Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Query letter #6: Ian E

I am a 63 year old retiree, having raised a family of two boys with my wife of 30 years. [I don't need to know this - it doesn't have anything to do with your writing.] I have been carrying around this manuscript for 40 years [Saying how long it's taken to write this is not a badge of honour - it just makes me think the manuscript is overcooked], but only now realize what I was trying to say. It is a biography from my past, and all happened before I was 21 [This is actually the salient piece of information], but the ramifications have left my greater family divided all this time.
Ian is 21 [If it's your story, don't switch to third person to describe it, otherwise I'll presume you've written a novel and named the central character after yourself] and running from his past. Leaving behind his Asian girlfriend after having a baby, (not his), and anticipating the return of her husband from prison, he hitchhikes across Canada in the middle of winter [So Canada is the setting of the whole story?], barely returning alive to the family he's ostracized from. [The grammar is clumsy here - it's important to make the spelling and grammar as good as can be] As a younger lad he was in a love triangle which left, one 15 year old pregnant, and broke the family of another 14, year old, after he took nude pics of her and they were found by her father. Unwelcome, and reviled, and looking like hell, barely making the journey he is forcibly committed to a mental institution and declared a schizophrenic. The book parallels his life, as he deals with the loss of his soul and the mind numbing drugs. [Somewhere in here is a storyline - you need to say what the story is about, and 'my life' is not the right answer - if you are a stranger to all your potential readers, you have to give them a reason to want to read this - you have to find the common human thread/s that make your story relevant to others.] It takes us into a place very few people ever go, exposing the soul or the lack of it because in the end, that's what he get on his knees in the hospital chapel, and asks for. That's what, he concludes realizing after repeated attempts [attempts at ...?], made upon him by the hospital, he has nothing to say and even if he did, his tongue, 'cleaving to his mouth', won't let him. [I'm still not sure what the story is.]
30,000 words [This is too small a word count for most publishers to consider.]

General feedback: Never attempt to do too much in a query letter when telling something simply will do. You gave quite a bit of detail in that second paragraph but I still don't really know what the story is about, or why I should read it. If you are not sure how to pitch your manuscript, pretend that you are meeting someone at a party and they ask you what your story's about - and you only have half a minute to tell them before someone else comes up to talk to you. What would you say in those 3o seconds? Wouldn't you start with, 'It's a story about love, loss and redemption' (if that's what it's about)? Writing a query letter can help you work out what your story's about, but you shouldn't send said query letter to an agent or publisher until you're sure you know. Because if you don't know what your story's about, you need to go back to the manuscript and do some more work.

In contrast to the previous 'stunt letter', you should start your query by telling me what your story is called, that it's a memoir,  and that it's 30 000 words long. You can then tell me that it deals with your life before the age of 21, then go into some detail - but not too much. You still need to pitch it, though - you need to give me a compelling reason to want to read it. Agents and publishers see thousands of submissions a year - we need to be given a reason. Also bare in mind that the reasons for non-fiction are different from those for fiction. In fiction the story, when pitched right, can be the reason. In non-fiction it may be the story or it may be the subject, or both.

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