Jun 14, 2009

Query - HOLLOW SOULS (2nd revision)

Click here to read the original query.
Click here to read the first revision.

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent:

When Devi Linden, a young musician from Kentucky, travels to New Orleans in the late 1950s, she simply wants to experience the world before returning home. But an unplanned pregnancy changes everything.

By 1971, she is an unhappy housewife and mother, loath to abandon her responsibilities. She no longer plays her guitar, frequently fights with her husband, and finds her only solace with her youngest child, Olivia. When the mother of Olivia’s best friend dies, Devi soothes her daughter with the story of a little girl who discovers an underground utopia known as Ruby Hollow.

Years later, struggling to avoid divorce or something worse, Devi begins playing music again. When Olivia finds a cache of love letters from the “hero” of her bedtime tales, Devi admits that Ruby Hollow is an actual place – and that, if not for her family, she’d have returned long ago.

After her estranged mother dies, Devi asks Olivia to accompany her to Kentucky. Following the funeral, she heads to Ruby Hollow, the secret haven that once inspired her stories, and the only place she’s ever truly belonged...

Since growing up in New Orleans and studying film, literature, and creative writing at Northwestern University, I’ve held a variety of positions, from ecotourism journalist to guidebook author – with publishing credits that include MOON MICHIGAN (Avalon Travel, 2009). While on assignment in Kentucky, I toured the dark, twisting passages of Mammoth Cave, which eventually sparked HOLLOW SOULS, a 150,000-word literary/mainstream novel.

For more information, please visit my website – www.rubyhollow.com – or contact me anytime. I’ve enclosed a synopsis and the first five pages of HOLLOW SOULS, plus a SASE for your convenience. A full or partial manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time – and for considering the possibility of representing my work.

Laura Martone


cherrytart said...

Laura, you've definitely cleared up the POV consistency issues from earlier, and your clear voice is still very evident, so good job on that! But--and you knew this was coming, didn't you?--I still think this can be tweaked.

For me, I feel like you're still hiding your conflict. It may be there in your mms for all to see, but in the query, it needs to be more explicit.

How much of your book occurs before 1971? From your query, I'd suspect that everything before Olivia finding the letters is backstory, and the real conflict begins when Devi decides to go back to Ruby Hollow. If so, then I need to see her present stakes a lot more clearly.

Story is about people wanting things, being opposed, and having to make difficult choices to get what they want. It's okay that Devi is almost pushed into claiming what she wants, but once she's made the decision to return, what opposes her?

Will going back create more conflict with her husband? Will she have to choose between him and Ruby Hollow? Will her close relationship with Olivia be threatened by her return? As it is, I have no sense of her stakes.

(ducking now)

Bane of Anubis said...

Hi Laura, from the query, it sounds like you have 2 major sections of the story - pre RH and post RH... Personally, I'm more interested in knowing what happens post RH.

I'm not sure what others'll think, but I'd like to see more on the side of post RH than pre RH in your query.

A few minor points:

1.) I'd like to see a stronger hook - e.g., When Devi Linden travels to New Orleans to pursue her dream of music, an unplanned pregnancy steers her in a different direction (i.e., something snappier than this probably, but something that quickly introduces conflict/tension).

2.) Avoid hyperbole (e.g., "changes everything," "something worse." - either cut the terminology or replace it w/ something specific - her struggle to avoid divorce is enough conflict; what's worse - perhaps losing her child in a custody battle, spousal abuse, etc... perhaps hard to include in a flowing manner - which is ok, b/c trying to avoid divorce is conflict enough (though it sounds more like she's trying to cope with an impending breakup).

Ultimately, it comes down to this: what's the thrust of your novel? Is it a woman's journey to rediscover herself, is it a mother-daughter homage to finding inner peace, etc?

I'm inferring that there are multiple themes/thrusts, but if you can localize it to one major one, I feel like you'll be able to really streamline your query with voice/plot/theme.

Anyway,this is a long critique for something that, overall, is well written (provides nice detail, flows smoothly). I guess I'd just like to see a bit more punch to it, if that makes sense.

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Cherry & Bane!

Thanks for the advice, as always. I appreciate your perspective - and really want this query to be tighter and clearer - but I think I'm done for a while. :-(

No matter what I do, I obviously can't get the story across in my query letter... which is essentially that a woman - who got lost in the caves as an 11-year-old child, saved by a young boy (an inhabitant of Ruby Hollow), and returned to her unhappy family situation on the surface - wants more than anything to return to that underworld, the place she ultimately belongs. But, when she's 19 (in 1957), she heads south to New Orleans - just to experience a bit of the world before committing herself entirely to life underground. And, lo and behold, she gets knocked up and decides (as the daughter of a pious woman) to "do the right thing," get married, and have the kids (yes, twins). The "real" story doesn't start until 1971 - when Devi is miserable - a housewife and the mother of three girls. One night, she tells her youngest (at 6) the legend of RH (as a made-up story). When said youngest is 15, she discovers the letters and realizes RH is real, which forces Devi to finally face her true desire - to return to RH.

The conflict, which I suppose seems clear to me, is that Devi doesn't want to abandon her family. She may be in love with her "savior" from Ruby Hollow, but she's also a good woman - with a loving (if frustrated) husband and three girls. She wants to go back, but she has to wait until they'll all be okay without her. When she eventually does go (in 1980) - her husband is ready for a change, her twin daughters are 21 and out of the house, and her youngest has granted her blessing.

The actual novel is divided into four parts: 1971 (Devi, miserable, tells Olivia the story of RH), 1949 (the "legend" of RH - what happened to Devi as a child), 1980 (Devi is worse, Olivia doesn't understand her, until she discovers the letters), 1980 (Devi takes Olivia back to the Hollow, where she stays for good).

How do I boil that down? I don't know anymore... which makes me question the novel's structure.

Sigh. Can you tell I'm frustrated?

But seriously, thanks for the advice. I really do appreciate it - I'm just not sure how to make any of this any clearer... Okay, back to the drawing board. :-)

Bane of Anubis said...

Laura, I hear ya -- query writing is crazy annoying (makes me eyeballz wanna bleed)... and my story doesn't have nearly as many tracks as yours to try and distill...

Though you have multiple threads, it sounds like you've boiled it down to something like this:

Devi belongs in RH; unfortunately familial obligations keep her from RH. Then incident X (mid-life crisis, unhappiness w/ marriage, etc.) encourages her to return to RH. In RH, she finds semblance of happiness but struggles with Y (feelings of guilt for abandoning family, etc... i.e., some point of conflict)... or perhaps she finds new romance that sparks something she hasn't felt in decades.

As you alluded to, it's very difficult to narrow so many threads into a query with effective flow, voice, conflict. Sometimes it's nice to take a break from the whole damn thing and get some distance; otherwise you can go batsh*t crazy w/ perfecting these damn things (and the day after you perfect query revision 10, you believe it sux and start query 11 :).

Also, since your piece is more literary, your conflict is going to be more subtle; I would imagine that most lit fic agents are gonna be more concerned w/ your sample pages than your query (though, of course, they still have to appreciate the premise introduced in the query)...

Anyway, I meant to make this a short missive to say, "don't get too frustrated." -- unfortunately, I'm a bit of a rambler :)

cherrytart said...

Oh, Laura, I can hear your frustration and I'm sorry. IMO, you're only working on a second revision and that's realy not much when it comes to queries. But it's probably a good idea to give yourself a little time and space before getting back to it.

I *have* seen on the AW boards where people discover a structural problem with their mms itself only during the query process. But sometimes that's not the issue. Sometimes it's just that they can write a damn fine book, but haven't mastered the "art of the query".

Have you had your mms beta'd? What's the feedback like on that?

I personally could see this working as a nonlinear story, beginning with the discovery of the letters, and Olivia's personal crisis forcing Devi to go back to Ruby Hollow then, yet still chosing to put others first.

Jabez said...

What I get from your comment is that what your story is really about is Devi's conflict between her desire for belonging, which is only satisfied in RH, and her obligations and love for the family that was thrust upon her. If so, then you need to build the query to show that, and ruthlessly purge anything that does not show it. I think one of the best ways to do that is to stop talking about Olivia -- this is Desi's story. I know Olivia plays a part, but you can't mention everything in a query. Also, I think you need to explain Devi's childhood discovery of RH because that, plus her decision to stay in NO, drives the conflict.

Here's what I suggest as to structure:

1. Introduce Devi, say she's from KY. She's unhappy as a girl -- briefly explain what familial/social factors make her unhappy.

2. Devi's 11, gets lost in cave, is rescued and finds RH. Nascent love for rescuer; sense of belonging in RH like no place else.

3. Devi's 19, and leaves to see some of the world before returning to RH for good. But she meets future husband, gets pregnant, and (explain why) decides to stay, have the babies and get married.

4. Years pass, and Devi's unhappy despite her love for her family. But RH is nothing but a bedtime story for her children now, and she can't bring herself to tell them it's real and the home she's always wanted.

5. Her youngest daughter finds letters and her mother dies and she has to return to KY (not necessarily in that order). With these two events, Devi's conflict comes to the fore, and she is forced to decide -- SOMETHING. Whether to leave her family and live the life she's always wanted, or to share this long-repressed dream with her daughter, or something. But I think you need to find Devi's climactic decision, whatever that is, and build toward it.

Jabez said...

Oh, and I have one concern as to the ms itself, rather than the query. Your description of the book makes Devi seem conflicted, but also static. What I mean is, she clearly is drawn to RH but feels she can't go because of her family. But then in the end when she decides to go to RH, you've said her husband is "ready for a change," her older daughters are on their own, and Olivia is fine with it. It seems Devi hasn't made much of a change at all -- it's just that conditions have changed and her family obligations are no longer seriously conflicting with her desire to return to RH. But for Devi to be the kind of character to base a novel around, she needs to change, not just her surrounding conditions. So, how does she change? What is the climax, and why is it the highest point in the book?

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, all of you! I went outside to water my plants (and clear my head), and I feel much better now. :-)

Sorry to have unloaded my frustration here... I already know that the novel needs to be shortened, but issues with my query started to make me feel that the whole structure was messed up - which left me feeling grumpy.

Ah, writing. Why do we do this to ourselves again? Oh, right, 'cause we love it!

Anyhoo, thanks, Bane and Jabez, for the story summary - I think you've both managed to streamline it in a way that I was failing to do. I guess, the ultimate issue is that I've always seen this story as Devi's and Olivia's - but choosing one MC (at least for the purposes of the query) is definitely the way to go. For one thing, Devi's conflict is clearer than her daughter's (my husband has always thought it was Devi's story, but I rarely listen to him - guess I'd better start).

And Cherry, I think it will be good to take a step back for awhile. I'm in the midst of revising the novel anyway - and, yes, five people have already beta'd it for me and given me some useful feedback - and I'm beginning to swap mss with other writers. So, I'm sure that will help to streamline the story. In the meantime, I'm going to put the query aside (since I'm not ready to send it out yet) and come back to it with a clearer head.

Oh, by the way, what's AW?

Thanks again, y'all. I really am grateful for your advice!


Laura Martone said...

Oh, Jabez, sorry I missed your question while I was typing my last (less frustrated) post.

Well, as a literary/mainstream novel, it doesn't have the kind of climax, perhaps, that other books might have. But Devi does indeed change. Basically, she decides to stop being miserable, stop feeling sorry for herself, and create her own happiness - by returning to her childhood home and the love of her life. The "climax" comes in the Hollow itself - when Olivia confronts her about staying there permanently (until that moment, the two of them were just "visiting" Devi's former home). And I misspoke when I said that her husband is "ready for a change" - he would've stood by her forever, but she decides that, for the sake of both of them (and their happiness), she needs to be the one to do the leaving.

I really hope this makes more sense in the novel. Ugh.


cherrytart said...

AW = Absolute Write. It's a huge forum for writers and they have a board called Query Letter Hell. It's not a misnomer. ;)

I'd highly recommend you register and hang out there for a while. It has helped me get some distance from my own wip and understand it from a thematic perspective. Seeing some queries that got people representation really helped, too.

You definitely are underselling your story with this query, IMO. You have far more conflict in your mms than your query led me to believe.

And as for why do we write? Hah! When I figure that out for myself, I'll let you in on the big secret.

Good luck, and see you around here and/or AW. (I'm hope101 there.)

ejalvey said...


I think your story sounds great. I, too, and having difficulty with my query at this point.

I agree that it would strengthen the impression of your query if you stick to Devi's story. I also wonder if you could show a little more of her emotions when you describe her situation, since this seems to be the thrust of the tenor of the story: Devi's inner turmoil.

Perhaps if you can evoke empathy when describing her struggle it would make the query stronger and give it a more personal sense of voice.

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Cherry and EJ! I'm sorry that I didn't respond earlier... I was called away for a while.

Thanks, Cherry, for the clarification re: AW. Of course, I know Absolute Write! My brain wasn't getting around the shorthand, for some reason. And I haven't been to the "Query Letter Hell" board - what a perfect name! In fact, it's been a while since I visited AW - I'll have to check it out. Sounds like it's exactly what I need - some distance from my novel (and my query). I know that the conflict is clear in my novel - I'll just have to figure out a better way to sell it in the query. Anyhoo, see you around the blogs/boards!

Oh, and thanks, EJ, for the advice about sticking to Devi's POV and inner turmoil. Writing novels isn't easy, but writing queries requires a whole other level of understanding that I have yet to, well, understand. But I'll get there - eventually! Perhaps I'll try the trick mentioned in one of the other comment threads... writing the query in 1st person and then switching to 3rd. Maybe then I'll be able to evoke empathy for Devi and her struggle to find some peace.

jbchicoine said...

Reading all these comments has really whipped up my curiosity. All I can say is, I can't wait to get my hands on your manuscript!

Laura Martone said...

Bridget -

Welcome back! And thanks for the vote of confidence... while you were gone, I managed to cut 17k words from my novel - but the whole query process almost drove me mad! :-)