Distillation - a New England ghost story

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arielswan
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Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by arielswan » April 5th, 2010, 6:21 pm

Go ahead - do your best/worst. Any feedback is appreciated.

Haunted by the superstitious lore of her mother, Alice Towne hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that something is not right. When she looks in the mirror, she sees only the outline of a person drawn by someone else, and not the person she wants to be. So Alice leaves everything behind, turning away from a relationship burdened by doubt, and takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude.

Before long, however, the colorful denizens of Ashfield entwine Alice in a fated web. Joan Shattuck, the crazy eyed, chainsaw wielding neighbor, shares the history of sick children and suicide surrounding the house Alice is now responsible for. Ruby Johnson, a well funded debutante turned trendy organic farmer and the daughter of the retired CEO of Sedgwick Pharmaceuticals, is more than willing to be friends. Teddy Shepherd, a spicy transplant from New Orleans, and unlikely town historian, is a little too eager to embroil Alice is the town’s history. And, the women of Ashfield Hardware, an unsettling pair of twins who administer an unusual variety of remedies, seem to have plans for her. Then there is Kyle Erickson, farmer, bee keeper and handy man, who more than anyone, slips beneath Alice’s resolve to be alone.

Soon, the isolated house begins to show signs of its disturbing history, and Alice becomes plagued by unexplained nausea, haunting songs in the night, and the pervasive smell of peppermint, not to mention the ghostly figure of a woman in the garden. When Alice unearths the bones of an infant buried in the colonial era cellar, she begins to search for the truth of what happened on Watts Hill in order to bring peace to the house and to her own life.

I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts, and my own experiences living in the hill-town of Ashfield inspired this novel. Distillation is in a genre similar to such recent successes as Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, as well as Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Distillation is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by shadow » April 5th, 2010, 7:48 pm

This is a query I am assuming. I certainly hope that I am not mistaken. :) Anyways here I go.

Haunted by the superstitious lore of her mother, Alice Towne hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that something is not right. Ok so something is not right isn't extremely original. Its a classic grabber but I think what comes next is the REAL deal. If you could tie them together I think it would make a worthwhile hook. When she looks in the mirror, she sees only the outline of a person drawn by someone else, and not the person she wants to be. This is a bit confusing to me actually. I mean an outline of herself literally? What comes into my mind when you say this is like an artistic outline which I don't think you are trying to portray. I don't know if I am right but you are probably trying to say that she can't garner her personality or become who she really wants to be? I'am not sure and I don't want to guess so tell me! So Alice leaves everything behind, turning away from a relationship burdened by doubt, Is it she that doubs and ends the relationship? and takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude. Your hook could be more or less something like: turning away from a relationship and burdened by doubt Alice Towne takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude. Just an idea but it gives a clar and consise understanding of the who what and where.

Before long, however, the colorful denizens of Ashfield entwine Alice in a fated web. How? Agents want to know how in the very same sentence. Try to condense it to keep the tension going. It sounds like an interesting story so far, you just have to tighten the query.Joan Shattuck, the crazy eyed, chainsaw wielding neighbor, shares the history of sick children and suicide surrounding the house Alice is now responsible for. Ruby Johnson, a well funded debutante turned trendy organic farmer and the daughter of the retired CEO of Sedgwick Pharmaceuticals, is more than willing to be friends. Teddy Shepherd, a spicy transplant from New Orleans, and unlikely town historian, is a little too eager to embroil Alice is the town’s history. And, the women of Ashfield Hardware, an unsettling pair of twins who administer an unusual variety of remedies, seem to have plans for her. Then there is Kyle Erickson, farmer, bee keeper and handy man, who more than anyone, slips beneath Alice’s resolve to be alone. Is it really needed to mention everyone she gets to know? I mean meeting so many characters in a query can be rather overwhelming. To tell you the truth this paragraph made me skim through it instead of being gripped. I suggest take this out completley or just condense it to a sentence because the next paragraph is what the story really is about.

Soon, the isolated house begins to show signs of its disturbing history, and Alice becomes plagued by unexplained nausea, haunting songs in the night, and the pervasive smell of peppermint, not to mention the ghostly figure of a woman in the garden. This is the interesting part!When Alice unearths the bones of an infant buried in the colonial era cellar, she begins to search for the truth of what happened on Watts Hill in order to bring peace to the house and to her own life. I am sure your novel has what it takes but what really are the stakes here? She finds a dead child and wants to discover the truth? There must be something more personal that drives her actions.

I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts, and my own experiences living in the hill-town of Ashfield inspired this novel. Distillation is in a genre similar to such recent successes as Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, as well as Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I don't really know any of those books so I still don't know your genre. Mention it. Distillation is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Good Luck! I like your premise and I hope my suggestions can help at all.
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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by JTB » April 5th, 2010, 7:51 pm

there's too much information here to see what's going on and your sentences have too many clauses to make it easily readable. The hook in the third para, (the interesting part Shadow's named it) - shouldn't that be in the first - to grab our attention?

I'm left with the impression that your main character is a miserable cartoon of a person who gets a job house-sitting and finds a body in the cellar; finding out what happened to this body - a child's - makes her happy? is that right?

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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by kenpochick » April 5th, 2010, 8:03 pm

arielswan wrote:
Haunted by the superstitious lore of her mother, Alice Towne hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that something is not right. When she looks in the mirror, she sees only the outline of a person drawn by someone else, and not the person she wants to be. So Alice leaves everything behind, turning away from a relationship burdened by doubt, and takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude. (This paragraph doesn't tell me anything. I don't see how "superstitious lore" makes you into a person you don't want to be. Everything else is so vague that it seems like it could apply to any book.)

Before long, however, the colorful denizens of Ashfield entwine Alice in a fated web. Joan Shattuck, the crazy eyed, chainsaw wielding neighbor, shares the history of sick children and suicide surrounding the house Alice is now responsible for. Ruby Johnson, a well funded debutante turned trendy organic farmer and the daughter of the retired CEO of Sedgwick Pharmaceuticals, is more than willing to be friends. Teddy Shepherd, a spicy transplant from New Orleans, and unlikely town historian, is a little too eager to embroil Alice is the town’s history. And, the women of Ashfield Hardware, an unsettling pair of twins who administer an unusual variety of remedies, seem to have plans for her. Then there is Kyle Erickson, farmer, bee keeper and handy man, who more than anyone, slips beneath Alice’s resolve to be alone. (Honestly I read this paragraph and thought "The Shining." As opposed to who she meets, what are they trying to get her involved in?)

Soon, the isolated house begins to show signs of its disturbing history, and Alice becomes plagued by unexplained nausea, haunting songs in the night, and the pervasive smell of peppermint, not to mention the ghostly figure of a woman in the garden. When Alice unearths the bones of an infant buried in the colonial era cellar, she begins to search for the truth of what happened on Watts Hill in order to bring peace to the house and to her own life. (This paragraph should be the start of the query. Tell us what happens.)

I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts, and my own experiences living in the hill-town of Ashfield inspired this novel. Distillation is in a genre similar to such recent successes as Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, as well as Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. (I would list what genre it is and then you can compare it to other books if you like but say what the book actually is.) Distillation (capitalize)is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
In reading this query I can't tell what the book is actually about. Try to explain more of the plot in the query.

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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by Emily J » April 5th, 2010, 9:10 pm

arielswan wrote:Go ahead - do your best/worst. Any feedback is appreciated.

Haunted by the superstitious lore of her mother, Alice Towne hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that something is not right. "something is not right" is a bit cliched. Try rephrasing When she looks in the mirror, she sees only the outline of a person drawn by someone else, and not the person she wants to be. At first I thought she was seeing ghosts in the mirror, slightly confusing So Alice leaves everything behind, turning away from a relationship burdened by doubt, what relationship? and takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude.

Before long, however, the colorful denizens of Ashfield entwine Alice in a fated web. i don't really know what this means, i get the metaphor and all but not what "fated web" refers to Joan Shattuck, the crazy hyphen eyed, chainsaw hyphen wielding neighbor, shares the history of sick children and suicide surrounding the house Alice is now responsible for. Not grammatically incorrect to end with a preposition, but some people protest Ruby Johnson, a well funded debutante turned trendy organic farmer and the daughter of the retired CEO of Sedgwick Pharmaceuticals, is more than willing to be friends. Teddy Shepherd, a spicy transplant from New Orleans, and unlikely town historian, is a little too eager to embroil Alice is the town’s history. Alright this is name soup, which of this characters are essential and which can you leave out? And, the women of Ashfield Hardware, an unsettling pair of twins who administer an unusual variety of remedies, seem to have plans for her. Then there is Kyle Erickson, farmer, bee keeper and handy man, who more than anyone, slips beneath Alice’s resolve to be alone.

Soon, the isolated house begins to show signs of its disturbing history, and Alice becomes plagued by unexplained nausea, haunting songs in the night, and the pervasive smell of peppermint, not to mention the ghostly figure of a woman in the garden. When Alice unearths the bones of an infant buried in the colonial hyphenera cellar, she begins to search for the truth of what happened on Watts Hill in order to bring peace to the house and to her own life.

I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts, and my own experiences living in the hill-town of Ashfield inspired this novel. Distillation i was told to capitalize the title in a query is in a genre similar to such recent successes as Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, as well as Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Distillation is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
I might consider cutting down on the list of Ashfield residents. I liked the characterizations but it's too many names for a short query.

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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by BlancheKing » April 5th, 2010, 11:24 pm

Excellent topic. I'm writing a book on the same subject (though I wish I lived in Massachusetts). =)
arielswan wrote:Go ahead - do your best/worst. Any feedback is appreciated.

Haunted by the superstitious lore of her mother, Alice Towne hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that something is not right. When she looks in the mirror, she sees only the outline of a person drawn by someone else, and not the person she wants to be. (<-- you lost me there; it gives the emo teen vibe) So Alice leaves everything behind, turning away from a relationship burdened by doubt (adjective, adjective, adjective, nothing else), and takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude.

Before long, however, the colorful denizens of Ashfield entwine Alice in a fated web. Joan Shattuck, the crazy eyed, chainsaw wielding neighbor, shares the history of sick children and suicide surrounding the house Alice is now responsible for. Ruby Johnson, a well funded debutante turned trendy organic farmer and the daughter of the retired CEO of Sedgwick Pharmaceuticals, is more than willing to be friends. Teddy Shepherd, a spicy transplant from New Orleans, and unlikely town historian, is a little too eager to embroil Alice is the town’s history.(ahh, people overload D= why are they there?) And, the women of Ashfield Hardware, an unsettling pair of twins who administer an unusual variety of remedies, seem to have plans for her. Then there is Kyle Erickson, farmer, bee keeper and handy man, who more than anyone, slips beneath Alice’s resolve to be alone.

Soon, the isolated house begins to show signs of its disturbing history, and Alice becomes plagued by unexplained nausea, haunting songs in the night, and the pervasive smell of peppermint, not to mention the ghostly figure of a woman in the garden. When Alice unearths the bones of an infant buried in the colonial era cellar (this is good), she begins to search for the truth of what happened on Watts Hill in order to bring peace to the house and to her own life.

I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts, and my own experiences living in the hill-town of Ashfield inspired this novel. Distillation is in a genre similar to such recent successes as Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, as well as Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Distillation is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
Overall, I love the story idea and would love to trade manuscripts with you for editing (if you're looking). My story YA, so it's not exactly along the same lines, but it's still about ghosts.
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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by dahosek » April 6th, 2010, 6:11 pm

arielswan wrote: Haunted by the superstitious lore of her mother, Alice Towne hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that something is not right. When she looks in the mirror, she sees only the outline of a person drawn by someone else, and not the person she wants to be. So Alice leaves everything behind, turning away from a relationship burdened by doubt, and takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude.
"a relationship burdened by doubt" doesn't really tell us much and feels a bit overwrought.

"housesitting" is one word.
arielswan wrote: Before long, however, the colorful denizens of Ashfield entwine Alice in a fated web. Joan Shattuck, the crazy eyed, chainsaw wielding neighbor, shares the history of sick children and suicide surrounding the house Alice is now responsible for. Ruby Johnson, a well funded debutante turned trendy organic farmer and the daughter of the retired CEO of Sedgwick Pharmaceuticals, is more than willing to be friends. Teddy Shepherd, a spicy transplant from New Orleans, and unlikely town historian, is a little too eager to embroil Alice is the town’s history. And, the women of Ashfield Hardware, an unsettling pair of twins who administer an unusual variety of remedies, seem to have plans for her. Then there is Kyle Erickson, farmer, bee keeper and handy man, who more than anyone, slips beneath Alice’s resolve to be alone.
"fated web" I'm seeing a tendency towards purple prose here.

Overall, we have a pretty dense listing of characters. Meanwhile I don't have any sense of what the story is about.
arielswan wrote: Soon, the isolated house begins to show signs of its disturbing history, and Alice becomes plagued by unexplained nausea, haunting songs in the night, and the pervasive smell of peppermint, not to mention the ghostly figure of a woman in the garden. When Alice unearths the bones of an infant buried in the colonial era cellar, she begins to search for the truth of what happened on Watts Hill in order to bring peace to the house and to her own life.
OK, this is the heart of the story. This is what your query should focus on. I'd drop the second paragraph and shorten the first. I'd also look over your manuscript and see if you're prone to those sorts of excesses there as well.

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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by Matthew MacNish » April 7th, 2010, 9:03 am

First of all Ariel, let me just say I'm really glad you took my advice and posted this here. It looks like you've got some great advice already. I won't take the credit though, it's your willingness to share and the wonderful denizens of NB's forums that make this work. To your query:
arielswan wrote:Go ahead - do your best/worst. Any feedback is appreciated.

Haunted by the superstitious lore of her mother, Alice Towne hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that something is not right. Wwhen she looks in the mirror, she sees only the outline silhouette? of a person drawn by someone else, and not the person she wants to be. I would like to know more about her mother's superstitions. Is she religious? Wiccan? What? This has been addressed by other critiques but if you start with the hook that comes later and then get to this you could probably expand on it. With this as the hook/pitch you don't want it any longer than it already is. So Alice leaves everything behind, turning away from a relationship burdened by doubt about what? Was she being cheated on? Ignored? If this is backstory it may not matter but as a reader I found myself wondering., and takes a house sitting job in the hills of western Massachusetts, where she intends to consider her next step in solitude.

Before long, however, the colorful denizens of Ashfield entwine Alice in a fated web. I don't know that this is quite purple, but it does sound cliche. Joan Shattuck, the crazy eyed, chainsaw wielding neighbor, shares the history of sick children and suicide surrounding the house Alice is now responsible for. Ruby Johnson, a well funded debutante turned trendy organic farmer and the daughter of the retired CEO of Sedgwick Pharmaceuticals, is more than willing to be friends. Teddy Shepherd, a spicy transplant from New Orleans, and unlikely town historian, is a little too eager to embroil Alice is the town’s history. And, the women of Ashfield Hardware, an unsettling pair of twins who administer an unusual variety of remedies, seem to have plans for her. Do they sell hardware or remedies? Then there is Kyle Erickson, farmer, bee keeper and handy man, who more than anyone, slips beneath Alice’s resolve to be alone. Personally I think you have a great cast of really colorful characters here. I love the tone, but as others have pointed out this is too much for a query. Try to narrow it down to the one or two that advance the plot.

Soon, the isolated house begins to show signs of its disturbing history, and Alice becomes plagued by unexplained nausea, haunting songs in the night, and the pervasive smell of peppermint, not to mention the ghostly figure of a woman in the garden. Again, this has been pointed out before, but this is your hook, that punch that brings your premise home to the reader. It DOES NOT have to go at the very beggining, but it should be either first or last. Just keep in mind that this is the heart of your plot/conflict and the key to your story. Well this and the next sentence, that is. When Alice unearths the bones of an infant buried in the colonial era cellar, she begins to search for the truth of what happened on Watts Hill in order to bring peace to the house and to her own life. How? Why?

I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts, and my own experiences living in the hill-town of Ashfield inspired this novel. Distillation is in a genre similar to such recent successes as Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, as well as Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Distillation is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words. This is not always advisable but I think it works here. I loved The Lace Reader and think your book sounds quite similar, minus the witches and the Calvinists.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Great conclusion, succinct is always best. Try to apply that to your whole query, especially your character paragraph.
Sounds like a pretty damn good premise, and I definitely get a feel for your voice, which is crucial, but this does seem a bit scattered. Short and sweet, but colorful is what you want. I've been told by a few published authors to try to keep your query as shorty as is humanly possible. Then again, I'm so long winded they might have been speaking just to me.

Looking forward to seeing your revision. Post it here or start a new thread.

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REVISED QUERY: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by arielswan » April 7th, 2010, 2:35 pm

Thanks to everyone who gave feedback. It was enormously helpful. I have cut almost 100 words and I have tried to make it more specific . The historical bit mentioned at the end is that in the mid-1700's the town this story takes place in refused burial in consecrated ground to a man "of uncommon learning" whom they suspected of being a wizard (True). My story is inspired by and makes its way to that history (although it is not the full solve of the mystery)- and I have imagined him an alchemist left over in the age of reason. Should I include this in a stronger way in the query? Also - I need help with the genre. I have always loved the description of a writer's work whom I seek to emulate as New England magic realism. But I don't know if that counts. It is a ghost story - but - it is from the first person POV - so...there is question.
Anyways - here is the revised version:

Dear Agent:

Alice Towne has walked away from what seemed a perfectly rational life. She is eager to leave behind her unfaithful lover, and hoping to avoid the so called wisdom of Josephine, her mother that fancies herself a witch. So, Alice takes a position sitting a two hundred year old house in western, Massachusetts for the summer. There she intends to decide her own fate in solitude.

Quickly it becomes clear that Alice will not get what she wants. Taken in by the townspeople, Alice finds out everyone in Ashfield seems to have an agenda, from the twins who own the hardware store, but also deal in spells, to Teddy Shepherd, the town historian. When Alice learns the house has a history of sick children and suicide, she is not concerned; she has other things on her mind. Josephine, in need of a place to wait out her most recent drama, announces she will visit. And, Kyle Erickson, a young man hired to paint the barn, is slipping beneath Alice’s resolve to be on her own.

Soon though, the pervasive smell of peppermint, the haunting songs in the night, and the woman lurking around the garden, become too much to ignore. When she unearths the bones of an infant buried in the cellar, Alice sets out to discover what happened. Everyone knew the house had a history, but history is usually not the whole story.
I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts. DISTILLATION, inspired by a true incident in Ashfield lore, is in the genre of New England magic realism. It is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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Re: REVISED QUERY: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by Matthew MacNish » April 8th, 2010, 10:50 am

arielswan wrote:Thanks to everyone who gave feedback. It was enormously helpful. I have cut almost 100 words and I have tried to make it more specific . The historical bit mentioned at the end is that in the mid-1700's the town this story takes place in refused burial in consecrated ground to a man "of uncommon learning" whom they suspected of being a wizard (True). My story is inspired by and makes its way to that history (although it is not the full solve of the mystery)- and I have imagined him an alchemist left over in the age of reason. Should I include this in a stronger way in the query? Also - I need help with the genre. I have always loved the description of a writer's work whom I seek to emulate as New England magic realism. But I don't know if that counts. It is a ghost story - but - it is from the first person POV - so...there is question.
Anyways - here is the revised version:

Dear Agent:

Alice Towne has walked away from what seemed a perfectly rational life. This seems slightly contradictory, if she's being cheated on, some mighty consider it IRRATIONAL to stay. She is eager to leave behind her unfaithful lover, and hoping to avoid the so called wisdom of Josephine, her mother that fancies herself a witch. I like this phrasing, what if you capitalized the Wisdom of Josephine? So, Alice takes a position sitting a two hundred year old house in western, <- you don't need this comma; cut it Massachusetts for the summer. There she intends to decide her own fate in solitude.

Quickly it becomes clear that Alice will not get what she wants. This is passive voice, personally I don't mind it that much but others may complain (including agents)Taken in by the townspeople, Alice finds out everyone in Ashfield seems to have an agenda, semi-colon here from the twins who own the hardware store, but also deal in spells, another semi-colon to Teddy Shepherd, the town historian. When Alice learns the house has a history of sick children and suicide, she is not concerned; she has other things on her mind. Josephine, in need of a place to wait out her most recent drama, announces she will visit. And, Kyle Erickson, a young man hired to paint the barn, is slipping beneath Alice’s resolve to be on her own. This sentence sounds awkward to me. I take it to mean he becomes a romantic interest of some kind but it is really unclear as written.

Soon though, the pervasive smell of peppermint, the haunting songs in the night, and the woman lurking around the garden, become too much to ignore. When she unearths the bones of an infant buried in the cellar, Alice sets out to discover what happened. Everyone knew the house had a history, but history is usually not the whole story. I would just get specific here. What does she discover? What is the conflict? How does she go about overcoming it?

I am a teacher of literature and creative writing in Massachusetts. DISTILLATION, inspired by a true incident in Ashfield lore, is in the genre of New England magic realism. It is my first novel and is complete at 97,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
All edits are suggestions and my personal opinion only. I think you've got an interesting premise and I think the New England Magical Realism works but it might be a little too specific.

This is much better, keep polishing, and check the guest post on my blog tomorrow morning. It's going to be a great example of an ACTUAL successful query.

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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by Avalon Ink » April 8th, 2010, 11:24 pm

Ariel,

This sounds like a GREAT story. I loves me some haunted houses! I do think the second query is stronger but still a bit confusing. I don't really feel comfortable enough with my query skills to offer direct advice like these guys, but I dig the concept.

Keep it up!

(For what it's worth, I think house sitter looks much better than with the word combined.)


Hey Matthew - Good to see ya over here. Should have known you'd be here dishing up the expertise on queries!

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Re: Distillation - a New England ghost story

Post by Matthew MacNish » April 9th, 2010, 7:51 am

Avalon Ink wrote:Ariel,

This sounds like a GREAT story. I loves me some haunted houses! I do think the second query is stronger but still a bit confusing. I don't really feel comfortable enough with my query skills to offer direct advice like these guys, but I dig the concept.

Keep it up!

(For what it's worth, I think house sitter looks much better than with the word combined.)


Hey Matthew - Good to see ya over here. Should have known you'd be here dishing up the expertise on queries!
Wow Avalon, I'm flattered that you would consider my advice "expertise". Personally I consider myself to still be a student of the process; I've learned a lot since I started but still have a long way to go. Thanks for the compliment though!

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