Saturday, July 25, 2015

New Agent July 2015 Critique Blog Hop

A big thank you to Michelle Hauck who hosted the NewAgent contest. These are the pitch paragraphs and the first 250 words from my novel NOTORIOUS. I'd like to see your critique in the comments. I have very thick skin so don't feel the need to pull your punches. Thank you.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Word Count: 84,000

Query:

VESPERTINE CLEMENT lives above her uncle's book shop during the San Francisco gold rush and tries to avoid a life of professional domesticity. MRS. ADLER, a director of the Women's Benevolent Society where Vespertine works as a notary, summons her and delivers the news, unless she can prove the innocence of a fallen woman accused of murder, the society will fold.

Vespertine, accompanied by the amicably corrupt SERGEANT CUINN of the police, sets out to solve the murder before her job disappears. The coroner doesn't think a woman should examine the corpse. The victim's family has gathered a mob to see justice done by means fair or foul. Her uncle wants her to settle down and start a family.

She concludes that poison killed the victim, not his wounds. Using a chemistry textbook from her uncle’s shop, and some glass tubing borrowed from the dye makers, she arranges a public test for poison with an audience in the police station. The test is a complete failure.

She has only four days to start again, protect the society, and save a woman from the gallows.

First 250 Words:  

They played a farce. Vespertine asked questions and her visitor lied. The important part was to finish before anyone interrupted.

“Mr. Jackson, of Ablemarle County Virginia, emancipated you in March of 1852?” Vespertine asked her visitor.

The woman stared, stupefied. No more than twenty-five, the sun and wind had battered her.

“Mr. Jackson freed you last March?” Vespertine tried again.

“Yes, Miss. In March.” The visitor’s companion reached over and patted her hand gently.

The three women sat close around a battered sea table wedged in an alcove. Fruit crates, stacked three high and brimming with papers, filled the space behind Vespertine. Cards tacked to the ends told of the contents. A curtain blocked the view from the hall and riffled each time one of her visitors brushed it with the back of her cap.

“Did he free others at the same time?”

The woman nodded. “Mr. Johnson died—”

“Mr. Jackson.” Vespertine corrected her.

The woman’s companion stiffened. 

“Mr. Jackson died.” The woman wet her lips. “He didn’t have no children. No wife.”

“He manumitted— He freed all his slaves at that time?”

The visitor nodded. Her companion clutched her bag tight to her abdomen with both arms. Calm people didn’t come to The Women’s Benevolent Society, desperate people did. People with problems they could not solve themselves. The people with unsolvable legal problems came to see Vespertine.

14 comments:

  1. Okay, so I'm dedicating the first week of this to critiquing the queries and then going back and doing the first 250 in a separate comment. I need to be in a different mind-set for those. So I'll comment on your query now and come back for the sample later, okay?

    Firstly I like your blog name. The word "rookery" brings back fond childhood memories of Gargoyles, so yay. :)

    I love your first two paragraphs. Honestly there's just some punctuation issues ("...summons her and delivers the news, unless she can..." should have a colon, not a comma between news and unless) and some word choice issues (I feel like "amicably corrupt" should be "amiably corrupt" instead), they're really strong. Also, I love the girl's name. It's pretty and isn't overdone/stupid thanks to the time period (I think it was Lana Popovic who once gave the example of "Illuminata Jones" for a contemporary YA fantasy).

    One thing - you don't put character names in all caps in queries. You do it in synopses. You put your project title in all caps in a query.

    The only problem I see is the third and final paragraphs. I think the third paragraph could be reworded and then the two combined to make your pitch stronger. And the phrasing on the final paragraph could up the stakes better.

    "She concludes that poison killed the victim, not his wounds. Using a chemistry textbook from her uncle’s shop, and some glass tubing borrowed from the dye makers, she arranges a public test for poison with an audience in the police station. The test is a complete failure."

    First, I love the final line of this. Because it sort of sets it up like, "Oh, she solved it, yay!" and then it's like, "Wait. Wait. No she didn't. Oops." But there's a lot of extraneous information in this third paragraph. We don't know who she borrowed the tubing from. Since you never say what it LOOKS like the guy died of, the thing about "not of his wounds" doesn't make much sense cuz you never mentioned any wounds. So you could streamline this as sort of the following:

    "She concludes that poison killed the victim. Using a chemistry textbook from her uncle’s shop and some borrowed glass tubing, she arranges a public test for poison with an audience in the police station. Unfortunately, the test is a complete failure. Now she has only four days to find the true cause of death in order to save the society from ruin and an innocent woman from the gallows."

    Nice. I like it. :) I'll be back later next week to read the 250.

    ReplyDelete
  2. oh, one other thing - how attached are you to the name Mrs. Adler? Because a lot historical mystery readers may make a connection between your character and Mrs. Irene (can't remember her married name) nee Adler from Sherlock Holmes. Just something to think about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks a lot. You're critique is really helping.

      I may have a naming problem. The story began when a co-worker and I were arguing about the relative merits of Elementary and Sherlock. So there is Mrs. Adler, an Irene, etc.

      Delete
  3. Alrighty, we got some cool stuff here.

    Query: First off, I think the all caps names is for synopses, so I think it'd be fine to leave the names normal for the letter. As for the query body, I think you've got a really great concept to work with (love the science in a historical mystery), but I think there are bits where there could be a bit more clarity. For instance, why does Vespertine have to solve the murder? Why would the society crumble if this woman isn't proven innocent? For the later paragraphs, I feel like you have a lot of intrigue in there, but I'm not sure it's coming across as well as it could. Keep tying Vespertine back into the query I think is the best way to say it -- like, you mention a mob. Say how Vespertine is at risk because of it. Show how her uncle wanting her to marry is getting in the way of her investigation. Stuff like that. I feel like you have all the elements, but there needs to be more clear connections among everything.

    250: Love the first paragraph. It gives across this no-nonesense voice that I think is so cool. I don't think you need a comma between Mr. Jackson and of in the first bit of dialogue.This may just be personal preference, but I think the description of the table would fit well after you describe the woman, that way there's a picture right away to go with the dialogue. Also, I would put the line that people with unsolvable legal problems go to Vespertine as its own paragraph -- give it some extra oomph. Otherwise, I think this is a very good start; there's definitely a sense of discomfort and frustration, and I find it very intriguing, and sets up what I imagine some of the dynamics will be down the road.

    Nice job and I wish you all the best with your writing. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. This is my first contest, and it's great to have people willing to help each other.
      D

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  4. Hello, hello.

    Query: You should check this, but I'm pretty sure the character's names in all caps is reserved for synopses. But I do like the name Vespertine - it has that edginess to it.

    Now, I think you have a really interesting concept and I can see both internal and external conflict (a woman not being allowed to examine a corpse? That instantly drew me in because it painted the picture of your society), but I didn't get a sense of urgency from it. My suggestion is to work a bit on the pace, by excluding things such as "she concludes" - it would be snappier if you went just right to it.

    I also think your first sentence is not as strong as it could be. I loved the 'tries to avoid a life of professional domesticity' part, but I felt as if the part of her living above a bookshop isn't the type of information I need to have at this point.

    On that note, I don't think we need to know so many names in the query I think you can take Mrs. Adler's one out of it, and just leave her profession, because that's what's important here.

    250: I like your first paragraph very much and I think it's a great beginning. I did feel the need for a bit more characterization for all the people in the scene. For example, "The woman stared, stupefied. No more than twenty-five, the sun and wind had battered her." - I didn't know if Vespertine or her visitor stared and that immediately pulled me out of the story.

    But if you can find a way to include small little details about each character in your first page, I think you have a really good start to your novel. You finish it brilliantly with your closing paragraph and already set some stakes for your main character and her environment. Very intriguing.

    Hope my comments are helpful.




    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your critique. I'm spending some time redoing the docs.

      Thanks
      D

      Delete
  5. Great start. I grew up in SF so I love to see stories about the city.

    Overall, the query reads choppy to me. I get a clear sense of the stakes (solve the crime and save the society) but it seems that the bigger stakes would be solve the crime and save an innocent life. Which is bigger in the story ....saving the society or saving the woman's life? If saving the society is a subplot then I would suggest leaving it out of the query. You hint at the idea that your MC is a strong, independent minded woman in a time where that was not accepted in society. It seems like this kind of a MC would care more about saving the innocent woman's life. I would play up more that she solves the crime using tools and her brain even when the men in control of the investigation won't give her access to all of the information. And then add that in addition the victim's family has gathered mob of people looking for what they see as justice. Overall a very good idea for a book. A good underdog story always has an audience.

    I think the 250 set the scene well. I really, really like the last paragraph about calm people not coming to them, only desperate people. Its a strong statement. Not sure if you can move it closer to the beginning. It really sets the MC up as a savior and a compassionate person who wants to help people who are desperate.

    Good job! Keep it up!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your notes. It's great to have other people, that haven't read it so many times before, jump in and help.

      Thanks
      D

      Delete
  6. Hi there!

    I think your query is a tad disconnected. It reads like a synopsis, almost. Focus on your main character, what they want, and what stands in their way. We learn a little about the MC and then it quickly switches to a new person and a society. Paragraph 2 is very choppy and isn't really building on what was previously said. We're just being told stuff instead of increasing tension.

    Only your title should be in all caps--characters in caps are reserved for a
    synopsis.

    Your 250 is pretty sparse. I want to know where we are and I want to know whose head I'm in. Set the scene from a character's POV so the reader can connect with someone.

    The woman stared, stupefied. No more than twenty-five, the sun and wind had battered her. --> 'stupefied' is telling--cut and show. Next part, I'm not even sure what is means. Does she seem older than 25 because she's lived a harsh life? How does the MC know she's 25, then??

    I think your last 2 lines are repetitive since they basically say the same thing and sap tension right out. Cut one/rephrase.

    --Michella link #4
    (would comment with my wordpress account but the comment section is being glitchy and won't let me hit the 'not a robot' button)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Michella. These comments are helpful.

      Thanks
      D

      Delete
  7. Since a lot of other people did big picture comments, I'm going to dive into line edits! One note, though--if your work is intentionally playing w/ Sherlock characters/tropes, names might not be a problem. Just make sure you are aware that you're using them/of the easter eggs you're leaving for readers.

    Genre: Historical Mystery
    Word Count: 84,000
    [For contests you can pull this stuff out of the flow, but for actual queries you will need a sentence including it. You also get a subject line to play w/ but I wouldn't count on that]
    Query:
    VESPERTINE CLEMENT [lower case all names, you know this now] lives above her uncle's book shop during the San Francisco gold rush [OMG! I LOVE THIS! What a cool premise.] and tries to avoid a life of professional domesticity. MRS. ADLER, a director of the Women's Benevolent Society where Vespertine works as a notary, summons her and delivers the news, [Period] unless she [replace w/ Vespertine] can prove the innocence of a fallen woman [why is this woman so important? Is there a more specific word? Activist? Donor?] accused of murder, the society will fold. [Why does V have to be the one to solve this? Or is it just that someone has to and this society is like V's lifeline?]

    Vespertine, accompanied by the amicably corrupt [take out adj.—do we need them?] SERGEANT CUINN of the police, sets out to solve the murder before her job disappears. The coroner doesn't think a woman should examine the corpse. [Would she be able to examine it as a random person anyways?] The victim's family has gathered a mob to see justice done by means fair or foul. [A little awk to have the big deal mob thing and then nothing comes of it. Why is the mob important/what happens? For ex: "The victim's family demands justice, and it's a thin line between peace and riots"—something that shows the danger/stakes?] Her uncle wants her to settle down and start a family. [I would cut this line. We get that in the first line.]

    She concludes [she does this before the public test? Does she conclude or have a hunch?] that poison killed the victim, not his wounds. Using a chemistry textbook from her uncle’s shop, and some glass tubing borrowed from the dye makers, she arranges a public test for poison with an audience in the police station. The test is a complete failure.

    She has only four days to start again, protect the society, and save a woman from the gallows. [Great hook! Def keep this line! Maybe try to get here faster.]

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. Like I said before, this is my first contest and it's been great to see how much everyone pulls together.

      D

      Delete
  8. First 250 Words:

    They played a farce [farce a little offsetting—I'm guessing it's period language? I would maybe cut this sentence and start w/ MC rather than "they."] Vespertine asked questions and her visitor lied. The important part was to finish before anyone interrupted.

    “Mr. Jackson, of Ablemarle County Virginia, emancipated you in March of 1852?” Vespertine asked her visitor. [Sounds a bit info-dumpy, but I'm willing to read on.]

    The woman stared, stupefied. No more than twenty-five, the sun and wind had battered her. [Would love to get a better view of this. Where are her wrinkles? Crows feet? Forehead? Dried skin?]

    “Mr. Jackson freed you last March?” Vespertine tried again.

    “Yes, Miss. In March.” The visitor’s companion [Who looks like…?] reached over and patted her hand gently.

    The three women sat close around a battered [watch repetition of the word "battered"] sea table wedged in an alcove. Fruit crates, stacked three high and brimming with papers, filled the space behind Vespertine. Cards tacked to the ends told of the contents. A curtain blocked the view from the hall and riffled [ruffled? rustled?] each time one of her visitors brushed it with the back of her cap.

    “Did he free others at the same time?”

    The woman nodded. “Mr. Johnson died—”

    “Mr. Jackson.” Vespertine corrected her.

    The woman’s companion stiffened.

    “Mr. Jackson died.” The woman wet her lips. “He didn’t have no children. No wife.”

    “He manumitted— He freed all his slaves at that time?”
    [The vocab adjustments make it seem like she looks down on the visitors. I sense from your query/comments that she might just be insufferably nerdy, but it's giving me a bit of a bad feeling. Wouldn't she know better than to use these big words in the first place?]

    The visitor nodded. Her companion clutched her bag tight to her abdomen with both arms. Calm people didn’t come to The Women’s Benevolent Society, desperate people did. People with problems they could not solve themselves. The people with unsolvable legal problems came to see Vespertine. [Love that you end w/ this! Maybe more of this in the query? As is, in the first graph, seems like the job is "just a job"]

    ReplyDelete

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