Nov 15, 2009

Fiction Query - Matriarch of Ruins

When Enoch Gamble returns home from war, it is to one of the coldest winters in memory. His body lies in the front parlor two days while his grave is dug in the frozen earth. Months later, Purdy is still grieving his loss when their oldest daughter Hannah refuses to give up her own dead baby. With her sister near catatonic and her mother talking to her dead father for advice, Loli has her own crisis as the homestead is overrun by rebel soldiers intent on using it for a hospital. In the several days that follow, Purdy Gamble will lose everything—except her love of the best man she ever knew. Hannah will search the countryside for the father of her dead baby—and gain an understanding of suffering she could never have imagined. Loli, the youngest, will discover a truth about her father—one even her mother never understood.

THE MATRIARCH OF RUINS is a historical novel, an unflinching but humanistic look at the aftermath of a major fictitious battle (think Gettysburg) during the Civil War. It is a story at once surreal and tragic, intensely human, and wrought in a voice both literary and evocative of the era. Portions of the story are set in a battlefield hospital and the descriptions of surgery and its aftercare—realistic, compelling, and dramatic—add a unique twist to the storyline that will engross anyone interested in today’s true-life medical dramas. The viewpoint is that of the common people (there are no grand historical figures here) with three of the central characters female. It is written in close third person, past tense, and the length is 106,500 words.

David Poyer, best selling author of twenty-seven novels including the Civil War novels THAT ANVIL OF OUR SOULS and A COUNTRY OF OUR OWN read a recent draft and offered this: “An evocative and at times even startling new voice in the literature of the Civil War. Realistic, compelling, and agonizing, THE MATRIARCH OF RUINS is like stepping through a time machine into the most tumultuous era of America’s past.”

My short story AN ENDLESS ARRAY OF BROKEN MEN appeared in Paradox Magazine in 2003 and received honorable mention in the Seventeenth Annual Collection of Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow. As a Stanford graduate and a neurosurgeon in particular, I pride myself on being disciplined, meticulous, well researched, and thorough. These traits stand me in good stead in my writing as well.

I would be happy to forward the manuscript to you, either via e-mail or snail mail. Thank you for your time and attention. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


RC Writer Girl said...

This is not the typical query, yet I kinda liked it.

I'll start with the areas that need improvement. Don't start with Enoch Gamble. He's dead. When you say, "he returns home," I next expect you to say something he does. But he doesn't do anything. Because he's dead.

Start with Loli Gamble. This is the character that is sane and this is the character who seems to do something. Loli is trying to cope wih life while her mother roams around seeking advice from her recently dead father and her sister drags around the corpse of her own dead baby. Loli is the pull-in character, the person the audience relates to. She's normal, yet she's surrounded by this insanity, which is obviously interesting and compelling, but hard to identify with.

Second, I would consider cutting the descriptions of the novel. Part of me likes the language you use to describe the story, but I've seen numerous posts by agents that say they don't want you to describe your book in this way. They don't want you to analyze it. They want you to simply tell them the story so they can sense from your description of the events that it is unflinching and humanistic, etc. So, this section should be cut. I think you can also get rid of the stuff about the battlefield hospital descriptions and the viewpoint of the common people and the point-of-view it's written in. Keep the word count info.

I think that entire paragraph could be condensed down to: "THE MATRIARCH OF RUINS is a 106,500 word historical novel."

Then go into the best part of your query letter--the endorsement from the best-selling author. And rephrase it just a little. You keep us waiting too long for the juicy stuff. Say: "David Poyer, best-selling author of 27 novels, called The Matriarch of Ruins, "realistic, compelling, and agonizing." Poyer, who read the manuscript said (Then insert the full qoute).

Lastly, I would cut the info about you being detailed oriented. Obviously, it's a good trait, but it seems too much at the end here. The stuff about being a Stanford graduate and Neurosurgeon, however, you should keep. And instead, insert this info in a way to say that it helped you in researching civil-war era medical methods and crafting realistic, accurate scenes for book passages set in battlefield hospitals.

I don't know what else to say. It's a tough critique here, because overall, I like much of the info you've included in the query. It just seems like some of it needs to be re-ordered so it can shine bright. You've got credentials, an excellent recommendation from a best-selling novelist, and an interesting story, so I think if you tighten up the query, you'll snag an agent.

Victoria Dixon said...

Yeah, don't begin your query with a dead guy because this forces us to assume a paranormal genre. When you said "historical," I was surprised as I thought you'd simply failed to mention how his being dead related to what he does in the story. Since the story is not about him, don't mention him by name.
Also, don't tell us the tale is surreal and tragic, intensely human, literary and evocative of the era. Let your voice and your skill speak for the story in your plot paragraph. That's also where you tell us about twists. Don't bother telling us how many characters you have or the tense unless the agent asks.
Your bio paragraph is powerful - the strongest thing here - and suggests you've got great skill. I look forward to seeing your name out there!

AmyB said...

I agree with what others have said--don't open with Enoch, because it is confusing. Whoever you open with, the agent will assume that is the novel's protagonist, so your opening leaves us thinking that the protagonist is dead and this is going to be a supernatural story, maybe about his ghost, but that's not what it turns out to be.

I always have trouble teasing the story out of queries that talk about a lot of characters. I think it usually works best to talk about just one, because a 250-word query pitch is barely enough to tell one character's story, let alone four characters' stories.

The second paragraph, while well-written, is the sort of paragraph agents always say on their blogs to leave out. The agent wants you to demonstrate your ability to "show not tell" in your query letter. That want to be shown that the story is surreal and tragic, not told that it is. They don't want you to describe the novel's voice--they want you to demonstrate it. My suggestion is to cut that second paragraph and expand the pitch so that you are "showing" some of these strengths of the novel. (Of course, you do need to keep title, word count, and genre in there somewhere.)

The quote from a bestselling author and publication credit are good selling points and worth keeping. Those make it a strong query.