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  1. #1
    Senior Member Cheryl Morton's Avatar
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    Escaping the Water's Edge

    Hi folks,

    I've been reading here for a few weeks and decided to register today. I've been working on a book for several years, but I have vacillated over whether or not to publish it. I'm still not entirely certain that I want to have it published, but I'm strongly considering it. I've just started looking into the process. Reading a lot of the suggestions on this forum has been helpful. I've started the arduous process of researching agents, and I've made my first attempt at a query letter. Any critique of the query letter is welcome. I appreciate constructive criticism, so please be as brutally honest as you wish. I'll consider all comments.

    Thank you in advance!


    Dear *****,

    Escaping the Waterís Edge

    For many people, religion provides an escape from the worldís evils, but for one young woman itís the evils of her religion that she must try to escape.

    Raised in a very conservative Jehovahís Witness family, Cheryl is convinced that the apocalyptic end of the world is imminent. She dedicates her life to the mandates of the Watchtower Society, regularly engaging in door-to-door preaching, rejecting social customs like holidays and birthdays, refusing to consider a Satanic university education, and wearing a head covering to show her willful submission to men. What happens when this girl, after decades of religious assimilation, begins to question her entire foundation of truth? With a family that forbids independent thinking and a religion that requires members to shun anyone who dissents, Cheryl faces the most difficult choice of her life: maintain a close relationship with the family she loves or sacrifice it all for the freedom to be intellectually honest.

    I was deeply immersed in the Jehovahís Witness religion as a child. This 85,000 word story is based on my experience within the religion and without. It explores the psychological challenges a young woman faces when attempting to deprogram and separate from a high control religious group. The full manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your consideration.

    Cheryl



  2. #2
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    You present the background for your novel, but what's the story? Cheryl is your protagonist, and clearly she exists in desperate, mind-numbing conflict with her environment--family, church, extended family. What's missing, though, is an antagonist who personifies these forces, transforming them into a personal, more immediate struggle. Is it her father? her pastor? Does he threaten her with more than spiritual isolation? Your novel may contain many such story lines (I trust that it does), but what you have here hints at none of them; pick the most compelling and build your query around it. Remember, you don't have to tell the entire story, merely enough of it to whet an agent's appetite to read more.

    (...btw, brush up on the rules for hyphens; e.g., in the present context, "head-covering" and "85,000-word" require them.)

    Good luck.

  3. #3
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    Hi Cheryl,

    Sounds like a very interesting book - but I agree with jayce. The plot isn't coming through - only the setting. I think you can take the setting and condense it down to a few lines, building the drama as you do. I'm thinking something along the lines of -

    Cheryl knew that a university degree would lead her to Satan. At least, that's what she was always told. Raised as a member of the conservative Jehovah's Witnesses, Cheryl has spent much of her life preparing for the apocalypse.

    I'm not saying you should use that exactly - I'm just trying to illustrate how you might consider building a "hook" at the start of your query. University leading to Satan - that's a hook in my mind. But do you see what I mean? From these opening sentences you can build the rest of the setting - she's been brought up this way and is beginning to question it. Keep this to one paragraph, I'd say.

    In the next paragraph I'd talk about the rest of the plot. Is there another person helping her? A love interest? What is it that's making her want to leave? I think you should also lose the hypothetical question - they're a no-no in queries.

    Just my 2 cents - feel free to ignore

  4. #4
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    This 85,000 word story


    Memoir? Novel? What is it?

    It makes a difference in terms of the critique to know what you are writing.

  5. #5
    Senior Member Cheryl Morton's Avatar
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    Jayce, Emily, and Leslee,

    Thank you very much for the feedback. You've given me a lot to think about. The book is a memoir, Leslee. I will review the rules for the use of hyphens in the present tense. Thanks for pointing that out, Jayce.

    After analyzing my query in relation to your comments, I definitely think I can improve it. I'm a little confused about how to do this though.

    Jayce said: You present the background for your novel, but what's the story? Cheryl is your protagonist, and clearly she exists in desperate, mind-numbing conflict with her environment--family, church, extended family. What's missing, though, is an antagonist who personifies these forces, transforming them into a personal, more immediate struggle.

    Hmm. It seems to me that I did introduce the antagonist in my initial query, but based on your comments I'm concerned that it won't be recognized by an agent. I stated: Raised in a very conservative Jehovahís Witness family, Cheryl is convinced that the apocalyptic end of the world is imminent. She dedicates her life to the mandates of the Watchtower Society... The Watchtower Society is the corporate entity of the Jehovah's Witness organization. The two terms can mostly be used interchangeably to refer this particular religion. The religion and its tendrils is the antagonist. Do you have any suggestions on how I might make this more evident?

    The plot is this in a nutshell: The Watchtower Society is a very high control religious group (often compared to a cult) that exerts tremendous control over its adherents to the point that many members will sacrifice their lives before they will violate the rules. Children who are immersed in the religion and who assimilate into the organization often have an extremely difficult breaking away due to fear, not only of the impending apocalypse, but also of the loss of their families. The religion mandates that members shun anyone who leaves, so the protagonist faces the dilemma of staying in the religion and preserving the peace of her family or leaving the religion and being completely shunned by her family.

    Emily said: In the next paragraph I'd talk about the rest of the plot. Is there another person helping her? A love interest? What is it that's making her want to leave? I think you should also lose the hypothetical question - they're a no-no in queries.

    Thank you for the suggestion about the question. I didn't know that.

    As for the plot, there is nobody helping her, which is kind of the point. It's her own questioning, her own drive for logical consistency and intellectual honesty that compels her to abandon all that she has known and cared about so that she can have the freedom to think independently. If I had to sum the theme or message of the book up in one sentence it would be:

    More important than what you believe is the freedom to decide those beliefs for yourself.

    Any suggestions on how I might use these concepts to create a more informative query would be greatly appreciated. Thank you again for taking the time to read and respond to my post!

    Cheryl

  6. #6
    Senior Member Zoe Saadia's Avatar
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    Hi Cheryl,

    I agree with Emily and Jayce. The story sounds very interesting, but this query includes no plot line at all. What makes her question her way of life? What makes her feel threatened if she attempts to change it?
    I liked the way you described the background up to the sentence when you ask "what happens if...". I think it might make a fair first paragraph.
    I also think the last, bio paragraph is ok.
    Between these two I would just tuck a few sentences describing the main turns of the plot.

    Good luck

  7. #7
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    JUST MY OPINION FEEL FREE TO IGNORE:

    I have not read the other responses, so if I repeat something, sorry.

    Okay, it's a memoir. Thanks for telling me.

    Cheryl is convinced
    She dedicates her life

    If this is a memoir - your personal story - why are you writing in third person? You could warm it up considerably simply by using "I."

    For many people, religion provides an escape from the world’s evils, but for one young woman it’s the evils of her religion that she must try to escape.


    It's a weak hook. I'd get rid of it. You don't need a mundane summary like this starting your letter. Just begin with the next paragraph.

    Raised in a very conservative Jehovah’s Witness family, Cheryl is convinced that the apocalyptic end of the world is imminent.

    Read it again like this:

    Raised in a very conservative Jehovah’s Witness family, I was convinced that the apocalyptic end of the world was imminent.

    Now that's an opening sentence that would keep someone reading. It's unusual, and puts YOU into the storyline immediately. There's no question that you're writing a memoir/autobiography.

    "I dedicated my life to the mandates of the Watchtower Society, regularly engaging in door-to-door preaching, rejecting social customs like holidays and birthdaysPERIOD i refused to consider a Satanic university education"

    What do you mean a Satanic university? Is there a university called Satanic U and I've never heard of it? If you're saying a traditional education, then say so. If you want to say that you were taught that all traditional education is Satanic, then say so.

    ", and wearing a head covering to show my willful submission to men."

    What does that mean? Willful submission to men. Explain it. Are you wearing a head covering to show female inferiority? Respect for the natural superiority of men as taught by your religion? "Willful submission" to a man by a woman can be taken to indicate something physical, sexual. Is that your intention? Be clear.

    "[I]What happens when this girl, after decades of religious assimilation, begins to question her entire foundation of truth?"

    If it's been decades, she's not a "girl," she's a "woman." And you need to rewrite this to make it more personal. You've written a question that seems separated from YOU, and if this is a memoir, you have to talk about yourself, not "this girl." It is not a rhetorical question. It's about you.

    With a family that forbids independent thinking and a religion that requires members to shun anyone who dissents, I FACED the most difficult choice of MY life: TO maintain a close relationship with the family I loves or sacrifice it all for the freedom to be intellectually honest.

    AS A YOUNG GIRL, I was deeply immersed in the Jehovah’s Witness religion. This 85,000 word MEMOIR is based on my experience within the religion and without. It explores the psychological challenges I FACED when I ATTEMPTED to deprogram and separate from a high control religious group.

    The full manuscript is available upon request.

    They know this. You don't have to tell them.

    Cheryl, this is much better, even without changes, than most of the query letters posted here for edit. It has purpose and the writing is strong. Now warm it up a little and stop thinking of it as a book about someone else. You are not a character. It is your story. Don't stand at arm's lengh from whatever it is that still haunts you. Jump in, and it'll make the story stronger. You might suffer a little in the writing. But that's the cost to an honest writer.

    If your manuscript is also written from a safe distance, take another look at it and infuse it with the emotion you felt when you were trying to get free of your religion. Take the risk. You can do it.

    Best of luck to you.
    Last edited by leslee; 06-05-2011 at 09:09 AM.

  8. #8
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    Cheryl: leslee's critique is dead on. Scratch everything I said (even one of the hyphen examples is questionable).

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    Cheryl, the reference to the Satanic university kinda threw me too.

    Having been brought up in a fear-based religion myself, I'd love to know the ending of your memoir! Which means, I'd probably want to read your book.

    (So how DID you escape their clutches? )

    *_*

  10. #10
    Senior Member Cheryl Morton's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by leslee View Post
    JUST MY OPINION FEEL FREE TO IGNORE:
    Leslee, I asked for your opinion and you were kind enough to offer it. It would be pretty rude of me to ignore it. I found your critique extremely helpful, and I greatly appreciate your response.

    You said:
    What do you mean a Satanic university? Is there a university called Satanic U and I've never heard of it? If you're saying a traditional education, then say so. If you want to say that you were taught that all traditional education is Satanic, then say so.
    LOL. Yes, I was referring to traditional university education, which I was brought up to believe was Satanic. My wording is definitely ambiguous though. Point taken. I think I may leave this out of my query altogether though, because it gives the impression that I did not obtain a university education, which is confusing. The situation was a bit more complex than that. Higher education was forbidden when I was a child, both because the end of the world would be coming any day, so it was pointless and because universities only offered the teachings of Satan. When I was 18 years old the religion suddenly changed its policy on higher education. It was a huge organizational change, and many members had difficulty accepting the new policy. I didnít know a single person who went to college or university. It was never something that any of my friends even considered. College was taboo. I was really lucky that my parents embraced the change immediately and encouraged me to go to college. I wasnít allowed to study what I wanted. My choice was very limited, but at least I was able to obtain a degree. Thatís all discussed in the book, but way too much explanation for a query.

    You said:
    You've written a question that seems separated from YOU, and if this is a memoir, you have to talk about yourself, not "this girl." It is not a rhetorical question. It's about youÖ Now warm it up a little and stop thinking of it as a book about someone else. You are not a character. It is your story. Don't stand at arm's lengh from whatever it is that still haunts you. Jump in, and it'll make the story stronger. You might suffer a little in the writing. But that's the cost to an honest writer.

    If your manuscript is also written from a safe distance, take another look at it and infuse it with the emotion you felt when you were trying to get free of your religion. Take the risk. You can do it.
    Damn. I read this earlier and my eyes immediately welled up with tears, and I had to walk away. I hadnít even thought about it until you mentioned it, but youíre spot on. I am distancing myself from this story. As I stated in my initial post, Iím still not entirely certain I want to publish this story, not because Iím not confident in the writing, but because I still have a lot of emotional reservations.

    Iíve been seriously writing this book for the past three years. Iíve edited and reworked it, reread it, taken out parts and added parts at least a dozen times. Iíve sent several manuscripts to friends who have agreed to read and critique it for me. Iím at a point where thereís nothing left for me to do unless I get strong feedback from others. The book contains a lot of emotion. If anything, I worry that I may be asked to tone it down (due to some strong profanity) because I wanted the emotion to come through. I want people who read it to understand my confusion, my grief, my desperation and despair, my anxiety, and my anger.

    I left the religion ten years ago, and initially I had no friends or support system. I was a single mother with an apartment and a job and a ton of fear. To start rebuilding connections, I joined an online forum for ex Jehovahís Witnesses, and as I started telling my story I found many others who have had experiences similar to mine. Some who separate from high-control religions like this seem to escape unscathed. I think it helps if they have friends or family outside to support and help facilitate their exit. For those who have no support, the process can be extremely traumatic. Itís not uncommon for people, especially teens, to commit suicide while trying to leave. Many others endure severe depression and addiction. I donít know how interesting my story will be to people who have not had similar experiences, but I know that it resonates well with others who are in the process of separating. Thatís why I wanted to write this book. I think itís a story worth telling, and I think it has the potential to help others. I think it could be beneficial for others too, because it highlights the dangers of high control religious groups and the benefits of critical thinking.

    Those are the main reasons I want to have this book published, but I still have some reservations. There are many people who I want to read it, but publishing it will mean that anyone could potentially read it. Iím not sure if I want to invite everyone into my life like that. It would have been much easier emotionally to create a novel with a fictional MC based on my experience, but I felt that the story would lose some credibility. I opted to write the story in first person, using my own name, with honesty and emotion, but as a result Iíve stalled and procrastinated putting it ďout there.Ē Now that I am, as you pointed out, Iím inadvertently distancing myself from the story. Youíre right, Leslee, it makes no sense to write it first person and then create the query in third person. If I am going to publish it, I need to own it. Thank you very much for your insightful analysis. I need to go back to the drawing board with my query.


    Kitty, you said:
    Having been brought up in a fear-based religion myself, I'd love to know the ending of your memoir! Which means, I'd probably want to read your book.

    (So how DID you escape their clutches? )
    LOL. Well if I tell you then you wonít want to read the book.

    What religion were you brought up in? Did you leave?

    Thank you all for the well wishes and the replies. I greatly appreciate it.

    Cheryl

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