Query Critique: Carey On

The Query:

Katie Carey’s husband has a mistress and her name is heroin.

From the moment she met British guitar god Jay Carey, Katie lived a fantasy life. They were one of the superstar rock and roll couples of London in the 1970s with the big houses, the cars, phenomenal success and a love that seemed to tilt the world on its axis. But when Jay turned to drugs to escape the stress of living life in a fishbowl, their perfect world began to crumble and their marriage disintegrated.

After a year of trying to put her life back together without Jay, Katie is thrown into confusion when he shows up on her doorstep clean and sober, and ready to start over with her. She still loves him and wants him back, but can she trust him not to destroy her heart again?

My first novel, Carey On, is Contemporary Romance complete at 120,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

A. Novelist


My response:

This query starts strong with a pithy tagline meant to attract attention, which it does. There are some nice elements, like “a love that seemed to tilt the world on its axis.”

But the second paragraph goes back into the past. The way it’s described and written in past tense, it feels like this is backstory. I’m not getting the feeling that the book is actually about the 1970s fantasy life. The part about Jay turning to drugs seems like it might be backstory also. If that’s correct, then nearly half of this query is the set-up, not the actual story. That’s not a good plan.

Notice how paragraph #2 is written in past tense, but paragraph #3 is written in present tense. To the reader, it seems clear that paragraph 2 is telling us what happens in the past before the book starts, while paragraph 3 is what happens in the book (in the present). If that’s not what the writer meant to convey, then they need to understand what their use of tense signals to the reader, and rewrite to create the correct effect.

So paragraph 3 is apparently what this book is about, and now we come to the real problem. In only 54 words, we are supposed to understand what this 120,000-word story is about. It doesn’t work. All I have is:

—A marriage destroyed by drugs.
—Wife struggling to cope after the marriage ends.
—Husband comes back, supposedly clean.
—She has to decide whether to take him back.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, that doesn’t seem like a book. I can’t find anything unusual or intriguing here. I don’t get a feel for anything that might actually happen in the story. Most importantly, there is no tension here, nothing making me want to know what happens. Why should I care?

Sometimes a query can be successful without conveying a highly intriguing plotline—if we’ve been introduced to a wonderfully compelling character, someone we want to know more about and spend time with. Unfortunately, we don’t have that here. There’s no hint of personality in Katie or Jay Carey. I don’t have any details that would make me want to hang out with them. In fact, my guess would be that the average reader would more likely be turned off by the description of this 1970s British rock god and his wife—all the materialism, riches and fame make them seem like stereotypes, far away from the real life and real people most of us know.

Readers need their protagonists to come alive, to be “real” with personalities and quirks and flaws. The query needs to hint at this, but this query doesn’t do that. I don’t want to be too harsh, but you can’t get much more cliché than a ’70s rock icon on drugs. If you’re going to use a character that has familiar elements like this, the character also has to have some distinguishing and compelling characteristics that make us care about him. In this query, it’s even more important that we care about the wife, Katie. But we know nothing about her. We have no reason to care.

The overall effect of this query is that there’s nothing for me to get interested in. I can’t grab hold of a fascinating character or a unique hook or a surprising twist to an old story. I would quickly send a form rejection.

Keep in mind that brevity, while sometimes effective, is not always the way to go. With one or two more short paragraphs in the query, perhaps this writer could have conveyed something about these characters or the plot that would capture me.

One last thing: I’d never make a decision based on a title, but titles that use a name in a pun like this one (“Carey On”) don’t typically work in your favor. They seem just a little bit cheesy.

I chose to critique this query because I receive many like this: too short to give me a good feel for the story, and lacking anything (character or plot) that jump off the page and captivate me. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that nothing about it stands out from the crowd. Examine your query in light of that requirement. Would someone who knows nothing about your story, someone who’s reading your query along with 120 others this week, be intrigued?

Readers: What can you learn from this query? Does it help you see your own query in a different light?

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Cat Porter on May 2, 2012 at 6:53 PM

    I am a new writer just beginning the querying process. I have just finished my first manuscript for a work of Women’s Lit. Most of the plot of my book is revealed through flashbacks (that go as far back as preschool) from my MC. Because a query is so succinct, I’ve written the fist and last paragraph of the synopsis in present tense, and the middle in past tense to signify that that portion (which is the meat of the book) is in flashbacks. I’m trying to avoid any confusion, but then my query breaks one of the greatest rules: it must be written in present tense. Is it okay to break this rule?

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  7. Angela McCallister on April 16, 2010 at 11:18 PM

    >I love that you post these critiques. Most articles and info I've found out there have suggestions and guidelines, but seeing examples makes the learning process so much more concrete. And yes, I think I need to revisit my query again 🙂

  8. Catherine Downen on April 16, 2010 at 8:40 AM

    >Juli, I have to tell you, when I read your query, I thought, "Wow! She can really write!" From the very first sentence, I was blown away by your mastery of the language. I also thought your final paragraph was especially well done. Thank you for sharing your query with us and letting us learn from someone who is already head and shoulders above many of the rest of us on this journey. And thank you, Rachelle, for offering concrete examples to teach us what we should and should not do when querying. You're an excellent teacher, and I've learned so much by reading your blog.

  9. Steve on April 15, 2010 at 11:39 PM

    >For some reason I keep getting the vibe that this story may have been atleast somewhat inspired by "Sid and Nancy". If the writer does something original withthat inspiration, and not just wholly derivative, it might be a worthwhile story.


  10. Timothy Fish on April 15, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    >Amanda G.

    In answer to your question about why I would prefer Katie to be the recovering addict trying to win her spouse back, this is a matter of greater challenge, greater reward. As presented, the original story is about an average woman deciding whether she should let her now average husband back in the house. They are pretty much equals at this point, with some bad history between them. Neither has far to go to reach the other.

    Let’s turn it around. The wife of a rich rock star falls in the gutter. She cleans herself up and wants to return to her husband, but her husband doesn’t want to mess with her. He tried to help her many times before, but there’s only so much he can take. He has many women to choose from who are not recovering addicts. It will be difficult for her to convince him that she really has changed this time and she won’t be going back to drugs, but if she can do that, she will go from struggling to make ends meet to living the life of wealth she once enjoyed. It is important to have great disparity between where the characters are and where they end up.

  11. Nate on April 15, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    >Thanks for the time Rachelle – insightful, thoughtful, detailed critique. Most helpful I've seen in recent memory!

  12. Jil on April 14, 2010 at 11:49 PM

    >The question of tense in a query is something I have recently been puzzling over. These are so helpful to me, Rachelle. Thank you

  13. Amanda G on April 14, 2010 at 11:25 PM

    >Haha, I thought it was Care's ms as well!

    Question for those who said they'd be more interested if Katie were the recovering-addict-trying-to-win-spouse-back: is this because she's the female character and that's not done as often? Or because she's the POV character?

    One reason that I don't read romance novels: anytime I know the answer to the back cover's questions before I open the book, I put the book down. I think this is why Janet Reid's Query Shark forbids rhetorical questions. They always backfire.

    Rachelle, between the Shark and your generously detailed query critiques, I am learning SO MUCH. Thank you!!!! I have officially scrapped my old query and started over!

  14. Juli Page Morgan on April 14, 2010 at 9:45 PM

    >Hi, Care! I have to say I loved your comments because my thoughts while reading Rachelle's critique were much the same. Especially the YES! I see my query in a whole new light. (And if you find one of those red do-over buttons, may I borrow it when you've finished?)

    Best of luck to you, too!

  15. Care on April 14, 2010 at 7:11 PM

    Oh, I should have been more clear on my previous comment. You were right, I was just so excited about Rachelle's critique as she is teaching so much through them.

    Thank you for sharing your query! I wish you all the best on your writing journey!


  16. Robert Michael on April 14, 2010 at 6:45 PM

    >As I read the query the first time, I was struck by its potential. As you pointed out, it digressed into simplification. It read like the inside flap jacket copy of a published book, except it didn't leave me wondering.

    I think this is what we learn from unsuccessful queries: we must be able to sell our visions of the story. We must take that idea, that hook we have nurtured throughout those 60,000 plus words we have labored over and tell why this story is worth reading. We do this by injecting questions, confirming justified care for the characters, and telling just enough of the story to whet the appetite. Easy. Anyone can do it.

  17. T. Anne on April 14, 2010 at 5:45 PM

    >I really like the hook. I think the title might be OK. I was under the impression that title's were subject to change depending on the publishing house's opinion. Am I wrong to assume this?

    I'm learning so much from this series and applying it to my own queries.

  18. Juli Page Morgan on April 14, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    >LOL, Jessica! You're fine. And I'm sure Care didn't mean to insinuate it was his/her MS, but was just excited about Rachelle's excellent critique. I just had to chime in 'cause I'm, you know, paranoid that way.

    But the one to thank here is Rachelle for taking the time to crit our queries. I mean, she doesn't rep my genre so it's not like she's likely to sign a new author from this (when I get my query in shape, that is!), and I know it's a huge undertaking on her part. And it's done so we can have the best queries possible. My most humble thanks to Rachelle!

  19. Jessica Nelson on April 14, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    >Juli! LOL I'm sorry. *blush*
    You have a great attitude. Thanks for submitting your work for us to learn from. Appreciate it!

  20. Wendy Delfosse on April 14, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle! It's such a great help when agents explain things like this to writers. Hopefully it's also at least a little self-serving and results in better query letters (better manuscripts, better clients, etc.) for you!

  21. Tamika: on April 14, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    >Tense snaps at my ankles everytime I receive a critique, its my own worst nightmare.

    Thanks Rachelle for breaking down the pros and cons. I always walk away strengthened. One day I hope to be ready to submit and put all these points into practice.

  22. Juli Page Morgan on April 14, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    >Well, actually…it's not Care's manuscript, but mine. *grin*

    Rachelle, thank you so much for the awesome critique! When I read over the query I knew it didn't work, but didn't know why. You've shown me I'm telling and not showing. Now to roll up my sleeves and get to work on writing a query letter the correct way.

    And thanks to all of you for such helpful insight! It's one of the main reasons I sent to query to Rachelle for critique – the community of individuals who read and respond to her blog.

    Thanks again!

  23. Jessica Nelson on April 14, 2010 at 11:18 AM

    >I see what you mean about the backstory. I think what would need to happen in the query depends on what's happening in the book. 120k seems way too long for the average contemporary romance. Not sure what the wordage is for women's fiction.
    So, for the query, if half the story is their relationship during the fame, then it seems more like a story that spans years. I don't know how a query like that would work.
    But…if Cary ends up on Katie's door in ch. 1 or 2, then I think all the drug/fame stuff should be like one sentence in the query so then we know why she's scared to take him back, but we also know that there's more to the story.
    And I'm completely rambling here so I'll just say what I'm learning and what I think would improve this.
    Specifics. LOL
    I know something I need to work on is identifying the concrete conflicts in my story, esp. the main one, and then somehow working it into the query and also using the external conflict to show the internal…
    LOL I'm not sure any of this makes sense so I'm done! Heeheee.
    Kudos to Care for finishing her first manuscript and being brave enough to send it in for critique! 🙂

  24. JEM on April 14, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    >Thanks for sharing this query, it's really good to see overall why you weren't interested. I will definitely keep these recommendations top of mind!

  25. Raquel Byrnes on April 14, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    >I never thought about how effective or damaging tense change in a query could be. I need to reexamine what I spend my words on…is it backstory, or the novel itself?

    Very helpful. Thanks.

  26. Kathy N. on April 14, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    >Thanks for this approach.It reminded me the agent/editor is not in my head and can't see all the plot twists I'm trying to convey with one sentence.

    (and, if this was a real query, thanks to the author for sharing!)

  27. Care on April 14, 2010 at 10:17 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    YES! The light bulb has turned on over my head.
    YES! I see my query in a different light.

    I wish for one of those big red, round do- over buttons to push.

    I believe my query has more empty holes than Swiss cheese.
    However, with each mistake I am surely learning.

    By the way, thank you for such kindness and patience.

  28. Laura Marcella on April 14, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    >Paying attention to the tense is most helpful to me. Maybe the part about the '70s life isn't just backstory and is a major portion of the novel. It's hard to tell the way the query is written, though. Thanks for the reminder to pay attention to my own query's tense!

  29. Fawn Neun on April 14, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >Well, if this were placed in a more current time frame, I might request a partial on it. But the 70's? Sounds more like Carey heroin habit turned into a Celebrex habit, you know? Are statins addictive?

    I don't mind the backstory, because in a way, it does place the characters firmly in my mind. But there needs to be a bit more happening right now for me to really be taken in.

    And 120,000 words is really too long for anything that isn't a generational family saga.

  30. Cynthia Schuerr on April 14, 2010 at 8:57 AM

    >Rachel, I love reading your take on queries, good or bad. I learn so much from these posts. I would like to view a few more successful queries, also.

    I have a thought about the length of this book. Based on the 250 word per page scale that I've read about, 120,000 words would be an average of 480 pages. Based on that query, I'm not sure I could to stay with that story for 480 or so, pages. Do you ever use word count to decide to accept or reject a query or am I way off base in my thinking?

  31. Gehayi on April 14, 2010 at 8:32 AM

    >In fact, my guess would be that the average reader would more likely be turned off by the description of this 1970s British rock god and his wife—all the materialism, riches and fame make them seem like stereotypes, far away from the real life and real people most of us know.

    Actually, I'd rather read about the rock god and his materialism, riches and fame than I would about Katie and her now-reformed husband. The former sounds like a good gossipy novel; the latter sounds like a rather dull Lifetime Original movie. And if I'm going to believe that he's reformed, then I want to see him fall first, just to make the contrast infinitely more believable.

    If you're going to use a character that has familiar elements like this, the character also has to have some distinguishing and compelling characteristics that make us care about him. In this query, it's even more important that we care about the wife, Katie. But we know nothing about her. We have no reason to care.

    I agree. We're told nothing about the character's personalities. They don't come alive in the query. They aren't real.

    She still loves him and wants him back, but can she trust him not to destroy her heart again?

    This is a prime example of something I hate, and it's everywhere in the romance genre–the question only intended to have one answer. I'm a perverse soul, so when I read such questions, I automatically answer the way that I know the author didn't intend.

    "Nope, she can't count on him not to destroy her heart again, as she finds out when she gives him a second and then a third chance. Eventually, she throws him out, divorces the loser, and goes on to build a life for herself with someone who ISN'T an addict who causes her all kinds of legal, financial and emotional turmoil. Because damn it, she can do better than Carey. And she deserves better, too."

    Yeah, not exactly a romance, is it? But I like mine better. I don't find a woman ending up with an addict, even a reformed addict, to be a happy ending. Love doesn't fix situations like that. It just pulls in the person who loves the addict and makes him or her suffer too. I wouldn't want to read about Katie's misery as her husband broke his promises again and again and again. And if love DID fix everything, I'd loathe the book's dishonesty. Either way, I wouldn't want to read this.

  32. MJR on April 14, 2010 at 8:13 AM

    >I'm not sure I see this story as a romance–maybe more like women's fiction. The rock star or country singer who comes home and tries to be clean and sober can be a good story–think about the movie TENDER MERCIES or CRAZY HEARTS (haven't seen the latter, but I believe the story is similar). She might need to interweave past and present to create a better story. Also, I'd be more interested if she had some personal connection with the 70s rock world to make it really come alive and not sound cliched.

  33. Rachelle on April 14, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    >To those of you asking for more successful queries, I hear you. I'll try to do this in the future. I've only done five query critiques on this blog, and one of those was a query I really liked and responded by requesting a manuscript; four have been unsuccessful. So my record so far is 20% "successful" queries that I've critiqued.

    Now let's put that in perspective. You're getting tired of reading queries that don't work? Welcome to the agent's world. I request a manuscript from about 1% of the queries I receive. If I were going to make you deal with the same proportions, I'd have to do 95 more critiques of queries for which I wouldn't request a manuscript.

    Of course I'm not going to do that. But I want to caution you against thinking that you'll learn so much more from the successful queries. Just as there are MANY possible reasons for a query not to work, there are just as many reasons that a query DOES work.

    Yes, I'll try to post more successful queries. These will have to be queries from my clients. But please just realize that by posting these query critiques, I haven't been somehow intentionally trying to choose the ones that aren't working. I'm giving you a fairly accurate look at my inbox.

  34. Jason on April 14, 2010 at 7:09 AM

    >I agree with Patrick…I'd like to see a few successful queries. I learn better seeing it from both sides.

  35. Jason on April 14, 2010 at 7:07 AM

    >What can I learn from this post?

    Something that I've already learned from doing it myself. That is, backstory kills the story.

    There's something inside writers that tells us that we need to explain and resolve everything–and we need to do it from the beginning. DON'T LISTEN TO THIS VOICE!

    The first few chapters of my first draft were filled with backstory. After taking that out I'm realizing that the story flows much better and there is actually an element of intrigue. A reason to keep reading.

    Keeping the reader in the dark on *some* things is good. Knowing when to do it (and when not) I think makes the difference between a bad writer and a potentially good one.

  36. Krista Phillips on April 14, 2010 at 6:51 AM

    >Hmmm… I'm looking at my own query and I *think* it is long enough, the actual part that describes the story anyway. It's actually not much longer than this, but I do focus more on what *happens* in the story and try to give a brief insight as to who the characters are.

    But I'm also wondering if I'm rambling on about other stuff too much in my query as well.

  37. Amy Sue Nathan on April 14, 2010 at 6:48 AM

    >Reading this, I'd like to know the twist. Is there a twist? Conflict? Goal? If it's simply deciding whether to take back her husband it doesn't excite me. What does he do to convince her? What holds her back?

    As for backstory, it would be easy to say, "after ten years in the fast lane with big houses…" or something that gives us the info as that might up the stakes for the characters.

    I like when queries really show the voice of the author — meaning – – the personality of the characters. This was a rock star and his wife? I'd think it should feel really past paced and hip – even if it's 70's hip.

  38. Sharon A. Lavy on April 14, 2010 at 6:30 AM

    >Hmm here I was hoping this was a story set in the '70 and perked right up.

    As someone else mentioned, I would love to see the queries that do work for you.

    Thanks for another learning lesson. If the reader does not need backstory, why do we think and agent needs backstory?

    I did learn something today.

  39. Lisa Jordan on April 14, 2010 at 6:25 AM

    >Say it isn't so! I love punny names, but then again, my humor is a little cheesy.

    Seriously, though, thanks for explaining why this doesn't work. Reading these mini clinics really helps me to see what works and what doesn't.

    I really liked the opening line to the query. That caught my attention. I'm guessing this novel is set in the seventies or the very early 80s. For that reason alone, I'd probably be turned off to reading it since I'm not a fan of the 70s.

    Susan Elizabeth Phillips' earlier novels opened in the present, spent 2/3 of the novel in the past, and closed with the present. I don't care for that at all. Backstory needs to be filtered into the story. I believe the author of this query could've summed up backstory in a couple of sentences.

    I'd like to see some of the couple's challenges listed in the query as they tried to work things out and put their lives back in order–something that hints at the conflict in the story.

    The author doesn't mention God at all, so I'm wondering if this is a secular novel. I'd want to know this if I was going to consider representing this novelist.

    I admire the author for completing a 120,000 word novel. That takes discipline and determination.

  40. Cecelia Dowdy on April 14, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    >I agree with Timothy. I think I'd like the story better if Katie were the one who was on drugs, then got clean and sober and wanted to return to her husband.
    Also, the story may prove more engaging if we could see a reason WHY Katie ended up on drugs (besides the rock star/Hollywood type lifestyle.) Perhaps she suffered a tragic or traumatic event and that sad event might make her more appealing to the reader of the query letter?

  41. Patrick Brian Miller on April 14, 2010 at 6:00 AM

    >One of the most interesting queries I've seen posted for others to learn from was Nicholas Sparks' query for The Notebook. Rachelle, could you post a query that you did accept and tell why? The things that can go wrong with a query seem so numerous that success seems almost elusive. I do agree with your points of learning on this one, especially about the changes in tense.

  42. Claire on April 14, 2010 at 5:54 AM

    >I think I would be interested in reading this, if I had some idea of the actual plot of the novel. As it is, it's impossible to judge because there's so little to go on.

    The sad thing is that the novel itself might be very well written and engaging, but it's completely let down by the query. There isn't enough there on what the book is about. I guess what I would learn from it is that queries really need to sell the agent on the book itself, not the character backgrounds, and that's a little hard if they don't actually describe what's going on!

  43. Timothy Fish on April 14, 2010 at 5:38 AM

    >I think I might be more interested if it were Katie who ended up on drugs, got off of drugs and then fought to persuade her husband to take her back.

    As for what I can take from this and apply to my own queries, all I can say is don’t write stories that readers can’t connect with.