Query Critique/Workshop: THE CARTHAGE SPEAKERS BUREAU (Adult Literary)



Critiquer: Jennifer Malone

Let me start by saying, this is a really great query and I think it should really work for you. So the following are mostly tweaks!

Please consider my completed novel, THE CARTHAGE SPEAKERS BUREAU, a 73,000-word adult literary novel about the stories that lie just beneath the surface of the people we thought we knew. As far as the first line is concerned: Because this is a very vague description, I’m not quite sure it’s working as a hook. It’s fine to skip a hook and just say “… A 73,000 word adult literary novel I might describe as a cross between The Guernsey …“ If you do want to go with a hook, then that one sentence should sum up your novel in a way that will instantly conjure the story in the agent’s imagination.  So basically, when someone asks you “What is your story about?” would you answer “It’s about the stories that lie just beneath…” If the answer to that is no, I don’t think that is your hook. For example, if I were to say “It’s a novel about teenage Bonnie and Clyde cyber-thieves”, I’m not giving the whole plot but you have a sense for what type of story this will be instantly and it captures your imagination. That’s what you want your hook to do for you.  You might think of it as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society meets Olive KitteridgeLOVED both of these books and using them as a comp conjures an instant image of what the story is and what the writing style will be.  Nicely done!

Margie Cook is not an old busybody and Carthage, Indiana, has long since stopped being a place where neighbors knock on each others’ doors uninvited. PERFECT opening- gives us a great characterization of both the main character and the setting right off the bat! So she’s not exactly sure how she ended up on Cora Dale’s front porch, frozen halfway between the sidewalk and the front door. It might have something to do with the growing pile of Cora’s uncollected mail sitting in the post office where Margie works. The following lines could be connected more clearly in my opinion.  My first inclination was that something bad had happened to Cora and she’s lying undiscovered in her house, but to tie in with these two lines, it would have to be that Margie suspects Cora has left town and this links to all the others who have left town before this. If that is the case, I might state it more plainly here. Then the next two lines follow logically. Or with all the people who have left town in her lifetime, including her own daughter. Maybe it’s because Margie can’t quite convince herself that her hard edges didn’t drive her daughter away. The double negative is a little awkward- I think this might read more smoothly if you rearrange the sentence structure to eliminate that.

When Margie decides to knock on Cora’s front door, she’s pulled back into her neighbors’ lives. She finds she’s not alone when a series of speeches given by ordinary people in the town reminds everyone what it felt like to be a community. Maybe, Margie thinks, it’s not too late to feel that way again. So it that Margie is discontent with people leaving town as indicated in the first paragraph or is Margie discontent with not being connected to the people still there? Is the book at heart a commentary on how isolated we’ve become in our own cities and towns in the same way that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Society highlighted the ordinary to make a contrast to the war that was going on outside of the island?

As Margie and a handful of her neighbors try to find connection and meaning through each others’ stories, they’ll hear speeches about bears in Indiana, immigrant journeys, heirloom vegetables and miscarriages. Sounds wonderfully quirky! If Margie can summon up the courage, telling her own story might allow her to forgive her daughter and herself. These seem like appropriate stakes for a quieter, literary novel. Along the way, Margie and the residents of Carthage discover that in a place where people care for each other, life’s burdens are easier to bear. I love your voice and the tone of your query. The only thing that concerns me slightly is that there are places where it becomes borderline didactic.  I think you could avoid this by eliminating the very last line since we already know that’s the life lesson here and since leaving off with the line prior keeps the focus on the main character.  These are all nit-picky things as you have a very strong query here.


If you have any thoughts or questions, the comments are open, but please keep it constructive. No douchebaggery allowed.

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