Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

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dorothyinman
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Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by dorothyinman » June 25th, 2012, 3:19 pm

Hi Everyone,

Here is my query letter for the book I completed recently. I have been working on it for over five years, but have never sent out a query letter. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated. I read somewhere (sorry I can't recall where) to include a personal blurb about yourself, much like you would see on the inside cover of a book. I haven't seen anyone on this site post anything like that, so I am not sure if I should still do that or not. I also plan on adding a blurb at the beginning that will personalize it to the agent/publisher I send it to.

Thanks in advance!

Query:

Talitha Murphy thinks she has her life all figured out. She is living the big city life in St. Louis, Missouri as a legal assistant to a very overweight boss, Mr. Phelps. The greatest things she has to worry about are Mr. Phelps infidelity with his supermodel-esque paralegal, not killing the annoying middle-aged (not to mention manipulative) receptionist from the office, scratching her Louis Vuittons and making sure her cat, Condi, is fed each day. Talitha is positive she has this “growing up” thing figured out until she gets news that will rock the world as she knows it. “Your mother has cancer,” Her dad’s voice rings through her phone receiver as she sinks to the ground. With this one phone call Talitha’s life spirals out of control. For the first time in her adult life she feels like all hope is lost.

Talitha makes the decision to return home to Louisville to take care of her ailing mother. This once confident fashionista turns into a down trodden woman who is on a pathway of destruction. She spends her days alone, sleeping or crying. She looks in the mirror and does not recognize the woman she is becoming. She is angry at the world and angry at God. She tries to make sense of it all, but comes up empty.
Things get further confused when her childhood best friend Jonathan Livingston, an ER doctor who just happens to be a heartthrob and every girl’s dream, declares his love for her.

“Your Mother Has Cancer” is a complete women’s fiction novel that is 136,798 words long.

Dorothy delves into a subject that hits close to home in this fiction novel which is about the struggle of a child watching their parent suffer from cancer. In 2006 Dorothy’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and she travelled home to St. Louis to care for her mom as she went through chemotherapy. She celebrates that her mother is healthy and cancer free today, but seeks to help others who are experiencing the same tragedy through her writing. “Your Mother Has Cancer” also has a completed sequel titled, “A Papercut Heart: Chloe’s Story”, which is about Talitha’s sister, Chloe, who takes on the big city of Los Angeles. When she isn’t writing Dorothy enjoys reading, painting, biking, swimming and hanging out with friends.

Elsinora
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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by Elsinora » June 26th, 2012, 11:53 pm

Hi Dorothy! Here are my recommendations for changes. (My additions are in blue, all reasoning is in red.)
dorothyinman wrote:St. Louis legal assistant Talitha Murphy thinks she has her life all figured out. She is living the big city life in St. Louis, Missouri as a legal assistant to a very overweight boss, Mr. Phelps. (You don't need that much description for a minor character, let alone a name, and the key information here can be inserted in the opening sentence) The greatest things she has to worry about are Mr. Phelps her boss's infidelity with his supermodel-esque paralegal, not killing avoiding the annoying middle-aged (not to mention manipulative) (Again, you don't need this much description) receptionist from the office (this is already implied), scratching protecting her Louis Vuittons and making sure her cat, Condi, is fed each day. Talitha is positive she has this “growing up” thing figured out until she gets news that will rock the world as she knows it (This is cliche and lessens the impact -- just say what the news is). "Your mother has cancer."

Until her mother gets cancer. (Setting this in its own paragraph emphasizes it)

Her dad’s voice rings through her phone receiver as she sinks to the ground. With this one phone call Talitha’s life spirals out of control. For the first time in her adult life she feels like all hope is lost. (The first sentence is "too much" in a query, the rest relies on cliche. Even in a query, show, don't tell)

Talitha makes the decision to returns home to Louisville to take care of her ailing mother. This once confident fashionista turns into a downtrodden woman who is on a pathway of destruction. She now (Again, you're using vague cliche rather than being specific--don't do this!) spends her days alone, sleeping or crying. She looks in the mirror and does not recognize the woman she is becoming. (More vague cliche) She is Angry at the world and angry at God, she tries to make sense of it all, but comes up empty. (What is "it all"? Her mother's illness? The loss of Talitha's own dreams? Be specific.) Things get further confused (What things? You're being too vague) when her childhood best friend Jonathan Livingston (I would strongly advise that you change that name, because all I can think of when reading it is "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"), now an unfairly handsome ER doctor who just happens to be a heartthrob and every girl’s dream, declares his love for her. (Which results in...what? How does Dr. Livingston affect the plot? What choice does he force Talitha to make, or what revelation does he inspire her to have?)

“Your Mother Has Cancer” YOUR MOTHER HAS CANCER is a complete women’s fiction novel that is complete at 136,798 words. It draws on my experiences as a caretaker for my mother during her struggle with breast cancer. This is my first novel.

Dorothy delves into a subject that hits close to home in this fiction novel which is about the struggle of a child watching their parent suffer from cancer. In 2006 Dorothy’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and she travelled home to St. Louis to care for her mom as she went through chemotherapy. She celebrates that her mother is healthy and cancer free today, but seeks to help others who are experiencing the same tragedy through her writing. “Your Mother Has Cancer” also has a completed sequel titled, “A Papercut Heart: Chloe’s Story”, which is about Talitha’s sister, Chloe, who takes on the big city of Los Angeles. When she isn’t writing Dorothy enjoys reading, painting, biking, swimming and hanging out with friends. (Don't write about yourself in the third person, and never, ever use the phrase "fiction novel." All novels are fictional. Also, most of this is not something an agent cares about, at least not at the querying stage. Stick to listing your publishing credits, if you have any, and any specialized expertise you have that is relevant to the book's plot.)
All in all, this is a good start to a query. The first paragraph is mostly good, but the second needs some major revision to clarify just what Talitha's conflict is. What are her goals? What are the obstacles to those goals? What choices does she make in pursuing her goals?

137,000 words is EXTREMELY long for women's fiction, and almost certainly too long for the plot you've described. That will suggest to an agent that your manuscript isn't polished and edited enough. You may want to find some beta readers to help you pare your novel down. (I sympathize with you on this -- my first draft of my YA fantasy ran about 28,000 words too long. Cutting it down was pure torture.)

Finally, as a paralegal, I am curious what experience you have with law firms. I noticed that you called Talitha a legal assistant, but then referred to her boss having a paralegal (who clearly isn't Talitha). In my experience, legal assistant and paralegal are interchangeable terms, so I wondered what it is you envision Talitha doing at the office. That isn't really relevant to query-writing, per se, but it's something that jumped out at me.

I hope this is helpful. I know how hard it is to put a query out there for critique! :)

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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by rstearns » June 29th, 2012, 8:55 am

Elsinora has some very good advice! I don't think you need to mention that it's your first novel, though, since a lack of publishing credits will tell the reader that. Also it might be better to remove the list of her other worries, because that's all set-up for the call with the bad news. It sounds like most of the excitement and drama take place after the call. Finally, I've read on other query websites that you're supposed to lead with the line that includes the title, genre, and wordcount. Good luck with this!

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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by Elsinora » June 29th, 2012, 12:12 pm

Some agents prefer queries begin with the title and word count, others prefer it at the end. Janet Reid at Query Shark (an AMAZING resource for query writing, by the way) prefers it at the end. Either way, I don't think that will make or break a query. You're probably right that "this is my first novel" is unnecessary, though.

I would keep the list of worries because it gives us good insight into who the character is and because the change in Talitha's life after the call has more emotional impact if we get to see what her life was like before it. Just my two cents.

dorothyinman
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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by dorothyinman » June 29th, 2012, 3:27 pm

Thank you both for your input. I have been working on a re-write for the past few days. It's a lot harder than it seems! I do agree that I need the list of worries because it is kind of a before and after shot of her.

I also wanted to add that as far as the biographical part goes, one agent that I am considering sending my query to specifically requests a strong biographical piece, especially if you are a new author. I definitely need to rewrite that part based on what I found on their website, but I will definitely keep in mind your tips about that particular part if their web site does not request a biographical piece.

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cheekychook
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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by cheekychook » June 29th, 2012, 10:19 pm

Since you've already stated that you're working on a newer version I'm going to wait for that version to do a full critique.

Your story itself sounds emotional and interesting. I'm looking forward to reading your revised query when you post it. In the meantime I did want to point out a few things that are more factual than subjective in regard to queries in general.

Word count: First off, always round to the nearest 1000th, don't give an exact amount. Second, I'm sorry to say that 137k will almost certainly be a deal breaker for any agent. 100k is the upper limit for most publishers for women's fiction. This has to do with several factors, one of which is cost. It costs publishers more money to print a book that is over 100k, so while some publishers will make an exception for some genres (certain types of historicals or SF/F) almost no one (or perhaps no one at all) will do so for women's fiction and certainly not with a first time author. I know that's not what you want to hear, and I know because my first manuscript started at 150k then shrunk to 129, 119, 109, 103, and then finally got a publisher when I'd gotten it down to 99k. Not kidding. The vast majority of agents and editors will look at that word count and it will be an automatic reject. I'm not trying to discourage you, just being honest. Strongly consider editing until you are AT LEAST under 110k so they think there's a chance that it will eventually wind up at the 100k mark. Not trying to give you a hard time, just speaking from experience.

Most agents openly state that their biggest pet peeve is the words "fiction" and "novel" side by side. I realize that is unfair for women's fiction since that is the name of the genre and it's not *really* saying "fiction novel" (which is the redundancy that they hate), however it is much better to say YOUR MOTHER HAS CANCER is women's fiction and is complete at xx,ooo words. (Always put the book title in all caps the first time it is mentioned in the query. If it is mentioned again later in the query it can be in upper/lower case any other times.)

You're absolutely right that some agents do want to know "what makes you uniquely qualified to write this story" and for those you should leave in your biographical sentence. Some others, however, prefer that the story stand on its own and only want to know about you in terms of any previous writing credits.

Do not state that this is your first novel. Agents will assume that from a lack of publishing credits and it's best not to remind them of it.

Sorry if this sounds pushy or negative, but these are important issues that can be the make or break point for your query and I know I'm glad someone pointed them out to me early on in my querying days. Hope this is helpful to you.
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dorothyinman
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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by dorothyinman » July 2nd, 2012, 10:48 am

Thank you all for your feedback. Karen, I was really hoping you would look at this one. I am so glad you found my post.

Elsinora and Rstearns, thank you for your feedback as well. I will post my new query and then respond to some of Elsinora's questions at the end.

New Query:

"St. Louis Legal Secretary, Talitha Murphy thinks she has her life all figured out. The greatest things she has to worry about are her boss’s infidelity with his paralegal, not killing his annoying receptionist, scratching her Louis Vuittons and making sure her cat, Condi, is fed each day. Talitha is positive she has this “growing up” thing figured out.

Until her mother gets cancer.

Talitha returns home to Louisville to take care of her ailing mother. The once confident fashionista spends her days alone, sleeping or crying. Angry at the world and angry at God, she tries to make sense of her mom’s illness, but comes up empty.

Shortly after she arrives home her childhood best friend and sole confidant, Jonathan Livingston, now an unfairly handsome ER doctor, informs her that he loves her. This declaration further muddles Talitha’s state of mind. Should she choose to stay where she is, unhappy and wallowing in her own grief? Or should she choose to love him in return in spite of the guilt she will feel by being happy while her mother is sick?

YOUR MOTHER HAS CANCER is women’s fiction that is complete at roughly 137,000 words. It draws on my experience as caretaker of my mother with her struggle with breast cancer."

Elsinora In response to your question about how much I know about paralegals and law firms, ect. It was a really good question. I was struggling with what to call Talitha's role and after reviewing the book, she is really nothing more than a legal secretary. She is someone who gets signatures from the boss and makes sure he is where he needs to be at the right time, ect. This is actually a very small part of the book at the beginning and honestly after the comments regarding the size of the book, I will probably be editing a lot of this part out. The paralegal, Kate is mentioned later, so I will keep the scenes with her in it, but much of the first chapter can probably be taken out.

On that point, I am going to go through the book again to take out the scenes that are not relevant to the plot. Personally when I read the book for the umpteenth time, found the book dragging at some points, but when I had my husband and a former journalist of the Courier Journal (the city's paper) read the book they did not think anything needed to be taken out. Their insight we extremely valuable, but I should have went with my gut.

I am choosing to keep the name of Jonathan as Jonathan Livingston. My husband pointed out the name from the beginning, but I was too attached to change it at the time. What I plan on doing is adding a few jokes about the fact that he was named after a Seagull (or perhaps his parents loved the movie and were huge Neil Diamond fans?) I should have listened to him on this one.

I would like your opinion on the paragraph about Jonathan. I struggled with it and am not sure it's where it needs to be.

Any feedback is greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

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cheekychook
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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by cheekychook » July 2nd, 2012, 11:57 am

This version of your query is definitely tighter and more concise than your earlier draft, which is good. But there is some repetition and I think you can still make your overall plot clearer. I'll add comments in red throughout your version so I can show you specifically what I think you might consider changing (and why). Please remember, this is only my opinion. My suggestion would be to try another few versions of this letter. Most final draft queries wind up being the best lines from the previous xx versions cobbled together. At least in my experience. :)


St. Louis Legal Secretary, Talitha Murphy (This is a good, concise way of telling us her name, location and job---question: does "Legal Secretary" need to be capitalized? I have no idea, but check on that.) thinks she has her life all figured out.(Saying she thinks she has her life all figured out is okay. It's used a lot in queries, though, so if there's a more dramatic or more specific-to-Talitha way you can think of phrasing this, it may make more impact. Maybe even start with the last sentence in this para to avoid repeating "figured out" and give a better sense of what you mean. ie; St. Louis legal secretary Talitha Murphy is positive she has this "growing up" thing figured out.) The greatest things she has to worry about are her boss’s infidelity with his paralegal, not killing his annoying receptionist, scratching her Louis Vuittons and making sure her cat, Condi, is fed each day. (I like the thought behind this sentence---it's good to give a humorous list of her only worries like this---but calling them "greatest" is a little confusing because it makes it seem like they're great things as opposed to obstacles of some sort. Also it's not clear why her boss' infidelity would be a problem for her or why she wants to "kill" the staff receptionist. Four things also seems a bit to list considering you're just trying make a lighthearted statement about the fact that her life is running smoothly---not a bump in sight. ie Life is going so great her main worries are scratching her Louis Vuittons and remembering to feed her cat, Condi, every day.) Talitha is positive she has this “growing up” thing figured out.(Again, not sure it's not best to move this up to avoid saying the same thing at the beginning and end of this paragraph.)

Until her mother gets cancer. (I have mixed feelings about this being a stand alone line. It adds impact, which is nice and clearly this is a very important plot point, but I'm not sure this shouldn't just be how the first paragraph ends. That way it would start with Blahblahblah perfect life and end with oh-crap-cancer. That might over all have bigger impact and make your opening paragraph stronger. Try it both ways and see what you think.)

Talitha returns home to Louisville to take care of her ailing mother. The once confident fashionista spends her days alone, sleeping or crying. Angry at the world and angry at God, she tries to make sense of her mom’s illness, but comes up empty. (These sentences feel very stark and disjointed. Can you make them flow into one another better? and use some more active words to describe what's going on? This is the transformation so it's important to her character's growth---make it stand out more. Try something along the lines of: When Talitha returns home to Louisville to care for her ailing mother the once confident fashionista becomes a recluse. Exhausted and emotionally drained she spends her days alone, sleeping or crying, angry at God and the world. Try as she might she can't make sense of her mother's illness.----again, just trying to give you an example---play off this suggestion and put it in your own words to best convey what she's feeling/thinking/doing---focus on exactly what she's feeling, why, what it's doing to her and how she's reacting to it. Let the reader feel what she's experiencing so we care about what happens next.)

Shortly after (Is it significant that it's shortly after she arrives home? This sentence seems awkward starting that way. Where was he? Have they been in touch this whole time or has she not seen him in years?) she arrives home her childhood best friend and sole confidant, Jonathan Livingston,(good description of who he is) now an unfairly handsome ER doctor,(more good description of him) informs her that he loves her.(where does this declaration come from? Has he always carried a torch for her? did she know? Does he blurt it out the first time he sees her or do they hang out a bit first and then he eventually confesses? This is important because it will add to the impact and put his character in a more important role in this query---show what she's facing with his arrival---what does it mean and how does it impact her.) This declaration further muddles Talitha’s state of mind. (I assume this means she kinda likes him too but isn't sure she wants to get involved with someone since she's just "home" to care for her mom? Make that clearer if that's the case, if not, tell us what is muddling it for her.) Should she choose to stay where she is, unhappy and wallowing in own grief? Or should she choose to love him in return in spite of the guilt she will feel by being happy while her mother is sick? (Okay, there are SOME agents who don't mind the whole question-method of concluding a query---most admit to hating it. I'd strongly recommend that you reword these to show what she's struggling with and what her choices are and emphasize the emotion behind these choices. She must choose...is forced to decide...must confront...struggles with...is torn----use the best actiony words you can come up with to show her ultimate dilemma so we know exactly what she's trying to figure out and how hard that is for her. Some mention of her mother, what the illness is doing to her, what her responsibilities have been while home, worries about prognosis, etc might also add to the impact of this paragraph and really show us Talitha's struggles more boldly.)

YOUR MOTHER HAS CANCER is women’s fiction that is complete at roughly 137,000 words. It draws on my experience as caretaker of my mother with her struggle with breast cancer. (good)

I know you don't want me reiterating this, but the word count has to come down. Please trust me on this. At least get it under the 120k mark before you start subbing this. It's not as hard as it seems. I guarantee there re things you can tighten without losing any important plot points or full scenes. I cut 50k out of my novel without giving up a single plot point or entire scene. It can be done. And it is, by almost everyone who's had to edit down a book. It's worth it. If you can't see where to cut, get yourself some beta readers and or a good critique partner. It's a lot easier for someone else to point out repetition or descriptions that go on too long. Also look for the most common overused words (search the document for "just", "so", etc---all the words everyone has a natural tendency to overuse but that can sneak a wordcount up by a few thousand words). In any case---CUT. You'll be glad you did. (climbs off soap box)

Overall this query is an improvement---keep going, post your new version but keep the old ones too. Work on punching up the level of emotion and explaining things in a little more detail so we see precisely what her struggles are. Please ask if you have any questions. Hope this was helpful. I look forward to reading the next revision. Good luck!
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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by idanelly » July 2nd, 2012, 10:41 pm

Sounds moving and involving. Some points:
-book title should be in capitals without quotation marks. That seems to be the general usage nowadays
-you could shorten or omit the sentence beginning "the greatest things"
-infidelity to whom?
-very important: tell why her mother's cancer diagnoses affect her so strongly. Like how does she feel about her mother? Does T have a morbid fear of disease? There have to be strong motivations for such a violent reaction on her part. Indicate them or else makes the reaction less strong
-indicate why the once confident fashionista changes in such an extreme way.I think most people wouldn't. It's kind of puzzling, especially given the fact that she attracts the attention of an attractive man
-any chance you could make your novel shorter? I think 100,000 words would be about the top limit, especially for a first novel
-when telling about yourself, use first-person, i.e., I & me. don't refer to yourself as Dorothy. This kind of thing is done on book covers, not in query letters

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Re: Your Mother Has Cancer A Women's Fiction Novel

Post by LurkingVirologist » July 12th, 2012, 8:24 pm

Highlighted a few things in blue and commented in []. Red means take-out.

"St. Louis Legal Secretary, Talitha Murphy thinks she has her life all figured out. The greatest[greastest implies something positive - maybe biggest?] things she has to worry about are her boss’s infidelity with his paralegal[unless this is a plot point, do we care who he's sleeping with?], not killing his annoying receptionist, scratching her Louis Vuittons and making sure her cat, Condi, is fed each day[make active voice?]. Talitha is positive she has this “growing up” thing figured out.

Until[Quibble - Then sounds more active, YMMV] her mother gets cancer.

Talitha returns home to Louisville to take care of her ailing mother. The once confident fashionista spends her days alone[isn't she spending her days with her mom? or does she feel alone? this is a bit confusing - I know from experience that dealing with serious illness can be very isolating, but I think you need to set emotional context here], sleeping or crying. Angry at the world and angry at God, she tries to make sense of her mom’s illness, but comes up empty.

Shortly after she arrives home her childhood best friend and sole confidant, Jonathan Livingston[is this name an intentional reference to the work?], now an unfairly handsome [you've set up her emotional world, shifting to superficial physical descriptions seems a bit jarring, but not my genre so take it with a grain of salt] ER doctor, informs her that he loves her. This declaration further muddles Talitha’s state of mind. [This seems a bit redundant with the sentence that follows] Should she choose to stay where she is, unhappy and wallowing in her own grief? Or should she choose to love him in return in spite of the guilt she will feel by being happy while her mother is sick [quibble - "sick" is a very weak descriptor, it could imply she has the sniffles. If she's dying of cancer, use a stronger descriptor - after all, this is your central crisis and should hit the hardest]?

YOUR MOTHER HAS CANCER is women’s fiction that is complete at roughly 137,000 words. It draws on my experience as caretaker of my mother with her struggle with breast cancer."

Like I said above, not really my genre, but a pretty well written query letter.
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