The pivotal scene in my manuscript is the rape of the main character. My last beta reader said she had nightmares for two days about the story and I should be upfront regarding the violent aspects of the plot. Should I be direct about this in the query letter? Does it matter to agents?
Dear Query Shark:
For college freshman Maggie Coinin, befriending shy Brian Chasseur didn’t seem significant, but now he’s following her around like a lost dog. She thinks he has a harmless crush. She couldn’t be more wrong.
This is a nice start. There's an immediate sense that something is about to happen.
I don't understand the purpose of this paragraph. You're repeating the sense of impending doom from the previous paragraph. That undercuts the power of the first paragraph. The second paragraph should move us forward, not repeat what we already know or elaborate on the elements of "more wrong." You can take this whole thing out and not lose any of the plot.
You've also got both points of view: Maggie's in the first sentence and Brian's in the second sentence. That's REALLY confusing.
After Maggie rejects Brian’s advances, he ditches his medication to let the real Brian come out. As far as he’s concerned, their fates are intertwined, and she must realize that they belong together. But when stalking her isn’t enough to satisfy his desire, Brian takes what he wants.
I'd stop reading right here, and pass as fast as I could. Right now, this book seems to be about a violent man who stalks a woman, and frankly, I have zero interest in reading that.
Maggie is a cipher right now, seen only as the object of Brian's attention. We don't know anything about her, what she wants, what's keeping her from getting it. We have no reason to care about her.
If there's one thing readers have stopped buying it's books where women are merely objects.
Years in prison have given Brian time to think about Maggie’s sins. Not only has she stolen a part of his life, she murdered their child. Now that he’s free, he’s tracked Maggie to Chicago and is looking to settle the score.
Wait, what?? I thought they were in college?
And dear god, if "she murdered their child" means Maggie had an abortion after conceiving from a rape, I'm glad I stopped reading before this.
Maggie is an object, and Brian is a violent rapist. Which character did you think your reader would be interested in?
Sensing Brian’s return, Maggie has cloistered herself from the world. But when Jude O'Connell walks into her life, she rethinks her solitude. Their growing relationship helps Maggie rediscover her inner strength to confront her past. But as she lets down her guard for Jude, Brian closes in.
Maggie needs to buy a damn stun gun.
Because we have no idea of what has happened to Maggie in these intervening years, we have no idea what she needs, or wants. That means the reader fills in what they want her to do (ie the stun gun above), and when your reader starts rewriting your book at the query stage, it's a bad bad sign.
From what you write here Brian is the character driving the plot. He's forcing the changes in Maggie's life. Both a protagonist and an antagonist must have something a reader responds to in a positive way. Neither has to be likable, not at all, but both must be compelling. Right now Brian is not that. He's repellent. This is a problem of the novel, not the query.
My debut novel, THE SLEEP OF REASON, is a complete upmarket fiction manuscript at 88,000-words. The novel is told from Brian’s and Maggie’s points of view. The target audience is women ages twenty-five to forty-five, who enjoyed The Couple Next Door, The Weight of Lies, and Gone Girl.
Here's the description of The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena:
Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night, when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately lands on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.
Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they've kept for years.
What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.
We see Anne and Marco suddenly suspected of a crime. We instantly care about them because we think this suspicion is unfair.
We know more about Anne and Marco in that first sentence than we do about Maggie in your entire query, and it sets up the reader to care about them.
And there is NO hint of violence, or mental illness or stalking in this description.
Here's the description for The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter
Reformed party girl Meg Ashley leads a life of privilege, thanks to a bestselling horror novel her mother wrote decades ago. But Meg knows that the glow of their very public life hides a darker reality of lies, manipulation, and the heartbreak of her own solitary childhood. Desperate to break free of her mother, Meg accepts a proposal to write a scandalous, tell-all memoir.Again, we know a lot more about Meg in that first sentence than we do about your Maggie. And there doesn't seem to be some sort of violent rapist on the first page here.
Digging into the past—and her mother’s cult classic—draws Meg to Bonny Island, Georgia, and an unusual woman said to be the inspiration for the book. At first island life seems idyllic, but as Meg starts to ask tough questions, disturbing revelations come to light…including some about her mother.
Soon Meg’s search leads her to question the facts of a decades-old murder. She’s warned to leave it alone, but as the lies pile up, Meg knows she’s getting close to finding a murderer. When her own life is threatened, Meg realizes the darkness found in her mother’s book is nothing compared to the chilling truth that lurks off the page.
Gone Girl isn't a good comp for anyone any more. It was a runaway success which we all hope for, but is damn hard to replicate. And unless you've got some sort of twist ending here, the only similarity I see is the alternating point of view.
One thing you did well was choosing the first two comps-they're current (both pubbed in 2017.) Comps need to be as current as possible, and generally no more than two or three years old.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
The problem here are your characters.
I don't care about Maggie other than in a very abstract way, which is death in a query. I'm repelled by Brian's action, and he seems to be in the grip of mental illness, thus not evil by choice.
An antagonist who does evil because he is mentally ill isn't interesting. He's not in control; he's not choosing to do bad things.
To answer your question: the rating system for movies that says "graphic content" or "some nudity" is intended to help parents screen movies for their children. Your book isn't intended for children. Thus you don't need a warning sign on it.
However. Graphic rape scenes are a HUGE turn off for me as a reader. Graphic violence of any kind, really. It's one thing to know something bad happened, even something really bad. It's another thing to read every last detail as it's happening.
Remember too, graphic does not always equal frightening. The scariest movies are the ones where you don't know what's out there, not those with some monster tearing someone limb from limb. Those blood-fests often become ludicrous, not scary. The master of suspense (Hitchcock!) let you scare yourself.
And frankly, if you just tell me there are graphic rape scenes in the query, I'm much MUCH more likely to pass. You're telling me about something I don't want to read about, and without any context, and absent the framework of a story where I care what happens to the characters. It's as if you told me you're going to poke me with a sharp object. My instant reaction is "no you are not, and get out of here" as I reach for my stun gun. But, if you ask to poke me with a needle to inoculate me against the flu, I not only say yes, I give you $20 to do so. Context.
I think your query has revealed some fundamental problems with your novel. However, if you just chose the wrong way to describe the characters here, revise and resend.