Thursday, April 10, 2014

#257

Dear Mr. Levine,

Back in January, I had the pleasure of listening to your lecture at the kickoff of our SCBWI season where you were chased on stage by a manic VCR light. You said you wouldn’t say anything noteworthy, but I took notes anyway, and your advice was to make the first chapter like a good date, so without fumbling at the door to make small talk with the parents, let met introduce you to my YA story, Yellow Babies.

This is the best personalization I've seen in a long time. I know I tell you to start with the protagonist's name and the plot but THIS WORKS.  It's very funny, it's clear the querier was paying attention to what the agent said at the talk.  If you've got something like this, you lead with it. If you're personalizing your queries with "and I've read all your clients books and I want you as my agent" that's NOT what you lead with. See the difference?

A French philanthropist comes into a tired, northern Minnesota town with an extraordinary offer for one of their schools. The entire junior class shows up, but only four are chosen. Dylan Xavier Roberts assumes he was picked for his charm; Li Chou knew she was selected for her brilliance; Landy Jenkins has no clue why she was there; and Garret Mattock really didn’t care, so long as he was near her.

This could have been character soup but it's not. It's concise and clear. Each character is easily discerned from the others.  It's not Breakfast Club trite. (The rebel, the minx, the homecoming queen)

What they didn’t know was that one day Dylan Roberts would lead a counter-revolution against the same country Secretary of State, Li Chou, would defend; Garret Mattock would build an invention so powerful, it would literally knock the planet off its orbit; and, his love interest, Landy Jenkins, would predict the future and be hunted down by the most powerful people in their pre-dystopian world.

And that’s why they were chosen.

They are the latest generation of Yellow Babies, a 70 year-old government project led by the Frenchman’s mother after World War II. And her son, Monsieur Henri Tortue, was in town to push this next breed of Homo sapiens to the very edge of their sanity.


and here's where what has been a GREAT query falls apart completely.  What's at stake? Their sanity? Not big enough? The future? Too abstract to be interesting.  What does M. Henri Tortue want to accomplish?  Get that on the page.

Per your submission guidelines, I’ve included the first two chapters and a synopsis. In addition to being a member with SCBWI, I’ve studied my craft through the well-respected Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Yellow Babies is 94,000-word YA romantic /sci-fi romp that would appeal to fans of Veronica Mars and Dr. Who on their way to the Jellicoe Road.

I'm not much on film/tv comps but you certainly get your audience demo across with the ones you've chosen ie Not Me. I had to look up Jellicoe Road, and I've never seen Dr. Who (I know, just shoot me now)


Thank you for your time and consideration.

Get the stakes on the page in less abstract form and you've got a good query for ONE specific agent.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

#256

--> Question:
Early last year, caught up by the glimmer of the wild self-pub frontier, I shunned agents in favor of wrangling up wild book sales by myself. I died of dysentery.

Then, like Nemo, I found your website. The archives led to a solid year of rewriting my entire MS. Bonus: I now know what my book is about. Fancy that.

I am ready to query. Unfortunately, Google is my enemy. I have an amateurish website. I have a silly Kickstarter campaign permanently indexed online, not unlike embarrassing high school pictures on Facebook. And my self-pub sales were such that my garage is now cluttered with boxes of books suitable only for fetching pocket change at the annual neighborhood garage sale. Will an agent drop me for all this, even though I've rewritten the MS?


Dear QueryShark:

Mark From Earth is a YA SF of 82,000 words.

These misadventures follow Mark, a friendless and freckle-nosed misfit mysteriously recruited to a school in a starship. Getting him in trouble from day one are two fellow outcasts: Heath, who nervously checks for quick exits, and thrill seeking Lexie, who pulls Heath in the opposite direction of exits.

Exits off a starship? I think I saw that movie.***

The rough and tumble trio skip class for snowball fights on hoverboards, pull pranks on monstrous bullies, and go treasure hunting at an abandoned junkyard. It’s there they stumble upon a deadly mystery. The hijacking of their school’s starship by a deviant machine may be imminent. Now, Mark must lead the wild bunch in unraveling cryptic clues and fighting demented droids—Never knowing he has been their greatest threat all along.

I'm hardpressed to think a junkyard is abandoned if it's on a starship.

 

 For starters this sounds like a middle grade novel. It's about hijinx, not about feelings. Also, you're missing what's at stake: the deviant machine hijacks the schools starship. So what? Maybe he's hungry and wants to hit the drive through on the astral plane.

The first step is getting the plot on the page: What does Mark want? What's keeping him from getting it?



As to your question: querying a previously published novel is like asking someone to finance a fixer-upper house.  You need a plan.  And by plan I mean marketing plan: you published this book; it sold six copies, four of which were to the NSA to see if you'd discovered any of their secrets.



Now you want an agent to sell this to a large publisher with some marketing muscle. You need to have a good idea of who ELSE is going to read this book and how you plan to reach them. Mentioning of course why you didn't you reach them before.



And don't say "I didn't have the money" cause promotion is most often not about money, it's about figuring out who would read this book and making them aware of it.



And this is just lame: I am ready to query. Unfortunately, Google is my enemy. I have an amateurish website. I have a silly Kickstarter campaign permanently indexed online, not unlike embarrassing high school pictures on Facebook. A



Fix your damn website. Get enough other stuff going and that Kickstarter campaign will fall below the first page of any google search.



But the real advice is this: write a new novel and query that. I'm generally not looking for fixeruppers when I'm looking for projects to take on.


  ***Gravity   

Sunday, March 23, 2014

#255-revised 1x


Revision #1

Dear QueryShark,

CHOSEN TO LEAD. Kyla Duvall lost everything the day the fire tore through her village, destroying her home, killing her mother, and separating her from her best friend. Whisked away into hiding and trained to be the leader her country would need, Kyla waited for eight years to take her place as queen.

But as her day draws near, the pressure edges in, along with the fear. Struggling to understand the boy she once knew so well in order to rule by his side, Kyla’s destiny may come to light sooner than she imagined.

CHOSEN TO FIGHT. Rebekah Stone was entrusted with the abilities to control the air around her and force her enemies to crumble in pain. A descendant of the Sanctified Circle and gifted with powers believed to be extinct, Bekah was offered refuge at the palace after her parents were murdered.

ok, here's where I still lose interest. Notice how passive Rebekah sounds? Entrusted? Offered? Gifted? (Don't even get me started on how much I hate the word gifted under any circumstances)  Given that in the next paragraph Bekah is a fighter, why is she not stronger here?  Rebekah HAS the ability to control the air around her; she HAS powers believed to be extinct; she TOOK refuge.

I think it's VERY important that Bekah be strong and dynamic in the query, and in the book. Why do I want to read about anyone who is just a vessel for someone else?  Hellwiththatnoise, give me someone DAUNTLESS! (Ok, my love for Divergent is showing here but you get the point)

Trained as a soldier, Bekah knows a war is brewing, and she intends to use it to her advantage. She joined this army for one reason, and one reason alone: find who murdered her parents. But she doesn’t know as much as she thought, and the control she so desperately desires may not come so easily.

What control? This is the first time you've mentioned she's out of/needs control.


ENTRUSTED with responsibilities and skills that set them apart, as Power hangs in the balance, and two very different girls come face to face with the secrets that could destroy a nation, or save it.

I know you want to start this paragraph in the same style as the preceding two, I can almost feel you wiggling with resistance when I strike it out. BUT, you need the three beat rhythm here, Hit Hit BOOM. (not hit hit hit) It's the equivalent of the punch line.

Entrusted will appeal to YA, adventure-hungry fans of novels such as Graceling and Eragon. The opening novel in The Sanctified Series, and complete at 86,260 words, Entrusted introduces a supernatural world sparked with suspense and romance.



We are seventeen years old and best friends who love to read. This is our first novel.

We wrote this novel imagining ourselves as the heroines we want to be, meeting the characters we would want to meet in a world we would love to see.



Our whole lives we have enjoyed storytelling: movies, music, and books. We read because it takes you places you could never imagine and allows you to
become the hero, to live through the characters and experience another world.



The full manuscript is available upon request. Thank you immensely for your time and consideration!
 

P.s. Our full manuscript is now actually available, and therefore we kept those tidbits.
Of course it's available! You wouldn't DARE send a query unless it was ready. Polished and perfect!  That's why you don't need to say so. 

And I also struck out immensely.  I want to strongly strongly strongly urge you to rein in your natural exuberance and high spirits here. Let that shine through in your query.  Don't make me wonder if you are going to need to be peeled off the ceiling if I call you to talk about your book. Sound like the pros you're going to be, ok?

I like this a lot but I think there's some honing to be done.

Revise, resend.



------------------------------------------------
Original Query


Dear QueryShark,

CHOSEN TO LEAD. Kyla Duvall lost everything the day the fire tore through her village, destroying her home, killing her mother, and separating her from her best friend. Whisked away into hiding and trained to be the leader her country would need, Kyla waited for eight years to take her place as queen.

But as her day draws near, the pressure edges in, along with the fear. Struggling to understand the boy she once knew so well in order to rule by his side, Kyla’s destiny may come to light sooner than she imagined.

This is really good. It's specific. I can see Kyla in my mind's eye and I feel like I understand where she is.  YA is all about The Feels, so that is good.

CHOSEN TO FIGHT. Rebekah Stone lost her family because of the powers that flow through her veins. Blessing or curse, Bekah intends to use every ounce of her gifts to seek out revenge. Becoming a soldier will teach her how, and then lead her straight into the fight she knows is coming.



err…not so good. "Powers that flow through her veins" is such a cliché. What powers? Does she eat kittens? Does she swim in soup? Ok, those are ridiculous things, but you need to be SPECIFIC like you were about Kyla.


Bekah’s unique gifts make her a powerful ally, or deadly enemy, that even her King, and friend, will not control. Bekah loves her country, but one incentive trumps all other priorities: Find who killed her parents... and kill every last one.

Again, this is too swirly to be interesting. You need to focus on what happened, so I can feel where Bekah is.


ENTRUSTED with responsibilities and skills that set them apart, in a world where power hangs in the balance, two very different girls come face to face with the secrets that could destroy a nation, or save it.

In a world where…sharks eat writers.  In a world is a cliché. One too many movie voice overs have seeped into your brains.



A story that intertwines fantasy with reality in an all new world, Entrusted will appeal to YA, adventure-hungry fans of novels such as Graceling, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Percy Jackson. The opening novel in The Sanctified Series, and complete at --------- words, Entrusted introduces a supernatural world sparked with suspense and romance.


Leave off telling me what it is. SHOW me. 
Chronicles of Narnia is a classic and OLD. It's not a good comp title.
Also unless you're using Sanskrit numbering systems, you need actual numbers to tell me how many words. (I have a feeling you haven't finished the novel yet so you don't know though, right?)


We are seventeen years old and best friends who love to read. This is our first novel, but we are asking you to take a chance on us despite this because the fact that we are new to the world of writing is what makes us different; we
are the readers, still eighteen, and fresh out of high school, the life YA is geared towards. 

Do not apologize for writing or querying. Not now not EVER. All agents take chances with all writers, it's what this is all about. You have something of value to offer here and I absolutely insist that you act like it. Yes you're young, but you've SHOWN in this query that you can write, and trust me, I've seen people much older than you who can't.  (end rant)


We wrote this novel imagining ourselves as the heroines we want to be, meeting the characters we would want to meet in a world we would love to see. Our whole lives we have enjoyed the art of storytelling: movies, music, and books. We read because it takes you places you could never imagine and allows you to
become the hero, to live through the characters and experience another world. Being teenagers doesn’t hinder us, but instead gives us the advantage of knowing what our fellow readers crave.

Normally I would have sliced this out as quick as you can say Kittens for Breakfast but in this case I think it works. First, it's charming. Second YA is about connection and this shows that nicely. It's not going to ever work in adult trade books (think about what a romance writer would say here--YIKES!)
but it works here.
And again, do not apologize for your age.

The full manuscript is available upon request.
Thank you immensely for your time and consideration! We look forward to hearing from you. God bless.

I have a feeling the full manuscript isn't quite ready but that's ok for now.
Also, no God blessing in queries, ok?


Sincerely,



(both names)
(one address)


This is exactly right for querying with two authors.




Questions:
Our story is told through two different points of view, two very different girls. As the story jumps back and forth between the two, we were unsure of how to introduce both in the query without feeling like you're receiving very little information... I feel like we did it okay, but that there still might be some information missing, like there's not enough about what's going to happen because we had to set up both characters. Did we do it well enough? Is there enough info?

You did a good job with this. WHAT you say is the only problem and it's only with Bekah. 

Also, is the inclusion of our age and therefore lack of experience a bad idea? We've heard both and don't know what to do...

I think you now know my answer to that after the rant above.



This is a good first draft but it needs work.



Revise, resend.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

#254

Questions:

(1) Please advise me on my bio; I lack publishing credits and writing awards. My academic degrees, travel and research immersed me in international experiences. I believe I am qualified to set a book in France, a unique nation politically, socially and culturally. How can I emphasize that?

(2) Please advise on sentence length. According to your blog, each sentence should be read in one breath. It works for me, but I have a lot of hot air.


Your (2) cracked me up enough that I chose the letter even though I'm convinced you haven't read the archives closely enough.

Sentence length: If you are a trained opera singer, one breath gives you 150 words. If you're a hyperventilating teen in paroxysms of humiliation that your mother Hugged You! In Front of Your! Friends!!  it's far fewer.

For those of us in between one breath means 10-15 words at most. Shorter is better. Don't get too staccato (ie leave James Ellroy to his own devices) but focus on paring out everything you don't need and saying things the most succinct way. (Twitter is a great way to practice paring down!) 

Often you need six or seven revisions to fully pare down. You'll go from 36 to 32 to 28 to 24 words. Paring is a process, not a single step. Don't beat yourself up if the second revision is only 32 words. Let it sit. Go back with a fresh eye and take out a couple more words, or rearrange a sentence after some time away. [I took six passes at this post over the course of two hours and when I come back to in a month, I'll see more places to pare.]


Dear Query Shark:
Wealthy French attorney André Gensonné, specializing in art crime, discovers a painting of a woman who resembles the vulnerable girl he met in the United States two decades ago, just after his 18-year old brother drowned. (36 words) His failure to save his twin defines his virtuous existence; he strives to fulfill the role of two sons for his family and their four-generation law firm.


36 words is too many. Too many words is made worse when they form a boring sentence. Why do we care about any of this? And oh my Godiva... virtuous existence? I'd probably stop reading right here. Why do I want to read about anyone who could possibly be described as having a virtuous existence? Virtue is boring. TRYING to be virtuous when beset by evil temptresses... now THAT is interesting.


Truthfully though you've made a classic query error here: you're focused on setup and backstory rather than where the story gets interesting. You've compounded the problem with Andre Gensonne sounding tres ennuyeux.


The painting entitled Miriam disappears from the Musée de l’Erotisme propelling André to search for it and the woman named Anne, who has lingered in his psyche. Miriam has a notable history; the painting disguises an Impressionist work by Elisée Maclet. The two men responsible for the camouflage, Maximillian and Bertrand, skirmish over custody, value and ownership. But their primary objective is to fence the Maclet without getting caught.

Who is Anne? And why is she stalking his psyche?

At this point we've got way too many characters in play: The boring Andre, his dead brother,  their entire family firm, Miriam, Anne, Elisee, Maximilian and Bertrand. This is the von Trapp family without the soundtrack or a scorecard.

I've ranted on and on about this: pare down the number of characters in your query. This is why I'm convinced you haven't read the archives.

Right here is where I stop reading and send you a form rejection if I didn't do it after "virtuous existence." The only reason I would have kept reading then is that I'm interested in art crime books and I love France. Sadly, even that won't keep me reading after the bouillabaisse of characters served up here.


All clues lead to Montmartre—the freewheeling 18th arrondissement in Paris, but André has a setback. His grandfather (and partner) reveals he has a fast-growing brain tumor, and confesses he harbors confiscated art from Nazi-occupied Paris. He has also fueled an addiction for art acquisition and amassed a priceless collection secreted in underground storage. The holding encompasses legal and illicit purchases.

His grandfather commands André make restitution after his impending death, a request that will expose the prestigious firm to public scrutiny. His grandfather’s vices threaten ethical André’s family legacy—his sense of identity.

After his grandfather dies, André and Anne discover Miriam and the Maclet—exhibited on the walls of his study—his newest acquisitions.


This is officially a red hot mess and it's time to toss it and start over. Who's the main character (pick ONE). What does he want? Why can't he have it? Who's getting in the way (pick ONE)

What's at stake?


I am a junior-college Political Science instructor; my writing experience includes authoring academic papers and grading students’ research papers. I am channeling Diana Gabaldon! I travel extensively, visiting twelve countries on three continents. I have an affinity for France, originating from French heritage, gourmet cooking and fine wine. Last fall, I revisited Paris for five days, residing in a Montmartre apartment and researching most of the scenes in my Paris-based book.


You're querying a mystery. Writing credits for a mystery do not include academic papers and grading student research papers. Not now. Not ever. 

Writing credits are: work you've had published that has been selected by an editor for publication. That is an absolute ironclad standard. 

If I were to write a query for Murder in the Slush Pile, this blog would NOT be a writing credit no matter how much work I put in to it. No one edits it (well, the commenters keep me honest on spelling and factual errors of course) and it's not published. Writing credits can include short stories published in anthologies, or books (not self-published ones even if you had it edited by God himself.)

Your biography section can include anything you want about yourself but I strongly strongly strongly encourage you to not phrase things in a way that sounds like "why I'm qualified to write this novel." You do NOT need qualifications to write a novel. You can make it all up. Going to France is nice and we all want to, but you can write novels about France without ever seeing the lovely cobblestone streets or the dog shit on the sidewalk. 

If you want to include going to France in your bio section, enliven it by telling me what you learned there that made a difference in your book. It doesn't have to be a lot, a quick sentence even, but just something that makes it more than "I went to France and wrote a book set there."


I believe MISSING IN MONTMARTRE (80,000 words) will appeal to female mystery readers seeking a less violent story.

NO NO NO.  Comparative titles require TITLES and comparisons. There are female mystery readers to be sure, but there's not a title in the world that appeals to all of them. Thinking yours will (or saying it such that it sound like you do) is a serious red flag about your level of expectations. I am very very hesitant to work with people who have unrealistic expectations. This sentence makes me think you fall in that category.

Comp titles are tricky. You need to know your category cold. People who read which author will like this book and why? If you say Cara Black cause it's set in Paris you're missing the point. Yes Cara Black's excellent books are set in Paris, BUT is your book similar to hers in tone? Character? Tension? There are lots and lots of books set in Paris. Pick the ones that compliment yours. Don't know of any? Stop querying instantly and get to reading.

Bad comps are a huge red flag. You can't write fresh and new if you don't know what's old and tired.



Please consider my query;

NO NO NO. This doesn't even make sense. Consider your query? You're querying so I'll read your book.


I appreciate your time and consideration.

This is close enough to thank you for your time and consideration that I won't squawk considering I've smacked you around enough about the rest of the query.


Start over.

Focus.

Entice me to read on.

And will you for Gaul's sake please read the damn archives.





Sunday, December 29, 2013

#253--revised twice

Second revision


Dear Query Shark,
Ariana has a PhD in medieval military history and works at a Manhattan dating agency. Her boss claims magic helps clients find their happily-ever-afters. Riiiight. But, hey, if it means a job that pays the rent and student loans she can work with the fairy godmother until she lands that tenure track position.

Then she stumbles into a medieval kingdom. In the middle of a succession crisis. Time to re-evaluate that position on magic. 

You need one more sentence to make three parts to the whole: stumbles, middle of the crisis, one more. Then the punch line: reevaluate.  It has to be just the exact RIGHT phrase but you need one more to make the rhythm work.

Ariana only wants to get home, but that means finding the Gatekeeper who can open the portal to NY. NYC.** And can she find someone to help her? No. She finds the rebel claimant to the throne and his supporters. He thinks she could be the key to the crown. Thanks, but no. There are faster and less painful ways to die than trying to make someone king. Trust her. She's a medieval historian. 

Logic says abandon the rebels. They'll end up with their heads on pikes. Except Ariana likes the rebels, maybe even loves one of them. If she stays, her knowledge of medieval warfare might keep them all alive. And her family said her degree had no practical value.

Here's where you adjust the volume: more on the bass notes of serious plot, less on the treble clef of whimsical asides.
 
Of course, if Ariana stays, her presence could spark a war that would engulf the kingdom and destroy it. For beyond the frontiers rival kings prepare for the coming chaos. And conquest.

BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER is a fantasy novel (115,000 words) with romantic elements and touches of fairy tale. It was a finalist for the (this) Writers Association (that) Award in the Science Fiction & Fantasy category, and I taught a workshop about medieval arms and armor at the 2013 (the other) writing conference. I am finishing my PhD in medieval military history, although I work as an assistant editor for an academic journal not at a magic dating agency. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 This is better, much much better. (And thank god you fixed the title!) I can still tinker with words and phrases and rhythm though so you might want to let it sit through a couple iterations to see what you think sounds best.  

And now that you've got an effective query, have you gone back through your novel to make sure you've implemented all the things you've learned here?  Nothing is more disappointing than a great query followed by an unpolished novel.

Polishing will take some time. It's the place where you'll be most tempted to quit and just send it out.  Resist!  Polishing is what gets you beyond the 99%.  You can't be ok or good enough. You have to be better than everyone else I see this year.  

Think of it this way: the difference between first and 14th place in the 1500 meter Olympic speed skating competition was five seconds (a sub-two minute skate) You want your writing to be first, not fifteenth.



 **NY is the state.  NYC is the city.


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

First revision

Dear Query Shark,

Ariana has a PhD in medieval military history and works at a Manhattan dating agency in New York. Her boss claims to use magic to helps clients find their happily-ever-afters. Riiiiight. But, hey, she'll believe whatever the boss wants if it means a job that pays the rent and student loans.  Sshe can work with Snow White until she lands that tenure track position.

see the difference? This is rhythm and pacing. You've got to have it in the novel. Do you?

Then she stumbles into a medieval kingdom.  In the middle of a succession crisis. Time to re-evaluate that position on magic.

Ariana only wants to go get home, but that means finding the Gatekeeper who can open the portal to NY. And can she find someone to help her? No. She finds the rebel claimant to the throne and his supporters. He thinks she could be the key to the crown. Thanks, but no. There are faster and less painful ways to die than trying to make someone king. Trust her, she's a medieval historian.

Logic says abandon the rebels. They'll end up with their heads on pikes, but such is the cost of rebellion. Except Ariana likes the rebels, maybe even loves one of them. If she stays, her knowledge of medieval warfare might keep them all alive. And her family said her degree had no practical use.

Of course, if she stays, her presence could spark a war that would engulf the kingdom and wake the gods. (gods waking is a bad thing?)

THE CROSS OF THE HARPY (AIEEEEEE) AND STAR is a fantasy novel (115,000 words) with romantic elements and touches of fairy tale. It was a finalist for the (Writing conference) 2013 X Award in the Science Fiction & Fantasy category, and I taught a workshop about medieval arms and armor at the 2013 (other) writing conference. I am finishing my PhD in medieval military history, although I work as an assistant editor for an academic journal not at a magic dating agency.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I hate the title with the passion of a thousand rebellions.  Why did you change it?

And this is much better, but when I can see the fine-tuning needed in the query here (as illustrated above) I know I'll see it in the novel.

This fine-tuning is what comes with letting something sit for awhile, then going back and reading it aloud, and with fresh eyes.  Feel the rhythm and pacing of the query.  Then you do the same with the book.

This is akin to hemming your dress when you've finished sewing, and making sure the sleeves are the same length.  You can only do that when you're "finished" but not done.

Polish.

RETITLE.

Resend.
--------------------------------
Original query

Dear Query Shark,

Ariana is a medieval military historian and works at a magic dating agency. Too bad she doesn't believe in magic or true love. But, hey, rent and student loans must be paid, so Ariana figures she can work with Snow White and dish gnomes until she lands that tenure track position.

Then she and Titania, a new client, stumble into another world. Time to re-evaluate that position on magic.

Ariana only wants to go home, but that means finding people.

Right here is where you lose me. What does "finding people" mean? Finding the person with the key to the locked door? Finding the Wizard of Oz? Finding the limo driver? (and what is a dish gnome?)

And you know all of us here in AgentLand are going to take one look at the name Titania and think "oh, Midsummer Night allegory, got it"  Is that what you're aiming for? 

And can she find someone who can help her? No. She finds rebels who think Ariana could be a kingmaker. On top of that absurdity, Titania thinks she found love at first sight with a rebel scout and wants to stay.

And this descends into mush because we have no idea what "be a kingmaker" means. And why is it absurd?

And look carefully at your pronouns and proper noun placement here in this paragraph. The first "she" is clearly Ariana. As is the second. Then you call her by name. Then you bring in Titania and the third "she" is Titania.  

Consider: She finds rebels who think she could be a kingmaker. On top of that absurdity, Titania thinks she's found love (etc)

Remember, agents are not reading slowly here, parsing out every nuance of a sentence. We're skimming along trying to pick up the sense of the plot and the quality of the writing. The only reason you want us to stop and say "whoa" is cause you're (egad!) your sentences are beautiful, not cause we're unsure who the subject is.


Could it get any worse? Of course. Ariana learns her degree can be put to practical use. Armies, archers, and assassins. Awesome.

This is actually good, except we have no idea where Ariana IS in terms of time/space/the universe. And most important, we have no idea of the stakes. She wants to go home (of course she does) but what bad thing happens here in Rebelville if she does? What worse thing happens if she doesn't?

THE LIGHT BEARER'S DAUGHTER is a fantasy novel (115,000 words) with romantic elements and touches of fairy tale. It was a finalist for the (redacted) Writers Association 2013 (name) Award in the Science Fiction & Fantasy category. I am finishing my PhD in medieval military history, although I work as an assistant editor for an academic journal not at a magic dating agency.(I love that line!) I have published an article on English royal authority in fourteenth-century Gascony (2013), have a forthcoming article in the Journal of Medieval Military History, and taught a workshop about medieval arms and armor at the 2013 (this other) writing conference.

Thank you for your time and consideration.





Question: In the final paragraph, how much of my academic background should I include? I do have publications in my field, and my work is relevant to the project. Will this help me or frighten away agents? I'm worried that the history PhD automatically conjures up Professor Binns, the ghost who teaches history at Hogwarts and puts every student but Hermione to sleep. Should I omit it entirely and save myself the worry?


Answer: The purpose of the paragraph on writing credits is two-fold: show that you've been published by a curated or edited general interest periodical, or that there are readers who already know who you are. Your academic background doesn't accomplish either of these. I don't think having a Ph.D automatically conjures up anything for agents. Certainly it doesn't for me. (And remember, Harry Potter was first pubbed in 1997--it's not the instant touchstone that you think it is.)

Academic articles are generally not considered writing credits. They're selected and edited much differently than general trade periodicals, and have an entirely different purpose.


The problem with the query isn't the last paragraph. It's what you have before that paragraph.  You've got the lighthearted tone but you've missed the substance of what's at stake.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

#252-the first post under the new system-revised 3x

Revision #3

 
-->
Dear Query Shark,

Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. As it is, with no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape years before, she fears she will always be an outsider among the other survivors at the Farm.

Why does she want to remember the worst day of her life? I've had some bad days (who among us hasn't?) and I've spent considerable time building defenses against EVER remembering them.



This could be a powerful opening IF you deliver the answer to the question and it's something that twists our expectations. As it is, it doesn't make much sense to me so I'm puzzled..and that is Not Good.


So when her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be”, Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past.  Unfortunately, she never gets the chance—an accident in the project reanimates the flesh-mutating plague, putting the Farm on lockdown. The measures taken to keep the contagion out of the settlement now keep it in, transforming the Farm from secure fortress to death-trap. In an attempt to escape, Dee Dee and her comrades go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the settlement's streets.

This paragraph is built on the expectation that we know why "life the way it used to be" is something good. But we don't.  And it seems to me that the first place the story gets interesting is when the Farm goes on lockdown, and they want to escape. It's the first place "what does Dee Dee want and what's keeping her from getting it" are clear.



In the grim days that follow, Dee Dee becomes aware that once to often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire.  Her suspicions are well founded.  She doesn't know it, but she is more than just an ordinary girl.  Dee Dee is a Carrier—a human hard-drive. The parts of her brain that once contained her memories now store terabytes of vital information, the data safely stored in a mobile host with an instinct for survival.


Ok, so you've finally gotten to the heart of the story. (I'm VERY afraid of how long it takes to get to this in the book.)  What Dee Dee doesn't know about herself is what's keeping her from remembering anything.  Thus, this info needs to be in the very first paragraph.



If this reveal is anywhere past page 50 in the book, you've probably got too much backstory. Dee Dee doesn't need to know it, but the reader does.  (That's a great way to build tension in a novel as well)

No one has ever had to access a Carrier—until now. Mercy needs the launch codes in her sister's head but fears the possible outcome. Will tapping into Dee Dee's brain might destroy her forever? Or worse, will it reactivate the memories that her sister so willingly sacrificed years before?



Fugue State 88 is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction novel set in the crumbling world of the near future.  It is my first novel.



Thank you for your time and consideration,



 
Better but not there yet.


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

Revision #2

Dear Query Shark,

Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. So when her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be", Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past. As it is, with no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape, she will always be an outsider in a world where she desperately wants to belong.

You're zig zagging all over the place here. That first sentence (which is very good) gives us a way in to the story but then you move ahead without any explanation. We need something to understand why Dee Dee will not turn away her estranged sister's overture.

This is the classic illustration for my oft heard plea to "get your sentences in the right order!"

Consider:

Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. With no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape, she will always be an outsider in a world where she desperately wants to belong.

So When her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be”, Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past.

See the difference?


But when a freak accident in the project reanimates the deadly, flesh-mutating plague, putting the Farm on lockdown and transforming it from secure fortress to death-trap, Dee Dee and her comrades must work together to find a way out. In a desperate attempt to escape, they go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the city's streets.



62 words in that sentence. Can you hear it clunking? I can.
Don't be afraid of short sharp sentences!





But when Then a freak accident in the project reanimates the deadly, flesh-mutating plague.  putting the Farm is on lockdown and transforming it from secure fortress to death-trap.  Dee Dee and her comrades must work together to find a way out. In a desperate attempt to escape, they go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the city's streets.


I don't understand how streets are infected and why a rat-maze is deadly. You have to be specific. Specifics draw me in to the story. Right now this is just a lot of cliche.

In the grim days that follow, Dee Dee becomes more and more aware that once too often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire, and that perhaps the concern for her safety has less to do with love or loyalty than with something unspoken, something sinister. She is valuable cargo to her comrades, her friends, and most of all, to her sister. Mercy needs something in Dee Dee's head, and that something might just be the key to their escape.



Virtual Black is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.



Thank you for your time and consideration,




Once I see the entire query I think the fundamental problem is that I don't have any sense of Dee Dee. Themes of alienation and isolation are so common as to be cliché but I don't get why she feels isolated and alone. She's the only one who can't remember the plague. What's the significance of that? Why does it make her an outsider? And why should we care? What's at stake? We know she's "valuable cargo" but why? And what's the downside of being valuable cargo for DeeDee?

If I don't care about the main character, I'm not enticed to read the book.

That's the problem you need to solve here. Moving the sentences around is moving deck chairs on the Titanic. Let's avoid the iceberg first, ok?



 Rethink.
Start over.
Resend.


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

Revision #1

Dear Query Shark,

Dee Dee Welles always thought that her amnesia was the natural result of a trauma — after all, she was only a child when the plague struck that decimated the population and the landscape. Life at the Farm, a walled city that protects the plague's survivors, is the only life Dee Dee knows. Judging by the haunted looks she sometimes catches on the faces of the other members of her work unit, she has always assumed that she was better off not remembering whatever horror it was that erased her memory. 


That's all set up. You don't need to fill in all the details in the query.  If her sister has a project to make life "the way it used to be" we intuit that life isn't the same as it once was.


Starting with the second paragraph starts the query at a dynamic point, not a static point. That's  because you don't have a lot of time here to catch your reader's interest.  That means: get to the good stuff.



When her sister Mercy lets her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be,” Dee Dee has little reason to believe that her involvement is due to anything more than family loyalty. And yet, when the plague resurfaces and Dee Dee and her comrades face grisly opposition to their escape from the Farm, she notices that all too often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire. As the situation becomes deadly, Dee Dee begins to suspect that the concern for her safety has less to do with love or loyalty than with something unspoken between her comrades, something sinister. Her friends start to resemble guards; her lover, a warden – even her sister seems more and more like a calculating stranger. As the pieces of her past come together, Dee Dee starts to realize that she is anything but ordinary, and that the blank space in her memory might not be so natural, or so blank, after all.

This is still all set up. What's at stake? She's not normal....so what?

Invicta is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration,



You absolutely must tell me what's at stake in the novel. The stakes must be clear.  Without stakes you  have no tension. Without tension, you have no compelling reason for me to read the novel.
Without a compelling reason to read the novel, you have no full request.

What does Dee Dee want? What's keeping her from getting it?
What does Mercy want? What's keeping her from getting that?
Who's thwarting them? Why are they doing that?

These aren't questions you pose in the query, but they're the way to get what's at stake on the page.

Start over.
-------------------------
original query
I've gone out on a limb here and written this query from the perspective of the heroine, because the novel is also written in first person. (I realize that this is an issue you have addressed in 2008 and 2011) This is a risk I decided to take because my more traditional attempts at a query letter were being rejected or not answered, and I thought this format might transmit, in a small space, the feeling of the novel and my voice. It also felt more natural to write than my earlier attempts. Do you find this query (a) compelling enough to justify first person? (b) One for the trash can? (c) A workable first attempt?

An additional question – sci-fi as a genre. I've described this work as “future fiction” or “future-noir” but these are probably not viable genres for a query letter. The novel is in the style of William Gibson or Michael Crichton – would you list this as sci-fi? Some agents I've encountered are extremely turned off by anything listed as sci-fi, and I want agents to give my work a chance and not just chuck it because of the genre. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to misrepresent the novel. I feel like I'm in a grey area here. Should I just leave it listed as mainstream fiction?



Dear Query Shark,

Zone 3 – Perimeter.

Nightfall.

Something is out there in the wasteland, where there should be nothing.

I see the other members of my work unit tense up – hands tight on their semi-automatics, eyes fixed on the viewscreen mounted on the interior wall of the Crusher. They anticipate the worse, even though it's been years since one has been spotted — a Riser, one of the monsters created by the resurrection plague that swept the globe a decade before, decimating the population and the landscape.

I'm not scared, though I should be. No adrenaline rush, no cold sweats. My body just can't react to what it doesn't know.

You see, I don't remember. Post-traumatic amnesia has wiped my slate clean — I'm an outsider, even to myself. Life at the Farm is the only life I know: protein slurries for nourishment, guard units for protection, work assignments from Central Command. It may be bleak but it's the only place I belong.

How would she know it's bleak if it's the only thing she knows?

My sister Mercy, on the other hand, can't let go of the past. We don't talk much, so I am more than curious when she demands a meeting, a feeling that mingles with trepidation as she begins to reveal her years of work on a secret biological project, a plan to make things “the way they used to be.” The project is nearing completion, but she senses that she is being monitored, and not just for protocol purposes. Fearing for her life as well as her years of work, she is determined to expose the project and hatches a plan to sneak me and the 5 members of my work unit into her high-security lab on the outskirts of the Farm.

At first, the promise of a new life in that verdant biotope seems like a glimpse of paradise, but only until the project goes horribly, horribly wrong. With one false step, the plague is back, and I am on the run for my life with my sister and the members of my unit. Not everyone will make it out alive.

A compelling mixture of the bleak urban future of J.G Ballard with the pace of Robert Ludlum, Invicta is an 85,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration,



You're very right that I've railed against writing a query in the voice of the heroine previously.  As far as I can tell here, there's no compelling reason to do so in this query either.  It doesn't work.

You write "I thought this format might transmit, in a small space, the feeling of the novel and my voice" but it doesn't.  Voice isn't who's speaking. Voice is how you say things: the words you choose, the order, the cadence the rhythm.  There's nothing here that lifts this query out of the usual -- sentences that make me think "oh yes!" and that's what you want. This query doesn't sound like a person talking about their life, it sounds like a newspaper account.

Here's voice: 
When I was six years old, we got a pair of lambs. We made them a special shelter. I petted them, bottle fed them, put on little collars and broke them to lead. I would have slept with them if I could have gotten them past my mother and into the bedroom.

And then they died.

 For years afterward I blamed myself. Too much dragging around on the leash. Not enough milk. Too much petting and hugging. It wasn't until I married a man who raised sheep that I realized their passing had nothing to do with me.

Sheep just live to die. Which is true of all living things, I guess. But most of us don't go around looking for ways to expedite the process. Or simply lie down one day and decide, "Oh, heck, why bother getting up? It's just eat and poop, eat and poop. Who needs the hassle?"

The writer is Kari Dell, and the complete blog post is here

The reason I use this as an example is because it shows in shining clarity what voice is: in those four short paragraphs you get a sense of who she is, and you want to read more. [Ok, I might not be objective about this: Kari is one of my clients and I think her writing is glorious and funny and wonderful and further that if anyone disagrees there is something wrong with them but never mind about that now.]

I don't get that sense of who your main character is, or any urge to read more from what you've got here. Thus I vote for (b) on the options above.

And if you've not been getting the responses you hoped for on your query I'm going to suggest either the concept of the novel isn't new or fresh enough to attract the eye of an agent who sees a LOT of queries, or that your protagonist seems to be wrong person.  Isn't it the sister who seems more interesting here? (Answer: yes)

And "on the run for her life" is so cliche as to be instant-reject material.  Think about the concept for The Fugitive: yes Dr. Richard Kimble was on the run for his life, but there was an over-arching narrative at work as well. He wanted to find the one-armed man who really killed his wife. That's the interesting part of the plot, that piece that keeps this from being a simple chase sequence.


As for category, I think this is what's called dystopian but there's absolutely nothing wrong with saying: Invicta is 85,000 words set in the crumbling world of the near future, and letting the agent decide where it belongs on the  shelf.






New strategy at QueryShark

I had a blinding moment of inspiration this week, prompted by the query letter posted at #252. Here's how it happened and what it means for QueryShark readers and writers.

As some of you know, I run the ChumBucket Query Experiment for writers querying me for real. I really loved doing that when I was open to queries; the interaction was fun and instructive for both the writer and for me.

Some of you might remember a blog post I did about assembling a book shelf.  That bookshelf led to the QueryQuestion.  (As a side note, that book shelf did not survive the month-long paint job I'm embroiled in. When I tried to move it, the thing collapsed in exhaustion, had to be ripped apart and send to the curb for New York's Strongest to remove in their smoking belching rolling pits of fire)

Thus it was when I received the query that became #252 and the note from the writer after the query that I had blinding moment of inspiration.

What if, along with the query, writers could ask questions or offer explanations for the choices they were making when they sent material to QueryShark?  Wouldn't that be more helpful than "this doesn't work, start again?"

And then I remembered the knock down drag out fights that we (we means my authors and I) have had with copy editors recently.  Copy editors are an invaluable resource and publishing would be very much poorer without them, but their mission is not style it's correctness. Thus when a writer breaks rules for style, the copy editor often has to be alerted, or soothed, or vanquished depending on the ferocity of their red pen.

That made me wonder if I was perhaps doing much the same thing here at QS: assuming error when it was a style choice.

Hmmmm..

So, let's try something new and improved and see if it helps.

Starting now, you should send a BRIEF paragraph with questions, or explanations of choices, along with your query shark entry.  You still must include the permission line as well.

If your QueryShark entry had an Order of Service it would look like this:

1. Permission line: By submitting this query, I agree it may be posted and critiqued on
the QueryShark blog and included in the archives for the life of the blog.

2. Question/explanation paragraph of NO MORE THAN 100 words.

3. Query



The order is important.  I want to know what you're asking before I read your query.

Ok?

The first query with this is posted at #252. 



Monday, October 14, 2013

#251-Revised once

 

Dear Query Shark,

Dr. Richard Hamilton, head of Physics at Livermore National Lab, is faced with the most difficult decision of his life. The machine he spent his whole career creating in secret, works. It can actually receive a message from the future. The problem is, ‘turn the machine off,’ was not the kind of message he was prepared for.

Sometimes holding on too long costs more than you’re willing to pay.

The Second Dimension is a complete 89,700 word thriller similar to the pace of Jeffery Deaver and the suspense of Preston/Child. I have been published in many periodicals and have extensive experience in theatre. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 This works for me. I'm not sure if it would work for another agent but I like it a lot.  I like it because it sets up a human dilemma: you're told to do something without knowing why. We can intuit that the stakes are high. There's exquisite tension in that.

The first pages for this novel need to be superlative. There's absolutely no room for lackadaisical prose, misused words, flat pacing or opening with a phone call, weather or driving.  You've got my attention for about two more minutes.

---------------------------------------------------------------
Dear Query Shark,
 
Dr. Richard Hamilton, head of Physics at Livermore National Lab, is faced with the most difficult decision of his life.  The machine he spent his whole career creating in secret, works. It can actually receive a message from the future. But it’s more than a miraculous wonder of science, its solace from a childhood nightmare veiled in his father’s blood. The problem is, ‘turn the machine off,’ was not the kind of message he was prepared for.  

This is one of the most enticing opening paragraphs I've seen in a while. Why does it work?
It sets up the situation and the problem very elegantly: the machine works is both the situation and the problem.

I'm enticed to read on.  That's the one thing a query must do.

Frankly, if this were the ONLY paragraph in the query, I'd read pages, and if they were good, I'd ask for the full manuscript. I’m always on the lookout for someone who can write the kind of books Patrick Lee does.


 
Captain Josh McGregor, fresh from the fly-ridden dust of Afghanistan, is on his way back home to Livermore. He returns as part of a military task force escorting a revolutionary new weapon to be tested at the lab. A non-lethal assignment and a chance to rekindle his romance with Richard’s daughter, Katie, is just what he needs to ease his PTSD. The EPA building exploding with ‘Anarchy for Christ’ crudely scrawled on its side, was not the welcome home he needed.

And this is the biggest splat you can have in a query. You've gone from saying enough to saying too much.  

This is too much because it introduces another protagonist who is a soldier returning from Afghanistan with PTSD.  Without doubting for a second that PTSD is a very real problem for a significant number of people who have been deployed in combat (or other people who've survived violent situations) it's often a cliché in novels.   It's often a lazy way to write a problem for a soldier.

Unless PTSD contributes significantly to the plot, leave it out of the query.

This is the answer to how do you know if you've written too much: you've written too much if the details aren't essential to the plot.

What more do you need to know than the machine itself is the problem?  Not much.
 
Richard’s world is crumbling. The new project is a pressure cooker threatening to devastate his career. A group of armed religious fanatics surround his lab, intent on ending his interference with God’s will. A meticulous assassin with an appetite for his victim’s tongues prowls the campus and Richard’s manipulation of time may be the cause. To disprove it, he must set a trap. He waits alone in a dank testing bay to find out if it’s all just a plot against him or if he needs to sacrifice his greatest creation.

And this is again too much detail.  It's absolutely not enticing to find out there are armed religious fanatics (one dimensional cliches) or meticulous assassins (also cliché) and we already know that the problem is the machine and he's going to have to contemplate destroying it.

Think of how a comedian would make a scary situation hilarious: "Want some candy, little girl?" the stranger asks.  The comedian changes it to "Want some little round green candy with dextrose, fructose and artificial colors, little girl?"
Too much detail kills the enticement.
Too much detail gives the reader a chance to think "oh hell no I don't want to read about religious fanatics" when, if you get the reader into the actual novel they're much more willing to read along.
  
The Second Dimension is a complete 89,700 word thriller similar to the pace of Jeffery Deaver and the suspense of Preston/Child. This is my first novel.

You could include this paragraph with the first one, too. 
 
Thank you for your time and consideration.


I think it's almost impossible to know that the one paragraph is enough.  I do think however that if you follow the template outlined in several other QueryShark entries you'll have a better chance of focusing only on the plot points that matter and leaving out the things that don't.

Revise.
Resend.

And you might read Patrick Lee's Breach trilogy just to see if that's a comp as well. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

#250-a reminder on closing your queries

 This entry plucks examples from five queries, each of which needs work on the closing.


(1) If the concept of the novel appeals to you, please contact me using the provided information below to request a full manuscript.  I look forward to hearing from you and thank you for taking the time to consider my work.

Concepts appeal to me all the time. It's not the only thing that needs to appeal to me.  

Also, I have a real antipathy about stating the obvious in a query. If you're stating the obvious, you're over writing. That's a Bad Sign in a query.

If I want to read the novel I'll get in touch.  Just put your contact info below your name.



(2) I’m an author from (here)  and after having been a fan and follower of the YA and Children’s Fantasy market for years, I’m pleased and excited to have completed TITLE  for your review.

Review means something very different in publishing than the way you're using it here. You're sending me a query for consideration. Not review. Also, this sentence is a platypus: the parts don't belong together.
 
Use the standard closing "Thank you for your time and consideration" and you'll be better off.


(3) The first three chapters or the entire manuscript of TITLE is available upon your request in either hard copy or by email. I can be contacted quicker by email but also through phone and address. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

What about smoke signals?  Uniformed footman?  
And only three chapters? What if I want to read it all? (I always request a full if I'm interested in your query by the way. Partials are pointless in the electronic age.)

You don't need to tell me your manuscript is available or in what format.  I'm going to assume you'll get it to me in whatever format I ask for, up to and including recitation by a professional actor dressed as Jax Teller...





oh, sorry, lost my train of thought there for a moment.


 

(4) TITLE is a mystery of 64,000 words and my first effort.

First effort?
Please do not ever say that.  It's your first novel. And I really hope it's not even that; I hope
there are several early efforts under the bed someplace.



(5) Please help me to find a publisher.  You may contact me at this e-mail address, at (here), or at (404)(there).  Thank you for taking the time to consider my work.
Please help you find a publisher? Here's a list. 

What you really want me to do is take you on as a a client.

I know this sounds petty.  I can hear you say "but you know what I mean!" and you're right I do.  But a query is a measure of how well you write, and this is badly written.  It doesn't say what you want to convey.



Here's the rule:

Close your query with one sentence: Thank you for your time and consideration.

Then your name.
Then your contact info.

ALL of your contact points: address, phone, twitter, blog, website.

Go look at your query right now.

Does it have the correct closing? If not, FIX IT.

Monday, September 2, 2013

#249--revised 4x

Fourth revision

Dear Query Shark,

The words were written on a sign posted just outside Aura Jefferson’s hometown of Langston, in rural Oklahoma, and she’s spent her entire life trying to forget them:

“NIGGER DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR HEAD OUT HERE.”


Let's try to make this more immediate: Aura Jefferson's spent her entire life trying to forget the words on the sign just outside her hometown: “NIGGER DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR HEAD OUT HERE.”



Do you see the difference? If you start with the main character it's a stronger sentence. Stronger sentences are better.

At the risk of boring everyone with repetition, I will remind you that when I see sentences like this in a query, I KNOW I will see them in a novel.  This is the kind of self-editing you MUST be able to do. This sentence isn't wrong, but it's not strong. It's not the BEST sentence. I'm looking for the best, strongest work I can find.  I need Doberman sentences, not sheepdog sentences.


For Aura – a strong, independent black woman – forgetting is a kind of survival tactic. She left her little brother and her Grams back in Langston, moved to the city (what city?) and never looked back. Now she’s a physical therapist who helps patients recover from devastating injuries. But white folks in this corner of the world (what corner of the world?) don’t always welcome the help (Aura has heard the “N-word” more times than she cares to count). And a thin skin, no matter what the color, just doesn’t cut it in her line of work. <---- font="" good="" nbsp="" sentence.="">

"Kind of" weakens the sentence. I call it girl-speak. If you watch the differences in speech patterns of men and women, you'll notice women qualify their statements MUCH more often than men do.  A lot of "my opinion" "I think" and "kind of" phrases creep in.  You'd be stunned how hard it is to coach women out of talking like that too. Don't let it creep into your writing unless you need it there to illustrate character.  I'm thinking Aura is pretty resolute. No "kind of" about it.


Then her brother Carl, a former basketball star, is murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. When she’s asked to testify in the trial of his killer, Aura meets four strangers, each of whom begins to test the necessary boundaries she has established between herself and the world.

You're losing momentum at "meets four strangers" because it's vague. Vague is Not Good.  Remember, you do NOT need to cover everything in the query. You only need to entice me to read on.  Do we need to know about the four strangers? Is it enough to know she's being tested?

Before taking that witness stand, Aura will need to forgive her little brother for embracing the thug life that got him killed … and forgive herself for abandoning him in Langston. First she’ll have to forget everything she knows about mere survival, and remember what it’s like to really live – maybe even love – again. And that will mean depending on someone other than herself.



At 99,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is a story about race, justice, faith and forgiveness in America’s heartland. Told from alternating points of view, the novel will appeal to fans of character-driven fiction such as Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.


You might consider putting more in about the four alternating points of view. I assume one is Aura, one is Dean.  Consider:  The novel is told in four points of view: Aura; Dean the Choctaw-in-name-only defense investigator: POV 3 (short description); and, POV 4 (short description)

That can work if the descriptions are enticing, not just short bios.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is better in that it's more interesting. I must tell you however that seeing a novel that's 99k and has four POVs makes me very very skeptical.  You've really chomped on a big challenge. 

Coupled with the flabby sentences, this is still a pass. Calisthenics all around!
Tighten up, revise, resend.  And don't forget to look at your novel and see how much tightening you can do there too.



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

Third revision

Dear Query Shark,

Dean Goodnight learned to spell ambidextrous when those English-speaking teachers tied his left arm behind a chair. Southpaws weren’t allowed in the American school and neither was Dean’s first language: Choctaw. Abandoning his heritage, Dean embraced the law. Now he works for the Oklahoma City public defender’s office, trying to save convicted killers from the death penalty. Problem is, this new Choctaw defendant of his? Dean can’t find one damn redeemable thing about him.


I can see what you're trying to say here, but it's not on the page. 


I'm put off by the discrepancy of tone between "learned to spell ambidextrous" with "tied his left arm behind his chair".  Sure, I see what you're getting at but you're missing what would make this powerful. A first grade little boy has his arm tied behind the chair?  I gotta tell ya, I think my reaction would be rage. A very deep burning rage that would never ever go away.  I think I would hate teachers, and English-only teachers a lot.

( My grandmama was left-handed and despite the soft spoken gentlewoman that she was, she still sounded angry when telling us what her first grade teacher did to get her to learn to use her right hand. Mind you, this was 75 years later, and she was still angry.)

And I don't get the connection between abandoning his heritage and embracing the law.  

Some of this may require more nuance than a query letter can accommodate.  That might be the case here.


If you start here ---->Dean wants to believe that the laws make justice possible: for the good guys and the bad. But the corruption he encounters on a daily basis – police coercing confessions, district attorneys suppressing evidence, expert witnesses falsifying forensics – puts him on the losing side of an increasingly unfair fight.

we see the the conflict instantly.

The closer he gets to understanding this brutal murder, (what brutal murder?) the more Dean reconnects with his own forgotten Choctaw upbringing. During the investigation Dean becomes involved with four strangers, including the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson. In order to save his client’s life, Dean will need to convince Aura that life in prison can represent a more fitting punishment than the death penalty.

Again, I don't see the connection between understanding the murder and reconnecting with his forgotten Choctow upbringing. 

Focus on Dean.  You're getting sidetracked with these other characters.  What does Dean want? What's keeping him from getting it?



But he might have to break the law to do it. And that could spell … well, a lot of things. And none of them are good.

"a whole lot of things, none of them good" is too nebulous to be the stakes of a novel.


At 103,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER will appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Richard Price’s “Lush Life” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

I've read LUSH LIFE and this doesn't sound like it at all. LUSH LIFE is set in NYC, specifically the Lower East Side, and is a very taut crime novel.  We get no sense of setting from your query, no sense of the plot, and only a hint that Dean had a pretty awful upbringing.

It's time to punch harder in this query. Get down to the core events and show us why they matter and how they are connected.  Your job here is to entice me to read the novel and you're not there yet.


Thank you for your time and consideration.


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Second revision

Dear QueryShark:
 
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Mitigation investigator Dean Goodnight is the only Choctaw Indian at the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office. His job is to find a killer’s redeemable qualities, in the hopes of convincing a jury to spare them the death penalty.
When you're introducing the reader to a book, it's best to be as simple (and enticing!) as possible.  In the first paragraph you're telling us a lot of things about Dean Goodnight:

mitigation investigator

only Choctaw Indian

public defender


It's not till you get to the second paragraph that you say something that catches our interest.  Thus, that's what you want to lead with, and then fill in the other details later (if at all).


Problem is, this new Choctaw defendant of his? Dean can’t find a thing worth saving.

Consider this:

Dean Goodnight is supposed to find redeemable qualities that will spare a convicted killer from the death penalty. Problem is, this new Choctaw defendant of his? Dean can’t find a thing worth saving.


Delving into the killer’s past, Dean discovers unsettling similarities to his own. And the closer he gets to understanding this brutal murder, the more Dean understands about his complicated Choctaw heritage. During the investigation Dean becomes increasingly involved with four strangers, including the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson. In order to save his client, Dean will need to convince Aura that life in prison can represent a more fitting punishment than the death penalty.

First, though, he’ll need to convince himself.

At 103,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER combines elements of historical and literary fiction to paint an intimate portrait of Oklahoma in the mid-1990s, when both the state and the country are on the cusp of radical, often violent, change. It will appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Richard Price’s “Lush Life” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

Elements of historical fiction? I'm hard pressed to think of what those are.  Historical fiction generally means fiction set during historical times.  I'm not sure there are any elements specific to it that wouldn't also apply to any other novel.  And calling this literary fiction isn't a good idea at all.



What I'm hoping you've got here is a crime novel.  I hope that because 1) that's what I like to read; 2) crime sells a lot better than literary fiction; and, 3) cause this query letter doesn't indicate literary fiction at all.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

There's still no real sense of a compelling plot here.  All you have is that Dean Goodnight has to confront his past, and since he's a stranger to us, who cares. 
 You've gone from too much to not enough.

There's a template for getting plot on the page in the query. Find it. Use it.

Revise.
Resend.



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

 First revision
Dear Query Shark,
A killer always runs home. It’s instinct. But investigator Dean Goodnight knows most of those homes are broken beyond fixing. Dean’s the only Choctaw Indian in the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office. So when his latest client’s crime orphans a young Choctaw boy, when his girlfriend starts pushing for a family, Dean follows his own gut: he runs.


Whoa! There's WAY too much going on here. You've got the killer running, Dean knowing, kid being orphaned, girlfriend kvetching, and Dean running.


You're trying to connect the dots in a splatter pattern here and it's not pretty.



When Olympic divers are scored, the two highest and lowest scores are tossed out, and the score is created from those remaining.  When you dive into revisions here (oh, aren't I clever with the metaphors tonight!) toss aside the things that don't relate to the matters at hand.





Leaving the orphan with a C.P.S. volunteer named Becca Porter - caring for this kid’s not in the job description - Dean throws himself into the new case, looking for any evidence that might save his client’s life. To do so he’ll need to convince the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson, to move past the anger haunting her since the murder.

At this point I don't know who's who or what's what.  Who's important here? So far you've named or mentioned seven people. That's classic character soup. 

He has his work cut out for him. Aura’s a proud black woman, a physical therapist who doesn’t take advice … she gives it. When Aura goes into a patient’s home, the goal is to teach him how to adapt to some devastating injury. So why is recovering from her own tragedy so difficult?

What? Now I'm lost. If this query came to me for consideration, I'd stop reading right here.

Her new borderline-bigot patient sure isn’t helping. Before he was paralyzed in a car crash, Cecil Porter dreamed of playing pro basketball, just like Aura’s brother did. Maybe this is why she tolerates the old man and his brother: “Big” Ben Porter, a charismatic huckster who’s got everyone in his pocket. Maybe even the district attorney prosecuting Dean’s client.

As Dean chases down leads, as Aura wrestles with the effects of prejudice and regret, as Ben tries to repair the damage Cecil’s accident has wrought on their relationship, Ben’s wife Becca Porter (Dean’s volunteer) uncovers a link between the orphan and her own traumatic upbringing.

Can these five strangers forget their differences, come together, and give this orphaned Choctaw boy a better future? Maybe. But first, they’ll each have to stop running from the past.

At 105,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is my first novel. It will appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Richard Price’s “Lush Life” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

Ok, here's the Wikepedia plot summary  for LUSH LIFE:  

On the way home from a night of drinking, three men—cafe manager Eric Cash, bartender Ike Marcus, and a friend of Marcus'—are accosted by two muggers. Marcus is shot and killed. NYPD Detective Matty Clark winds up investigating the crime, and keeping an eye on Ike's distraught father Billy, whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic. 

Cash is initially arrested for the crime, but later released when the accounts of other witnesses back up his own; his own behavior is affected as he has difficulty coping with the memory of the incident and the stresses of the police interrogation. Interwoven with the main plot are vignettes of the Lower East Side and the waves of immigrants that have come through there and lived in its tenements over the years.


There are a LOT of characters mentioned but we can keep them all straight and we know who the main guy is.  If you need to mention more than one or two characters in your query, this is the way to do it.
 


Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is not a buttoned down query. This is a ragbag of remnants.

Time to revise, restyle, and resend.



--------------------------------
Original query
Dear Query Shark,

It’s 1994 in Oklahoma City: the Waco siege is over, the OJ Simpson trial isn’t.

When a single line appears at the top of a query it signals a log line or a hook.

This is neither. After reading the entire query the only thing this line tells me is the novel is set between April 19, 1993 and October 3, 1995. (More on this later.)

This is a classic example of why "Kill your darlings" (which begs to be a Raymond Chandler title) is good advice.  This opening line is a good sentence. It seems to glow with promise.

But, it doesn't work. It doesn't work because it doesn't illuminate the novel.  Thus it must die.

A good hook is not just an enticing sentence; it's an enticing sentence that illuminates the novel.




A young Choctaw boy named Caleb has just been orphaned by the criminal justice system, both parents jailed on separate murder and drug charges. Investigator Dean Goodnight’s job at the Public Defender’s office is to save the life of Caleb’s father at all costs. But the more Dean understands about this particular killer’s crime, the less he understands about himself - and his own Choctaw heritage.


Have you come across the phrase "character soup?"  This is getting close. Too many characters. Start with the main guy. Tell us what's at stake for him. When we see the choices he faces, it makes us care about him. Right now all you've got is set up.


Dean enlists four seemingly unrelated strangers into the investigation. There’s Aura Jefferson, the murder victim’s older sister and perhaps the angriest physical therapist in Payne County. Her borderline-bigot patient, Cecil Porter, who broke his spine in a car crash nearly fifty years ago. Cecil’s brother, “Big” Ben Porter, who’s not above bribing a few councilmen to bag the construction contract that will determine the city’s future. And Becca Porter, Ben’s wife, who discovers a link between the orphaned Choctaw boy Caleb and her own traumatic past.


And this is classic character soup. We still don't have an inkling of the plot. That's crucial in a query. You've told us who the characters are but not given us a reason to care what happens to them.

Together, these five people might just be able to offer Caleb a new kind of life. But they had better hurry. Because now it’s 1995. On April 19 a bomb is going to go off, and life will never be the same.


Again, this doesn't work. If the OKC bombing is the climax of the novel, you've got to get us interested in the people and events long before it happens. In fact, if it's the climax of the novel, it really has no place in the query. 

More on the log line at the start of the novel:  The OKC bombing occurred on 4/19/95 after Waco and before the OJ Simpson verdict, yes.  But those two events, and in fact the OKC bombing itself, are peripheral to the plot and thus should not be in a query letter.

I can hear you saying somewhat perplexedly "It's not peripheral, it's the climax of the plot - the bombing changed everything." In a novel something always happens that changes everything.  Whether it's the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the flood ravages of Superstorm Sandy, or the death of Old Yeller, something happens at the climax of a book to change the protagonist's world.

Unless the protagonist performed the world changing act (ie shot Old Yeller) the specific event is superfluous to the plot. Thus it isn't in the query.

In this case, the plot is what's at stake for the investigator if he doesn't help the kid. The plot doesn't depend on the OKC bombing; the world could change for a variety of reasons. It just happens to change this time because of the events of 4/19/95.  

The problem with using Waco and OJ and the OKC bombing here is that you're cloaking your query in buzzword events, rather than showing me what the book is about.  It's a crutch. And the interesting thing here is that it's a crutch you don't need.  You actually  have an interesting concept. You obviously can write.  What you haven't done is tell me what the book is about. That's a deal breaker in a query.

At 105,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is my first novel. It might appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Don DeLillo’s “Libra” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

It might isn't compelling. It will is the phrase you want here.

LIBRA was published in 1988. No matter how wonderful, it's not a book you'll use as a comp because it's 25 years old. Comp titles should always be new titles. New means within the last two years at best, five at most. 


Thank you for your time and consideration.


This is a great example of well-written query that doesn't work. A good query entices the reader to want more. Enticing means you tell us about the start of the book in a way that makes us want to read on.

This is all character set up, timeline and CNN headlines. 

There are LOTS of queries that fall in to this category: well-written but ineffective.

Take a look at the queries that got to YES. (There's a section on the left side of this blog with links to them.)  Watch how those queries enticed me to read more.


Revise.

Resend.