First Impact: MY SISTER'S DATING A SERIAL KILLER by Carolyn Chambers Clark

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

Congratulations to commenter PATCHI! The gods of probability have favored you for November's prize!

December's prize will be the same: either $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me (seriously, guys, I've had ZERO time to think of/hunt people down for better prizes; I can't imagine why). Anyone who leaves their thoughts in the comments is eligible.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

This week we have a query for a YA thriller from Carolyn Chambers Clark. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, everything here is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Opening sentence is a bit long and
awkward for me.

I laughed a little imagining her tying
corpses to her sister's boyfriend ;-)
Junior year could be her last for sixteen-year-old Cammie Carter who knows her big sister's dating a serial killer, but she needs more proof. Cammie races to find a couple of dead bodies and tie them to her sister's boyfriend before he puts Cammie and sister on his To Murder List.

Don't need to repeat her name & age.
Sixteen-year-old Cammie Carter appoints herself amateur detective in her town when the local police in Sleepy Valley, SC, spend more time drinking beer and playing cards than paying attention to evidence.
How does she catch him? What does
she see?

What's her plan?
After she catches a guy in what she's sure is attempted murder, she tries to stop her sister from dating him, but big sis, her parents, and the police all tell her she has an over-active imagination. No one listens to Cammie excerpt her over-the-wall Nana, but that just makes her more determined to find evidence the guy's murdering people. Based on the TV mysteries she watches, she devises what could be a foolproof plan ... unless her sister's boyfriend catches on.

MY SISTER'S DATING A SERIAL KILLER is a young adult thriller, complete at 60,000 words.

Contests: Unless they're HUGE and
PRESTIGIOUS, cut them.

Publications: Unless you got paid pro
rates for them, cut them.

Critique group: Cut it.
I won 2nd place for YA fiction from the Florida State Writing Competition and first place for YA fiction from the Utica Writer's Club Competition. PALM PRINTS, the University of South Florida's writer's journal and RIVERWALK have each published one of my short stories. I've been extremely active (top 7%) for a couple of years at, critiquing others' work and having mine critiqued.

Thank you for considering my work.

Carolyn Chambers Clark

Adam's Thoughts
I like a good thriller, and this has as much potential as any, but I'm afraid there's not enough meat for me to tell.

I think you did the thing where you start with a hook paragraph and then back up to tell your story. I've talked about why this is a bad idea before. Short version: Get right to your inciting incident (Cammie saw her sister's boyfriend dumping a dead body in a lake!), then use the rest of the space to lead into your compelling choice (if Cammie exposes him, her sister will hate her forever, but if she doesn't, her sister will die!).

Obviously I made up an incident and choice, but I had to. That's another issue I had with the query: I wanted more specifics. Tell us how she knows the guy's a killer, what (specifically!) she plans to do about it, and what the stakes are if she fails.

Also, some folks may take issue with my last comment (the one that basically says cut the whole bio paragraph). I can understand that, but you can save your issues for Friday. I'm going to write a post on that particular topic.

Otherwise, what do the rest of you guys think? Your comments are at least as valuable as mine.


Matthew MacNish said...

As far as the meat of the query: the plot, the choice and so on, I completely concur with Adam, and can't see much else to add.

As for the bio, I'm less sure. The Florida State Writing Competition sounds somewhat prestigious to me, though I'd have to research it to say more.

I'm on the fence about the publications. I include some short fiction pub credits in my query that I was not paid for, but it's a fine line. Either way, if you keep them, the titles should be in italics, not ALL CAPS. ALL CAPS is for working titles of unpublished manuscripts. Published works get italicized.

Finally, I too would cut the critique group.

Steve MC said...

I'd cut the first paragraph and then fill out the second one more.

Also, not sure about the tone of the book - the title and the "amateur detective" and TV mysteries seem to make it sound almost humorous, and not sure if that's the intent.

And yes on cutting the critique and most probably the contests as well.

Daniel Smith said...

I agree with Adam and Matthew on the meat of the query. I agree with Adam on cutting the last paragraph completely. Here are the recommendations I have heard as to why:

* AWARDS: Only include awards won by the novel you're selling.
* PAST PUBLICATIONS: Only include past publications if you are submitting something like a freelance article to a magazine. This establishes your credentials. (By contrast, novels are an entirely different animal that must stand on its own merits, not the authors.)
* CRITIQUE GROUPS: Never include them. They aren't recognized as valid by the professional community.

Remember, you're selling a novel, not yourself, your past successes or your commitment. When attempting to sell a novel, everything should relate to "the novel" you're selling.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yep, i agree with Adam.
Honestly, i feel like you can cut the whole first paragraph. Everything that's important there, you just repeat in the second paragraph anyway. That extra space would be better used to give us more specifics as to the who, what, why and how.
As for the Bio, i'm with Adam on the awards and the critique group (though, like Matt said, if the FL is actually prestigious, then keep it) but i'm with Matt on the publications. I include my publications in my query, and though i was paid, it wasn't quite pro rates. I don't think it will hurt you any if you do keep it in, especially if you cut the awards and critique group bit.

Good luck! I think you're close to having a stellar query

Sarah Ahiers said...

Though i will disagree with what Daniel said - if you're trying to get an agent for your YA fantasy, and you have a YA fantasy short story pubbed in a reputable, pro market, put that in there. The agents will want to know that you have the chops to write. It may not get you the agent, but it may get the agent to peek at your sample pages, and if they do their job, hopefully get the agent to request to see more

Patchi said...

There is quite a bit of humor in the query and if that is Cammie's voice, then you should keep it. Here are the parts I like:

"Sixteen-year-old Cammie Carter appoints herself amateur detective []when the local police in Sleepy Valley, SC, spend more time drinking beer and playing cards than paying attention to evidence."

"Cammie [needs to] to find a couple of dead bodies and tie them to her sister's boyfriend before he puts Cammie and sister on his To Murder List."

My suggestion would be to start with the first, bring up the serial killer and evidence, then finish with the second. Good luck!

On a separate note, Thanks Adam! I'll e-mail you.

Carolyn Chambers Clark said...

Thanks everybody!

So much good advice. I'm going to revise my query right now.

All Best,


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I agree with Adam that specificity is KING (also an awesome/killer/nowaywhatwillshedo choice at the end).

I'm curious now to see what Adam will say about the bio paragraph. I agree with the idea of cutting it, my operational theory being that unless it's something that makes you an outstanding debut author or otherwise makes you an outlier from everyone else that's querying, it's probably just looking like filler (or worse, desperate). Publishers want mostly to know about the story; then they want to know (maybe) about you. :)

KayC said...

I originally saw your story concept as a log line entry on Miss Snark. At the time I loved it. Short and punchy. Unfortunately I feel like you've lost that punch concentrating on the wrong things in the query.

My thoughts - drop the whole first paragraph - it reads like a log line and a query doesn't need this sort of pre-sales pitch.

Then if you follow Adam's suggested order you will have a much stronger, enticing query.

Good luck.

Daniel Smith said...

Sarah, you raise a good point. If it's the same genre as the novel it can probably only help. It's still a good idea to cut the letter down to bare bones. Only in doing that, can you determine what's important and thus what to put back in.

I think part of the challenge of writing a query letter (and the reservation to remove *everything* about the author) is that it is also a letter of introduction. Getting a novel published is a long race whereas something like an article is more of a very quick sprint by comparison. So as writers, we feel the person on the other end needs to know something about us. To an extent that's true, but if the quality of the writing is good it won't matter. But if the writing isn't good, then no amount of garnishing will result in a response.

Sarah Ahiers said...

High five to Daniel. I agree 100% and couldn't say it any better myself!