Saturday, June 25, 2011


The query below was one of the better ones to appear on this blog in 2006, and I'm happy to learn that it was published in 2009, under the title Paths of Exile. As you'll see, the author was ready to give up on writing and leap off of the Tower Bridge until we minions convinced her that her book would one day see print. No doubt she mentions this in her acknowledgements.

Guess the Plot

Wanderer's Road

1. Along a lonely stretch of Maine highway, the dead wander in search of Stephen King.

2. When his homeland is invaded and his brother killed, Penda hits the road, chased by Cearl, who has sworn an oath to the gods to kill him. Penda's only hope lies in his knowledge that people are always swearing oaths to the gods, but they usually don't mean it.

3. Millard travels miles down a forgotten country road, only to reach a dead end. Fear grips his heart as he realizes it was a one-way street, and he can never go back.

4. Mario and his brother Luigi take the road trip of a lifetime and learn a little something about the world along the way. Will Mario find true love at the end of the road? Or is the object of his desire actually in another castle?

5. They say no one who goes up Wanderer's Road ever returns. But Charlotte's dog, Tango, went up it, and Charlotte's determined to go after him--if her brother Jimmy will go too.

6. After their mother's death, Kera Lydon gleefully evicts her agoraphobic sister from the only safe place she has ever known.

Dear Evil Editor,

I'd be grateful if you could say whether this subject matter is a complete non-starter. [Uh oh, what is it? Bestiality? Necrophilia? If it's a book of cartoons about Islam, forget it.] Few people are going to have heard of anything or anyone in seventh-century England, [Are you joking? Here, off the top of my head, are a few things I happen to know about 7th-century England:

In 615 A.D. the Bernician fortress capital of Din Guyardi was renamed Bebbanburgh after Queen Bebba, the new wife of Athelfrith.

In 616 A.D. Athelfrith was killed in battle against Raedwald of East Anglia at Bawtry on the River Idle. Oswald, Athelfrith’s son, fled Northumbria and took refuge in the Scottish island monastery of Iona. (Evil Editor knows this because he took a cruise that stopped at Iona, and he visited the monastery. He also saw many Highland cows while on Iona--or as they're pronounced there, Heeland Cooze. I was going to put up a photo I took of the abbey, but my scanner sucks, so here's a better picture. And here's a shot of Heeland Cooze.

673 A.D. – King Ecgfrith divorced his virgin queen, Ethelreda of Ely, to marry his new love Ermenburga. (Evil Editor remembers this because he finds the name "Ermenburga" quite amusing. Also because he remembers thinking that if he were the king and his queen insisted on being a virgin, he'd be looking for a new love too. Also, Ecgfrith is widely known as the only king in history whose name contains the consecutive letters "cgfr.")]

so I think it likely that the decision is an automatic NO at the second sentence (i.e. as soon as it's evident that it isn't a historical about Anne Boleyn, King Arthur, Mary Magdelene or anyone else the editor has ever heard of). [No one ever heard of anyone in 14th-century England either, but Connie Willis's Doomsday Book did nicely, as did Braveheart.] [Yes, yes, you've all heard of William Wallace . . . now.] I would greatly value your opinion on this, as I'm aware that all agents and all editors are awash with unwanted submissions and I would rather not waste their time with something that will be ruled out on the premise. [Evil Editor appreciates your quest to help agents and editors spend as little time as possible doing what they get paid to do, but in fact, reading your query letter would take less than a minute, so try to get past the guilt.] [As for whether the setting of your book is a non-starter, are you familiar with Peter Tremayne's mysteries, starring Sister Fidelma and her "Watson," Brother Eadulf? They take place in the 7th century in Britain, and there are at least 15 of them. Here's a website. And check here for a list of science fiction/fantasy books set in that time period, some of which take place in England. No doubt there are non-F/SF books with the same setting.] Thank you in advance for your time.

Original/Revised Version

Dear Mr. Evil Editor,

Please find enclosed for your consideration the first two chapters and a synopsis of my historical novel WANDERER’S ROAD. The book is set in the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdom of Mercia in 615 AD. Mercia, one of the greatest of the early English kingdoms, was formed in a dramatic period of dynastic marriage, warfare, blood-feud and revenge in the first half of the seventh century. WANDERER’S ROAD tells part of that story. The book should appeal to people who enjoy the novels of Bernard Cornwell and Colleen McCullough.

The central character is Penda of Mercia, a real historical figure who became the most powerful warrior-king of his day, but who spent his early adult life as a fugitive on the run from a dynastic rival.

When Mercia is invaded and his beloved eldest brother mysteriously murdered, Penda must flee for his life, leaving his betrothed behind in danger. His enemy Cearl has sworn an oath to the gods to kill him. Penda must evade this relentless pursuit, identify and take vengeance on his brother’s murderer, and rescue his betrothed. Along the way, he loses his heart to another woman and discovers a shattering secret that forces him to re-examine all the ideals he holds dear.

I am currently a senior staff writer on an evidence-based medicine journal. I am a member of the Historical Novel Society and am part of the review team for short fiction published in the Society’s magazine Solander.

WANDERER’S ROAD is complete at 125,000 words, if you would like to see the full manuscript. I enclose a stamped addressed envelope for your reply. Thank you in advance for your time.

Yours sincerely


A good story is a good story, whether it takes place in the wild west or on a spaceship, or in the most boring period in the history of history--which this is not, or you wouldn't have described it above as a "dramatic period of dynastic marriage, warfare, blood-feud and revenge." Your job is to make it sound as interesting as it was.

Selected Comments

whitemouse said...Why the self-doubt? It sounds like a great story, and you wrote a very good query letter also.

McKoala said...Braveheart was so historically wrong it wasn't funny. Didn't stop people going to see it, although it outraged a few Scots.

Alianore said...This sounds like a wonderful novel. I'd love to read it!

AstonWest said...Everyone loves a good self-deprecator.

Jenna Black said...I think your query was great. If I were an editor, even an evil one, I'd request it in a heartbeat.

Aarin said...This is as flowery of a critique as EE could possibly write. I say good luck, you're sure to get noticed.

Poohba said...One of the best things about reading historicals is LEARNING about times and people you've never heard of before. It's always such a relief to get away from the Tudors and the Regency and into a fresh setting. Please don't sell your work short in the opening lines of your query letter! Many a historical novelist has introduced me to some forgotten little corner of history in their book. The best ones make me want to go and find out "the true story" as soon as turn the last page.

Carla said...Dear Evil Editor, thank you for your time. I'm mightily impressed by your erudition. Most people I've asked have responded with a blank look, a shrug, or occasionally, "Oh, is he the guy who burnt the cakes?" The question was prompted in part by this article by US literary agent Irene Goodman, published in the Historical Novel Society magazine and derived from a presentation she gave at the society's US conference. In it she argues that the subject of saleable historical fiction has to be high concept, which she defines as "instantly recognizable and appealing", such as Anne Boleyn and the Eyam plague. This also chimes with the recent experience of CW Gortner, who found that his novel on Queen Juana of Castile "made the rounds in NY to the almost universal rejection of, "She's too unknown a character, too difficult to market." I interpreted this as indicating that a 'high concept'instantly recognisable subject would be necessary to convince an editor to invest time in reading a manuscript to find out whether or not it was a good story. If you have time or inclination, I'd love to hear your views.

Whitemouse, Alianore, Jenna Black, Virginia - thank you for your kind words. Would you mind telling me what aspects of the query appealed to you, please? I'd like to know what made you want to read and what was offputting or irrelevant to you. If you don't want to clutter up Evil Editor's blog, please click over to mine and leave a comment (it doesn't matter if it's off topic), or email me.

Evil Editor said...I don't think the Irene Goodman article is entirely discouraging. And regarding those parts that are, keep in mind that Ms. Goodman needs to represent books that will sell big, so that her agency's cut is substantial enough to pay the bills. If your goal is merely to get your book published, there are plenty of publishers that Ms. Goodman doesn't keep up with, as they don't produce big sales. No harm in going for the big sales first of course, but . . .

You can also cut back your paragraph about Mercia and add info about the real Penda, declare him the greatest king in a six-century period, list his accomplishments. Editors won't want to admit they never heard of him, and will have no choice but to read your book.

Carla said...Dear Evil Editor, many thanks for your reply.


150 said...

Mr. Editor, I'm starting to think you have the Midas touch.

Jo-Ann said...

Wow! More success!

I'm so glad that I read the post. I fall into the category the author mentioned with dread - I know nothing at all about 7th centruy England (or 7th century anywhere, for that matter. Or 8th century, or 9th...). But I would read the book on the strength of that query.

Ah, words are powerful things. A good writer can pique a reader's interest in something they might not otherwise have given a second thought. I'm curious to see whether she was able to sustain the plot.

no-bull-steve said...

Very cool. Another success story due to the tutelage of the Evilest of Editors.