Saturday, October 1, 2016


Dear QueryShark:

In 1957 a scream awakens 21-year-old Adina Claypool, who discovers she is on a mental ward. Again. The psychiatrists have diagnosed schizophrenia and recommended Thorazine and shock treatments. Again.

There is a standard agent-response of 'ewww" to stories that start with someone waking up. Yet, this works here, and works very well. This is a classic example of how to break "the rules" of querying. Do it well, and do it on purpose.

One psychiatrist believes both diagnosis and treatments are wrong. He thinks she is hiding something. He warns her to admit what she has done or she might doom herself to a life of unneeded medication and institutionalization.

The other, admittedly overworked, doctors are getting impatient. If psychoanalysis is what she needs, she'd better start talking.

But what if her story hurts her beloved grandmother? Someone might try to lock her up, too. No one must know that even Adina doesn't think her grandmother is perfect.

Or what about Adina's friend Charles, a Negro? He could end up like Emmett Till, murdered for whistling (or maybe not) at a white woman.

As for Adina's boyfriend--if he is still her boyfriend--he would be horrified if people knew what she is really like.

Yet she can't endure more shock treatments or deal forever with the horrors of the mental ward. All she wants is to return to the world of people she loves, a small but safe village that she envisions surrounded by walls to keep her mother out.

No, the psychiatrist insists. She can't keep her mother out. She must deal with her mother.

Impossible! Every time her mother re-enters her life, she makes Adina act "crazy."

On the other hand, can she stay in this place where old women throw crayons and pour hot coffee on her? Where people in blinding white clothes strap her so she can't move? They force icy metal into her mouth and onto her temples that burns her flesh and jolts her into flame-colored terror? And afterwards--just as her mother did--the nurses leave her wordless and uncomprehending, hugging nothing but herself at the foot of a dark and narrow stair.

A QUESTION OF SANITY: ADINA'S STORY, is a historical novel taking place in the post-War years in the Appalachian mountains. It is complete at 120,000 words.

"Thank you for your time and consideration" is how to close a query letter.

This is intriguing enough to get me to read pages. It's clear what problem the main character faces, and what choices she has to make. 

I'm a little reluctant to let the word "historical" describe a novel set in the 40's or 50's but that's a quibble.


The ultimate stakes do not come clear for the main character until Part III. If I start my query at this point, am I implying that this is the place that the novel begins?

Yes. When I read a query I assume I'm reading about the start of the story not the end. 

You use the phrase "ultimate stakes" but a query needs only what is at stake in the FIRST choice a character needs to make. What's at stake when you choose the road less traveled by?

This query does its job. It entices me to read more.
It doesn't follow the template set down in earlier examples, but it has all the elements a query needs.