Sunday, October 31, 2010

#185-Revised

Dear QueryShark:

Tabitha’s a smart cookie, but she’s not exactly what you’d call worldly. She’s studying abroad in England on her first big trip away from home, and she thought she’d be having the time of her life. Instead, she feels dislocated and isolated. And it doesn’t help that she’s a continent away from her boyfriend Will.

you don't have to repeat the subject (she) in every clause. It's actually better if you don't.  When I keep chewing on writers to pare out every unneeded word, this is what I mean.

Back in New Jersey, Tabitha was a talented literature student, but now she’s struggling to compete. When not facing thinly veiled scorn from her classmates or being publicly humiliated for her ignorance of the vernacular, Tabitha soothes her loneliness with tea, chips, and pints of hard cider.

So far all you've done here is tell us about Tabitha. And frankly, she sounds like a sad-sack full of self-pity.

Tabitha eventually settles in with a motley assortment of British students, including a vivacious extrovert who involves her in schemes to finagle free drinks, a morose snooker aficionado who indoctrinates her into his favorite pastime, and an enigmatic aristocrat who invites her into a secret society that convenes on nights of the full moon.

This is all set up and description. What does Tabitha want? What's keeping her from it?

Then Tabitha’s precarious new serenity shatters.

Will sleeps with his best female friend back home, and Tabitha is desolate. Tabitha’s American friends Katy and Ezra find her plunged in despair, and they pull her into their European spring break travels.

This is all backstory, and you'd be lucky if I kept reading to find out where the actual story starts.


story actually begins here------>As the three friends eat and drink their way across Ireland and France, Tabitha wrestles with her conflicted emotions. She’s furious with herself for still loving Will despite his transgression. And yet she finds herself increasingly drawn to the handsome and sympathetic Ezra, who has made his interest in Tabitha evident. Torn by her dueling attractions, Tabitha makes a choice that even she doesn’t expect…

I'm sorry but this is just plain not interesting, let alone enticing. An American girl abroad with a group of students finds herself attracted to one of her merry band. This isn't a plot. It's a set up.

ABROAD is a 76,000-word new adult novel.

This is my first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Let's get some plot on the page here. What does Tabitha want? When you say she'd be having the time of her life, what did she think she'd be doing? Why isn't she doing it? What's keeping her from doing it? 

Everything up to the first place Tabitha has to make a choice is prelude to the story.  Most likely that choice is "When Tabitha hears her idiot boyfriend has taken advantage of her year away in England to sleep with all the members of Chi Omega in alphabetical order, Tabitha must decide whether to hire a hit man for revenge, or go to France with her merry band of misfit friends and drown her sorrows in good wine and cheese."

 Start over. Focus on what happens, not description.

--------------------
ORIGINAL


Dear Query Shark:


Tabitha Macaulay is supposed to be having the time of her life studying abroad in England on a prestigious scholarship. But she feels out-of-place at her British university, and is a continent away from her musician boyfriend Will.


Just as Tabitha settles in with a motley assortment of British and American students, she is devastated to learn that Will has betrayed her. Fellow Americans Katy and Ezra pull Tabitha out of her dejection and into their European spring break travels.


As the three friends eat and drink their way across Ireland and France, Tabitha wrestles with her conflicted emotions: she still loves Will, but finds herself increasingly drawn to the handsome and sympathetic Ezra. Torn by her dueling attractions, Tabitha finally makes the choice that even she doesn’t expect…


She becomes a lesbian? She enters a convent? It better be something that dramatic cause the other options (she decides she doesn't need a boyfriend and/or she falls for Ezra) are pretty low-wattage resolutions.


ABROAD, a 76,000-word new adult /young adult/ novel, explores the bumpy road to cultural assimilation, (there's nothing in the query letter about that) the joy of unexpected friendships, (or that) the healing power of food, (or that) and the delicious agony of sexual tension. (or that)


You're telling me the book is about those things. What you've shown me is the book is about a girl whose boyfriend cheats on her while she's away (I could have told her that would happen) and she embarks on a road trip to ease her pain. This is the most standard of plots right now. What you're telling and what you're showing don't match. I believe what you show me.


Just a word to the commenters tempted to leap on the designation new adult: it is a legitimate category and describes books about college age people. YA is generally for protagonists of high school age; New adult is for protagonists aged 18 to about 22.


I have degrees in English and Communication from Rutgers University, and I studied literature abroad at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

Aha! I suspect a thinly disguised memoir here. What you need to remember is that real life seldom is the stuff of good novels.


There isn't enough substance here.  YA and NA has real heft to it now. I think of books like Courtney Summers' CRACKED UP TO BE; Amy Reed's BEAUTIFUL; Charles Benoit's YOU.


This is my first novel.


Thank you for your time and consideration.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Add this to your list of do's and don'ts

Dear Query Shark:

(query text)






------



This E-mail, including any attachments, may be intended solely for the personal and confidential use of the sender and recipient(s) named above. This message may include advisory, consultative and/or deliberative material and, as such, would be privileged and confidential and not a public document. Any Information in this e-mail identifying a client of the Department of Human Services or the Department of Children and Families is confidential. If you have received this e-mail in error, you must not review, transmit, convert to hard copy, copy, use or disseminate this e-mail or any attachments to it and you must delete this message. You are requested to notify the sender by return e-mail.




This is why you don't send your email queries from your work email.  Your query is not personal and confidential to me.  It's a query.  If I like your work, I need to talk about it to other people.

Also, you need your own email for your writing business.

This doesn't lead to automatic-rejection, but it's not the kind of professional presentation you want to have.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

#183

Dear Query Shark:

According to UNICEF, an estimated 2.5 children, the majority of them girls, are sexually exploited in the 12 billion dollar world wide commercial sex industry. It has been estimated by Stop Child Trafficking Now, SCTNow, that the average predator in the US can make more than $200,000 a year off one young girl.


Great! You're querying for a non-fiction book on the problem of sexual exploitation of women.  Oh wait, you're not.

Don't begin the query for a novel with a cold burst of information like this.  This isn't your story.  You're also telling (in the least enticing way you could) rather than showing.  I see this a lot with people who write novels to illustrate a problem or make a point.  Don't do it.

Danny Charman has retired after a career in the National Football League. He has started a new career as a lawyer in Dallas. Actually, all he really wants to do, is work a half day and play golf the other half. Oh, and of course, he would like to fool around with the ladies as much as possible. That is, until early one morning, he learns that one of his former teammates has been murdered. The murder took place at a hunting and fishing lodge in a national forest near a small town north of Dallas. That afternoon, he learns that another one of his former teammates has been taken into custody. Immediately, Danny knows something is wrong. His two former teammates were best of friends, born and raised together in the small town. One would not have killed the other.


This is clunky writing of the worst sort. It's a series of statements, not a paragraph. There is no cadence here; the sentences don't flow readily.

Consider this:
All Danny Charman really wants to do is work and play golf . Oh, and fool around with the ladies as much as possible. Early one morning he learns one of his former NFL teammates has been murdered at a hunting and fishing lodge. Another former teammate has been taken into custody. Immediately, Danny knows something is wrong.  These guys were best of friends, born and raised together in the small town. One would not have killed the other.



That evening, Danny and his young female assistant drive to the town to pay their respects and to start an investigation.   Later that night, with the rain turning into sleet, they are driving on a deserted road in the forest. Suddenly, a little girl darts out in front of them. Danny is able to stop the vehicle without hitting her as she runs across the road and into the forest. He searches and finds her collapsed underneath a tree. He picks her up. She is burning up with fever. She either cannot, or will not talk. He notices the bruises around her little wrists and ankles. They take her to the local hospital. No one there recognizes her. Evidently, she is not local.

You've got the same clunky problem here. Also, you're missing what's at stake for Danny.  Even if he doesn't think his former teammate would have killed his friend, why does he take it on himself to investigate?  There has to be an organic reason for this to happen. By organic I mean a motivation that flows from the plot and characters making choices, not the author deciding this is what has to happen.



In order to solve the murder of his former teammate, Danny must first solve the mystery of the little girl. A mystery that will take him into the underworld of human trafficking and child exploitation.


There is no linkage between the two things.  I don't understand what the plot is. 

BUTTERFLY SIN, a mystery complete at 110,000 words, is my first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,


This is a form rejection. It's all set up, and no plot.  The writing is clunky and un-polished.  When I see that in a query, I know I'll see it in the novel.  

I'm also EXTREMELY wary of authors who are trying to make a point or teach a lesson, or illuminate a problem in novels.  Story comes first and authors who want to make a point rarely are willing to let the story dominate the points they want to make.  Stories with lessons are called parables, not novels.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Questions?

I get email asking questions that are (to my mind) clearly answered in the directions for QueryShark.  Normally I just delete them, but it occurred to me that the readers of the blog might be willing to help me out here.

If you have questions, post them in the comment section of THIS blog post.  By questions I mean things about how QueryShark works. Examples: can I resubmit if I've sent a query before (yes); I've sent you three queries but none have been posted, why not (I don't post 99% of the queries I get.)

If you ask a question about how other agencies work, about how to handle issues with something OTHER than a query letter to the QueryShark, the comment won't be posted. There are lots of places on the web to get that information. QueryShark Questions are ONLY about QueryShark.


If you're a blog reader, feel free to answer.  I'll keep you all on the right course -- wrong answers won't get approved. I also don't post questions about the general query process or how to submit work to agents.  These questions are about how the Shark works and ONLY about how the Shark works.


My hope is we can get questions answered without my having to engage in a one on one email conversation.

Thanks for helping.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

#182--Revised

Dear Query Shark:

An old and mysterious globe launches Benjamin and Caroline Coffee into the perils of history as they to navigate through the Age of Discovery and back to the modern day.

The unexplained death of the  grandmother brings Benjamin and Caroline to rural Illinois on the summer following their thirteenth birthdays. That is, until they innocently spin a long-neglected globe. When they regain consciousness, the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world, The Earth Apple, designed by Martin Behaim. The threatening Martin imprisons them, leaving them hopeless, but they soon find out that twin globes have been made and the one they need is in Lisbon, Portugal. Unfortunately, it is the same globe needed by Martin’s most secretive friend, Christopher Columbus. Martin whisks Benjamin and Caroline off across 15th century Europe, but they are not alone in their voyage. The Portuguese Crown is in vigilant pursuit, along with a curious old man who holds many answers to the wonder of the twin globes and to the death of their grandmother. Should Benjamin and Caroline help the deceitful Martin in his quest with Columbus or should they give up on history and try to get back home?

You sent this as entire block o'text. Don't do that. Break up into three-four lines in an email. Don't break sentences obviously, but do break paragraphs into smaller chunks. White space is crucial in an email query.

Here's how I'd break it up:


The unexplained death of the their grandmother brings Benjamin and Caroline to rural Illinois on the summer following their thirteenth birthdays. That is, until they innocently spin a long-neglected globe. When they regain consciousness, the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, (let's remember that Germany didn't exist as a unified political entity till after 1870) and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world, The Earth Apple, designed by Martin Behaim.

The threatening Martin imprisons them, (why?) leaving them hopeless, but they soon find out that twin globes have been made and the one they need is in Lisbon, Portugal. (they're in prison, how do they know?) (why do they need that one and not this one?) Unfortunately, it is the same globe needed by Martin’s most secretive friend, Christopher Columbus.

Martin whisks Benjamin and Caroline off across 15th century Europe, (I thought he locked them in prison?)  but they are not alone in their voyage. (Nuremberg to Lisbon isn't a voyage last time I glanced at a map) The Portuguese Crown is in vigilant pursuit, along with a curious old man who holds many answers to the wonder of the twin globes and to the death of their grandmother.


Should Benjamin and Caroline help the deceitful Martin in his quest with Columbus or should they give up on history and try to get back home?

This is a choice without stakes. What happens if they give up on history? Does the world implode? Am I doomed?

SPIN: THE COFFEE CHRONICLES is an 80,000-word historical novel. Maps and illustrations have been created.


Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you,

If your query raises these kinds of questions as I read it, it makes me wonder if the book holds together logically.  (This is why a lot of agents request a synopsis--to see if the book really works in terms of plot and narrative arc)

You might have a fun book here, but I can't see it because all I am is confused. 

Start over. Simplify.


---------------------------------
Dear Query Shark:

After stumbling across an old and mysterious pedestal globe, a few innocent revolutions launch Benjamin and Caroline Coffee back into the midst of history’s greatest challenges as they re-encounter the Age of Discovery and struggle to find their way back to modern day.

There's a lot to be said for simple basic sentence construction. Consider: Benjamin and Caroline Coffee stumble across an old and mysterious pedestal globe.  A few innocent revolutions launch them into the midst ...

Writing it this way does a couple things: it helps you steer clear of long-ass sentences which is almost always the better choice.  It starts with the names of the characters.  It also helps you as an author write with forward motion.  Start at the beginning; move forward.

I'm not sure innocent is needed to modify revolutions. Whether they were innocent or malevolent, the result is the same.


When the two thirteen-year-olds regain consciousness, the year is 1491 in Nuremberg, Germany, and they are staring at the oldest globe in the modern world, The Earth Apple, designed by Martin Behaim.


An attempt at using the globe to get back home leaves Benjamin and Caroline kidnapped and hopeless, but soon an unsigned note left in the pocket of an obscure young artist reveals that common throughout history twin globes have been made, and the one they need to get home is the same that Martin needs for the second discovery of America; unfortunately, it resides in the castle of King John II in Lisbon, Portugal.

You've got way too much going on here for one sentence.  Also, that one sentence is 74 words.  When I see this kind of sentence in a query, I know I'll see it in the book. That means I'm in for some pretty hard-core editing.  This does not bode well for "yes, I want to read pages."

I don't understand how using a globe gets anyone kidnapped, or makes them hopeless. Clearly there's some sort of precipitating event  but you don't mention it.  

"An unsigned note left in the pocket of an obscure young artist" is the worst form of Scooby-Doo

Martin whisks the artist, Benjamin and Caroline off across 15th century Europe, but they are not alone in their voyage. The Portuguese Crown is in vigilant pursuit, along with a curious old man who holds many answers to the wonder of the twin globes.



Fires are quelled, battles are fought, and secrets are exposed as Benjamin and Caroline unearth new perspectives of the Granada War, Renaissance Art, and the true discovery of America in SPIN: THE COFFEE CHRONICLES.

This is so general as to be meaningless.  You only need the events that answer the question: what is the hero up against? What is getting between the hero and his goal?  Everything else can be left out.

SPIN: THE COFFEE CHRONICLES is a 120,000-word historical novel. Maps and illustrations have been created.


whoa.  120K is not a problem for an adult historical novel. Not at all.

Your protagonists are 13.  I thought this was a middle grade book.  120K is way too long for that.

What you have described here is essentially a middle grade novel: kids out of place in time who need to get home. This isn't a novel that an adult would read.  You need to chop the word count by a good 50K.

I am currently in a Ph.D. program at the (redacted) so I am no stranger to research but new to novel writing. The research for this book has taken me to several of its scenes throughout southwestern Europe. I have also been in correspondence with experts at one of the largest and greatest museums in Europe, the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg, which plays an important role in the novel as well as houses many of the famous pieces featured, including Renaissance artwork and the oldest globe extant, The Earth Apple of Martin Behaim.



 That's very nice but you don't need qualifications to write a novel. 

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you,



This is a form rejection.  I see unnecessarily complex sentences, disconnect between length and target audience.  There's nothing here right now that makes me care about the main characters and their quest.

#181-FTW

Dear Query Shark:

Some kids walk out of juvie with freehand tattoos or new gang affiliations. Delia Clark left with a plan to become an FBI agent.


This is as good an opening sentence as we've seen here in a while.  Notice that what we know about Delia is what  happened to her and how she wants to change.  In other words, not what she looks like.

Now twenty-three, Delia’s almost there.

A lot of times, mentioning a protagonist's age is pointless. Here, it gives us valuable info: Delia is moving toward her goal. It's also mentioned at the right place.  The writer did not say "23 year old Delia Clark etc." 


She just has to get through law school first. With its harsh authority figures, cutthroat students, and terrible cafeteria food, Delia’s finding law school eerily similar to prison. If it weren’t for her close friendship with fellow student Violet Cross, Delia might actually follow through on her threat to invest next semester’s tuition money in a Subway sandwich franchise. Luckily for Delia’s career plans, Vi’s got her back. Or at least she did.


This is a nice setup for the plot.  We know where Delia is, what she wants to achieve.  We get the sense it's not easy.

The police find Vi beaten to death in an alley the day after she slammed a door in Delia’s face and told her that she didn’t want to see her again. As Vi’s emergency contact, Delia must identify the body. Haunted by the image of her dead friend and guilty that their first big fight was their last conversation, Delia makes it her mission to assist the police with their investigation. Until she discovers that the detective in charge of the case was being investigated by Vi herself for planting evidence in a capital murder trial. Suddenly, the detective’s disturbing lack of interest in finding out who killed Vi makes sense.


This is a key paragraph.  In any amateur sleuth mystery (which this is) one of the things I always look for is why the sleuth is investigating.  It has to be a logical reason, not just because you need the sleuth to investigate to make the book work.  Generally you find those reasons in the stakes of the book: here it's a little different. Delia think if she doesn't do it, no one will.


Delia knows firsthand that sticking her nose in a criminal investigation can lead to trouble. After all, it’s what landed her in juvie in the first place. This time she’s an adult and the consequences could be much worse. Even if she doesn’t end up in prison, the FBI certainly doesn’t look kindly on applicants who’ve been charged with obstruction of justice. The smart thing to do would be to just walk away. Then again, Delia’s never been known as someone who can just let things go.

And here are the stakes in the novel.  This is a very very nice set up.


Delia decides to investigate Vi’s murder herself, teaming up with an with an old high school flame, now rookie cop, and her smartest study group pal in order to solve the case. But as the stakes grow higher, Delia will be forced to face the question that landed her in juvie so many years ago: Is retribution worth her future?

EMERGENCY CONTACT, a mystery complete at 92,000 words, is my first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.



In this case, you probably do look forward to hearing from me, since I'd be requesting pages, but still, Thank you for your time and consideration is enough.


This is 384 words but I wouldn't pare a single one.

This query works: I'd request pages.

A complaint from the back benches

Dear QueryShark:

I love this site, and you give great help in a hilarious way. But for all this talk demanding good queries, you only post the bad ones. It's all educational, sure, but for those of us sending a good query per instruction hoping then for info on how to make it spectacular, we're ignored in favor of posting the truly awful ones. It's unfair that the ones who do follow these "strict" instructions are the ones never featured.

Maybe you can post some middle-ground queries--ones that aren't a complete disaster, but ones that still need basic help. I know it'd be nice and not exactly ferociously shark-like, but it would make following these instructions more important. I'm tempted to write a terrible query just to get you to post it so I can then send a follow-up.




It's all a matter of perspective I guess. I really don't think I post only bad queries.  But if you think so, ok.

But, asking for advice on how to make your query spectacular overlooks something: I can't do that.  I can help you get out of your own way. I can show you the obvious mistakes of form and content. I can beat it into your head not to start queries with your address or mine, or to mention those seventeen other novels waiting in the wings.


Editing your query line by line to make it spectacular assumes we could agree on what is spectacular and assumes what makes your query spectacular would also make other queries spectacular.  I don't think we'd agree on either of those.  

QueryShark is designed to get you to effective.  For spectacular, you gotta do it yourself.  The most I can help you there is showing query letters that worked for me. There's a list  on the blogroll titled "Queries That Got To YES" with ten of them as of today.

And please don't send a terrible query just hoping to get it posted.  It won't help you get to spectacular either.