The Pros & Cons of Query Letter Critiques:
Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price? The answer is yes and no. I recently attended The Atlanta’s Writer Club Conference and signed up for a query letter critique. Prior to doing so, I obviously wrote my query letter and then had three writing friends thoroughly review it. I edited it and rewrote it multiple times. I felt pretty good about my letter. For me, the critique was just the icing on the cake.
First, I want to say two things. One, it is not my intention to disparage the agents, editors, and publishers that were brought down to the AWC conference. Two, always try and walk away with something positive.
Here are my takeaways from my experience with the two New York editors who reviewed my query letter:
Pros: This exercise made me finally finish my query letter. It got me in front of editors so that I could practice. It was an opportunity to get fresh eyes to pick out any items that created questions. The editors pointed out my strongest and weakest paragraphs and/or what they saw as filler. They pointed out that my synopsis didn’t show an arc. That was a big one for me! They loved my bio, agreed with me that it was too long, but was also very good, and suggested that I keep it as is. They were concerned about the tone of each story being drastically different from each other. The reason this came up was because I mentioned that “Nativity” was light-hearted Christmas story, but “The Bystanders” was a coming-of-age story where a boy was exposed to violence at a local gas station. These were all very helpful comments.
Cons: It costs a pretty penny for 15 minutes. Three minutes were reserved for the editors to read and make comments and the rest was to listen and ask question with periods where someone entered the room to keep all of us aware of timing. I felt this was disruptive and would have preferred a kitchen timer, because you kept expecting the door to open at any moment. The editors were visiting a southern market yet were unfamiliar with the term “Grit Lit” and “composite novel.” The composite novel I have had to explain to multiple people so I’m trashing that terminology going forward. They preferred interconnected short stories. However, this bothered me some because it is an actual term and I felt that since they were in the industry, I should not have had to explain it. Not everyone knows the term “Grit Lit,” either. It stands for blue-collar, working class literature based in the South. Their lack of knowledge about this term made wonder if they knew their audience. There were multiple writers I met that day who were writing about the south which included working class folks. I don’t know if those writer used “Grit Lit” in their query letter, or if I was an anomaly.
I thought I’d share the query letter I brought with me to the critique so that items I listed above would make sense to my readers. I have yet to revise it, but that’s on the list and I plan post a before and after query letter.
I understand that you are seeking literary fiction with a strong narrative voice that addresses marginalized people. THE BYSTANDERS, a 51,000-word composite novel, linked together by town, character, and theme would appeal structurally to fans of Elizabeth Stout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE or Alice Munro’s THE BEGGAR MAID. In terms of style and tone, the stories run the gamut from the Southern Gothic and Grit Lit to a classic Christmas story with light humor. The title story was inspired by this psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect—a theme that is subtly explored throughout the entire narrative.
The novel begins with the arrival (or invasion) of the Samples family in the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. It’s the early 1980s when big hair was big and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” blasts over the airways. The townsfolk of rural Lawrenceton, may have had MTV, but it didn’t mean they watched it. Eddy Bauman and Shannon Lamb-Samples, the two “main” characters, make repeated appearances throughout the novel. Eddy can trace his lineage back to the original settlors. Shannon, with her archetypal misfit stepfather, Dale Samples, and tarot card-reading mother, Wendy Samples, are outliers from Los Angeles who have landed in the middle of nowhere Missouri. The Samples not only carry their belongings with them, but their strange ways and a special type of chaos that leaves behind an altered community when they finally exit Lawrenceton.
THE BYSTANDERS weaves together tales of small-town eccentricities: a boy discovers what it means to be a bystander to violence at the local gas station; a girl comes of age on the top of a Camaro at the annual church picnic; a mother predicts the future and saves her daughter from bullying teenaged girls; a waitress decides that love isn’t worth a road trip from hell on a Greyhound bus to Georgia.
I recently graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. I have a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kennesaw State University. I also was awarded the Assistant Literary Editorship for the James Dickey Review. Two of the short stories from the collection have been published in literary journals: “The Bystanders” in Sanctuary Journal and “The Annual Picnic” in Sediments Literary -Arts Journal. One story, “Nativity” won the Faculty Choice Award for Excellence in Writing. In addition, I won the Driscoll Award for my creative non-fiction piece, “White Trash.” Other non-fiction may be found in Family Life Publications and I have forthcoming non-fiction work coming out in Five Points and the James Dickey Review. I also blog about my adventures (and misadventures) in writing at http://www.dawnmajor.com.
Thank you in advance for taking the time to read THE BYSTANDERS.
So, was it worth the price? If you have the cash, the answer is probably an affirmative. I most likely would have figured out what wasn’t working in my query letter, but this exercise saved me some time. Rather than sending it off and wondering if the publisher/agent/editor knew what the term composite novel meant, I now know the answer. SO, you have to gauge how best to spend your valuable money towards your writing career and answer that question for yourself, but hopefully this post offers some insight.