Sunday, April 22, 2018


Question: I describe Woman in the Wind as a literary crime novel but am unsure. It’s certainly not a straight crime novel because while the story hinges on criminal acts, it's the story of a quest that involves a woman's awakening to her own potential for work and love. This probably isn’t the most sea-shaking question I could ask Query Shark, but do the themes and some non-traditional characters mean I’m calling it by the right term?

Dear QueryShark:

A jaded Iris Clark doesn’t expect much when she returns to her Texas hometown to help her mother, but deep down, she hopes for renewal. Trouble is, Stillwell’s not that kind of place. It’s the kind of place where a woman can disappear for no good reason and plenty of bad ones.

Iris runs head on into that hard reality when a white-girl DUI lands her in county jail, where she finds casual assaults and oppression to be the norm, and Lea, the unstable young African-American student who’s her cellmate, to be flat-out delusional. Once home, Iris discovers that when Lea was released, she was dumped out of the jail on the Sabinal Canyon Road at midnight—no ride, no phone—and seen no more.

At this point, my fingers are crossed that this query will not implode. I'm interested in what happens next.

Lea’s mother Roberta discovers that nobody except Iris will listen, and so the two of them join forces and start asking questions. They meet with indifference and hostility, but Iris’s twenty years in LA has erased her small-town caution. Using old money connections, she expands the search and manages to grab some media attention. When she is run off the road and nearly killed, it seems obvious that she is onto something.

Iris comes back strong, but Roberta fades, overcome by despair and a traumatic personal history. Iris cultivates an eclectic crew—the crackpot millionaire she knew as a child, her mother’s gay caregiver, a freelance detective who mentors her, and a fearless new friend. Tomás soon becomes more than a friend, which also makes him more of a target, but when he is arrested, beaten and jailed with gang members, he gains new intel that helps Iris untangle the stories of missing women. Despite warnings, Iris goes it alone and in a fight for her life, finds help from a surprising ally.

And this is all just too much. The abstract "traumatic personal history" isn't specific enough to be interesting. The eclectic crew isn't deftly drawn enough to be anything other than a string of adjectives.

There's nothing we need here in terms of plot.

I'll keep reading but the momentum is dropping.

Revelations of murder and corruption crack open the sealed world of Stillwell, but Iris and Tomas see hope in a future there and commit to a life together along the Sabinal River.

If this is the end of the novel, the first thing to remember is you don't talk about the entire novel in a query. That's what a synopsis is for.

You would have been better off to stop at the end of paragraph 3.

Woman in the Wind is a literary crime novel complete at 76,000 words. As director of Texas Jail Project, I hear the stories of women who survive the brutality of the criminal justice system and of the ones who don’t, including the model for Lea who died in a California canyon after being released from a local jail. I’m 140 pages into another novel about Iris, relocated to a Rio Grande border town where she joins a diverse band of locals battling a powerful coal-mining company. 

Don't spend time in this query talking about the next book.

And 76,000 words seems very very short if you're talking about a taut suspense novel. In other words, do you have enough story here?

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

None of the problems in this query would keep me from reading pages, but it could certainly be tightened up by focusing ONLY on the precipitating incident and then what's at stake for Iris. We really don't have any sense of that here.

You can tank that first pages opportunity if you open with someone waking up, driving, getting a phone call, or doing any of the other gazillion things writers like to do before getting to something interesting.

It's ok to write all that stuff, but when you're revising the big question to ask yourself: is something changing for my main character yet?  Don't make me read 20 pages to get to that point.

As for your question: any crime novel, whether literary or not, requires that the plot hinge on a crime of some sort, and the resolution of the plot be the resolution of the crime. In other words, Romeo and Juliet isn't a crime novel (ok, play) because the resolution of the plot isn't the resolution of the crime (which is Romeo killing Tybalt.)

 Whether this is a literary crime novel, I don't know. I'd have to read the novel.

What I do know is this is NOT a quest novel which generally require an actual journey of some sort from innocence to maturity.

This doesn't feel like women's fiction because there's not a strong enough sense of Iris growing as a person.

And it's certainly not a romance because the romance isn't the centerpiece of the book.

I hope it's literary crime or suspense, because that's what I'm looking for.

The problem with not knowing if it's a crime novel (or any other specific genre) is that if you tell me it's literary crime, and the book doesn't adhere to the requirements of the genre, I'll be frustrated and confused. That's not not not your goal!


Gigi said...

Maybe this is a dumb question, but what is a white-girl DUI? Is this just the author telling us the MC is white?

nightsmusic said...

First, I agree with Gigi about the white-girl DUI.

Second, I agree with Janet that you should stop at paragraph 3, but my reasons are slightly different. The first couple paragraphs, apart from the DUI thing, intrigue me and I'm thinking the DUI thing is your subtle way of telling us the MC is white. But then you toss in a millionaire, a gay caregiver and Tomas, who I think you're trying to tell us by his name, is latino. That's fine. I'm all for a melting pot. But you don't need to waste your time trying to toss every PC character into a query. This is not the place for that. It also bothers me a bit from the standpoint that now I wonder how deep your characters really are. Do they carry their own weight on the page or are they a melting pot because you're reading that there's not enough diversity. Even fantasy, with alien characters, is no good if each of those characters can't hold their own. Let them speak for themselves in the pages. Don't waste that precious word count in a query for them.

And this!

Revelations of murder and corruption crack open the sealed world of Stillwell, but Iris and Tomas see hope in a future there and commit to a life together along the Sabinal River.

No. That sentence to me would be death to getting it read. It falls flat, says nothing about what happened and makes me wonder, at 76K, if you rushed your ending and wrapped it up with a happily ever after. If you did, you've lost your story. And probably an agent.

Your query not only tells the agent if you've got an outstanding story by enticing him/her to read, read, read, it also speaks volumes to your writing ability. You can have a stellar story and crappy query, you can have an outstanding query and a crappy story. Or you can have both with your query reflecting how well written and great your story is. Make it both!

Good luck.

E.Maree said...

Okay, given that Iris is described as getting a "white-girl-DUI" it sounds like this writer is aware of the rough relationship between how the American justice system treats black people compared to how it treats white people.

So when her black female cellmate was described as unstable and then disappeared (with an implied "plenty of bad reasons" for it from the first para), I went 'ooft'.

When your jaded white-girl protag teams up with an angry black mama bear out for justice for her daughter, I went 'yay!'.

...And then you wrote off this new black woman too. Yiiiikeees. Two sidelined black ladies in the space of three paragraphs is disheartening to see.

When a book about injustice against women keeps writing off black women to forward the white protag's plot... you can see how that sets a weird tone, right? It's super off-putting to me that this book appears to revolve around avenging violence against WoC but none of those WoC are in the centre of the story.

Cheryl said...

I had the same thought process as E.Maree did.

condomondo said...

I was curious about "non-standard" queries also... Shark is very, very specific at times - but then says that the only good query is one that works. How about a quer-opsis? I think that's what I have right now. With agents reading through so many emails, I wonder if there isn't room for both the query and the synopsis to be rolled into one, at least when using email?

Unknown said...

Great query. As a reader, I want to know more of the all of it. Reading QueryShark is my version of eating chocolate. Can't get enough.

I think the use of white-girl crime is brilliant. Never heard of it, but it made me think, and that's what good writers do. I see a dichotomy between the African American woman and the white woman as to how they and their crimes are treated. Lea's experience is a horrible inconvenience, trivialized by the law, a "white-girl crime," while Roberta loses her life. Like I said, thought-provoking, and smart economy as far as word count in queries.

I also have additional thoughts on what I perceive as the story (in as much as you describe it). You clearly state it's based on true events. Wonderful. Lucky for you. Use those events. If the black woman was delusional, then that's the story. The unspoken message (again, smart in terms of word count) leaves me with the notion that the government owed a greater standard of care for the woman. No way they should have dropped a fully capable person off in the middle of the night, far worse they should do so to the mentally ill. Would they have done the same to a white woman with the same mental challenges? I hope the story tells me. And, if the white woman takes on the burden of justice on her own, then that's the story. As a writer, I find attempting to conform both characters and story to arbitrary and ever-changing PC standards oppressive. Wear a garlic necklace and hold your silver crucifix high against the fangs of PC templates. The best villains in literature were non-PC...but then, so were some of the brightest heroes. I recently read a novel by an Australian author. She kept me on my toes, because, at times I felt pity for the bad guy, and at others disappointed in the actions of the hero. Great stuff. Perhaps you have some of that in your story. I'm not surprised when a dog craps in my yard and I'm not surprised when bad people do bad things. When seemingly decent, or maybe not-so-bad people do bad things, then you have my attention (though, Ming the Merciless holds a special place for me--come to think of it, he did love his daughter. Oh well.). I suspect some of those government officials are otherwise decent people.

You can't please everyone, and someone will find offence in anything. If not today, then in the years to come. PC standards are like dunes in the Sahara. Monoliths that change in form and move in geography when the wind blows. Pity the pilot who relies on the dunes for navigation, and the writer who relies on PC for story (unless the power driving the writer to write comes originates in some aspect of PC. Then...write on.) But, you can please that person you know best. Yourself. Stay true to whatever drove you to write the story.

I humbly suggest you take the advice of the professionals, I agree with QueryShark. Also, edit as necessary to make the sale. Be your hardest-working employee during the process. That's good business.

Best of luck with your novel. Obviously, I found your query compelling. Keep writing.