Monday, January 11, 2010

Communicating Complexity

As most of you know, I’ve been sending a few queries, trying to find an agent, eventually a book contract… come to think of it, maybe that is what’s up with my writing mojo, which seems to be on shaky ground… but about those queries. The query body I’ve been sending looks like this:


CONFLUENCE is about the family of a new PhD, relocated to a rural college town. Fifteen-year-old Jessie is Mac’s daughter from his first marriage, so originally, difficulties the family experiences are masked by the internal tensions of a teen who didn’t want to move with the father and step-mother she has never lived with. Only five-year-old Hannah seems to adjust easily; she is thrilled to finally live with her older sister, but she also makes friends with a homeless man who lives in the woods behind their new home, a friend believed by her parents to be imaginary for several months.

Strange occurrences begin, like the placement of threatening signs in their yard, and the hanging of a dead chicken in Jessie’s locker at the high school, but these things are attributed to a community divided between scientific and religious underpinnings, until Hannah is kidnapped, forcing the teenage Jessie into heroism and the family to unravel the real reason they were brought to Clear Springs.

CONFLUENCE is rich in relationships and character, a strength stemming from my background in social psychology. It holds quirky characters and humor, despite the dark story tract; the language is fast and approachable, and the conclusion is a chilling statement on what is possible when arrogance collides with zealotry.

CONFLUENCE is complete at 137,000 words (chapter 1 pasted below). As high-market commercial fiction suitable for book-club discussions, I believe it will appeal to people who love family crisis mysteries and conspiracy theory.

This is a query letter that has gotten a few nibbles (two ½ requests for partials), so I was sort of pleased with it…

On Saturday, within half an hour of sending it, I got a response that said:

I have to tell you that from this query, I really have no idea what your book is about or who the main protagonist is. You might want to take another crack at this.

Also, your word count is really too high for adult fiction.

Hit me like a load of bricks, it did…

I’ll tell you why.

Who is my protagonist? Well you see, there are four, and it alters viewpoints… *cough* So what do I do? Pick one? What I WANT to do is explain that all four are in a way, but that is a long story, and I’m thinking long stories don’t hold an audience at this stage of the game. My original instinct was Mac, the patriarch. But in reality, the heroine, is Jessie, and I’ve been told by multiple readers she is my best character and strongest voice… go with that…

What is my story about? Well it’s sort of complicated…

I’ve known from the beginning this monster is hard to talk about. It is a complicated story about what happens to a family when they are immersed in somebody else’s insanity. I suppose it’s time to really put the work into my three line summary about what this book is about… I decided to take another crack at this agent though, since she was so kind as to suggest it was okay with her… (something that either makes her really a stellar person, or means she saw enough to think she might like it—in my dream world, both.)

Query Revision:

I appreciate so much your bluntness paired with a willingness to read another version of my query. I've given it another attempt, hopefully more clear in the plot of the story. I should be clear that the point of view includes all four 'verbal' Rawlins, but Jessie is the strongest voice and the primary protagonist in the end.

Forty years ago a group of arrogant young academics decided to conduct a social experiment to see how a set of fictional works might attain power for them, to see how gullible people were. The experiment however, has grown beyond their control and a young family is about to pay the price.

Jessie Rawlins is relatively content, as teenagers go. She is active in a theater group, attends an arts high school, and her father has even returned to town after being absent from her life for five years while he was getting his PhD. She is set to spend the rest of high school in Seattle, until her parents turn everything on its head.

Her father is offered a job as a professor hundreds of miles away and her mother takes the opportunity to accept a job in Hong Kong, agreeing that it would be good for Jessie and her dad to live together for a few years. So Jessie is stuck moving with her dad and his new family, where she doesn't believe she fits in.

To top it off, Clear Springs is small, overly-quaint, and dull—or so she thinks until very strange things start happening to her and her family. She learns of local lore and a supposed cult to the north of the town, but that is the stuff of slumber party tales. Locally, she experiences harassment (because of her dad's job), and the disappearance of a boy she meets at a party. Adding to the tension of these events is the family tension caused initially by her own presence in a previously defined family unit, and then by a homeless man who has befriended her younger sister, a man her parents attribute as 'imaginary' for many months, only to learn he's been living in the woods behind their house and is very real.

Jessie manages though, to make a group of good friends and meet a variety of helpful people along the way, so when her sister is kidnapped and her parents seem to be falling apart, she is the person with the resources in place to figure out what has happened to her and to attempt a rescue.

CONFLUENCE is mainstream fiction (with an underlying thriller) complete at 137,000 words. While I recognize this as long for a first work of fiction, the original draft was over 200,000 words and this has been significantly tightened. I don't believe it can be shortened much more without losing important strands of the story. The article linked in your email mentioned Kostova's The Historian as one of the rare exceptions, and one of my first readers actually mentioned that work as one this reminded her of, though I think CONFLUENCE is more approachable, both in language density and because it is a modern setting with modern family issues—but the family layering and trying to solve something larger is a comparable idea.

So there we have it. I have no clue if I succeeded or not, but like Terry mentions today (see sidebar blog list), it is important to listen and learn. Sometimes we should change and adapt, sometimes not, but it is still important to try to understand what someone else has taken from your work.

I would really love feedback as to whether the second version has addressed my questions... I'd love to know whether any of my first readers think it is now misleading... I don't feel like it is, but I also wanted to turn this back around quickly...


TreeX said...

Sounds good :)

Would it help if I did another cover? -- if I can get the big machine to work that is =(

Jan Morrison said...

I do think this second query is better than the first. We want a protagonist even if there are several main characters - we need to know who we are rooting for or in some cases stymied by. I like the sound of your book. I would be interested in reading it were I an agent or publisher AND I sure understand their trepidition at the word count. It will so much depend on the person and the connection they develop to your manuscript. It is sort of like dating I think - I don't want to fall in love with someone with a lot of baggage but if their essential self is compelling - well, I'll deal.

Watery Tart said...

Joris, you're too good to me. You DID a cover for this one, silly--it's the mast head for the blog!

Jan, I love how you put that... the baggage, that if you have reason to think it might be worth it, you are willing to work with... And I'm glad to get some feedback on this new letter--I sort of had to wing it this morning, so I'm glad it seems to be decent.

M.J. Nicholls said...

Yup, I found that revision MUCH clearer. You certainly get a sense of the protag, the themes and subthemes in the book.

They do like 'em short, though, don't they? I guess the trick is to whittle that revision down so the editor can get his little digestible blurb and be happy.

Mainstream presses are so frigid they'll reject you if don't present the marketing strategy on the first friggin' line. ::sigh::

Good luck! I'm sending a revised novel out too, so I'll be sure to share any feedback I get from editors on my blog.

Watery Tart said...

Mark, good luck to you on getting your revision accepted!

And thanks for the feedback! Definitely helps the confidence... now to decide if any of my queries need to be resent *mutters*

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I do like your second query the best--you did a great job with it.

I hate to say it, but I think the most important thing is to get a request. If you have to present the story from one POV in the query, then I think that's okay. A query is just such a short-sell.


Leanne said...

I've been reading Confluence so long I can't step back enough to understand how anybody doesn't "get it"... but hey, personal response + detailed criticism = interest, says me. And I think the second version did address the concerns, though I admit it, I haven't read much of your shortened version yet. :-P Mea culpa. I SWEAR I had it on my to-do list this week, but I just went from having 5 mornings free to having just 1... eurgh...

BTW, Kostova's new book comes out tomorrow. In case anybody cares. ;-)

Watery Tart said...

Elizabeth--excellent point about just needing them to want to read it... need to keep that in mind. I have such a strong ethic about 'no false advertising'--goes into all sorts of areas of my life, so it FEELS wrong, but if it gets the request...

Leanne--I think there WAS interest, unfortunately, once she read my first 10 pages, with 'thriller' in her head, that and te word count meant it wasn't fast enough.

No worries on reading delays--I know you have two jobs and life gets nuts sometimes...

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I 'got' Confluence the first time I read it, and really can't understand how anyone doesn't do so at once. But one has to make allowances for the agent, specially since she was nice enough to explain why she did not nibble right away.

The new query is much better. As far as I was concerned, Jessie was always the main protagonist. Even if more things happen to Hannah, she is the focus point of the story.

And me! It was me that thought the story was like Historian. Maybe you should attach as an annexure the date stamp of the mail, because it proves you are not making it up.

All the best, Tami. All the very best. I want to buy your book in the bookstore - please don't make me wait too long.