Query Critique: Franklin’s Ladder

The Query

FRANKLIN’S LADDER is supernatural fiction, complete at 82,000 words. It is the women’s fiction version of a Mike Dellosso or a Brian Keene novel. I am querying you because of your desire for well-written women’s fiction that incorporates a Christian world view.

Husbands are troublesome creatures, especially when they’re dead. Anna’s husband, a journalist of crypto zoology, was troublesome from the moment she met him at her neighborhood pub on the Oregon coast—before she experienced the dark presence that pursued him, and before she lost him to a heart attack. No other woman would put up with him: run from his dragons, climb his mysterious white ladder, or lose nineteen years of life for him. And no woman but Anna would risk her own life, as well as her son’s, to rescue him from death.

Then again, maybe she’s not that woman, after all. Searching out her dead husband’s demons is at odds with her real life. She has a health food store to run and a son to raise, not to mention a wealthy contractor who wants to marry her. If only she’d left the photograph in her desk—the one taken of her at a time and place she’s never experienced—the decision might have been easier. Because, despite all the risks, she desperately wants what’s in that image.

I have a creative writing degree from the University of New Mexico, where I graduated magna and summa cum laude. In addition, I have studied under the award-winning writers, Joy Harjo and Anya Achtenberg. Throughout the years, I have continued to attend workshops and classes, while actively participating in a critique group.


A. Novelist

My Response

I requested a partial from this query letter, and I’m eager to read it. Can you guess why? It’s right there in the second paragraph. “Husbands are troublesome creatures, especially when they’re dead.” I love that line! Occasionally, that’s all it takes. An interesting turn of phrase that makes me think you just might have something unique.

But let’s back up a little bit.

Paragraph #1: A nice intro. While I like queries that start right into the pitch, I also like the ones that give me a brief introduction and put the query in context, giving me genre and word count right away. This author was specific about why she’s querying me, showing me that she’s read my guidelines and has a project I’d be interested in looking at. Nice opening.

Paragraph #2: The pitch starts with an intriguing line. My immediate reaction is to agree that husbands are indeed troublesome creatures… but then I’m hit with the “dead” part and I’m curious how he’s troublesome even when he’s dead. The rest of the paragraph, to be honest, loses me a little bit, but hints at an interesting story. I like the idea of running from dragons and climbing a white ladder… whatever it means. So at this point in the query I’m scratching my head but not in a bad way.

Paragraph #3 throws me for a loop with “then again, maybe she’s not that woman.” Huh? Then we get a little more information about the protagonist – a health food store, a son, and a romance (yay!). That sounds good. The last couple sentences get into some mysterious photograph, which is a little too cryptic but still hints at something interesting.

Paragraph #4: This is okay but not really necessary. It doesn’t affect my opinion of the query one way or another.

Overall: The pitch (paragraphs 2 and 3) had enough interesting elements to intrigue me, and that’s the saving grace of this query. Truthfully, it wasn’t very smoothly put together. Ideas don’t seem to flow very well from one to the next. The first sentence in paragraph 3 seems to contradict everything in #2. And the intriguing elements just sort of hang there in mid-air, with no hint as to how they all fit together. (A dark presence? Dragons? White ladder? Mysterious photograph?)

This is an example of a query that has enough in it to intrigue me and to make me forgive the fact that the pitch itself is a bit awkward. I’m not looking for query perfection – I’m looking for good books. This query made me think there might be a good book in there. I hope to find out soon!

Q4U: What do you think is working in this query? Can you see why I’d request a partial?

Rachelle Gardner, 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!


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  6. Lea G. on April 24, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    >I see. The query letter simply shows if the author can write.

  7. Steve on April 23, 2010 at 1:38 AM

    >"If only she’d left the photograph in her desk—the one taken of her at a time and place she’s never experienced—the decision might have been easier. Because, despite all the risks, she desperately wants what’s in that image."

    For me the "hook" is the paragraph above. I'm familiar enough with fantasy to see how it fits in with the white ladder, dragons, etc. (And, of course, hints at possible time-travel elements). As presented, it summarizes and emphasizes the tension of the mysterious elements strongly, and really makes you want to see how everything fits together.


  8. John Overman on April 22, 2010 at 10:26 PM

    >I happen to be a fish that wants to fly. Thank you for inviting us into the writer's query and your thoughts. I see how this query speaks to the underlying issues of the story. I also see how every word counts, and transitioning from sentence to sentence matters. Thanks for the post!

  9. Anonymous on April 22, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    >KC Frantzen: Magna for departmental honors, Summa for university honors

    Nic: None of it is back story. As others have suggested, there is a time travel thing going on.

    Thanks for all the comments,
    Anon Author

  10. Nic on April 22, 2010 at 2:55 AM

    >I'm intrigued but not entirely sure how it all goes together. I'm wondering how much of it is backstory and how much of its plot.

  11. KC Frantzen on April 21, 2010 at 10:56 PM

    sorry if this posted twice.

  12. KC Frantzen on April 21, 2010 at 10:55 PM

    >Thank you author and agent.

    Learning many things here.

    One question: how does one graduate magna and summa?

    This will be intriguing to see how you wrap all this up into a Christian worldview.

    Nice job!

  13. Patrick Brian Miller on April 21, 2010 at 9:16 PM

    >The strongest draw for me was the photograph of herself in a place/time she did not remember–not just a dream or hazy memory but a physical object. Great idea! Sometimes agents don't necessarily want to lose the fun of reading the surprises in a novel by giveaways in the query; so why not leave them a few mysteries to discover in the manuscript?

  14. Anonymous on April 21, 2010 at 8:23 PM

    >"Husbands are troublesome creatures, especially when they’re dead."

    This is a brilliant hook for women's fiction, as it is sooo "Jane Austen-esque".

    I believe that is why the target audience is so sub-consciously influenced by this line.

    However, as a man I am intrigued by the darker elements hinted at and the possible development of time travel themes…I too would probably give this book a try.

  15. Donna on April 21, 2010 at 5:59 PM

    >I found this story very intriguing. What really captured me though was how the heroine "desperately wanted" what was in the photo. To me that shows the life she's supposedly happy with isn't all that it's supposed to be. And now I need to know why!

  16. Phoenix on April 21, 2010 at 5:59 PM

    >Hmm. I'm sorry, author, I would have passed. If a query is supposed to demonstrate skill at writing and creating a cohesive whole, this one would leave me worrying about the ms itself. I was surprised by P4 precisely because I found the writing and story line a bit rocky.

    But as every rejection letter out there says in one form or another, this is all so subjective. Congrats on the partial request!

  17. Eric on April 21, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    >I thought you were going to bash the query to begin with and I thought to myself, this sounds pretty interesting. Then I read your comments. That's what we should strive for, a query that creates interest to read the book. Thanks for the breakdown. Whether we query you or some other agent, this is something we're going to have to conquer.

  18. William on April 21, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    >It looks to me like she went out of her way to be mysterious and slightly confusing in an attempt to intrigue you. I wonder if thats what she was actually doing.

    But I can completely understand the desire for a partial. I also think most people have problems writing a query letter and then panic adding much more context then needed. Thank you for showing us and explaining the query process thats really generous and awesome!

  19. Beth on April 21, 2010 at 3:35 PM

    >Interesting idea, so I can see what draws you, but you're right. I'm a little confused about some of what she says, and I'm wondering exactly where it's all going. I don't know if I'd want to see it or not.

  20. Jill Kemerer on April 21, 2010 at 2:23 PM

    >Thank you for sharing the query and your reasons for requesting a partial. I'm very nosy and enjoy this peek into the why-it-works, why-it-doesn't letter.

  21. Lena Nelson Dooley on April 21, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    >Actually, I'd like to read this book. If you do sell it, I want to feature it on my blog, so we can introduce it to other readers.

  22. Mira on April 21, 2010 at 1:58 PM

    >I liked the query critique here, very helpful, pointed out both the strengths and the flaws of the piece.

    It's also nice there is a happy ending. 🙂

    I agree that the hook is really great – it intrigued me, told me I was most likely in capable hands as a reader, and suggested there might be some humor to this book – something that always interests me.

    I did have a momentary question – she doesn't seem sad that her husband is dead – did she love him?

    Just a question, and probably completely covered in the book, but I thought I'd mention it.

    Good luck, anon and Rachelle – I hope it's a good fit. Either way, best of luck to you, Anon. Sounds like you've got quite a book there! 🙂

  23. Sharon A. Lavy on April 21, 2010 at 1:38 PM


  24. Amanda G on April 21, 2010 at 1:29 PM

    >I agree with everyone that the query is somewhat confusing. However, unlike some queries I've read that are confusing because the authors don't know language as well as they think they do, this one's confusing parts seem to come from the (enormous!) difficulty of writing about one's own novel.

    What I think is working: strong narrative voice that isn't trying too hard to be clever/intriguing. Oh, and possible time travel/AU in a Christian novel?! I'm so in. 🙂

    Question, if I may: is it acceptable etiquette to re-query an agent that has sent you a form rejection, if you have rewritten your query from scratch? Or is a form rejection the final word?

  25. Jess on April 21, 2010 at 12:25 PM

    >The first thing I thought after reading this query was "when do I get to read it"–and that is saying a lot because it is not the type of book I am normally interested in. I felt that the author gave just enough information – it got me interested without making the ending predictable or boring me. It's not perfect, but nobody is. I am certainly interested, which means the query did its job.

    I also agree with lauradroege–it was a relief to see that you respected this author's query with or without the experience listed at the end.

    Great post, and thank you so much for giving us such valuable information.

  26. T. Anne on April 21, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    >I would have requested this one as well. The query to me seems very well polished. I like the idea there is a potential romance between her and her 'somewhat' dead husband. Is she bringing him back to life? How? Sounds outside of my usual genre's, but I want to see how she pulls it off with a Christian world view.

  27. Jane Steen on April 21, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    >"The dark presence that pursued him" and "the photograph…taken of her at a time and place she's never experienced" hooked me. I love stories with the supernatural just visible around corners (rather than the in-your-face supernatural that seems to be the norm now) and I'd be looking for that in her story.

    I did think the query was confusing, though. I would have to look up "crypto zoology!" But maybe that's my problem.

  28. Vinny on April 21, 2010 at 11:24 AM

    >That first line in the second paragraph is a great one.

  29. lauradroege on April 21, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    >I can see why you'd request a partial. It's not my type of story, but there are intriguing elements here.

    Anonymous (the Query letter writer): Your willingness to take constructive criticism is inspiring. I hope I learn to take criticism as well as you. 🙂

    Just have to add: I was relieved that Rachelle wasn't necessarily influenced by the 4th paragraph. I haven't officially studied fiction writing under anybody (much less have a degree in it), and I've been a tad worried whether that would effect an agent's opinion of my query letter.

    Thanks, Rachelle, for the gracious criticism. Your kindness is a wonderful example of Christianity in action!

  30. Kate Thompson on April 21, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    >I had pretty much the same reaction that many did: great hook, intriguing and confusing mini-hooks. I'd be interested in reading the book if it's laid out clearly and is well edited.

    I appreciated the thumbs-up on the first paragraph and am also curious about why the last paragraph wasn't so important to you, Rachelle.

    Thanks for doing these critiques. They're very helpful.

  31. KFran on April 21, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    >I find myself wanting to know more about the story right away. I'd love for you to give us a followup after you read the partial!


  32. Jan Rider Newman on April 21, 2010 at 10:03 AM

    >The first line (about husbands) of the second paragraph grabbed my attention. It suggested humor as well as drama. I found the rest of her query wordy, but the premise interested me, and I want to know what she saw in the picture. After stating all the reasons why no woman would want this man, I'd have liked A. Novelist to tell me why Anna found him worth the effort. Otherwise, nice opening and closing.

  33. Anonymous on April 21, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    >This is writer of the query checking in to say thank-you on the comments. My query's still confusing, which is something I need to work on. This is a case where the author thinks she's being intriguing, but everybody else thinks she is confusing (argh). It's hard to write a query for any book, let alone a non-linear story. I feel relieved, now, that Rachelle even asked for it.

    To Ken Hannah: I know what you mean about chick lit and the rich, powerful hero who saves the day (as in Bridget Jones and Shopaholic). If I implied that my love interest is like that, then I need to revise, because he definitely is not!

  34. Serenity on April 21, 2010 at 9:35 AM

    >I love this query. The husbands line definitely hooked me enough to want to read the book. And I love that it shows a blending of the supernatural with the world we actually do understand, shown by the small business, son, and romance. It looks like it might also be a timeslip? That's what the photograph indicated to me anyway. Looks like it could be a great one.

    Rachelle, I have to admit the credentials at the bottom actually did mean something to me. For me it added to the fascinating hook that the writer had also studied how to execute. Not so much for you? Would you mind elaborating on why that wasn't necessary?

  35. Jess Tudor on April 21, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    >The intriguing elements hook me, especially the photograph, and the writing seems good, like the sentence that hooked you grabbed me too.

    However, my thought throughout the whole thing was, 'Why'd she bother marrying him in the first place?' The characterization needed a little extra oomph, the dead husband needed something positive to get me, otherwise I'm a little suspect of Anna's judgment.

    Not sure if I'd have requested a partial between those two things (that and the somewhat choppiness) but I'm not the agent here. Congrats to the query-writer. 🙂

  36. Kathy N. on April 21, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >My mind must work much like this author's. I could see this story as I read the query. And I think it might even play with an alternate reality, as if the widow might be able to rewrite her husband's ending.

    I see why you asked for a partial, and I hope the story is captivating.

  37. Ken Hannahs on April 21, 2010 at 8:39 AM

    >Quick question: is the "passionate love interest" ever NOT rich and powerful in chick lit? Ok, that's all.

  38. Suze on April 21, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    >Reason # 432 that I'm not an agent: I would have passed too. The bit you love about the troublesome husband, struck me as a nice line as well. But one great line in a query wouldn't do it for me. The rest was really confusing.. white ladders? A picture in a drawer? Yikes…

    BUT, it just goes to show that this is a subjective business! Good luck to the author – I hope you get picked up 🙂

  39. Rose on April 21, 2010 at 7:57 AM

    >Yes, I can see why you'd request a partial. I think this is a strong query that just needed a little more tweaking before submitting. I felt that paragraph one should have actually been paragraph three in the query letter and paragraph four could have been tightened up.

    That said, I usually open my query letters the same way with a short informational paragraph stating word count, genre and why I submitted to that agent/editor.

    SO…by reading this I will rethink my own query letters.

    Thanks for your insights, Rachelle.

  40. Jessica Nelson on April 21, 2010 at 7:50 AM

    >I think the plot is a little confusing and it almost seems like there's too much going on, and yet, it's VERY hooky. I loved that troublesome line too and it even makes me think that the story is humorous. I hope it is because it sounds like a really cute romance with a side dish of supernatural stuff. 🙂
    Congrats to the writer!

  41. Elena on April 21, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    >Good thing I wasn't the agent for this writer…I would have passed.

  42. Jason on April 21, 2010 at 6:34 AM

    >Yep, the statement about dead troublesome husbands is enough, and it's very well-placed…at the beginning of the 2nd paragraph. The writing is solid and enthusiastic, there is suspense, drama, and an actual storyline.

    And from an agent's POV it seems like this one's background proves she is in it for the long haul…thanks for sharing Rachelle!

  43. Tori on April 21, 2010 at 6:21 AM

    >This post made me realize something. If your story idea is really good the query does not have to be perfect. If, however, your idea sucks it doesn't matter how well written your query is.

    Something for me to think about. Now I just have to figure out which category I am in.

  44. Katie Ganshert on April 21, 2010 at 5:11 AM

    >When I read that line, I immediately thought of Bonnie Grove's novel – Talking to the Dead. Love that book!

  45. Penelope C Jordan on April 21, 2010 at 4:57 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle for these query critiques. They are so helpful. In this case I have to admit I found this one very confusing and yet somewhat intriguing. And yes I have to agree with you the line "Husbands are troublesome creatures, even when they are dead" is very captivating.
    Thanks once again.

  46. Ivan on April 21, 2010 at 4:43 AM

    >Why your requested a partial:
    1.well-written women’s fiction that incorporates a Christian world view
    (this tells you what it might be and you like that)
    2.Husbands are troublesome creatures, especially when they’re dead.
    (that is a great hook)
    3. 'troublesome', 'dark presence', 'lost him', 'lose nineteen years', 'risk her own life', 'not that woman', 'dead husband's demons', 'despite all the risks, desperately wants'. (these are all button pressing bits)
    The rest is filler. Your buttons were duly pressed. As you well know, the actual writing may be dreadful, but the scene is set.
    I advise query writers to think about what buttons they are pressing.

  47. Aimee LS on April 21, 2010 at 3:13 AM

    >To be honest I was surprised how positively you responded to this. I agree that there are interesting elements, but I found myself completely confused which put me off.

    Of course, I'm over the moon agents are forgiving for those like me who struggle with writing queries!

  48. Anonymous on April 21, 2010 at 2:21 AM

    >I definitely can see why you requested a partial. The story sounds really interesting.

    Thank you for doing this series of query critiques. I think one thing that all writers should get out of this is that there is no such thing as a perfect query.

  49. Kimi Finley on April 21, 2010 at 1:49 AM

    >I just have to say that it is really helpful for us writers to have you post blogs like this!

    I just started following your blog and I'm stoked for what I'll learn from you.

    Thank you!

  50. Amie McCracken on April 21, 2010 at 1:41 AM

    >I was the same as you. A tad confused but very intrigued. I can see why you would ask for a partial.

  51. Heather on April 21, 2010 at 1:17 AM

    >I see how you would request a partial from this. The author did a great job of creating a good first-sentence hook, then filling in about the story (although it might have been able to be filled in a little more). Still, it's the intrigue and suspense that's going for this author. Sounds like a interesting book!

I love words.

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