Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Query critique Tuesday: Streamline to 250-350 words


If you would like to nominate your query for a future Query Critique, please enter it in this thread in the Forums!

Also, if you'd like to test your editing chops, keep your eye on this area! I'll post the pages and queries a few days before a critique on the blog so you can see how your redline compares to mine.

Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I'll present the query without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to JBC, whose query is below:
Dear Ms. Bloom, 
Stories that re-imagine or plug gaps in the historical record, and reveal the toggling between split selves (so enjoyably and poignantly done in The Royal We) have always appealed to me. When I found out about the group of Appalachian farm girls, who, unbeknownst to them, were essential elements in the creation of the atomic bomb, I applied to write a creative dissertation at the University of Tennessee. The result, my literary fiction novel A Unified Theory of Love, weds two interlocking narratives to produce an ardent quest for home and connection amidst the fallout of war. 
The novel begins with a prologue set in 1943. 23 year-old Elizabeth—who had changed her name from Erzebet after fleeing Eastern Europe with her brother—is poised to enter Building 9731 at Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL) for the first time. A few months earlier, she had met Carter at a Harvard dance, married him, and relocated to his hometown, which became, nearly overnight, the newly-minted city of Oak Ridge, TN. Carter leaves to fight, and Elizabeth becomes obsessed with the mysterious science behind her work in the Lab, as well as with her young brother-in-law, as she tries to rehabilitate and re-inhabit herself after years of hiding and running. 
Alternating chapters follow Conway, a failed physicist fixated on String Theory, who moves back to Oak Ridge during the 2004 Presidential Election. His steel-toed privacy has kept everyone at bay until he meets a young woman, Mauna, who challenges him to open his heart to unquantifiable love. As their relationship develops, Conway grapples with his sister’s death and the subsequent estrangement from his father, as well as the mysteries behind a cache of notebooks crammed with equations and a flower-topped ring he finds in his grandmother’s basement. What he discovers will change everything he thought he knew about his family, and will help him, and us, move closer to defining the "theory of everything." 
With interest piqued by recent nonfiction bestseller The Girls of Atomic City, my novel appeals to readers of Appalachian and Southern literary fiction, the science-as-love stories of Andrea Barrett, and The Signature of All Things—Elizabeth Gilbert and I even overlapped for a semester in Knoxville. The completed manuscript is about 80,000 words. It received a semifinalist nod from the Faulkner competition and was a finalist for the Maurice Prize. I have published critical articles, poems, and a short story, and am co-owner of a writing and editorial company, Bloomsday Writing (www.bloomsdaywriting.com). 
Thank you for your consideration,
Jessica
Put yourself in an agent's shoes. You're sitting down in front of your laptop, it's 7pm at night, and you have hundreds of queries to read. You don't want to miss anything great, but you also really want to clear this mountainous task from your to-do list so you can go watch Veep.

What would you want those queries to look like?

Spoiler: You want to learn as much as possible about the novel in the shortest amount of time.

I've previously blogged about how the sweet spot of queries is somewhere between 250-350 words. This one is 427, and it shows. While I really like this premise, which sounds kind of like an Appalachian Hidden Figures, it is a little lost in extraneous information.

You just have to do two things: give the plot and give a sense of what it's like to read the novel.

In this case, the plot feels a little buried to me, and for the genre being literary fiction, I don't know that there's unique prose or an interesting style coming through here. I also am not totally clear on how the two disparate storylines intersect, beyond having the same setting. Do they?

Focus on the story and bring some style to the surface and you'll be on your way.

Here's my redline, along with a clean version of my edit so you can read it clearly:
Dear Ms. Bloom, 
[Insert personalized tidbit about agent] 
Stories that re-imagine or plug gaps in the historical record, and reveal the toggling between split selves (so enjoyably and poignantly done in The Royal We) have always appealed to me. When I found out about thea group of Appalachian farm girls, who, unbeknownst to them, were essential elements in the creation of the atomic bomb, I applied to write a creative dissertation at the University of Tennessee. The result, knew I had to write my literary fiction novel A Unified Theory of Love, weds two interlocking narratives to produce an ardent quest for home and connection amidst the fallout of war
The novel begins with a prologue set in  It's1943 and 23 year-old Elizabeth—who had changed her name from Erzebet after fleeing Eastern Europe with her brother—is poised to enter Building 9731 at Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL) for the first time [What is she doing there?].  A few months earlier, she had met Carter at a Harvard dance, married him, and relocated to his hometown, which became, nearly overnight, the newly-minted city of Oak Ridge, TN.  When her husband Carter leaves to fight, and Elizabeth becomes obsessed with the mysterious science behind her work in the Lab, as well as with her young brother-in-law [how does the obsession with her brother-in-law manifest itself?], as she tries to rehabilitate and re-inhabit herself after years of hiding and running [I don't know what "rehabilitate and re-inhabit herself" means - what does she literally do?]
Alternating chapters follow Conway is a failed physicist fixated on String Theory, who moves back to Oak Ridge during the 2004 Presidential Election. His steel-toed privacy has kept everyone at bay until he meets a young woman, Mauna, who challenges him to open his heart to unquantifiable love. As their relationship develops, Conway grapples with his sister’s death and the subsequent estrangement from his father, as well as the mysteries behind a cache of notebooks crammed with equations and a flower-topped ring he finds in his grandmother’s basement. What he discovers will change everything he thought he knew about his family, and will help him, and us, move closer to defining the "theory of everything." 
With interest piqued by recent nonfiction bestseller The Girls of Atomic City, my My novel appeals to readers of recent nonfiction bestseller The Girls of Atomic City and fans of Appalachian and Southern literary fiction, the science-as-love stories of Andrea Barrett, and The Signature of All Things—Elizabeth Gilbert and I even overlapped for a semester in Knoxville. The completed manuscript is about 80,000 words. It received a semifinalist nod from the Faulkner competition and was a finalist for the Maurice Prize. I have published critical articles, poems, and a short story, and [The only relevant credit is the story, but you'd want to say where it's published] am co-owner of a writing and editorial company, Bloomsday Writing (www.bloomsdaywriting.com). 
Thank you for your consideration,
Jessica
Clean edit:
 Dear Ms. Bloom, 
[Insert personalized tidbit about agent] 
When I found out about a group of Appalachian farm girls, who, unbeknownst to them, were essential in the creation of the atomic bomb, I knew I had to write my literary fiction novel A Unified Theory of Love. 
It's 1943, and 23 year-old Elizabeth—who had changed her name from Erzebet after fleeing Eastern Europe with her brother—is poised to enter Building 9731 at Oak Ridge National Labs for the first time. When her husband Carter leaves to fight, Elizabeth becomes obsessed with the mysterious science behind her work in the Lab, as well as with her young brother-in-law, as she tries to rehabilitate and re-inhabit herself after years of hiding and running. 
Conway is a failed physicist fixated on String Theory who moves back to Oak Ridge during the 2004 Presidential Election. His steel-toed privacy has kept everyone at bay until he meets a young woman, Mauna, who challenges him to open his heart to unquantifiable love. As their relationship develops, Conway grapples with his sister’s death and the subsequent estrangement from his father, as well as the mysteries behind a cache of notebooks crammed with equations and a flower-topped ring he finds in his grandmother’s basement. What he discovers will change everything he thought he knew about his family, and will help him move closer to defining the "theory of everything." 
My novel appeals to readers of recent nonfiction bestseller The Girls of Atomic City and fans of Appalachian and Southern literary fiction, the science-as-love stories of Andrea Barrett, and The Signature of All Things. The completed manuscript is about 80,000 words. It received a semifinalist nod from the Faulkner competition and was a finalist for the Maurice Prize. I am co-owner of a writing and editorial company, Bloomsday Writing (www.bloomsdaywriting.com). 
Thank you for your consideration,
Jessica
Thanks again to Jessica for participating!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: June 1951 issue of Fantastic Novels magazine






2 comments:

Jaden Terrell said...

I always enjoy your query critiques, Nathan, as I learn something from every one. I often direct coaching clients to your site when they need guidance on writing queries or synopses.

And I love what you're doing with the blog!

JOHN T. SHEA said...

An 'Appalachian Hidden Figures' is indeed what this sounds like. And we have a lot more context for this query than most, from the author's references to other books etc.

Reformatted to single-spaced 12 point Times New Roman with block paragraphs, the original query fits easily on a single US Letter page, with room to spare for author details etc. But I do like how Nathan's suggestions tighten the focus. And let's not forget the tired agent's FOMO vs Veep quandary...

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