Author Topic: Query for LF - The Margins (thank you so much for feedback, gratefully received)  (Read 490 times)

Offline Hope_888

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I've rewritten this so many times, I would *really* so love some feedback from the community. Many thanks in advance!

Dear XXX,

After seeing from your bio that your interests include literary fiction, I was hoping you might be open to considering THE MARGINS. It’s accessible literary fiction. While in the tradition of serious works exploring the human condition, the novel would also appeal to readers drawn to travel fiction such as THE BEACH and LOSING GEMMA.

When fervent anti-capitalist Ethan establishes a commune in the foothills of the Himalayas, life might be a little spartan but it’s good. Ethan’s got Lorna, whom he loves, and their idyllic, carefree existence is supported by a small yet steady income from the wooden flutes the inhabitants carve and then sell as souvenirs in a nearby town. It seems life can’t get much better, but their fortunes improve still further when a writer from Lonely Planet misattributes the commune’s product to a nomadic hill-tribe from Tibet, and features it as the lead item in the guidebook’s Arts & Handicrafts section. Tourist demand explodes across the sub-continent.

As the commune grows in size, production of the flutes moves from the hundreds to the thousands each month, and unimaginable sums of money start to pour in. For penniless Ethan, it means he’ll soon have enough to start a new life together with Lorna. Yet his plans are thrown into chaos when the inhabitants start to demand payment for their work, jeopardising the huge margins on the flutes. It leaves Ethan with a stark choice—if he refuses, the population will simply walk out; if he acquiesces, he’ll lose everything. Or is there another way?

Opening with one hundred and twenty-seven bodies on a remote mountain in Himachel Pradesh, and closing with two suicides in Delhi, THE MARGINS is a dark exploration of greed, obsession and moral decay.

Many thanks for your consideration. The complete manuscript runs to 76,000 words.

Sincerely,

Offline Doris

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If Ethan is so against capitalism, why wouldn't he set up a charity or something to give the money away? Why does he want to start a new life if he's happy being in the mountains? And why is the commune getting bigger?

I think the writing is clear except for the last paragraph, "Opening with one hundred and twenty-seven bodies....." What about the suicides? Are they Ethan and Lorna? If so, you should not give away the ending in a query. You should leave us wanting to know more.

Interesting story. Whenever money is involved, you must have checks and balances. Don't leave the fox to guard the henhouse!

Just some of my thoughts....

Offline Hope_888

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Thanks for the feedback Doris.

It's funny you mention the charity thing - that's a passage in the book, when they discuss giving the profits to charity... Of course, greed gets the better of them.

For "happy in the mountains", the commune is no longer a happy place once greed starts to corrupt it, but I can fix the query with a tweak on that sentence - thanks.

The commune grows as the founders rather cynically "market it" as they need more people in order to produce more flutes. Of course, the query letter is pared down so that's not clear - again, I might be able to work that in somehow.

Hmm, for you last point - I can drop the suicide mention (yep, Ethan (in prison) and Lorna (broken-hearted as Ethan's hung himself in prison)), but do you think I should drop the "Opening with 127 bodies..." part too? I'm just not convinced the query will be 'hooky' enough without it in there. How about "Opening with 127 bodes on a remote mountain in Himachel Pradesh, and closing with several hundred more..."? That's true to what happens.

Anyway, thanks for the constructive remarks - appreciated!


Offline Doris

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I don't get the sense of Ethan turning greedy, I think you need to be more clear than he is turning into a bad guy.

The hook could be whether Ethan remains true to his values or becomes part of the greed that spreads throughout the commune.

And what about Lorna? Is she just as greedy or does she try to save Ethan?

I think everyone can relate to trying to be good but, yes, money can make you evil.

Offline Munley

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Curious about the story itself (not just what's in the query). Even if the suicides are not mentioned in the query, I wonder what drives them to it.

Is it simply and solely external pressures on them (getting caught being corrupt and greedy in spite of their initial ideals)?

Or are they (also or instead) personally remorseful at seeing the destruction and pain for others they have wrought, and the morally empty lives they have created, despite their original ideals?

I'm thinking of the myth of King Midas, who pretty much starts out greedy. He acquires that touch that turns everything to gold. He's pretty pleased with his new magical skill and uses it over and over to acquire his great fortune. But when he spontaneously hugs his daughter, whom he loves and who, of course, turn into a gold statue, he's very distraught.

Also, thinking of that Mark Twain story, "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg", about a Midwestern town that prides itself on its neighborliness and generosity and basic goodwill toward all mankind, a sort of model town of good, Christian living.
     One day, a man stops by the post office, or general store (whatever) and sets a bag of gold down on the floor. He says that someone in this town did him a good deed years ago when he was down on his luck and just passing through. Now that he's made his fortune, he wants to reward that person. Doesn't know the person's name, but of course, the compassionate person who helped him would know. So he says he's sure that person will remember and come forward and claim their just reward. He leaves the bag there.  All sorts of people come forward. . . .

I think your story sounds interesting and has a good arc. Just wondering what makes these people tick as the story goes on and brings them to the point of suicide.

Offline Marysia

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Dear XXX,

After seeing from your bio that your interests include literary fiction, I was hoping you might be open to considering THE MARGINS. It’s accessible literary fiction complete at 76,000 words? Some agents like to hear this information upfront, and then you wouldn't have to put the word count after the 'thank you'. While in the tradition of serious works exploring the human condition, the novel would also appeal to readers drawn to travel fiction such as THE BEACH and LOSING GEMMA. Do you want to put your comp titles here or at the end after your hook? I think most query formulas put the comp titles there.

When fervent anti-capitalist Ethan establishes a commune in the foothills of the Himalayas, life might be a little spartan but it’s good. Ethan’s got Lorna, whom he loves, and their idyllic, carefree existence is supported by a small yet steady income from the wooden flutes the inhabitants carve and then sell as souvenirs in a nearby town. It seems life can’t get much better, but their fortunes improve still further when a writer from Lonely Planet misattributes the commune’s product to a nomadic hill-tribe from Tibet, and features it as the lead item in the guidebook’s Arts & Handicrafts section. Tourist demand explodes across the sub-continent.

As the commune grows in size, production of the flutes moves from the hundreds to the thousands each month, and unimaginable sums of money start to pour in. For penniless Ethan, it means he’ll soon have enough to start a new life together with Lorna. Yet his plans are thrown into chaos when the inhabitants start to demand payment for their work, jeopardising the huge margins on the flutes. It leaves Ethan with a stark choice—if he refuses, the population will simply walk out; if he acquiesces, he’ll lose everything. Why would he lose everything if, supposedly, he also gets a share in the flute profits? Or is there another way?

Opening with one hundred and twenty-seven bodies on a remote mountain in Himachel Pradesh, and closing with two suicides in Delhi, THE MARGINS is a dark exploration of greed, obsession and moral decay. I was thinking you could put your comp titles here. :) Also, I'm not sure you want to give away the ending (two suicides). Brief bio?

Many thanks for your consideration. The complete manuscript runs to 76,000 words. I love ethnic flutes! I play the ocarina. Your premise and setting are making me happy. :)

Offline Hope_888

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Thanks for your feedback Marysia and Munley. As to the suicides, there's a fair bit of plot behind that but I am trying to keep the query around 350 words (in the end, the mass deforestation that's taken place from harvesting bamboo has left the hillside hugely eroded, and the main characters are forced to destroy the commune to cover up something they've done - so they dynamite the hillside and create a massive landslide that kills everyone, but Ethan's caught. He hangs himself in prison after the realisation of what he's done - killing 700 people plus (more to the point) his complete moral & physical corruption of Lorna (who becomes a junkie because of him). Lorna kills herself as he's destroyed her life completely - so not the happiest ending, perhaps.

Marysia, I have now removed the comps completely (my comps were terrible anyway, hate comps, and these are so old) and replaced with something generic, and moved word-count to the start (I'd purposefully put it at the end as I was worried 76k is a bit short of the magic number - 80k). I've also added 'lose *almost* everything' to make it a bit clearer (so while the income from the flutes is many tens of thousands of dollars a month towards the end, there are 700 inhabitants so to share it out would mean there's very little per person (their profits to date were virtually wiped out after an unfortunate incident involving termites)). Lastly I've dropped the suicides from the query letter, and replaced them with another 400 dead as I have quite a large pool of dead bodies available to use. I've also taken into account some of Doris' questions as my query letter seems to raise continuity questions in the reader's mind. Finally, I've stuck in a reference to cultural appropriation (not really a theme of the book at all, but hey ho), only to try and add some relevance to current issues. PS - yes, there is a bio paragraph, I just didn't include them in the version posted. Anyway, here's the new version. Is it better? I think para 3 getting a touch convoluted?

Dear,

After seeing from your bio that your interests include literary fiction, I was hoping you might be open to considering THE MARGINS, complete at 76,000 words. While in the tradition of serious works exploring the human condition, the novel (which is accessible literary fiction) is intended to have broad market appeal (including those interested in travel fiction, the underrepresented backpacker segment and its cross-over to YA, and others).
 
When drop-out Ethan establishes a commune in the foothills of the Himalayas, life might be a little spartan but it’s good. He’s got Lorna, whom he loves, and their idyllic, carefree existence is supported by a small yet steady income from the wooden flutes the inhabitants carve and then sell as souvenirs in a nearby town. It seems life can’t get much better, but their fortunes improve still further when a writer from Lonely Planet misattributes the commune’s product to a nomadic hill-tribe from Tibet, and features it as the lead item in the guidebook’s Arts & Handicrafts section. Tourist demand explodes across the sub-continent.

As word-of-mouth makes the commune mildly famous among the hippie community in India, swelling it in size, production of the flutes moves from the hundreds to the thousands each month—unimaginable sums of money start to pour in. As greed begins to take hold of penniless Ethan, he realises that keeping the profits to himself will mean he'll have enough to start a new life together with Lorna, away from the confines of the increasingly claustrophobic commune. Yet his plans are thrown into chaos when the inhabitants start to demand payment for their work, jeopardising the huge margins on the flutes. It leaves Ethan with a stark choice—if he refuses, the population will simply walk out; if he acquiesces, he’ll lose almost everything. Or can he find another solution, one that will neither destroy the commune, nor ruin what seems like the only chance he’ll get to make something of his life?

Opening with one hundred and twenty-seven bodies on a remote mountain in Himachel Pradesh, and closing with several hundred more, THE MARGINS is a dark exploration of greed, obsession, cultural appropriation and moral decay.

Many thanks for your consideration.

Sincerely,







Offline Hope_888

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Oops changed "the confines of the increasingly claustrophobic commune" to "the increasingly claustrophobic commune" due to the alliteration....

Offline Sabreur

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Is it possible you're a bit too focused on the story? Here on QT, and in conferences and blogs, the thing I keep hearing is that the point of the query is just to get the agent to read the sample. You used 76,000 words to tell the story properly, and you simply can’t tell the whole thing in 200. So the query doesn’t tell the story, it entices the agent to go on and read the real thing.

In addition to the great comments you’ve already gotten and Patrick’s excellent advice at the top of this section, I recommend the Queryshark blogspot. Janet Reid of New Leaf Literary analyzes hundreds of queries, with comments and advice. Actually knowing what an agent is thinking while going through so many queries is very instructive. And I always go back to Patrick’s checklist of five components.

Best of luck!

Offline Hope_888

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Thanks for your comment Sabreur. Yes, very possible. It's something I've grappled with in my mind a fair bit, and why I'm posting on here. Having said that, the book is literary fiction, so while it has a pretty clear and defined narrative arc, it's tricky to boil things down to (say) what are the stakes / what are the obstacles to be overcome etc... It's ultimately about the gradual moral corruption of people. I've tried a completely different version / type of query letter, but I just don't think it works well with this kind of novel. I kinda hope this is boiled down enough to convey what I want to convey without being boring. But I do take your point.

Offline Hope_888

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@Sabreur, the other version I'd been thinking about was this. Do you think this is a better approach (it's not been polished, but is perhaps more conventional in style re: queries)?

Ethan Hicks has a problem. Complicit in the deaths of over seven hundred westerners on a remote mountain in Himachel Pradesh, he now sits in an interview room in Delhi with one of India’s most senior policeman. Yet despite his rather precarious situation, he’s not overly concerned—for there’s nothing to suggest he had anything to do with the countless bodies under the mud. It’s monsoon season for a start, so landslides aren’t particularly uncommon in the Himalayas at this time of year. And his injuries—which are certainly unpleasant, and very nearly took his life—surely give weight to the lie that’s he just a survivor who had a lucky escape. But anyway, there’s no one else left alive, and the dead can’t speak. Or at least that’s what Ethan thinks.

Director General of Police Jubbawy has a problem too. The mortuary in Kullu is overflowing with bodies, and the world’s press are clamouring for more information. Yet he has nothing of substance to share—it seems no one even knew about the hippie commune up in the mountains until now. Still, at least the emergency workers managed to pull out one survivor, and he’ll surely be able to provide the policeman with all the answers he needs. Although one thing troubles Jubbawy—if Ethan’s injuries really did result from the landslide, as he claims, why was there no mud on his clothing?

Offline Sabreur

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The thing is, we spend thousands of hours crafting the story, and we love it, and we're dying to get someone else to appreciate it, too. So we focus on what's important to us. But an agent sees dozens of queries every week, sometimes every day, and reading queries is a chore. For many of them, reading  queries is mostly about finding a reason to reject and skip to the next one, so they can finish the slush pile get on with their really important work of representing their authors.

Now, I hate this approach to publishing as much as the next guy, but I understand their problem. They're under siege. We need to help them as much as possible, and make it easy for them to get past the letter and into the sample. Don't give them any reason to say no, by confusing them, or failing to tell them the critical information in Patrick's post. They need to learn from the letter that you can give them what they need in a professional manner, and can command the language well enough to give them the feel of your story in a few sentences. If you can't, their thinking goes, what hope is there that you could hold a reader's interest for a whole novel? I don't necessarily agree, but I see where they're coming from.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Hang in there. Trust your beta readers, and have confidence in your work. (that's me whistling in the dark) :)

Offline Sabreur

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The new version gives me a better feel for the situation and at least one aspect of the conflict, but character and stakes? And there's a lot of extraneous detail: "over seven hundred westerners", "countless bodies under the mud", "which are certainly unpleasant, and very nearly took his life", etc. Plus, the whole descent into moral decay issue is missing, which is really the central conflict, yes?

Try this: instead of honing it down, start from the other direction. Tell the story in less than 150 words. Just raw, declarative sentences. Then start fleshing it out, adding character and voice.

Like your new version, this is just off the top of my head, so take it for what it's worth.

Offline Hope_888

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Yeah, the descent into moral decay is indeed the central conflict. Hrrr. Anyway, your two-cents is much appreciated - and, in fairness, despite trying dozens of variants of query letter for this book, I've never really felt "Yeah, I've nailed it." Hrr indeed.

Offline Sabreur

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Have you checked out Queryshark? She really helped me understand that it's not about what I want to tell them, it's about what they need to know.