Query Critique: Carey On
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.
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