirming story, but we'd never know it from the query, which doesn't say much about the actual story at all. Also, the writing is awkward and in places ungrammatical.

Kimbra Kasch said...

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Marius said...

"Whistle britches" as a term is well documented in these published books shown at Google Books:

To do the search yourselves, go to Google Books:

and search for
"whistle britches"
(quotation marks are important).