Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An Agent's Inbox #5

Dear Victoria Marini,

I read on your blog that you enjoy “a romantic element, mayhem & mystery.” For this reason, I hope you will be interested in my novel of literary fiction set in Cline, Texas in 1964.

Twenty-year-old Margaret Harmond is haunted by her Catholic upbringing, her desire for other women, and the ghost of her mother, whose suicide she witnessed at the age of eight. While training for the sisterhood in a Catholic home for unwed mothers, Margaret finds herself tempted by one of the pregnant teenage girls and throws herself further into her work by joining the local Civil Rights Movement. But as she begins to investigate the disappearances of young black men, she finds herself caught in a web of corruption, endangering the lives of those she loves most and bringing her closer to the one person she was trying to avoid.

THE LOOKING-GLASS HOUSE is complete at 75,000 words. I recently received my MFA in fiction from Purdue University, where I currently teach composition and creative writing courses. My work has appeared in The Albion Review and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters.

Included below are the first 250 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.



March of 1964 in Cline, Texas was unseasonably warm. The frost had melted and the azaleas were beginning to bloom, their fuchsia flowers rippling across the grounds of Saint Therese's Home for Girls. Inside, the chapel was stuffy and quiet. No breeze came from the open windows, and dust particles hung motionless in the sunlight. Twelve pregnant girls knelt in the pews, praying. The only sounds came from the kneelers creaking as the girls shifted. Sister Mary Catherine, Mother Superior of Saint Therese's, sat in a burgundy mohair arm chair at the front of the chapel with a rosary in her hands, as if her eyes were closed because she too was praying. All the girls, though, knew she was sleeping.

But even with Mother Superior beginning to snore, a hum as monotonous as the bees outside who droned from blossom to blossom, fat and drunk on azalea nectar, the girls could not relax, because Margaret watched them from the back pew.

Charlotte,” she snapped at a girl who rested her butt on the pew behind her. Margaret had been taught to pray on her knees with her back straight and her eyes closed.

“My back hurts, Miss Margaret,” the girl whined.

“Suffering makes us stronger,” Margaret answered. And she would know.

Margaret sat in the middle of the pew, her knees pinched together, her feet pointed slightly beneath her, her hands folded in her lap, clutching a Bible and a small pocketbook with enough cash for the month's groceries.


B.C. said...

It's clear from your first 250 that you're a talented writer. With historical fiction, it's so important to immerse the reader in the time and place, and I think you do that.

I also like that you have a character struggling with her sexual identity in a time and place totally inimical to it. I think if you can make hers an authentic voice, you've got a fantastic story.

That being said, I have a few suggestions. First, I think your query is a bit short. I think you have more than enough plot to add another paragraph, even if you give some of the twists away. As it is, though, how she comes to investigate the disappearances, or how she ends up getting closer to the "one person she was trying to avoid" leave me a bit lost. Of course all of this is just personal taste. Anyway, I think you have a really strong story here. Great work!

Ella Schwartz said...

A very interesting premise! I love the idea of a young girl struggling with her sexuality and turning to the Catholic church. Such a dichotomy! Stakes are high. Well done there.

With regards to your query, I like that you've personalized the beginning - this is important - but it felt a bit forced to me. Just because the agent is interested in "a romantic element, mayhem & mystery" doesn't necessarily mean she will like YOUR manuscript, unless you tell her why your manuscript has these elements. Other than romantic elements, I didn't really get a lot of mayhem and mystery from the query.

The other line that confused me in the query was turning to the Civil Rights movement. First she was in a Catholic home, then she turned to civil rights. All great causes, but kind of unrelated. When I read civil rights it felt sort of out of the blue. I wanted her to stay in the church! So I think you should either explain this (is she struggling with God and decides to turn away from God), or snip this bit. Maybe just say she plunges further into her work without mentioned Civil Rights.

I love the first 250! My favorite line was "Twelve pregnant girls knelt in the pews, praying. " It is such a strong image. You really do set the scene beautifully.

Well done.

Lanette said...

I love literary fiction, so right from the start I was prepared to love this, but first I'll talk about your query.

The situation you set up for your MC is intriguing, but I felt you threw in too many elements instead of focusing on the one basic in all queries: What does your protagonist want and what prevents her from getting it? One piece of advice I've seen thrown around a lot that I think is very important is look at your first 30-50 pages until you get to the firs inciting plot point and build the query around that.

As to the first page, the writing is fluid and beautiful. You have a touch of characterization with three characters without telling but through showing us in their actions and dialogue. I would definitely read more.

Kristen Wixted said...

I am interested in Margaret and her story. The writing is strong and even if the query doesn't fit the usual form of a query, I think it gives (me, anyway) enough information that I know if I would want to read more about this character that I've met on the first page.
I would.

Mystic Wyngarden said...

I really like your writing, and the premise of the story hooked me. I loved the imagery of the girls kneeling and the mother snoring in the mohair chair. I think you're a gifted writer. I'm just learning to write queries myself, so I'll leave comments on that to others, but I noticed that you used tags on both quotes in your 250. If you do that throughout, you might look at using sentence structure that eliminates most of them. I think you'll go far, and I'd keep reading....

S.S. #20 said...

The set up of a woman studying to take her vows and beginning to question her sexuality is a brilliant premise! (And I say this as a liberal Catholic.)

I was thrown by the Civil Rights Reference for a couple of reasons. While the Catholic Church was very active in ending segregation around the country, my first question is how active were they in Texas? The query sounds more like it's about her involvement in the Civil Rights movement and less about her sexuality, which is what the second line in paragraph two indicates to me.

I tend to work at keeping my queries short, but you could add another paragraph and flush out the plot a little more without getting too long.

As for your 250, I have a couple thoughts. First, in the sentence, Twelve pregnant girls knelt in the pews, praying," you might want to add something about praying for redemption like {nun XYZ} had told them to, or something like that. It sets up their situation just a little more clearly.

The line, No breeze came from the open windows, and dust particles hung motionless in the sunlight," makes it sound like the dust particles are suspended in air... as someone who has a dusty house, this seemed strange to me. The dust will always be moving, even without a wind. Perhaps you could illustrate it by saying they made lazy swirls as they floated to the floor, or something else "literary".

Also, is Margaret taking the steps to enter into the order? If so, would they call her Miss or would they call her Sister? Just a thought that I had while I was reading.

Overall, very interesting, and while I don't read a lot of literary fiction, I think I would probably enjoy this one! Great job and good luck!

Anonymous said...

I actually like the brevity of your query. But like everyone else above, I was thrown by the Civil Rights mention. What I came away with was while she may not have left the Order, she somehow got out of being the monitor of the girls in the house in order to contribute to the movement. If this isn't what happened, you might want to explain a bit more. Was there a specific incident that led her to join the movement?

Other than that, it sounds like an interesting story.

Suja said...

I was instantly hooked by your query. You have clearly-defined internal and external conflicts that, combined with strong writing, promises a good read.

Victoria Marini said...

I like this a lot. The writing appeals to me, and I'm interested in the sexuality and religion conflict, but I especially like how you've related it to a personal/emotional history.