Query Critique: Circle of Reasoning

The Query:

Hello, Ms. Gardner,

I am seeking representation for A Circle of Reasoning, a 77,000 word women’s mainstream novel. Catrine Teddi and Austin Sanchez have been separated for over four years because of a misunderstanding. They are reunited by the disappearance of their child because of someone’s mistake. Between the anger and blame, romance is rekindled between the estranged parents of the child as they suffer through his disappearance.

Through a series of errors in the overcrowded confusion of his classroom, three year old Brhin-Kristoffer Teddi is forced by his pre-school teacher to leave with an unknown woman. A Circle of Reasoning is a novel that delves into the depths of the emotions and thoughts of the parents and the child; it also exposes the motives of the abductor, the director of the daycare center and the teacher that mistakenly places the child in the abductor’s hands.

A Circle of Reasoning though written as entertaining fiction shows a different angle on stalking and child abduction, it entices parents to get more involved in the daily running of their child’s care center or school.

I have worked in the childcare profession for over thirty years; have seen many incidents that range from carelessness to dangerous life threatening neglect. I have had an essay printed in Essence magazine, several articles printed in the local paper and magazine. Thank you for your time and I look forward to working with you.

Sincerely,
{Name}

My Response:

This sounds like it could have potential as a Jodi Picoult-type of women’s novel, issue driven and packed with tension and emotion. The author’s personal experience working in childcare would probably lend it a nice air of credibility. I like that the first sentence immediately gives the word count and genre, giving the query a nice context.

The first couple of sentences did a good job of setting up the story. But the last sentence in the first paragraph lost me. I can’t buy the idea of “romance” amidst the tragic situation of an abducted child. It’s possible that two people who once loved one another could grow closer through a dramatic and tense situation such as this—but on the other hand, it seems highly unlikely. Don’t people tend to turn away from each other in a time like this? Even blame each other, take out their anger on each other?

But let’s just say it was possible for this couple to grow closer together through fighting for their child. It’s still not right to say “romance is rekindled” because those words connote something wonderful and fun. I cannot imagine two parents whose child is abducted experiencing anything as whimsical as a “rekindled romance.” So for me, I immediately disconnected from the story in paragraph #1. It felt almost sacrilegious for a couple to be romancing each other while their child is missing.

Moving on to the second paragraph, we get to the heart of why this query isn’t working for me. I have a set-up (the child being abducted) but that’s it. There’s no story. I think I know what happens in the first ten pages. What happens between page 11 and page 300? The query tells me that the novel delves into emotions and thoughts and motives… but something has to actually happen. We need a plot.

Paragraph #3 tells us that the novel shows a “different angle” on stalking and child abduction, but I have no way of knowing what this means. Different from what? I have a feeling that if I watch TV shows like CSI and Criminal Minds and Law & Order, I’ve probably seen every possible angle on stalking and child abduction.

The second half of the sentence in paragraph #3 (“it entices parents to get more involved…”) takes the query in the wrong direction. It shows me that this novel has a specific agenda, and that’s a turnoff. People don’t want your agenda, they want your story—and they want to decide for themselves whether your story inspired them to change their minds about something, or to take some kind of action in their lives. I think in most cases, it’s a bad idea to speak of any kind of agenda when pitching fiction. (Since I deal with a lot of Christian fiction, this is often an issue. Don’t pitch your agenda, even in Christian fiction. Pitch the story.)

The last paragraph is fine and like I said, shows your novel would have some credibility. But unfortunately since you already revealed an agenda in the previous paragraph, now it feels like you’re underscoring it with the “thirty years experience in childcare.” When you mention that you’ve seen many incidents involving children, I’m feeling the agenda pretty strongly. I’m wondering if you’ve written a novel or a thinly veiled treatise on child abduction in schools and daycares. Or worse (I caught this between the lines) a 300-page rebuke of careless or neglectful parents.

I wouldn’t request pages from this query, for these main reasons: (1) the romance amidst the kidnapping turned me off; (2) I don’t know if there’s a story here; and (3) I’ve read enough books about child abduction and am not personally interested in another one.

I’d recommend the author clarify what is meant by the “romance” aspect, making it fit the story better; then after paragraph #2, insert a couple of brief paragraphs that summarize the story, the conflict, the stakes. Convey the tension. And remove the agenda.

Readers – Your thoughts?

Rachelle Garder, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. 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!

68 Comments

  1. Sarahsalt on March 23, 2010 at 8:07 PM

    >Thank you, thank you, thank you for critiquing queries. Some of what you say is pretty apparent to me, but a good bit of it makes me rethink my own query pretty seriously. This helps me understand what agents are looking for. Again, thank!



  2. Penelope C Jordan on March 22, 2010 at 5:26 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle…this critique was so helpful,please don't stop doing them…pretty please… 🙂
    and Rachel Overton your comment at 04:40 was so funny …. can't stop laughing… lol



  3. Heather M on March 20, 2010 at 4:56 PM

    >I think if agenda is an overriding concern for an author (and sometimes it is, and rightly so), he/she should write non-fiction. When someone picks up non-fiction they assume you want to convince them of something. They're saying, OK, bring it on, we'll see what happens. And you can use true stories or hypothetical stories as illustrations–they can even take up a lot of your book, I've seen it done. But if you're selling it as non-fiction, people are going to accept your agenda-driven story more easily. They'll say "Hm, yes, I can see how this could happen, so maybe I should watch out for that"–or maybe "I don't think that would happen." But they won't say, "You're just trying to sell me an agenda" and toss the book away, because you warned them about that going in. I've read a book that was billed as "narrative theology"–a set of fictional letters between people in the early church, which were both interesting and agenda-driven, and I didn't mind so much because I was told on the back cover that the theology was the point. I didn't have to believe in the letters; they were an interesting and three-dimensional way of talking about theology.

    Or, if what really fascinates you is the *story*, even though you might have this wish for it to influence people in the back of your mind, then fiction can work for you. But one thing that you need is a really good "nose" for human nature & human motivations, including their dark and/or petty sides. I don't know if the thing about "separation because of a misunderstanding" truly reflects what's in the manuscript, but on the face of it it set off my "human nature" alarm. It sounded like one of those I-won't-let-my-characters-have-real-flaws shortcuts that too many Christian writers use. It's very difficult not to do that, and not to let your characters off in other ways, too. When one of my characters falls down, I try to make sure she doesn't get hurt! In revision, I have to go back and say, "No, let her scratch her face against that tree branch. Let her bleed some, and deal with that. People hurt themselves and then they bleed!" So if the characters really are separating because of a misunderstanding, I'd say in the same way, "No, let them be angry at each other over something real, let them be unwilling to forgive because they're selfish. People are selfish!" And a time when your child's in danger is a really great time to realize how petty your selfishness has been, that works with the "ending up together again" angle, whatever you choose to call it.

    And I want to say, Nancy, I admire you for being brave enough to put your stuff out there for critique! That makes you a writer who will grow. People whose manuscript is their baby that must never be criticized will have a much harder time of it.



  4. Martha Ramirez on March 19, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    >Oops, my last comment was supposed be posted here.

    Thank you, Rachelle for taking the time out to dissect this query.

    I find it very interesting to hear your thoughts and why the query turned you off. You offered some great points.



  5. Jil on March 19, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    >Thank you, Rachelle, I am finding these critiques very helpful. And thanks to the authors of the queries for allowing this to happen. I felt good when the first author wrote in, appreciating her experience. I don't know if I'd be as brave!
    I agree with almost everything said, especially the agenda part which also turned me off, but I never say what should or should not happen in a book. If the writer writes it, that's what happens, I may not like it but well – it happened.



  6. The Alliterative Allomorph on March 19, 2010 at 5:53 AM

    >I like the idea that agents only take on what they like. That means they are as passionate about your book as you are – which means an excellent working relationship!



  7. Jill Williamson on March 18, 2010 at 11:58 PM

    >It takes a lot of practice to write that one-paragraph summary that communicates exactly what your novel is about. The author's pitch paragraph leaves me confused about the story. It says contemporary with a thread of romance, but I'm not seeing a plot. The child is taken, then what? They get angry and blame each other…then what? What is the main character's goal? Work together to get back the kid? Whatever the goal is, it needs to be in that pitch paragraph.

    And the first sentence in paragraph two seems like a mistake. Like it is coming from the boy's POV. Confusing.



  8. Anonymous on March 18, 2010 at 11:19 PM

    >Seems agents only rep books they're personally interested in these days. Guess that's better than someone who's not excited about your book at all.



  9. Dana Bryant on March 18, 2010 at 10:49 PM

    >I am intrigued by everyone's opinions. I am just such a work in progress.



  10. Timothy Fish on March 18, 2010 at 10:12 PM

    >Charles Dickens had a great way of writing “agenda driven” fiction. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is also a classic example of “agenda driven” fiction. Mark Twain was a very opinionated man and it came out in his stories. But what we see in a book like Bleak House, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn is that the author’s agenda and the theme are consistent. Also, while it may be debated whether the book over exaggerated the situation (the justices of the Court of Chancery felt Bleak House exaggerated the problems), we can’t argue with the author’s solution. One reason for that is that the authors often don’t give us their solution. They either assume the reader knows what they believe is the solution, they save that information to talk about at their public appearances or they are simply introducing the problem hoping that the collective intelligence of their readers will find a solution.

    Another reason is that by aligning the theme with the agenda, the whole novel becomes like a dissertation, presenting the arguments for and against the author’s point of view and in the end showing why the author’s point of view is the correct view, but it is done by the characters demonstrating the issues rather than by the author presenting facts and figures. If the author has done his job, the critics will be silenced and he will have proven his point. But we have a tendency to take shortcuts and that is when our agenda starts causing problems.



  11. Anonymous on March 18, 2010 at 9:32 PM

    >"An agenda (to me) is more specific, like "convince people we need gun control," whereas a theme would be, "violence doesn't solve any problems." An agenda is where you're trying to change people's mind about something, and/or get them to take action."

    Thanks – Needed this. I tend to mix Passion and Inspiration until I get Agenda.



  12. Rachelle on March 18, 2010 at 7:32 PM

    >Ross, you said it right – let the story reveal it. Then it's up to the reader to pick up on it, and decide what to do with it.

    However, I don't think "agenda driven" fiction is the best idea. Most writers have a theme which is basically a truth they want to explore and convey through their story. In my mind, that's different from an agenda.

    An agenda (to me) is more specific, like "convince people we need gun control," whereas a theme would be, "violence doesn't solve any problems." An agenda is where you're trying to change people's mind about something, and/or get them to take action.

    In general, when someone has a strong agenda for writing fiction, they often pay more attention to their purpose than to actually writing a good story. So if you sell your agenda up front, agents are conditioned to think your novel probably isn't very good. That's why you just want to sell your story, not your agenda.



  13. Ross on March 18, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    >I'd like to hear more about this "agenda" thing. I believe most authors write with somewhat of an agenda in the back of their mind. So is it okay to have an agenda, but you just don't want to reveal it? Maybe let the story reveal it, if it is indeed picked up by the reader?

    Thanks again for a query critique–they're very informative.



  14. Mira on March 18, 2010 at 3:19 PM

    >Timothy,

    Please don't think I'm ignoring you, if I don't respond. I just feel like I've been given a chance to have a voice, and that's enough out of me for now. 🙂

    I trust Rachelle to hear all of us, and come to a place that's right for her and the blog.

    Although, I do want to say, I'm not advocating that the critiques stop altogether. But again, that's up to Rachelle.



  15. T. Anne on March 18, 2010 at 2:55 PM

    >I figured you had asked. I thought maybe it was advertised on the blog and I missed it. (plus your clarification eliminates any thinly veiled fears I might have had 😉

    I like this series. I think it's invaluable and I would love to see more of these. Writers seem to have visceral reactions to posts like these because we transpose ourselves in them. However, that doesn't take away from the fact what we learn outweighs our discomfort.



  16. Nancy on March 18, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    >Sorry, sometimes I speak as 'The Voice'.

    Rachelle please don't stop the critiques. I would feel as if I'm stopping the progress for others. My other query is much better-with all the missing info within.
    Thanks.



  17. The Voice on March 18, 2010 at 2:16 PM

    >Honestly I am really thankful for the critique and the comments. How else can we learn? If I had been told to chuck the manu (I wouldn't do it mind you)with all malice then I would be heart broken. But as a parent that home-schooled her daughters with the message 'everything' is a learning experience I applaud Rachelle and thank her. Everything we write has a form of agenda. We just chose the once we keep.



  18. Timothy Fish on March 18, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    >Ouch!

    Mira, I don’t feel that anyone meant Nancy or anyone else ill will in what they said. I certainly didn’t. While you might not like people criticizing the work, when we don’t have the work in front of us and are forced to assume the query is accurate, we can’t critique a query without simultaneously critiquing the work it describes. If our goal is to figure out how we can write queries better, I think we are going to have to start with the manuscript. To quote Chip MacGregor, “Most authors are turned down because THEY CAN'T WRITE. Simple as that” (emphasis his).

    I assumed that the authors involved had some idea of what they were setting themselves up for. I can’t speak for either of the authors we’ve seen so far, but I can say that if I were in their position I would be delighted. I’m not sure if I would lower the shield of anonymity, if for no other reason than I would not want what people think of me personally to come into play. In any case, I believe there are several of us here that would be thrilled to receive the same treatment that these two authors have received.



  19. Rachel Overton on March 18, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    >It has to take a lot of courage to offer oneself up for public critique like this. I was sure Rachelle wouldn't just put them out there without at least asking first. I can't even imagine someone with her honest concern for writers doing such a thing. That would be cruel, and she isn't. I think that these authors have proven themselves teachable, which is essential to success in any industry, and especially ours where public, unsolicited, and often unkind criticism is the norm. I'm sure it's hard to read Rachelle's critique and even more so, our comments. But think how much they can benefit. And think how much we're in their debt because we get to learn right along with them. So thank you, Nancy and Sara and those who are yet to come.



  20. Suzannah on March 18, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    >Rachelle,

    I haven't read all the comments on this post, but I did read quite a few, and I don't think anyone has 'thrown the author under a bus.'

    Commenters,including myself, have pointed out flaws they see in the query, and made conclusions about the manuscript based on that query. Isn't that what agents do?

    Isn't a query our one chance to convince agents they'd like to see more of our work?

    To have an agent's feedback even before sending out one's query is a huge advantage. The author said romance factors little in her manuscript, so now she can amend her query. She sees she needs to explain more of the plot, and now she can.

    No, her story will not appeal to everyone, but that's true of every book.

    Please, please, please do not take away this wonderful learning opportunity for those of us who appreciate it!

    Thank you!



  21. Allison on March 18, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    >Critiques are always tough, especially public ones, but I think the feedback here should be invaluable to the writer. It's so tough to deal with just form rejections and never know how to improve. I'm intrigued by the premise presented in the query, but I think the query itself is too vague. Especially the first paragraph, which really tells me nothing. Keep working on it though, and thanks for being brave and sharing!



  22. Mira on March 18, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    >Rachelle – well, I've said alot, so I'll be quiet and hear what other think, but I want to say two things first.

    First, I thought yesterday's critique went really well.

    Second, I am feeling very appreciate right now of your willingness to have an open discussion here. I would not have even bothered to say something on most other blogs. But you are always open to feedback, and able to think about it as well, even if you don't always agree. I deeply respect that; it's one of the things about you that I admire the most. I'm sorry if my message above was harsh. Thank you.



  23. Rachelle on March 18, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    >T. Anne, Mira, and Everyone: A couple of weeks ago, I sent a notice on Twitter that I was going to begin critiquing queries on the blog, and asked people to send queries specifically for critique. So anything critiqued here in public was sent to me for that purpose, and the author is always notified in advance.



  24. The Alliterative Allomorph on March 18, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    >I think everyone has been very respectful in the way they have voiced their opinions. These critiques can only help us! Please don't second-think the idea! It's great!



  25. Mira on March 18, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    >T.Anne – my issue is the public nature of this.

    I do understand that everyone's intentions are good. I'm sorry if my previous message seemed judgemental or overly condeming- I don't want that either. It's easy to get carried away.

    But I just hope we'll be careful, if at all possible. These are real people here, real writers, and this is a very public forum.

    I'm sorry if I'm out of line – I hope I'm not. My intentions, like everyone else's – are good, at the heart of it.



  26. Rachelle on March 18, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    >Well, now I'm going to re-think this whole idea of doing query critiques. I thought it would be helpful for writers to hear some of my honest thoughts about queries. I intended it to be a learning experience. I asked writers to submit their queries specifically for the purpose of critique, so they know what they're getting into. And they are all anonymous (if they choose to reveal themselves in the comments, that's up to them).

    Since it's obviously not my intent to throw anyone under a bus, I'll have to think about this. I was hoping that my honest feedback would help writers understand what agents might be thinking, so they could revise and make their query as strong as possible. Not sure how else to accomplish this except for telling the truth.

    I also think it's helpful for the writer of the query to see what the blog commenters think, whether they agree with my assessment or thought I was off-base. That way, they have more than just my opinion to guide them in their revision.

    Well, maybe I'm wrong. I'll be taking it under consideration.



  27. T. Anne on March 18, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    >I think not only is this query a great learning experience for the author, but the novel itself can be revised at this point and used as a learning tool. As writers we seem to learn the most from our own errors. Now she has the tools to tone down unappetizing plot lines and hone in on what the real story is.

    Rachelle, is this a pop quiz query series? Or are you notifying the authors in advanced? Just curious as to how worried I should be.



  28. Mira on March 18, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    >Nancy – important. I said "please don't give up!" then I changed it to "please keep on!" Those are what I meant.



  29. Mira on March 18, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    >Nancy, I agreed there were a few pieces of information missing, but I'd like to say I liked your query. I find alot of queries boring, frankly, and yours kept me reading from start to finish.

    I also commend you – I think your end goal of involving parents more in their daycare is a truly valuable one. I would bet that you've seen alot of problems there, and good for you for writing a novel to address them!

    It sounds like a good book, and I like your writing style. Please don't keep on!

    And to the rest of this blog – frankly – I'm disappointed. This level of throwing someone under the bus isn't something I have ever seen here. Rachelle, I'm sorry, but I believe you were off track, critiquing not only the query but the work. I've never seen you do something like that before. I'm concerned our debates are pushing you, and I'll back off due to that.

    I'm disappointed.



  30. Nancy on March 18, 2010 at 12:23 PM

    >Hi,
    Just wanted to say thanks Rachelle for the critique. And thanks for all of the feed back. Its kind of hard to know how much to put in a query when the 'missing' info has been deemed as sharing too much. Should have used the other query…darn my second mind.

    The use of the word romance was a bit much since it is not even a minor factor in my novel.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments.



  31. Courtney Walsh on March 18, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    >I tend to have a hard time with issue-driven novels. Especially heavy issues. I am someone who loves to escape inside a happy story. I also can't watch or read anything involving the suffering of a child. It's just one of those things I can't stomach.

    I thought your crit. would be most helpful!



  32. Rose on March 18, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    >I have to agree with the other's who don't see this as a women's mainstream novel but a suspense or psycholgoical thriller (delves into the depths of the emotions and thoughts/exposed the motives.

    The childs name is a distraction. I don't care for odd or oddly mis-spelled names in books. It also makes me think with an odd name like that how can this child be mistakenly given to an unknown woman. It's not like she asked for a Mike or Jennifer. And would a child care giver not ask who the person was there to pick up?

    Just my two cents.



  33. Timothy Fish on March 18, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    >"They've been separated for OVER four years, but their child is only three? Interesting…"

    Okay, that is funny. But it could work. 9 months of pregnancy + 3 years + 1 more year until he turns 4 is four years and nine months.



  34. Steena Holmes on March 18, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    >I now others have already said this, so I'll just chime in with them – having you post these queries and being specific in why they don't work for you is fantastic. It really shows me that being specific, watching how we word things and not giving up (just making it do) really doesn't work. Thanks Rachelle!



  35. Jessica Nelson on March 18, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    >Katie, that's so true. I was just thinking about that too. I think I was okay with it because when I think of romance I don't necessarily think of flowers and dates, etc. I like really intense romances that don't usually include sugary sweet stuff. But, probably most people saw the word romance and thought, wait, they're dating? Kissing and snuggling when they're child is missing?

    Great call about word choice.



  36. Tamika: on March 18, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle- I love that the series is teaching us the importance of a query.

    I'm really enjoying this!



  37. Katie Ganshert on March 18, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    >I think what everybody is struggling with is the use of the word "romance". Romance implies pounding hearts and attraction. Whereas romance doesn't fit in this situation, a renewal of love and devotion might. This just goes to show how important word choice is.



  38. The Alliterative Allomorph on March 18, 2010 at 10:41 AM

    >Rachel Overton, LOL! Well spotted!



  39. Rachel Overton on March 18, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    >They've been separated for OVER four years, but their child is only three? Interesting…



  40. Bethany on March 18, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    >Really enjoyed both critiques, particularly because you've spelled out exactly why things aren't working. Look forward to reading more of them.



  41. Keli Gwyn on March 18, 2010 at 10:13 AM

    >Rachelle, I appreciate the opportunity to understand the process you go through in evaluating a query. It's clear your years of experience come into play.

    I, too, feel the writer of this query is in danger of letting her agenda override the story. I read fiction for entertainment, not instruction. While a subtle underlying message is fine, I don't like it when I feel a story is merely a vehicle to make a point.

    I agree also that the romance being rekindled aspect of the story is problematic. When my husband and I have dealt with difficult situations, romance fell by the wayside as we focused on the crisis at hand. Afterward, we ended up closer because we'd weathered the storm together. I think the end of this story could be a reuniting of the couple, but not something that happens in the midst of the frantic, stress-filled search for their son.



  42. Rachelle on March 18, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    >Tamika: Whether or not this mother and father grow closer together and fall in love again is not the point. Of course, that could be a totally plausible plot development. But it's one that requires deft handling in the manuscript – a careful balancing of the tragedy in the story, with an underlying realization that these two people really do love each other. This requires a sensitivity to the idea that when your child has been abducted, now is not the time for "romance" but it certainly may be a time that two people can realize what's important to them. This manuscript might very well handle the whole situation very nicely. But the query didn't handle the melding of tragedy and love with much sensitivity or elegance. At this point, the query is all I have to go on (the query is your first writing sample) so I'm left to think that the manuscript may not handle it any better than the query did.

    Anon 8:42: Every decision is a result of a fairly complex set of factors, so you're right, whether I "personally" like the story isn't enough of a criteria to make a decision. However, with nothing jumping out and making me think I might love this book, my lack of excitement about a child abduction story is just the final confirmation that this is not for me.

    That's an important point – "not for me." It's not the ultimate judgment on the project, it's simply an acknowledgment that I'm not the right agent for it, but as you know there are lots of agents out there. Also, you may be different, but most authors would not feel comfortable with an agent who doesn't even like their book. Admit it, you probably wouldn't either. We are all such sensitive creatures, especially when it comes to our writing. We take it personally if someone doesn't like it. And how could we be confident that agent is doing their best for us, when we don't think they even like what we do? Just something to think about.



  43. Timothy Fish on March 18, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    >Jason,

    You’re correct; the query should tell us how the author handled the plot and that is a weakness in the query. Although, if we had access to the three to five pages of the manuscript that are asked for in Rachelle’s submission guidelines, I think we would have a little clearer picture. That being said, don’t miss my point, which is summarized in the first sentence of the third paragraph of my comment, “the concept isn’t so farfetched.” I’m not trying to argue that the author wrote a fantastic query, only that it is possible to write a believable story in which the parents get back together following a their child’s abduction. In fact, depending on how the author begins the story, that outcome may be the best example of good storytelling that we have. But as I said, I don’t know how the author began the story; Rachelle does.

    I think that part of the weakness of the query is that the last sentence of the first paragraph makes it seem as if the romance will be rekindled during the second quarter of the book. If that is the case, then I think the author needs to go rethink the plot, but if the conflict is carried through the whole book, with the two character Cat and Austin resolving issues that are keeping them from getting their son back and in the process resolve the issues that separated them to begin with, it only makes sense that we see a sappy scene at the end of the novel.



  44. Tamika: on March 18, 2010 at 9:46 AM

    >Like Jessica I actually like the open door for the romance to resurface. Of course not in the traditional sense, but I believe God can and will use even painful situations to restore relationships.

    Without disguising the pain and hurt, this mother and father can showcase the power of love and forgiveness.



  45. Anonymous on March 18, 2010 at 9:42 AM

    >I agree that the plot is scarce in the query. The romance things is odd – but, honestly, folks haven't we all seen published novels and movies that sell like mad that have no less contrived romances?

    Something about RG's critique hit me though – sparking a question…

    You said "I’ve read enough books about child abduction and am not personally interested in another one."

    Now, I get the whole idea of want to rep something that you like, but if this were the sole reason (I know it is not) for rejecting the book, I'd be doing a fair bit of head scratching.

    Agents not repping things they are personally 'in the mood to deal with' strikes me as about as sensible as lawyers refusing to rep clients they don;t personally like.

    Like it or no, if a book is strong enough for publication, doesn't a sense of professionalism override personal taste?

    I don;t mean to imply that not repping book you don;t like = being unprofessional btw. I just find it odd that personally liking the book vs the strength of the book and its marketability is such a factor.



  46. JoAnn on March 18, 2010 at 9:26 AM

    >The thing that stopped me first was "…separated for over four years because of a misunderstanding." Maybe I'm wrong — because I know misunderstandings happen all the time in real life — but without more details, that seems like a weak plot point.



  47. RCWriterGirl on March 18, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    >Nathan Bransford did a post the other day advising writers to be specific about their story in their query. I think queries like this must be why.

    I'm sure the writer thought she was conveying a lot, but there's no story here. Nothing anyone could get excited about–just generalities. And it's ashame, because this is the chance to tell the story and she's choosing not to.

    It's interesting to see the queries posted. Thanks for posting them along with the critiques.



  48. Inkygirl on March 18, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    >Love your blog, Rachel. So much great info for writers here. I've listed your site at: http://www.inkygirl.com/lovely-blog-award-15-sites-to-visit/



  49. MJR on March 18, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    >I would have to agree about the romance angle. The last thing on their minds would be romance, though they might overcome some of their differences to find their child and in the end, there might be a hint that they will get together again.

    I think the author needs to come us with child abduction plus something else that might give the story more of a hook, or highlight this in the query if it's in the story. Perhaps the abductor is unusual? (ie not the usual). Or perhaps the abduction isn't random and occurs because of something in one or the other's past?



  50. The Alliterative Allomorph on March 18, 2010 at 8:47 AM

    >I think you've hit the nail on the head, Jason.



  51. Jason on March 18, 2010 at 8:44 AM

    >Timothy, you said, "I don’t know how the author handled the plot, but…" And I think that's the problem.

    Based on the query, you don't know how the author handled the plot, but you should. I totally agree there are probably a million ways to pull a good plot out of this. But all the author mentions is the conflict (which is important), but conflict and plot are two different things.

    The bottom line is all an agent has to go on is what the author explicitly states in the query. And this author *may* have a hit, but I'm not sure an agent would know it based on the query.

    Just my thoughts, which I hope seem as humble as I intend them…



  52. Rachel on March 18, 2010 at 8:38 AM

    >Actually–now that I think about it–many of the lovers in Picoult's books are involved in a child tragedy, but are not the actual parents. When that is the case, I tend to like the books better. It is hard to connect to a grieving parent who is simultaneously falling in love. Like the mom in The Lovely Bones. I felt alienated from her.



  53. James Castellano on March 18, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    >Thank you for showing us by example how you critique queries.



  54. Rachel on March 18, 2010 at 8:23 AM

    >I thought of Jodi Picoult, too. In her novels, the "mom" seems to often fall in love with the "attorney," whether her kid just shot fifty kids at school, or has Asberger's, or what-have-you. It is weird, but somehow it doesn't slow her down. I felt like it was hard to tell what the plot was about–partly because of significant use of passive voice. I couldn't uncover actionable movement in the story.



  55. Jessica Nelson on March 18, 2010 at 7:56 AM

    >Totally agree with Timothy.



  56. 150 on March 18, 2010 at 7:44 AM

    >I was also taken aback by the emphasis on the romance, as if the abduction of a child was a chance to re-meet cute. The missing child is first priority over romance (or ought to be), so don't lead off with that element–save it for a later paragraph.

    Also, don't describe what the book does; describe what the characters do.



  57. Timothy Fish on March 18, 2010 at 7:17 AM

    >Even though the author describes the book as women’s fiction, it seems like the genre she is shooting for is Romantic Suspense. I haven’t read much Romantic Suspense, but I’ve listened to my mother recount the plot of some of the books she’s read and I don’t see any reason to think that having the couple rekindle a romantic relationship as a result of the abduction will keep it from getting published. In fact, compared to some of the plots out there, this is a workable plot.

    I don’t know how the author handled the plot, but if I were writing this, I would begin with the couple separated and alone and with the child being abducted. I would end the story with the couple together and the child safe. That gives us the complete reversal we want in a good plot, but that also means that the stuff in the middle is going to involve the couple fighting over who is to blame. She shouldn’t have put their child in that crummy place. He should have paid child support, so she wouldn’t have to. She spends too much time at work. She wouldn’t be working outside the home at all if he hadn’t left. We then have some inciting incident and they decide to work together to get the child back, which is the money piece of the story. They think they’ve found the child, but they didn’t, causing all the blame game to return. But then they push past their problems overcome their differences in a last ditch effort to get the child back. In the process, they must admit to their own fault in the issues that separated them and when they get the child back they decide to set aside the issue of the past and try again. Happily ever after.

    So, the concept isn’t so farfetched. I think a bigger problem here is that it isn’t clear what story the author is trying to tell. Is this the abductor’s story? The daycare director’s story? If not, why do we care what the motives of the abductor are? He could have thought the kid had too long of name and decided to take it into his own hands to change it, but we really don’t care unless it is his story. The author appears to lack focus. Pick a theme and run with it.

    We see this problem again with the agenda. Many writers have written with an agenda. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain are examples of writers who did so successfully, so it isn’t the fact that the author has an agenda that is an issue, but that the author seems to think that the agenda is more important than the story. I think the author is too close to the point she is trying to make to be affective. As a daycare worker, she has this idea that the solution is for parents to be more involved. That is likely to come across as preachy because real world parents are not likely to agree with her solution. So, for me, the author ruined any chances for her story with that last paragraph because I read it as the author saying, “I’m out of touch with the needs of families in this situation.”



  58. Jason on March 18, 2010 at 6:46 AM

    >I think Rachelle said it best…though there is emotional tension, there doesn't seem to be a plot. From my limited experience most manuscripts are missing one or the other.

    Either the piece will have interesting characters who just sit around being interesting (and not much more) or the plot is riveting, but is driven by characters I care nothing about. It's easier said than done to find that balance. But good prose covers a multitude of sins.



  59. Amy Sue Nathan on March 18, 2010 at 6:40 AM

    >It's true that this biz is so subjective. If I was an agent I'd include "don't send me queries about abducted children" in my submission guidelines. I stopped reading after "disappearance of their child".



  60. The Alliterative Allomorph on March 18, 2010 at 6:39 AM

    >I don't think we should start to judge the author about her motives, or the content of her story, or whether she has any more book ideas in her. We all know how difficult it is to write that first query letter, and perhaps she was just unable to articulate it properly. I understand the cringe factor about the romance, and her agenda, but the fact remains, everybody has a reason for writing something, we just don't all try to preach it. This was her mistake. We really shouldn't judge her story 'ideas', just yet, either, because we don't have all the facts. Her story wasn't explained properly. Basically the query wasn't good enough for an agent to request more, and it's great to be able to learn and understand WHY.



  61. Krista Phillips on March 18, 2010 at 6:31 AM

    >WOW! Reading this critique was so helpful! I had the same thoughts as you going through… I didn't see the plot well articulated and I cringed when the author noted about the "issue" mainly because I've heard over and over, "It's about the story… not your agenda." Plus… if her only reason for writing fiction is to underline this particular agenda… what will she write next? Did she write this book JUST to get the word out there and have no more ideas in her? Anyway, those were my thoughts.



  62. Vicki on March 18, 2010 at 6:24 AM

    >I don't particularly like the idea of the parents' romance either. Please, please, PLEASE no love scenes while they're struggling to save their son. Ewww. Once they find their son, I'm perfectly okay with them giving their relationship a second try.

    My bigger concern, though, was thinking the book was taking on too much. Trying to tackle the parent's anguish AND their romance AND the abductor's motives AND the daycare's issues? Whose point of view is primary?



  63. Gehayi on March 18, 2010 at 5:33 AM

    >Rachelle,

    You pinpointed my two problems with the query. First, I agree; a catastrophe like the abduction of a small child is no time for the parents to be "rekindling their romance." I think you're right when you say that this connotes a fun and pleasurable time…and when your son has been stolen by a stranger and there's no way of knowing whether the stranger will rape, torture, maim or kill him, if the stranger will simply disappear with the little boy forever, or if you'll ever see your son alive again, rekindling a romance doesn't seem appropriate. The parents should be desperate, stressed, furious, terrified and trying diligently to remain calm so that they can deal, somewhat successfully with the police, FBI agents and media while not saying anything that would set off the abductor.

    I can see the family growing closer during this time, though growing closer would be far from automatic. But it would be a closeness spawned of pain and anguish. That doesn't mesh well with romance, in my book.

    Second, the second paragraph is far too vague. I want to know more details. Why did B.K.'s teacher force him to leave with a stranger? Why didn't the kid speak up and say that this WAS a stranger? Why isn't B.K. afraid of her? And who IS the abductor? What are her motives? Is she stealing B.K. out of an obsessive need to care for children and a conviction that B.K. is being neglected or abused? Is this a custodial kidnapping? Does she believe that B.K. is, in fact, her own child? Is the kidnapping part and parcel of the stalking of one of the parents? Is the kidnapper just trying to take away B.K. because she sees him as a responsibility that her love interest won't abandon? Does she see him as a possible obstacle to her living happily ever after with B.K.'s mother or father? B.K. could be in serious danger, if that's the case.

    I don't get any hints of the abductor's personality and motive, nor do I see anything but the most broadly sketched plot in the query. That tells me that a) the author is afraid that the story won't be all that compelling if I know a lot about it, and is trying to capture my interest by being mysterious and b) she hasn't defined what the plot is. "Delving into the depths of the emotions and thoughts of the parents and the child, and exposing the motives of the abductor, the director of the day care and the teacher" isn't a plot; it's an outline. I don't simply want to know what's happening, but to whom, and how, and why.

    There's also a third issue for me, and it might well be a deciding factor in whether or not I buy the book: the child's name. "Brhin-Kristoffer Teddi" just seems too consciously cutesy to me. Also, I'm not sure how to pronounce the first name. Is it pronounced "Brin"? "Brian"? "Brehan"? I have no idea, and if I don't know how to pronounce a name in my head, I have to find a substitute pronunciation. And because I'm a fan of the Internet critic-comedian Linkara and of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I stare at this oddly spelled name, think of one of Linkara's sarcastic catchphrases ("Because poor literacy is KEWL!") and am reduced to calling the child "Brain-Guy."

    In other words, the name acts as a distancing phenomenon for me. It pushes me away from the story and from the character.



  64. Jessica Nelson on March 18, 2010 at 5:24 AM

    >I actually didn't mind the couple growing closer through the child's disappearance. There'd definitely be blame but I also think there's the likelihood of them relying on eachother in order to find their baby. And their mutual love for their child could draw them closer and remind them of their past love. So that part doesn't bother me at all.
    I agree about the Jodi Picoult thingy. Actually, this story immediately made me think of The Year of Fog by Michelle Redmond. I haven't read it yet but I really, really want to.
    I think you're right on about the lack of action. There needs to be something, some forward motion, of the plot, beyone emotions. Something tangible so we know that more happens.
    I think the premise is interesting and has potential, but the blurb needs to be hookier.

    Thanks again for sharing, both RG and querier! This makes me want to go back and look at my queries. 🙂



  65. Bernard S. Jansen on March 18, 2010 at 4:37 AM

    >Perhaps I'm being pedantic, but it seems that the "rekindled romance" thing is more a fundamental problem with the novel, rather than with the query itself. The query is probably accurately describing this aspect of the book.

    Perhaps a more plausible scenario would be an otherwise loving marriage torn apart by this tragedy. Not quite romantic fiction, though.



  66. Suzannah on March 18, 2010 at 3:14 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    The "rekindled romance" bit was the first thing that popped out at me, as well. I could believe a couple being able to put aside their differences for the sake of finding their missing child, but nothing along the lines of romance.

    You make some helpful points, and I hope this author is able to incorporate your suggestions!



  67. The Alliterative Allomorph on March 18, 2010 at 2:14 AM

    >I've just been revising my query letter with the help of Paula B from The Writing Show. Wonderful woman! She has made me realise that being specific about what moves the plot along is very important, and you have just proven how true this is. She helped me to recognise the mistakes I made in my first query. She said I had written a good marekting piece. I think that's a mistake a lot of writers make, thinking that they should be vague in order to summon an interest to know more. WRONG! And after reading this post, I realise how wrong it is. Regarding the agenda and the romance here, well yes that would put me off too. I can't imagine how that would be portrayed amongst all the tragedy, and wouldn't it actually make the reader feel disgusted in these parents? Mind you, maybe the author just didn't find the right words to express what she has written. Perhaps she means something more along the lines of 'new emotional bond', a desire to be there for each other in this horrible time? Shows how careful we have to be with our choice of words! Stating an agenda would have been fine, too, if it were non-fiction, I think, but definitely not for fiction. Hmmm … great post. Great advice. Perfect timing for me.



  68. Anonymous on March 18, 2010 at 2:07 AM

    >I thought the basic premise was serviceable – a long-estranged couple is thrown back together when their son is kidnapped. That’s a solid – if not exactly spine-tingling – hook for a book.

    The rest of the query struck me, as, well … serviceable. The writing was fine, but nothing special. The plot, as described was fine, but not compelling.

    I wouldn't request pages either, because nothing really stood out. It struck me as a solid C-plus effort.



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