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Kiss of Death Query
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, July 8, 2012 12:33 PM

Here’s the blurb For Kiss of Death, a 65K/word romance. I’m about to query for it and I’d like reaction. Normally, I recommend against a mini synopsis, but in this case, in order to give the main thrust of the novel, it just seemed to want to be an overview format.


What I’m looking for, primarily, is reaction. The goal of any query blurb is to make the reader stop, cock their head, and say, “Hmm, interesting. Let’s take a look,” and turn to the partial. So I’m looking for whatever made you, the potential agent’s first reader, lose or gain interest.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -


Psychologist Barbara Kosmin has never had a patient like Bill Foster. He's handsome, personable, and the four women he's married have all died within a year of marrying him, accidentally, and in a way that generated million dollar insurance settlements for Bill. That's so unlikely an occurrence that he’s certain that in some unknown way he’s responsible for their deaths, either by design, or by being cursed with the proverbial kiss of death.

Bill’s mothers-in-law believe he’s responsible, too. So does the insurance investigator assigned to his case. In desperation, Bill has turned to Barbara for help.


While Bill details his fatal romances for Barbara, his mothers-in-law turn to assassination as a means of revenge—or try to. Unfortunately, as they delve into the study of murder their moral compass loses focus, and they decide to practice their new skills on some inconvenient husbands; and the detective; and Barbara’s ex-husband.


Now Barbara has fallen in love with Bill, and must solve the mystery of why his wives die, or accept a devil’s bargain: the rest of her life in exchange for whatever time she may have before becoming the next victim of The Kiss of Death.


- - - - - - - - - -

And finally. Assuming the blurb was doing its job, where would you expect to find it shelved? It’s not a romance, there are no heaving bosoms or pages dripping purple prose. But on the other hand it doesn’t seem mainstream, and sadly, it doesn’t want to be much more than 65,000 words long. So while romantic fits, there is no bookstore section labeled romantic.

Any ideas?

Mimi Speike
Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012 9:38 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

To me, the piece sounds like a romantic thriller. Is thriller a possibility? 

Your come-on is rather short on personality. Does it matter? You tell me. I would have made my case in a more dynamic voice. Here's my version. I hope it's useful on some level:

Barbara Kosmin is a psychologist, assisting troubled souls in self-realization, herself untouched by the turmoil that her patients seek to alleviate, until Bill Foster waltzes through her door. 

Talk about your rotten luck! All four of his wives have perished, by every indication accidentally, within a year of the ceremony. Each death has left him with a large insurance settlement. Bill is currently under investigation by an insurance company, and - surprise, surprise! - is suspected of homicidal tendencies by four mothers-in-law. 

He seems like an upright guy, truly perplexed by the string of hellish occurrences. Is he a good actor, seeking to cultivate a professional witness who can testify on his behalf in a future trial, or is he honestly seeking answers? Is he charming as hell or dangerously cunning? 

The man is frantic. Has he unknowingly caused the deaths? Has he unacknowledged evil impulses? Is he, perhaps, cursed? (He's given up on being logical). The doctor struggles to keep a cool head. She is sure that there is a reasonable explanation for the unbelievable situation. 

The mothers-in-law are plotting payback. The more they learn about the niceties of accomplishing an innocent-looking demise, the bolder they grow. They discover many uses for new-found skills. Husbands, in particular, are tempting targets. The focused, artisan-act of retaliation against a son-in-law shows signs of becoming a cottage industry. 

Barbara's in love, in disregard of every professional ethic and dispassionate inclination. But she hasn't gone completely off the rails. Bill's not a monster, and he's not a murderer. She believes in him. But should she? She won't be the next victim of Bill Foster and his Kiss Of Death. Or will she?

I've reread your query, and I don't know what I was thinking. The concept itself is promising. A day later, I like the style of your remarks a lot better than I did. Should I delete my hasty (and presumptuous) advice? I think not. I may learn something from you here. 

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 1:14 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Jay,

I'm with you through the first paragraph. It's a nice set-up. Definitely suggests a story. The improbability of his innocence is a good hook.

You lose me at "mothers-in-law." One mother-in-law losing her moral compass is suitably disturbing and could be a nicely surprising twist. But two or more mothers-in-law going on a killing spree can only work as satire. It infringes upon the world view of the novelist--hates women? Hates mothers-in-law? Unless it's meant to be funny in a Chuck Palahniuk sorta way it just sounds distasteful.

And the final paragraph jumps the shark for me. Not another therapist falls in love with her patient story! That is such a profound breach of ethics (not to have strong sexual feelings, that goes with the territory, but to act on them with a patient, no) I have trouble taking any interest in such a story unless it's written brilliantly and insightfully and even then, if the couple end up happily ever after I'm prolly gonna cross the author off my list.

On the other hand, any story told well is worth reading. So, I would suggest leaving the "romance" angle for the synopsis or the novel itself and bill the thing as a thriller. The strength in this query is as a thrilller. The romance sorta comes out of nowhere in the last paragraph and begs too many questions.

Mimi Speike
Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 2:23 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


Me, I bought the mother-in-law angle. I thought, there's more to this than meets the eye. I wonder what it is? I think Jay has a few tricks up his sleeve, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

As for the therapist, don't try to tell me it doesn't happen. The lady has her own issues swept under the rug. Maybe Bill is a master manipulator. Maybe she's temporarily vulnerable, for any number of reasons. There's a more complicated story there, also.

Maybe the whole town's loony. Something in the water. Stepford wives territory.

If so, should it be leaked in the query? I guess it should be hinted at, lest a submissions editor also doubt the viability of the plot.

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 2:55 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Mimi,

I never meant to suggest that it doesn't happen (of course it does) only that it is, generally, in practice, tremendously destructive and about as romantic as Woody Allen marrying his ex-wife's daughter. And seriously overdone, bordering on a cliche. Used to be priests falling in love with their lovely female parishioners was the big, racy taboo. Now it's therapists.

And the scenario you suggest, that Bill's something of a sociopath and Barbara his vulnerable victim doesn't strike me as particularly...fun? And certainly not remotely romantic.

The book could be any number of things, but we're talking about the query here. The query as it stands would suggest that Bill is innocent. Or at least that we're to believe that he might be. We prolly oughta stay focused on the effectiveness of Jay's query and not on the "what if's" that aren't at least implicit therein, no?

Mimi Speike
Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 3:34 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

Yeah, you're right. I have a tendency, when I review a piece, to tinker, to suggest alternative strategies. No one's clobbered me for it yet. Maybe Jay will put me in my place, and convince me to curb my enthusiasm. 

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Friday, July 13, 2012 11:34 AM
Thanks to everyone.

And yes, you hit it, Kevin, the mothers in law, and their killing spree, is satire (they do it with poison mushrooms, coral snakes, and a high tech sniper device). In the end, they try to kill Bill with a bomb. But Bill, though he's not aware of it, is psychic, and falls in love with the women because he unconsciously knows they're going to die in an accident—but not when—so he dedicates himself to making their last days happy, without realizing he's doing it.

And because he is psychic, the witches' death plan fails, and they end up blowing themselves up. Babara does fall for Bill, and does marry him, knowing her fate is sealed, but well satisfied with the deal. And as a result her attitude changes, and she loses her fear of death. She dies in an accident, while trying to set the speed record for a wheeled vehicle, thirty-five years later.

Unfortunately, there's no way to say all that in under 250 words, so all I can do is try to get them to turn to the manuscript.

And yup, it is another psychologist falling for the patient story. But how many of the others have had a patient who possesses the kiss of death?

Ella Black
Posted: Friday, July 13, 2012 8:50 PM
Joined: 1/26/2012
Posts: 28

Hi Jay,

The explanation you describe in your last response to Mimi contains information that makes me want to read the book. It sounds quirky and fun, and definitely funny. However, the query blurb you posted doesn't have much of the verve that I suspect your book is brimming with. And I think you suspect this, which is why you asked for our help.

Now, if your query is being sent to an agent that is already familiar with your work and all he or she will need is the brief, rather dry run-down that you've presented here, then there's no need to spend the time making it sparkle. However, it sounds like the word count is what is tripping you up. While I don't have much formal training in novel writing and am still working on that, I do have some in short nonfiction. Here are some tips I learned while writing very short pieces:

1. Eliminate compound verb phrases in favor of simple past and present. Example: In desperation, Bill turned to Barbara for help.

2. Take out every "that" possible . Example: That's so unlikely an occurrence, he's certain that in some unknown way he's responsible for their deaths.

3. Break longer sentences into smaller ones. This can eliminate some conjunctions and better fit the bite-sized scale of the writing. Example: Unfortunately, as they delve into the study of murder
their moral compass loses focus. They decide to practice their new
skills on some
inconvenient husbands. And the detective. And Barbara’s ex-husband.
Or, eliminate the second subject pronoun: Unfortunately, as they delve into the study of murder,
they lose focus and decide to practice their new
skills on some
inconvenient husbands, the detective, and Barbara’s ex-husband.
(Okay I made a variety of little tweaks here, but you get the idea.)

4. Use contractions, which you've done.

5. Remove unnecessary adverbs, also unnecessary in the version you have here. (But I'm thinking especially qualifiers like "very" and such).

6. Look for places where you can use tighter phrasing in general. For example, is there a way to say "so unlikely an occurrence" that expresses the same idea in a way that doesn't use four words? Maybe just "so unlikely"?

These are all tiny little changes that we would not always make in a piece 65,000 words long, but  would save you 5-10 words which you could then spend on more exciting ones that show us the flavor of your story a bit more.

I hope my suggestions help and best of luck to you.


Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2012 12:00 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Jay,

Well, that's a horse of different color! None of that is apparent from your query, however.  Why not??? Give us a hint that your book's gonna be funny and everything falls into place. Then it sounds great. All the murderous mothers-in-law, the poor, put-upon psychic who can't find a woman who isn't about to kick, even the forbidden therapist love nest sound a lot more interesting when I know you're in on the joke. Nothing wrong with jumping the shark if you do it on purpose.


Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 12:00 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I agree with most of what Kevin's been saying here. When I first read the blurb, my initial bump was "That's so unlikely an occurrence..." Well, yes, it is. I was thinking that as I read so telling me was kind of overkill. I would re-word that.

The mothers-in-law thing also really lost me in terms of taste or interest in reading more. It did strike me as yet another HI-larious story of evil women getting their violent comeuppance at the hands of a thinly veiled misogynist.

Now, the notion that this "witches" plot (as you short-handedly, but not untroublingly named them) is supposed to be satire helps a bit, but it would really have to be done exquisitely not to just make me feel annoyed. And nothing in the query points to exquisite handling.

I also have to agree with Kevin about the therapist-falls-in-love-with-client thing. While the humor in her dying years later in a dare-devil stunt is appealing, the marriage in the meantime is problematic (and overdone) enough to turn me off. Could she not lose her fear of death WITHOUT marrying Bill?

Caveat: some of these are matters of taste. I personally don't want to read another funny murder-your-wife-or-her-mother (or plural version) story. You probably don't have much personal interest in what I write, either, so that's all fine. But I do think the query could use some work, regardless.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 11:20 PM
• Could she not lose her fear of death WITHOUT marrying Bill?

No. Bill doesn't kill the women he marries, he falls in love with them because they will die, but he doesn't know when or how, so he falls in love with them and works to make their days happy. And from Barbara's POV, it's pretty nice to have  lover who's dedicated to your happiness. And, she knows that she's not going to die of something lingering.

Once he learns he has paranormal abilities Bill goes on to make a fortune in the stock market, though that's only mentioned in passing, in Barbara's obituary.

But none of that matters, because a blurb cannot be a mini synopsis. It serves only to make the reader say, "Okay, let's see what the writing is like." And obviously, I need to rethink this one.

Thank you all. You've been a great help.

Posted: Saturday, July 28, 2012 11:01 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25


I think you're trying to cover too much plot, and I don't know who the main character is until the end.

I found these videos by Kristin Nelson. She boils it down so well.



Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2013 7:59 PM
Joined: 2/15/2013
Posts: 11

As an unpublished author, I’m not sure that my advice will be as prudent as the other posters. As someone who has done a ton of research on query letters and an ardent reader, I’ll give it anyway.  Here it goes:

-        I agree with the others.  You need to put into the query that it’s satirical. It will make all the difference.  Maybe a satirical take on a suspense thriller?

-        I would take out the second line about the mother in laws. I would just say ‘their outrageous attempts’ – that way the agent knows they don’t succeed, you save space, and you don’t convey too many plot points.

-        This reminds me of a very old movie I saw with Carey Grant and Paul Newman.  It’s about a woman who marries a man and makes him insanely rich with an innocent, but genuine suggestion.  Shortly after, the man dies leaving her wealthy.  By the time she gets to the fourth man, she is scared to marry at all.  It was a funny movie and I can see this premise is different, but would also be humorous. 

 -        I can see this being shelved where the Stephanie Plum books are – it’s lighthearted, but has a serious subject matter like those books. 


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