Monday, February 8, 2010

Query Queasiness

Well I sent out two query letters today with a copy of my first chapter.  I so wanted to puke.  I don't know why it affects me that way.  I can handle the rejection letters.  I just have such a queasy stomach when I send out queries, etc.   Below is a copy of the letter and my first chapter.  Please tell me honestly what you think.

Dear Ms. Agent

Trina Lacy came face to face with her past nightmare. The burned bodies running through the Sky Lobby thrust her back to a night two years before. It would take every ounce of courage she had to survive this tragedy. The 37,144 words of my young adult novel Steps to Courage follow three teens as they face the worse day of their life, September eleventh, in the worse place they could be, the Twin Towers.

I am a National Board certified teacher with a passion for reading and writing. I have a small article published in The Teacher’s Guide to Success by Ellen L. Kronowitz (March, 2007).

I chose to submit my query to you after reading in the CBI Newsletter that you were taking submissions. I am including the first chapter of Steps to Courage in this email. I am prepared to send the complete manuscript upon your request.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my work. I look forward to hearing from you.

Here is my first chapter.  Please feel free to comment freely.  I actually thrive on constructive criticism.
Stiles, Steps to Courage

1 Trina

The month of September seemed to be trying to hold on to summer for as long as possible and September eleventh was no different. The days usually began with a slight chill in the air, a hint that the lazy days of summer were over and the beginning of fall had arrived. The leaves had not yet started to turn colors, usually a sure sign that fall was on its way. That is what eighteen year old Trina Lacy waited for, the turning of the leaves where the trees seemed to be in full bloom after changing colors. It brought to her mind the quote, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”. Trina loved this time of year. There was a special smell in the air that only turning leaves could bring. The crisp air had a freshness that revitalized everything it touched, including her spirit.

Feeling the warm breeze blowing through her window, Trina’s thoughts drifted to her busy day. She slowly drew back the sheet, stood up and stretched feeling the pull of tight skin on her legs. The tight skin was no longer painful, just a daily reminder of the burns she had received several years before. An uneasy feeling washed over her as she made her bed. She pushed it aside believing it to be nothing more than a queasiness she often felt when her mind wandered to her accident. She walked to her closet, selected the outfit she would wear to school and laid it neatly on her bed. She walked to the bathroom and prepared to step into the shower, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the full length mirror. One glimpse brought back the memory of her terrible accident. She had been sixteen at the time and the only things on her mind had been her looks, her boyfriend, and being the captain of the cheerleading squad. All of that ended on that horrible night. It had been almost two years since the accident and a day never went by that she did not think about it. Memories of that night could be sparked by something as trivial as hearing tires squeal on wet pavement, or watching someone get into their car and drive away from a bar. Her recovery had consisted of tortured days of endless pain that nearly consumed her. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months of surgeries, skin grafts and rehabilitation. She had lived an eternal nightmare. The memory of the burns she sustained was still fresh even though most of the scars on her legs were gone or only slightly visible. Most of the scars she carried now were psychological not physical. Trina winced once again as these painful memories flooded her mind. She would give anything to have them completely disappear. Quickly she stepped into the shower to try to wash the haunting thoughts away. It was as if she was trying to put out a fire. She grabbed her lavender scented shampoo and body wash. The creamy feel of the soap made her feel refreshed and alive, while the slight scent of lavender relaxed her. On a busy day like today she needed to relax. Feeling alive was something Trina would never again take for granted. She realized being alive wasn’t just a physical experience but an experience for the mind and soul as well. She and her family had always gone to church. She had thought she had a good relationship with God until the accident. After the accident she relied on her faith to get her through the endless days of pain. It was then she began to think about life and what it really meant to be alive. Had she really been living? When you are a teenager, living can be seen and measured in the number of parties you attend or the boy you date. It can even be measured by the grades you get and your parents’ response to those grades. She had plenty of time to re-evaluate her life, beliefs and all that she held close to her heart while she lay in the hospital. She cried out to God when the pain was too much. She cried out in anger when she felt alone. Through it all she wondered how people with no faith survived. She had to believe that there was a purpose to all of this. Was it to lead her back to God? Was it to give her the strength to move forward in life? She didn’t know but she understood that as long as she leaned on God she would and could endure it all. She would survive.

Trina shook these thoughts from her mind as she stepped out of the shower. The soft towel felt comforting to the still tender tissue of her lower body. She dried off and began to dress in the outfit she had laid out. Unlike many of the students at Eagle Prep, she didn’t mind the school uniform. It took the guess work out of what to wear each day. The school uniform consisted of a blue blazer with an eagle monogram, her choice of colored blouses, and a pair of navy pants or a skirt. She felt very grown up and professional looking in her uniform, even if she was still in high school. She smiled as she remembered that just a few years before she had not cared how professional she looked. She just wanted to make sure she looked cute. Trina had started out in a public school. Her parents were disappointed with the public education system. They began to look around at the different private schools. Through a co-worker Trina’s mother had learned about Eagle Prep. They scheduled a tour and an interview. They left pleased with what they had seen and impressed with its philosophy. The school believed in empowering students to meet every day challenges. This was done through personal and social development, academics and helping students find the self-worth they needed to survive in life.

Once again her mind wandered to her accident. She had never really thought about her schools philosophy and how it applied to her life until she woke up in the hospital and realized the challenges that she would have to face because of her injuries. Lying in her hospital bed she felt sorry for her self. It all seemed so unfair. She allowed herself only a couple of days of this attitude. She had decided she would not be a victim of her circumstances she would survive them and then move on. Her body was horribly scarred from just above her waist all the way down to her ankles. She knew she had months of surgery ahead of her. The first thing she had to do was come to grips with the withered and discolored skin. She sat with the nurses as they scraped the dead skin away. She looked at the fresh pink flesh underneath and reminded herself that things would be okay. It helped that she was heavily medicated. Her mother had kept a recorder by her bedside at Trina’s request. She wanted to record her thoughts so that later she could write them down. She needed a road map. She wanted to look back at where she had come from. She told herself daily that her outer beauty was not all that she was. She had enough self-worth to know that she was and always had been beautiful inside. Convincing her mind to believe what her head knew was something else. Trina felt the breeze on her skin and once again brushed the cobweb of memories from her mind and continued dressing.

Turning her thoughts back to her outfit she thought all of the walking she would have to do this day. She decided to wear the pants instead of the skirt, and a pair of sensible, slip on flats to round out her uniform. She seldom wore the skirt because of her scars. They were barely visible anymore, but she still knew that they were there. She checked her reflection in the mirror, and was pleased to see, a well groomed young lady reflected back. Everything was in its place. Her below the shoulders, strawberry blond hair was neatly pulled back at the nape of her neck with a barrette, giving her a business-like look. Her makeup was subtle yet brought out her bright green eyes. She applied the tiniest bit of lipstick to her thin lips to polish off the professional look she was going for. If she was going to be dealing with professionals, trying to persuade them to participate in her charity fund raiser, it was important that she look, act and speak professionally.

As a senior, Trina was well on her way to completing her required twenty-five hours of community service. All students at Eagle Prep were required to complete community service hours. In the elementary and middle grades, the events were set up by the school and parent groups. These included bake sales, spaghetti dinners, and making and delivering bagged lunches to the homeless shelters. In high school, students were given a list of what they could do to earn those community hours. Twenty-five hours a year were expected for grades nine through twelve for graduation. Occasionally a student would come up with an idea and have to run it by the dean of the school. The dean would look over the proposal and decide whether to let the student proceed with it. Trina had come up with the idea of a charity fundraiser and the dean had been so impressed he had approved it immediately. He recognized the growth of a caring and giving spirit. At one time he saw her as a bubbly cheerleader who thought only of herself and her boyfriend. The changes she had made to her own life and to the school were admirable. Since her accident she was the first to volunteer for those less than desirable jobs. She always had a smile on her face. She was able to pull the most reluctant people to her side to help her with any project. He knew that what she had gone through after her accident had been terrible. Most adults would have given up or withdrawn into themselves. She had done just the opposite. She had spent her freshman through junior years working with the Red Cross, in one project after another. After the accident her involvement increased. This time she was in charge of a fund raiser to be held at Windows on the World. She and two other students were to meet at the World Trade Centers to finalize all of the details and meet with a few other potential donors. She was so excited about this project because she had been selected to lead it. She herself had come up with the idea. She had researched several worthy charities and decided to set up a fundraiser for something that meant so much to her.

This fundraiser would benefit all burn victims through the charity, “Angels of Hope”. Angels of Hope truly cared about people. When she was recovering from her burns, volunteers from that organization had spent hours with her, helping her understand who she was. Identity was something that most burn victims lost in a fire or any severe burn incident. Most people would expect these volunteers to be adults. These were teens just like her that came and worked with other young children and teens and let them know that they could see beyond the injury to the person inside. They made her feel safe and secure around others. This was something she had been afraid she would never feel.

Some volunteers like Alyssa had been a burn victim themselves. At the age of three Alyssa had pulled a pan of boiling water off of the stove. She had suffered second and third degree burns over eighty percent of her body. It was a miracle that she had survived the burns. When Alyssa had first walked into the room, Trina had prayed that she would not remain as scarred as Alyssa. Immediately she felt horrified that she felt so repulsed by this girl’s appearance. After getting to know Alyssa she thought back on that first meeting day and felt ashamed. She had not realized that Alyssa still had more surgeries to go through that would help to change her appearance and eliminate most of her remaining scars. Most importantly Trina did not yet understand that it was not what she looked like on the outside that made her the person she was on the inside.

These thoughts made Trina apprehensive about Mark and Lucas, her two partners in this fundraiser. She didn’t know much about Mark except he was the quiet type. He had very few friends at school that she knew of. Of course she really had not gone out of her way to get to know him. She had friends but she was not into the gossip the way she had been at one time. All that she knew about Mark was that he had entered school the previous school year in March. Because he seemed to be such a loner she was shocked when he had volunteered for this assignment. She had heard that something terrible had happened to his family and it had involved a fire. Maybe that was the connection that had made him volunteer. She had never asked anyone for details about him or his family because she knew what it was like when people asked questions that made you feel uncomfortable. She hoped that she would be able to get to know him better during the time they worked together on the fundraiser. Maybe she would find out why this community service project seemed so important to him. He had almost knocked his chair over to volunteer for it. She was pleased to see him step up to the plate. Maybe they could become friends.

The other member of her team was Lucas, her former boyfriend. They had not really spoken to each other since the accident. She had mixed feelings about having him on the team. A part of her still cared for him and was thrilled that he had volunteered. She was afraid of his reasons for volunteering. Was it out of pity, or guilt? She hoped it was for none of those. She would welcome him to the project. However, she could never forget the hurtful words she had overheard him say while she was lying in the hospital. She thought she had forgiven and forgotten until he volunteered to be on their team. Memories of the good times they’d had came flooding back. The only thing she could hope for was that he would be civil to her and that she could keep old feelings of anger from resurfacing. She hoped that he had not volunteered to help with this charity fundraiser out of pity for her. Everyone knew her reasons for suggesting this project and the last thing she needed from him was pity. If there was one thing she had learned during recovery, it was not to judge people, so she would give Lucas a chance and hope that things worked out for the best.

Trina walked down the steps from her bedroom to the second floor kitchen. Her mother was frantically searching her purse trying to find her keys. Trina poured them both a cup of coffee and headed out to the deck. She loved eating breakfast, or just drinking her coffee out here where she could hear the sounds of the birds chirping in the morning sunshine. She loved her home. The only place she loved more was their cottage on the beach, where she had done most of her recuperating. Exasperated her mother came out and plopped down in a chair.

Trina looked at her mother quizzically, “Okay, what has you so frustrated?”

“I received a call from work and my secretary informed me I have an eight-thirty meeting. I wouldn’t be so concerned except I’ve had trouble getting things together this morning, including myself. I hate to rush you, but we have to leave in five minutes so we can catch the ferry.”

Trina chuckled at her mother’s look of exasperation. She took their coffee cups back into the kitchen and went to brush her teeth while her mother pulled the car out of the garage. Trina grabbed her purse and rushed down the stairs. As she stepped out of the front doors of the house she stopped. She had the strangest feeling she would never see her house again. Shaking the silly idea from her mind, she ran to the car and got in. As she fastened her seatbelt, she once again had the nagging feeling that she should just stay home. She looked over at her mother, smiled and said, “Let’s go.” For some reason she just couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that had plagued her all morning.

Trina and her mother drove in silence to the ferry. A million questions were going through her mother’s mind and she was not sure if she should ask any of them. She decided she would risk it and asked the first question.

“So, how long do you think you’ll be at the Trade Center?”

“Only two or three hours I hope. I plan on stopping by the Sky Lobby and asking Aunt Jenny to have lunch with me”, Trina replied.

“That will be so great. Tell her hi for me and that she needs to call me more often. After all she is my baby sister.” Trina laughed at her mother’s remark. Her aunt looked much older than her mother so it was hard to picture her as the baby sister.

“What do you know about this Mark that will be joining you? Does he live here on the island?” She glanced sideways at Trina trying to read her face while she waited for the answer.

“All I can tell you is that he’s only been at this school for a few months. He lives in New Jersey with his aunt and uncle because his parents are dead. I think someone said they died in a house fire or a car accident. I didn’t really ask because I didn’t want to pry. He seems very smart, and equally quiet. He has some friends, but not many. He’s kind of a loner at school. I feel like I know him only because I see the look of loss in his eyes and I kind of understand where he is. I hope he’ll be a great asset to the team and that I’ll get to know him better, and yes he is very good looking.” She saw the grin spread across her mother’s face. Trina knew that Mark was not who her mother really wanted to ask her about so she volunteered the information.

“Don’t forget that Lucas will be there as well. It will seem strange to work with him again. We’ve not really talked since the accident. Of course I haven’t given him much of a chance. I’ve pretty much avoided him at all costs. Maybe this will be the way to open up a friendship with him again. I don’t want to be his girlfriend again, but I would like to have his friendship. It’s time to let old hurts go if that is possible. I think with Mark there it won’t seem quite so awkward. Not as awkward as it would if it were only Lucas and me. Lucas seems so lost and lonely at school. He puts on a good front but I know the real Lucas. He’s hurting. I hate to think that I am part of the reason that he is hurting, but I know that I am.”

Trina’s mother interrupted her with her own question. “Are you aware that his mother called and asked if I was okay with us if Lucas was a part of this fundraiser?”

“I had no idea. What did you tell her?”

“I told her if you were okay with it then I was okay with it. I also let her know that your dad and I harbored no bad feelings toward Lucas. After all, it was an accident. The Lucas we knew would never willingly hurt you. Besides, I think his father has punished him enough. I also believe he is still punishing himself. So maybe today will help him start down the road to forgiving himself. However, you need to know that Lucas’ father does not know you are involved in this fundraiser. It seems that when you presented your idea to the teacher and waited for his approval that Lucas called his mother and told her about the idea. She encouraged him, but they both agreed not to let his father know. I feel so sorry for the both of them. His dad seems like a nice man, but I think there are some areas in which he needs to improve. That is just my opinion, and best if kept between the two of us.”

Trina laughed. She knew his father quite well. All fathers want what is best for their children. She supposed some parents just went overboard in trying to direct their children down that path. Lucas’s father was a good example of that. She decided right then and there that she would give Lucas a chance at being friends again.

Trina’s mother slowly pulled onto the ferry and parked on the lower level. She always stayed in her car for the ride across the river. She watched Trina get out of the car and walk to the upper deck like she usually did. Reaching for her notes she prepared to read them for the meeting. She heard a car pulling onto the ferry and glanced up as the car drove past her to the compact car section near the front. She instantly recognized the wavy blond hair. Lucas had just pulled onto the ferry. He stepped out of his car and locked it, but didn’t seem to notice her. He walked up the same steps her daughter had just gone up. She wondered if they would meet on top and if so, how it would turn out.

Trina stood at the rail looking out over the water. She loved the ferry. She loved the feel of the cool wind blowing over her. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of the summer and the air was hot or if it was the coldest winter with an icy breeze. She loved it all. It was good think time. It was as if the wind could blow away all of her troubles. She did not really have many right now but it helped to clear her head of whatever it was that made her feel uneasy. She was concerned with how many people they would eventually get signed up for this charity dinner. She had to give a final count to the executive chef at Windows on the World before she left the World Trade Center today. She had only eaten at the restaurant a couple of times, but she loved it. The beauty of the New York skyline, especially at dusk, was an experience for the eyes that could not be described. The blue-black of the sky with all of the twinkling lights in the surrounding buildings made it seem like Christmas time all year long. She would just have to make sure that Mark and Lucas held up their end of the deal when it came to getting more commitments. Most of the work had already been done for them. She had gotten permission to distribute their letter and sign-up information in the building. She had met with the executive chef to go over the menu and work out all of the details. She knew how much to charge so that they could raise a large amount of money. It was so generous of the chef and his staff to volunteer their time for this event. They had donated their wages for that night as their contribution to the event. She had targeted several major firms and sent them the information. She, Mark and Lucas were going to get the last few stragglers, collect their forms and meet with the chef.

The ferry landing came into sight and she knew it would only be a few minutes until they docked, so she headed back downstairs to the car. Trina and her mother waited silently as the ferry docked, and then her mother patiently pulled off of the ferry. She headed around the tip of the island known as Battery Park, toward the Twin Towers to drop Trina off. As she pulled up and stopped, Trina opened the door and stepped out. She started to close the door when she had the strangest urge to speak to her mother. She popped her head back inside and looked lovingly at her mother sitting behind the steering wheel.

“Have I even bothered to tell you today that I think you are an awesome mother? I just want you to know that. I want you to always remember that I love you very much.” With that said, she closed the door and walked away. Trina’s mother sat there stunned. Suddenly she had the feeling that someone or some thing was squeezing the life out of her emotional heart. She had an eerie feeling that she would never see her daughter again. She chastised herself for such a ridiculous thought. She was just overcome with emotion by the remark her daughter had made. That was all it was, just a silly emotion. After all her daughter had been through and survived she knew that Trina was in God’s hands and there was no safer place. She pulled away from the curb and headed for her office in Midtown Manhattan.


  1. I will be honest with you - I did what any agent (or their assistant which is more likely) will your query and then send you a letter that says "sorry not interested". I am interning at an agency right now and that is what happens.

    That isn't to say it is bad - it just needs some work. I have no idea what your book is really about. You said the main plot in a sentence, but nothing more than that and if you want someone to read the first chapter or ask you for your manuscript, you need more information.

    You said there are three teens, but only mention Trina. Who else is there? And you mention Trina, but don't say anything about her other than she was in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

    Show something about her character and what happens. Right now, there just isn't enough to want to read the first chapter. An agent needs to know more before they spend their time reading your pages.

    Good luck - I think this has a LOT of potential and could be really great!

  2. Your query/story idea caught my attention because I haven't read many fiction books about September 11. But I agree that it needs a few more details about the actual story--we know the premise/setting but what's the characters' stories? As for your opening chapter, you write well, but this is a story about September 11th. I think it needs to start in the middle of some sort of action--not about the weather? Just a thought.

    I am right there with you in the whole querying agents thing. It is something, isn't it? My tally is 4 rejections, 1 no answer, and 1 request for a partial from an agent I know. HA! :) Keeping fingers crossed for you.


  3. I did read the first chapter. I, too, was intrigued by the idea of a YA novel set in New York on 9/11.

    I thought your writing flowed well. I understood what was happening with the characters and the plot for the most part, and I still remain interested after reading the first chapter.

    However, I thought the dialogue was kind of stilted. Do people really say things like "the look of loss in his eyes" or "I harbored no bad feelings"? Do very many teens even volunteer whole paragraphs of information as you have Trina doing?

    I also think you doing more telling than showing (old adage). Could we get to know Mark and Lucas as they come into the story by their words and actions instead of being told so much about them? Could we form our own opinions about Lucas's dad based on his actions or words instead of being told that he's in need of improvement in some areas?

    I have questions, which is good because it makes me want to read more. What did Lucas say that was so hurtful? What did happen to Mark's family?

    Oh, and do you need to tell us that Trina looked back "lovingly" at her mom since you tell us what she said, a very loving statement?

    That's all I have time for now. I think it has potential, but needs work.

  4. caitieflum - Thanks so much. I want honest feedback. That is the only way I will grow as a writer. This was my first attempt at a query letter.

    Margo - I agree with you. I have gone back over the manuscript and chapter 6 would be the perfect place to start it. I want to have the book published, but not until it is finished properly.

    Sherry - You have made some excellent points and I am going to re-edit, re-write, etc. I was afraid I was doing more showing than telling. Thanks for all of the feedback.