Sunday, June 29, 2014

#261-revised 2x FTW

Dear Query Shark,

Jumping parole might be Lemon Beasly’s only shot at saving her baby. Soon she’ll start showing, and her boss, Nathaniel, will find out she’s still pregnant. She’d let him put his hands and other extremities on her body for four long months before she figured he didn’t care one fig for her, and all those promises to help clear her prison record were a goddamn lie. Falling for a man’s tricks got her sent to the stoney lonesome in the first place, and now Nathaniel’s threatening to cook up a violation if she doesn’t get an abortion. And sShe believes him too. Powerful men always get their way. They’d send her baby to foster care to grow up motherless, just like she did.

When she Lemon meets Rayline over a Beretta Tomcat and a well-placed knee in Nathaniel’s baby makers, her first impression is the woman might be three baby steps away from flat crazy. But it doesn’t take long to figure that Rayline is better than harmless. She’s a 67-year-old woman who’s never wanted anything more than to raise a child and get some respect. Her family’s kept her in their own little prison, almost as good as Alabama’s fine penal accommodations. And there’s no way they’d let her anywhere near a baby.

Rayline just might be the person Lemon’s always needed in her life: a mother figure who won’t go away. And Lemon is Rayline’s first true friend. But can they get out before their men catch wind or the law catches on?

WOMEN LIKE US, a novel of 84,000 words, is Women’s Fiction. It was a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and for that won a Publisher’s Weekly review:. PW says, “A charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect ... upbeat ...  fast paced, featuring “strong and quirky female characters.”

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 The contrast between this effort and the initial query makes me weep for joy.
You're good to go here. I hope it sells for wheelbarrows full of lovely lolly.

Dear Query Shark,

Lemon Beasly needs to get the hell out of WalMart. Soon she’ll start showing, and her boss, Nathaniel, will find out she’s still carrying his baby. She became pregnant after months of giving into his manipulative demands for sex. He’d promised to help her clear her prison and parole record. Hell if that wasn’t a lie. Now he’s threatening to cook up a violation if she doesn’t get an abortion, and she believes him too. Powerful men always get their way. They’d send her baby to foster care to grow up motherless, just like she did. 

Rayline’s never wanted anything more than to raise a child and get some respect. She’s 67-years-old, but her family’s kept her under close watch her entire life, never letting her make a decision for herself. And there’s no way they’d let her anywhere near a baby. 

When the two women Lemon and Rayline meet over a Beretta Tomcat and a well-placed knee in Nathaniel’s baby makers, they find something incredible. For Lemon, the love of a mother figure who won’t go away. For Rayline, real friendship with a person who loves and admires her. But can they get out before their men catch wind of it or the law catches on?

Incredible makes it sound like they've become lovers, and while I've got no problem with lesbian fiction, I'm pretty sure that's not what you're intending to write. Find a more precise word than incredible.

WOMEN LIKE US, a novel of 84,000 words, falls into the is Women’s Fiction category. It was a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and for that won a Publisher’s Weekly review. PW called it,  “upbeat” and “fast paced,” featuring “strong and quirky female characters.” Says PW, “(1)A charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect.”
Put that last sentence (1) before "upbeat". It will read like this:

PW called it "a charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect" -- “upbeat” and “fast paced,” featuring “strong and quirky female characters.”

You don't want to use "says PW" twice in the same paragraph.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Oh, you took off your crazy hat and wild make up and got all sober sides here. One of the best things about your first query was the voice and the word choices (diction) Some of the word choices didn't work, but with this you've swung so far into respectable that you've lost what made you colorful.

Don't be afraid to be wild and crazy. Just not out of control and insane. Learning the difference between enough and too much is an on going process.

Take another whack at this.

Question: I know that you've said you hate it when writers make ridiculous claims of self-importance, but I have this great PW review of my book that I want to include in my query. I've led with a couple quotes from PW rather than starting with the story because I thought that would be most enticing. But is that annoying? Does it sound self-aggrandizing? I got the PW review as part of a prize from a writing contest, and I'm trying to find the best way to use it to promote my book to agents. Thanks for reading!

Dear Query Shark,

Publisher’s Weekly called WOMEN LIKE US “upbeat” and “fast paced,” featuring “strong and quirky female characters.” Says PW, “A charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect.”

And here's where I'd stop reading if this were a regular query. When I see "PW called" I assume they reviewed the book, and that means the book was published. I don't handle books that have already been published (some agents do) but more importantly, if I thought your book was published, it's no longer your first novel, and thus less enticing. 

Lemon Beasly needs to know why Momma was murdered all those years ago. Lemon’s got the who. Trouble is, she sent that bastard to hell before he could get to the juicy part. So she’s been working the why over for ten years now. First in the state of Alabama’s fine penal accommodations, then at the Wal-Mart, where she works as a condition of her parole. Even while her boss, Mr. Smutty, is screwing her on lunch breaks.

And I've stopped taking you seriously now. Mr Smutty? Is that what Lemon calls him?  And "is screwing her" says absolutely the wrong thing if you want me to feel sympathy with Lemon. 

You're letting your "quirky" overpower the story.  Lemon is your protagonist. We need to be rooting for her. Why would she let someone named (godhelpus) Mr. Smutty into her pants? 

And you've missed the key piece of information here: the stakes. WHY does Lemon need to know why her mum was murdered? What's at stake if she never finds out?

That mess with Smutty ends the day she steals an EPT from the family planning aisle and turns the test strip blue. Smutty tells her she can lose the baby or lose her job. That would mean a parole violation for her, and foster care for her unborn child.

Now here is where we really do start to care. Now something is at stake.

Now she’s got two choices. Kill her baby and stick around in a “safe” but miserable life, or run. She teams up with Rayline, a saucy, pistol-packing, mildly retarded woman.

 I'm not sure why it's important to know Rayline is mildly retarded. It certainly makes me nervous to think of someone who is mildly retarded is also armed. And what does Lemon need from her that this is her choice of sidekick?

They set off to find Trigger, Lemon’s high school boyfriend. He might have the answers about Momma, or a clue at least. Question is, can Lemon and Rayline find him before the cops find them?

Why does Trigger (jebus, these names!) have the answer?

WOMEN LIKE US, a novel of 84,000 words, is the perfect blend of laugh-out-loud humor, heart-wrenching drama, and page-turning tension. PW agrees, “The fast-paced narrative addresses racism, murder, discrimination, loss, female friendship, and mothering. …this would most appeal to women readers or to those concerned with race and women’s status in late 20th-century America.” Thank you for your time and consideration.

The way you handle the PW review is to be very clear that the mention was  part of a prize from a writing contest.  You mention it at the END of the query. And I'm sorry to say that this PW mention isn't the ticket to the top of the query pile you think it is. I don't care what anyone else thinks, I only care what *I* think. And what *I* think is based on what you tell me about the plot and characters.

Also, this is NOT "ridiculous claims of self-importance,"--you actually earned that review the old fashioned way. You wrote the book and someone liked it.

Ridiculous claims of self-importance are: people who love God will love my book; God loves my book; all women will love my book; I'm the best writer since God. 

You've got voice and diction like nobody's business. You probably have a good novel in there. You don't have a good query yet. 

Revise and use the template that I've yammered about now for years. Give it your own individual flair.


Anonymous said...

Good luck with this, and congrats on getting far enough in the Amazon contest to get a PW review. A few thoughts:

In addition to the "screwing", I was also a bit put off by "kill her baby". Obviously Lemon has killed before, but I assume in this case you're talking about abortion. Probably best not to put a value judgment on that in a query since you won't know how the agent feels about the issue.

With regard to the Mr. Smutty situation, I think you're implying that if she doesn't have sex with him she loses her job and goes back to jail. But that's textbook sexual harrassment and is illegal even at Walmart. If your protag can't get out of that situation, then she seems weak.

I also question the seriousness of a parole violation for losing her job, especially if she lost it due to sexual harrassment. A quick google and a side trip to an ex-con's chat forum suggests that this isn't a total disaster; she wouldn't go back to prison for it. So the stakes aren't high.

"Retarded" is generally considered offensive and isn't important info for the query anyway.

Is this manuscript still tied up in the Amazon contest? If not, and since you advanced far enough to get the review, I think you should say how far you got. If you made it to the quarter-finals, that's what, 100 out of 10,000 or something? Impressive enough to be worth a mention IMO.

I've heard agents say contests should not be mentioned, but since I got my foot in the door via a contest win, I take that with a grain of salt. Mention!

Briefly, though. Don't try to impress. Don't describe your own work in glowing terms... or any terms. Leave that to others.

Theresa Milstein said...

That's great about the Amazon contest. I don't think the info belongs at the top though. Anything to do with it should be in the final paragraph.

I think you're trying to put too much in this query. I'd suggest taking out the murder solving part. That's not what's at stake here. You have enough of a plot without it. Queries don't tell each plot thread--just the important one or two that show what's at stake for the main character.

I'll echo what alaskaravenclaw says, take out the word "retarded." There's a whole campaign to eradicate the offensive term.

Anonymous said...

you know, I googled this to find the PW review and found the author's blog. She's included the PW review & in it is a very good summary of the novel, so good, I suggest the author look to the PW review:

Lemon is a young, white, down-on-her-luck woman living in Alabama during the 80s and 90s. After leaving prison and living in a halfway house, Lemon breaks her parole. She is pregnant by her manipulative employer at K-Mart. Then she meets Rayline, an older, unhappily married black woman. Throughout her life, Rayline has been called retarded, but she is clearly not. The two lonely women instantly bond and decide to forge a new life together, evading their men and the law....

and paraphrase it for her query. It tells you much more about the book than the query.

Theresa Milstein said...

Christopher, that is much better!

Adib Khorram said...

I too like the PW review blurb, but I'd like a clearer picture of the stakes as well.

I particularly like how they describe Rayline:

Throughout her life, Rayline has been called retarded, but she is clearly not.

That juxtaposition between expectation and reality makes it so much more interesting.

Congrats on the contest!

DLM said...

I'd also agree with alaskaravenclaw's points. I'd add that, as a Southerner, I *haaaaaate* it when someone uses offensive terms and an overabundance of quirkiness in order to "sound Southern."

The PW blurb does get the points across much more clearly, even poignantly, and without the somewhat manic feel we see in the query as it stands. Also: concise.

I'm with Janet on the names, too. Again, not everyone south of the Mason-Dixon has an overstated cutesy nickname (or given name), and we don't all work at a Mart (whether Wal- or K-). Treating some of the profound issues mentioned in this query with the flip tone shown here is outstandingly offputting. Almost every one of these things is a massive psychological trigger for an awful lot of people. Even if you want a light touch, an insensitive one is just cruel.

Elissa M said...

This sounds like it might be a great read, but the query hasn't convinced me of that yet. I agree the PW blurb gives me a much better idea of the story, but I also agree the stakes need to be clear.

What does Lemon want? To make a life and raise her baby despite the circumstances and people who are trying to stop her? Or is it something else? Tell me so I can care.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Have to agree about the references to abortion "kill her baby") and "mildly retarded." Why make a potential agent back off because of a value judgment?
While the story sounds interesting, the whole thing feels a little "too" quirky, if you get my drift, as if the writer is making sure to hit all the tropes of a quirky southern novel. The names in particular. Lemon. Rayline, Mr. Smutty, Trigger. We get that the book is set in the south, and I know we're all supposed to be colorful rednecks with silly names. But I live in Louisiana, and there are plenty of people with normal names. Larry. Scott. Marcia. Rebecca. I even know a Chaz.
Making us *care* about the characters is more important in the query than making us giggle because of a funny name.

Laina said...

Yeah, I'd facepalm at "kill her baby" - god forbid you ever query an agent who has HAD an abortion, which you really do have good odds of doing - and stop reading entirely at "r****ded" because it's a slur and I'm not really into ableism. You wouldn't use the N-word in a query, would you?? So not a good idea.

Colin Smith said...

As soon as you asked about the PW review, my first thought was: "Put it at the end, and mention it was the result of winning a contest so the agent doesn't think the novel's published." Since the QOTKU said the same thing, I must be thinking along the right lines! :)

I was also put off a bit by the quirkiness of the query. This is SUCH a hard thing to do (I know, fellow querier--I'm with you in the the query trenches). You want to give the agent a sense of the novel's voice, and you want to entice, but you don't want the query to be all voice and no substance. It's a difficult balance, but I think it's fair to say you've gone a little too far with the voice for a query.

All the best to you! I hope these (and everyone else's) comments help. :)

Shawna said...

Regarding some of the word choice comments... I wouldn't worry about using the terms that some people are complaining about. Not everyone is as worried about political correctness as they evidently are. If that's the tone of your novel, you want an agent that's not going to want you to change the whole tone anyway, so if some of them reject it because of those things, they're probably not the right agent for this book anyway. Also, if it's written in the same tone/voice as the novel, and the novel is about an old-fashioned redneck kind of person, then it makes sense that she'd say that kind of thing because that's her perspective. (Seriously sometimes all this PC-ness drives me nuts. And yes, a lot of people in the world really do honestly view abortion as baby-killing. It's a perfectly justified and legitimate viewpoint for a main character to have.) But that's just my opinion, and obviously a lot of people disagree with me.

As far as the bragging on yourself kind of stuff, I agree that my inclination would be to put it at the end and state that it was from a writing contest (making clear that the book hasn't already been published).

I agree that the threat from her boss seems odd--in that I wonder why she doesn't file some sort of sexual harassment suit against him or something. If she's on parole, does she talk to her parole officer about it and explain the situation? Surely they couldn't throw her back in prison for being blackmailed and threatened like that. If she doesn't even try this route, I wonder if she's really even bright enough for me to get behind. Also, if Trigger had the answers about her mom's death, why hasn't she gone to him before now?

nightsmusic said...

Though I read QOTKU faithfully, I don't often post but I have to say, were I to read the PW blurb, I'd consider reading this story. But your query is a hot mess. I'm sorry, but it is. It Doesn't tell me anything. It's a set of facts. And the first fact you lead with is Momma's murder. Then I read nothing else about that until the very end. I understand you're giving us an idea of you protag and what she's like, but I'm still wondering what Momma's murder has to do with anything throughout the rest of the query.

Don't lead with the review, don't lead with Momma's murder unless you tie it into everything that's happening to your MC. You tell us she landed in jail, buy why? She murdered the man who murdered Momma...why didn't she ask him first? I know, dumb question, but I ended up with several of those while reading this. If Mr Smutty is banging her in the backroom, why? Did he threaten to turn her in to her parole officer? In this day of technology, there isn't any reason she can't get the whole thing on video and turn him in...

Too, too many questions. I hope from the review that you answer them in the story but for me, this needs way too much clarity.

*edited because I am an idiot and didn't proofread first...

Steve Stubbs said...

Interesting that everyone is focusing on political correctness. Yes, you might want to make it clear you think abortion is a Good Thing and be nicer to “southerners” and the mentally retarded. But the problem is how the query is sequenced. The baby and the affair with Mr. Smutty don’t seem to have anything to do with the central conflict, which appears to be she wants to investigate her mother’s death and believes her status as a parolee is too limiting to do that effectively. I would suggest leading with your conflict.

Lemon yearns to get to the bottom of why her mother was murdered. But her parole officer tells her she can’t quit her job at Wal-Mart without going back to prison. She can stay at Wal-Mart and not solve the mystery that haunts her, but she has to abort her unborn baby. Her boss, Mr. Smutty, is the father, and he has threatened her with termination if she carries the child to term. Her parole officer, Ms. Smutty, is Mr. Smutty’s daughter with another Wal-Mart employee. Etc.

Re-ordering like this, it occurs to me all this is back story. The story takes off when Lemon tells Mr. Smutty and Ms. Smutty to stick it and goes on the lam. If we start there we get:

Lemon is a woman on the run. She is on the run from her boss at Wal-Mart, who is the father or her unborn child. He is demanding she terminate the pregnancy. She is on the run from her parole officer, who wants to put her back in prison for leaving Wal-Mart. She is on the run from the turmoil in her own soul, which she can only lay to rest if she finds out why her mother was murdered. She knows who the murderer was.

She killed him herself.

The key to everything is a man named Trigger. She has to do what Roy Rogers never could. She has to make Trigger talk.

Reordering that way, a problem emerges. Somehow I just don’t get a sense of where this story is going. Even if she does find out why her mother was murdered she is still a parolee. It seems the story has to lead straight back to prison. If I were an agent, this would be a big red flag. So there is something missing, plot-wise.

Anonymous said...

"Political correctness" is a term that someone came up with aeons ago to make people who raised legitimate concerns feel silly for doing so.

Once we figured that out, it stopped working. And that was 20 years ago.

We're advising the querier not to risk offending the majority of the people she intends to query by using alienating language. It's probably not a great idea to start out with the premise that the majority of agents are "probably not the right agent for this book."

Shawna said...

Well, I'll refrain from responding to your first comment, AR, as not to get too political. But I do think that it's a good idea for an author to target particular agents that she thinks would be best for her book, at least at first. I guess it's up to the author to decide if any particular agent would be offended by the tone and language in her book and adjust her targeting accordingly. If she decides that would rule out too many agents/publishers, then she could decide if it's worth changing her work to appeal to more of them.

Mister Furkles said...

Why did Lemon go to prison? She killed her mother's murderer, but you say, “...before he could get to the juicy part.” That implies she killed him immediately after he murdered her mother. That makes you a hero in Alabama. And what is “the juicy part”? Did he murder the mother to steal the family dessert? Or was he going to rape Lemon? That would make her a bigger hero.

Why he murdered the mother is not very interesting.

Leave the whole “Mr. Smutty”, the boorish harasser, out of the query unless he is key to the main conflict. I also don't see how the pregnancy is important enough to be in the query.

What does Lemon do that is unusual and puts her at risk and why?

DLM said...

It is not a foolish nor a political concern to consider whether insulting, hurting, or emotionally triggering a perfect stranger is a good idea in sending professional correspondence. In any such communication, erring on the side of not being even *potentially* offensive is only common sense.

Beyond any such question: why would you want to self-eliminate, by using terms which have been proven for years to offend and upset some people (even if they don't offend and upset you)? Agents receive so many submissions they LOOK for reasons to eliminate quickly. Why make it quite so easy?

Shawna said...

Once again, I'm going to refrain from replying, as I hate getting into political debates.

So I'll just say to the author: as with any feedback, take what everyone's saying about this as suggestions. Change it if you want, or not, whatever you think is best for your story/query. I won't be offended either way.(Besides, as others have pointed out, there are more important issues with your query that you should be looking at.)

hnayak said...

Where is the "template" that Query Shark mentions in this review? I'm new to the blog - I've been plowing through the archives and they're great, but is there an actual framework or template she outlines in the beginning?

I've also read a short book on queries that says you have only three sentences for the hook, but these are much longer? Could someone mention where this is discussed? thanks!

Adib Khorram said...

@hnayak: It's repeated on a number of queries that are a bit muddy on the plot points. Keep plowing through and you'll find it repeated in several places.

Also, what book did you read? And, more importantly, was it written by an actual agent who reads queries?

Jane said...


What does the protagonist want?
What's keeping him from getting it?
What choice/decision does he face?
What terrible thing will happen if he chooses A; what terrible thing will happen if he doesn't.

Here's another form of the same thing:
The main character must decide whether to ________. If s/he decides to do (this), the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are______. If s/he decides NOT to do this: the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are________.

Moray said...

Janet - This query brings up a somewhat off-topic question, but I am certain WalMart would be less than thrilled to have such a scumbag manager identified as one of theirs. Is it wiser/easier to create a fictional store? I would think that if you wanted WalMart to sell your book it would be a wise change.

My question is - for a Y/A book I have written I was told (very probably apocryphal and BS) that it can be tricky if you want a character to be a member of the Girl (or Boy) Scouts. Best to avoid it. I can't think of what legal grounds they can object to a writer using the organization's name but I have seen a hell of a lot of fictional youth-groups in books.

Are there recommended guidelines for when to use a real brand name (Like Delta, McDonalds, etc.) and when to invent your own?

Theresa Milstein said...

I would make up a store instead of calling it Walmart. You can be sure that no Walmart or Sam's Club stores will sell your books in the future.

While I think this query is more at the heart of the story, I still find some things confusing. The man is a manager at a *mart. That's not exactly powerful, is it? I'd take out that line. If she worked at the corporation, that would make more sense.

And while Rayline may be an important part of the story, I'd keep it all in Lemon's POV. How does Rayline relate to Lemon? Because this query should be Lemon's story.

Yeah, I miss some of that voice too.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I agree with Theresa, make up a store, but if you do go with big blue, it is


Not Wal-mart or WalMart or Wal*mart.

Just those little touches. Like the very good action adventure I read that the ARC touted as being written by a woman. Well, it lost a lot of credibility when she talked about the helicopters propellers.

As for the rest, I second the other comments. I'm not one for painful political correctness (like the comment that was removed when I called Grumpy Cat (aka Tardar Sauce) "Tard the Cat." Um, no.


Shawna said...

So what I get from Steve's comment is that the shark doesn't screen comments for being bats**t insane.

Janet Reid said...

Ok, everyone, the comments column is for comments on the actual query. Not philosophical rants on things IN the query.

Yes, you can be batshit crazy and post here, but sooner or later you get deleted.

I've deleted the comment that started the responses, and the responses.

Stay on topic, please.

And yes, I do pay attention. Not as closely then as I will be now.

DLM said...

Janet, thank you.

This week seems to have brought on more than your share of the bats, and - I don't want to fawn and gush about how great you are, but the grace you have shown and the restraint you have exemplified are worth being grateful for. I buttoned my lip on this one, and am glad.

It's a worthwhile reminder to pay attention to what we say online. Even if a Shark isn't watching (and particularly if one is), it always matters who *is* ... and we never *know* who is.

For the query - I agree with Janet overall, but would add that the repetition of "hell" twice in one paragraph is *pleh* for me. Not because I object to the word, but repetition is a drag.

Anonymous said...

Dear Janet Reid/Query Shark,
I found your blog--or maybe it found me. I've been up all night reading the archives. The sun is now rising and I fear I'm going blind.

Damn. My delusional belief that I already knew how to write like a pro has been shattered. Your wit and wisdom hurts so good. Thank you.

To the author of this query: I think more than one oddball name per novel is too many. But maybe that's just me. Also, as the grandmother of a profoundly cognitively impaired 16-year-old sweetheart, I know from firsthand experience how much the "R" word can hurt. On the other hand, I grew up in an era when the "R" word was commonly accepted, along with a lot of other words and notions that go over like a fart in church, today. While toeing the ever-changing line of political correctness can sometimes feel like I'm wearing a muzzle--or a strait jacket--when in doubt, I prefer to err on the side of non-offensiveness.

In other words, kindness--doing unto others as I would have others do unto me--is a Golden Rule that (I hope) never goes out of style.

The only constant is change, it seems. I am reminded of an old Chinese curse: May you live in changing times.

Not meaning to disparage either the old or the Chinese.

I L.O.V.E. this blog! Time to let the dogs out, brew a pot of coffee, find a pair of my hubby's reading glasses, and back to the archives I go. I feel like I've come home.

Unknown said...

Wow ... just wow. This last iteration is beyond awesome, and does a great job of showing us all how it's done. Bravo, and good luck!

Theresa Milstein said...

I echo William with that WoW! This has all the voice but is now clear and enticing. Well done and good luck!

Elissa M said...

Another thumbs up for this final revision. I don't even read Women's Fiction, and this intrigued me anyway. Nice going Author!

Be sure to let the Shark know when this novel sells so she can pass the news on to the rest of us. :)