Sunday, June 19, 2011

#205-Revised

(date)


You don't need the date in the body of a query letter.  I know when you sent it because my email management program tells me.

Dear QueryShark

I chose your agency because: (bla, bla, bla.)

Don't lead with this. I personally don't give a rat's asterisk about why you queried me but I know some of my ilk like to see this kiss-up stuff personalization. It goes at the end of the query. Start with the story.


My completed novel OUTLAWS (working title) is 66,400 words action story.

Don't worry about the title, and whether it's working or final or whatever. Publishers have final say in the title of books and at least half the books I've sold have undergone title changes. In other words, don't get too attached to the "perfect title"--just like washing your car is a sure fire way to make it rain, loving your title too much means it's Gone In 60 Seconds.


Josh Grant's puritan upbringing by Amish grandparents did not prepare him for life as a city cop. It did prepare him to live as a reclusive farmer in the mountains of Southern Idaho where he relocated. The lifestyle served as his personal pergatory to atone for his self-imposed guilt for not protecting his wife and son from the drug ravaged city crime. His isolated hideaway, where the only responsibility was to his animals, served as santuary for a while.


Did you even run spell check before you sent this?

You're still bogged down in backstory. How Josh got to Idaho, and Grandpa and Grandma aren't relevant. He's there now. Start where the story starts.


It starts here ----->When he stumbles onto the bloodied body of his friend at the general store he reluctantly calls on his street skills to protect his friend's daughter Jolene from the thugs who murdered her father. Together they must survive attacks from the ruthless gang bent on eliminating witnesses to the murder.

Consider this: Josh finds his friend, Felix Buttonweazer murdered at the general store. Now he must help Felix's daughter Jolene hide from the ruthless gang determined to eliminate witnesses.

Names are a big help on keeping everyone straight.



The gang kidnapps Jolene and Josh must go on the offensive. Along the way he finds renewed reason to live.

If they're bent on eliminating witnesses, why do they kidnap her? Why don't they kill her?

(About me)
Well, no, you actually have to spell this out in a query.

Thank you for your consideration.


I sense you're getting impatient here, with both the critiques and the comments.  You've written the novel, and you just want to get started on getting it in front of people.  I'm impatient too, and easily frustrated (just ask the minions who have to deal with me in the office on a daily basis--they have bolt holes for when it gets rough!)

Right now, you need to step back and give this query some breathing time.  At least two weeks. Don't read the comments (in fact, I'm going to shut them down).  Just let this percolate for awhile.  

Go read some good novels. Give yourself some time off.  Then come back, read through the archives again (you're missing the template of how to talk about plot in a query) then start over.

This is better than it was, but it's still not close to where it needs to be.

--------------------------
> (date)
>
> Dear (agent):
>
> Imagine being a homicide detective in a drug ravaged city where your wife
> and young child are the victims of a drive-by shooting.
>
>Detroit detective, Josh Grant lived through that - barely. Plagued with
>self-loathing over his failure to protect his family, he quits the force
> and moves to the mountains of Southern Idaho where he exists as a
>reclusive farmer just as his Amish grandparents had.
>
> On a trip to a country general store for supplies he stumbles onto the
> bloodied body of the store owner and interrupts the attempted rape of the
> owner's daughter, Jolene. Josh recognizes the motorcycle gang's logo as
> that of the notorious Outlaws, a vicious biker gang he's dealt with in the
> past. In his rescue of Jolene, Josh kills one biker and holds another for
> arrest. He and Jolene join forces to prevent further attempts by the
> Outlaws to avenge their fallen brother and eliminate witnesses to the
> murder. Holed up at Josh's isolated farm, he and Jolene survive an all-out
> gun battle with the gang, only to have Jolene kidnapped by the leader of
> the gang and held hostage to lure Josh into his gun sights. With his back
> to the wall and no help, Josh must end this - his way.
>
> OUTLAWS is a completed 66400-word action/romance novel.
>
> My professional experience as a police lieutenant in a large Ohio city
> imbues this novel with a ring of authenticity only experience can bring. I
> have published articles in major trade publications including Police Chief
> and Law Enforcement.
>
> Thank you for your consideration.



This is how your query looks when you copy it from one email and paste it in another or FORWARD.  It's blue, it's got the > thingies, and it's hard to read.

The QueryPolice won't show up at your house. Agents will still glance at your query, BUT it's REALLY hard to read, even on a computer screen. A LOT of agents are reading on their iphones and smaller screens.

Don't do this.

Command D: Duplicate message. Invest a couple minutes in finding out how your mail program does this and then USE IT.  And NEVER forward a query email. Never.

I don't retype every pitch letter to editors. I duplicate the basic message and then personalize it (Dear Reagan Arthur, I'm desperate to do a book with you cause I adore everything you publish. Pleeeeeze buy this)

Now on to the actual substance of the query:



 
(date)

Dear Query Shark:

Imagine being a homicide detective in a drug ravaged city where your wife and young child are the victims of a drive-by shooting.

No thank you. This kind of abrupt statement is akin to a rhetorical question. It's not the most effective way to open a query letter.  For starters, I don't have a wife or a young child.  While I can certainly read books featuring heroes who have those stakes, the reason I care about the wife and child is because I am sympathetic with the hero, NOT because I have a wife and child. There's a big difference.

Detroit detective, Josh Grant lived through that - barely. Plagued with  self-loathing over his failure to protect his family, he quits the force  and moves to the mountains of Southern Idaho where he exists as a reclusive farmer just as his Amish grandparents had.

This is all backstory. And it's backstory that kills this query letter. Why would I want to spend any time at all, let alone a couple hours in the company of a man who is clearly so despondent and reclusive? There's nothing here that catches my sympathy or my interest.

Let me holler on my soapbox again: the purpose of a query is to ENTICE an agent to read your novel. This isn't.

The story starts here -----> On a trip to a country general store for supplies he stumbles onto the
bloodied body of the store owner and interrupts the attempted rape of the owner's daughter, Jolene. Josh recognizes the motorcycle gang's logo as that of the notorious Outlaws, a vicious biker gang he's dealt with in the past. In his rescue of Jolene, Josh kills one biker and holds another for arrest. He and Jolene join forces to prevent further attempts by the Outlaws to avenge their fallen brother and eliminate witnesses to the murder. Holed up at Josh's isolated farm, he and Jolene survive an all-out
gun battle with the gang, only to have Jolene kidnapped by the leader of the gang and held hostage to lure Josh into his gun sights. With his back to the wall and no help, Josh must end this - his way.

You've given me the entire synopsis here so there's no sense of wanting to know "what comes next" which you MUST have in a query.

OUTLAWS is a completed 66400-word action/romance novel.

This is not a romance novel in any way shape or form. This is a straight up piece of commercial fiction.

My professional experience as a police lieutenant in a large Ohio city imbues this novel with a ring of authenticity only experience can bring. I have published articles in major trade publications including Police Chief and Law Enforcement.

Thank you for your consideration.

This query doesn't work. There's nothing fresh or original about the plot. I have no sense of connection to the characters, and no reason to care about what happens to them. The villains are stereotypes. I'd be MUCH more interested in this if the motorcycle gang were the good guys.

This is a form rejection.

39 comments:

Reena Jacobs said...

Some email programs have a resend and edit program. You might consider using that and changing the email address, and of course the salutations. Another option is to save your query letters in another program (MS Word, etc). Then copy and paste from there.

alaskaravenclaw said...

Compared to most of the queries we've seen that draw on the writer's professional life, this one isn't drowning in technical details. That's good.

I agree. Definitely not a romance. Romances are female fantasies. This is a male fantasy.

Detroit detective, Josh Grant lived through that - barely.

No comma. Why? Read the sentence aloud. There is no natural pause before the name.

Most people who make this mistake put a comma both before and after the name. So this is only half as annoying as usual. But hit the hypen key twice for a dash:

Detroit detective Josh Grant lived through that-- barely.

Amber J. Gardner said...

I think if the author focused more on the romance and put more twists and turns, and leave as cliffhanger, this would work.

The problem with it I think is that it's like a cardboard cutout of typical shoot em up action story.

Suzanne Dritschilo said...

re: motorcycle gang being the good guys-writing a character(s) against stereotype ALWAYS entices me to buy the book. I love the priests who kill for revenge, the convicted criminal who stops a gang war, the cheerleader who's the lynchpin to the debate team's state finals, the vampire who survives only on animal blood, the girl who lives for dirtbiking/motor cross racing....these are the most interesting and memorable characters for me.

Kellye said...

Thank you for the head's up about copying from email messages. The information about Entourage makes my day--everything I see online is about outlook. I had heard that copying from Word to email can wonk-up the formatting, but I didn't know that about copying from an email.

Thanks for all your query help! I'm (finally) getting ready to dive into the shark-infested waters.

Lehcarjt said...

Just a side comment, but his grandparents would be Mormon, not Amish. There may be Amish there, but southern Idaho is almost 100% Mormon. My husband's extended family all lives/farms there (since 1860ish?) and I've never once seen any Amish on our trips back.

And while I haven't been to every corner of Idaho, the idea of 'reclusive farmer' doesn't really fit either. Farming is all pretty high-tech now and the communities are pretty tight.

kerrygans said...

Most of the time when I've seen those "carats" is when it has been forwarded, rather than cut and pasted.

I find it's easiest to have the query in a Word doc and cut and paste it into emails from there. Then you can tweak it within the email for that individual agent.

Kerry

Kate Halleron said...

Wouldn't this be more interesting if he weren't a former cop - tired cliche - but an actual Amish (or Mormon) farmer?

Former cops fighting crime - ho-hum. Radical pacifists dealing with evil - riveting.

Where's the moral dilemma in a cop shooting it out with a motorcycle gang?

Reeny said...

"Detroit detective, Josh Grant lived through that - barely.

No comma. Why? Read the sentence aloud. There is no natural pause before the name. "

Is this a grammar issue or a style issue? To me the comma seems right, and yes I do pause when I read it aloud. However, if it was "Detective Josh Grant" with "Detective" being part of his name (like Dr. Johnny Doughboy) then I would eliminate the comma, but that is not how I read it. Without it everything seems to run together awkwardly IMHO.

I'd love some clarification on this.

Sarah said...

If you use gmail, there's an awesome function called "Canned Response" under Labs. Basically it's an auto insert in your email...you type your query once in the email, then "save Canned Response" as "query" or some other name and then you just insert it each time!

Nick Lewandowski said...

Based on the query this novel strikes me as something that could actually work quite well as a genre action film, where the emphasis is often more on film-making style than plot and character substance.

For a novel there's a lot of cliche to overcome, however.

If that statement doesn't apply to the book itself then the query needs re-written to show what makes it unique (be it voice, plotting, whatever). Otherwise the book itself probably needs some serious work.

To me the farm bit seems ideal for showing us a bit more of Josh's character. You'd have to beware not making it seem like a tired riff on WITNESS, however...

Good luck!

Reeny said...

Okay, after looking it up in one of my grammar books, I think I understand now. Including the name of the Detroit detective is necessary and therefore is a restrictive element which does not get a comma.

If Josh Grant were the only Detroit detective there would be no need to identify him by name. Adding his name, Josh Grant, would then be a nonrestrictive element and would require parenthetical commas.

"Detroit detective, Josh Grant lived through that - barely.

No comma. Why? Read the sentence aloud. There is no natural pause before the name."

nightsmusic said...

I always read these though I don't know that I've ever commented, but I need to here because I'm thinking, since the Outlaws motorcycle "club" is real, thriving and pretty much in every state in the US, I'm not sure I'd want to name my fictional gang Outlaws. Maybe it doesn't matter. I don't know.

You've given me the entire synopsis here so there's no sense of wanting to know "what comes next" which you MUST have in a query.

Where in this case would it be a good place to stop?

Stephanie Barr said...

One thing, other than the formatting issues, that hurts this query is the long string of cliches:

Cop loses wife and child to violence
Crushed by guilt, he gives up policework.
Devastated man become "hermit"
Man becomes a reluctant hero to save a rape.
Small nonviolent town is terrorized by biker gang.
Cops are nowhere around so citizens have to rescue town by themselves.
Etc. etc.

I think cliche'd ideas can work, but not a landslide of them and only if you add something distinctive and intriguing that makes the story unique and intriguing. This story, I think we've all read it before. With so many well-worn aspects, this kind of story has one other unhappy trait: predictability.

If there's something about your story that breaks it out from the line of cliche's, I'd definitely emphasize it in the query.

Theresa Milstein said...

I think it would be more interesting to know what this cop wants other than the obvious. He wants to nab the bad guys obviously, but what else? Does he want the woman he saved? If so, what's stopping him? Is there some dilemma with chasing this gang? And tell me more about him as a person. It can't just be that he's in the depths of despair. He's got to be more complex than that. I'm sure it's in the book, you just need to put it in the query.

Some of the comments here make me wonder if the writer knows about the location he's writing about. I get nervous about writing locations I don't know well because other who are familiar with the place can then poke holes in my writing. If the writer doesn't live there, it would be good if s/he could interview people who do.

Theresa Milstein said...

By the way, I always rewrite my query in Word, and the cut and paste into the e-mail. I've had no formatting issues this way.

alaskaravenclaw said...

Reeny, I'm glad you looked it up, because I sat down and wrote a long explanation and then blogger ate it.

Lehcartj, I didn't take that sentence to mean that the Amish grandparents lived in Idaho. And I'm pretty sure plenty of non-Mormons live there. But anyway, it's backstory and doesn't belong in a query.

yankinfrance said...

"Detroit detective" functions as an adjective to "Josh Grant" (noun), it's as simple as that.

You wouldn't write: "crusty old bastard, Josh Grant" would you?

Lehcarjt said...

and moves to the mountains of Southern Idaho where he exists as a reclusive farmer just as his Amish grandparents had.

@alaskarc - I think you may be right with regards to the interpretation of the sentence. If the hero is from Detroit, then his grandparents could have been from the Amish closer to that area. When his family dies, he runs to Idaho to farm 'in the same manner' that his grandparents did.

Even solving that problem, I'm still skeptical. While the farmlands might be isolated from the larger cities, they are not isolated from each other. I'm also wondering as a cop where he got the skills to farm. (but I suppose in terms of the query, I'd give the author the benefit of the doubt on that last one. I tend to look for holes in everything.)

Kaleen said...

OMG!!! I had no idea about the copy/paste thing with the blue text and the >>
Thank you for posting this! *head-desk*

Laila Knight said...

Thank you for posting this. I've been out of my mind with worry ever since I emailed my first query to anyone a while back. I had no idea the whole copy/paste thing could mess things up...but I suspected.

Sasha Barin said...

Weird - I just tried both copy/pasting and forwarding an email from my net based GMail account to my work account, and all delivered fine in plain black text. To me, the coloring and ">" seem like the author hit "reply" on their own email, actually.

JS said...

Rape is not a meet-cute.

I have almost nothing else to say that hasn't already been said, but I think that had to be said.

Please don't put rape into a book just to "up the stakes."

siebendach said...

Sometimes, authors write a story that is not full of cliches... but they write queries that are, based on the idea that the cliches are proven sellers (and thus, should attract agents and editors).

No one's mentioned the ending of the story description: "With his back to the wall and no help, Josh must end this - his way."

The query needs to show a a "surprise" somewhere, or at least the potential for one, and this is one place it could appear. "His way" seems to imply that Josh will go in guns blazing, but why would that be Josh's "way" ? If his wife's shooting turned Josh into a more violent person, wouldn't he have stayed in Detroit to gun down whoever shot his family? Why does the murder of a shopkeeper turn him into Charles Bronson if the murder of his own family didn't?

And why is Josh so quick to conclude that there's "no help" ? With no apparent reason, it makes him seem a little nuts. As a former detective, he surely once had some minimal faith in law enforcement (at least in its power, if not its virtue).

Assuming Josh was what most readers would perceive to be "a good cop", I don't think he'd turn a 180 and become a vigilante unless some event discouraged him in the effectiveness of police, always and everywhere.

And I think that would require more than the death of his family. A civilian might draw that conclusion; but Josh was a detective. As terrible as it must have been to lose his family that way, he knew that such a thing could, possibly, happen to anyone... because he knew (from experience) that even the most dedicated police force can't be everywhere at once.

It seems to me that Josh's apparent loss of faith is of a magnitude that would require past encounters with colossal police incompetence, or pervasive police corruption that made him doubt the validity of his chosen profession.
If police in Detroit bungled the prosecution of whoever shot Josh's family -- or failed to investigate, or were in on it --- then I might buy it. But that's never mentioned.

ejne7 said...

For what it's worth, though I agree there are problems in the query, there was enough there that I found it engaging and wanted to read the story. I know this blog's objective is not (strictly) to adjudicate on the promise of the plot, but I wanted to let the query writer know I think there's hope here.

Shane Scollins said...

One side note -

The MC name is Josh Grant, there happens to be a famous Supercross/Motocross racer named Josh Grant.

While most people might not know that since the sport is not very popular compared to NASCAR or baseball, there are still a few million people who will know this.

I type every name I use in my books into Google and see what comes up. If the writer had done this, John Grant does come up all over the place.

alaskaravenclaw said...

Lehcarjt-- many people don't live where their grandparents did.

Terri Coop said...

1. Motorcycle gang, um, excuse me, motorcycle club, is the king of cliches. Every time I see one mentioned in a book I think of an awesomely bad apoc movie, "Aftermath," where a rogue motorcycle gang captures and eats a group of nuns. Pure camp at its best.

2. The Amish farm. Thanks to those who pointed that out. I am southwest of Detroit and we have a thriving Amish community. The key word is community. To my knowledge, there is no such thing as an isolated Amish family. It is all about community. Again, a cliche.

However, I love genre shoot-em-ups and one written by a cop has potential to have some solid technical accuracy that many lack (you need to know a teeny bit about ballastics before you write a gun battle!). I am also a big fan of the "reluctant hero" trope and can see some potential here.

I hope we see round 2 of this query!

scifi13 said...

Whilst I have no credentials for commenting on queries (other than having worked my way throught all of the entries in this blog), one thought I had with this query relates to the Shark's comment that the author has given her the entire synopsis.

Often, when I am trying to write something relatively long or complex, I write a list of things that will occur. Then (loosely) I use that list as I am writing the story proper.

For me, after the backstory bit, this reads like that kind of synopsis, rather than a query.

Stephsco said...

I appreciate all the feedback in query posts - I always learn so much! I love the ideas suggested for making the story itself less cliche. There are so many books already in existence with this type of premise, my guess is the author wants to contribute to a genre he enjoys. Crafting a twist or turning a cliche on its head is not easy, but I agree it is the difference between a potentially publishible novel. Best of luck to the author!

Lara said...

I agree with lehcarjt and the Mormon/Amish comment. I live 8 miles from ID in Washington State, and I've never know of an Amish area in Idaho or I would be over there buying the baked and canned items! It drives me nuts in books when there are tiny things like this that you know can't be true and were only selected by an author scrounging for a place to live etc... I once read a book where someone in Seattle was waiting for the AC repairman to show up and everyone who has lived there knows no one has AC in Seattle. It rains there and would only be used for 3 weeks of the year...

Thanks also for the tips about forwarding. While I've never done that it's good to know!

jesse said...

I agree with the shark. I'd only like to add that the voice is flat. In its present state, this query reads like an incident report. The prose makes what seems like a semi-interesting plot sound lifeless. You will need a strong voice to compensate for familiar story arc and characters.
Good luck.

Lucy Woodhull said...

What JS said - I really cannot fathom a romance in which the heroine begins as a recent rape victim and then falls for the hero and makes the sexy with him in the course of three hundred pages when they're being shot it in a remote cabin. She only seems to function as fodder to stimulate the hero to manly action and, as a romance reader and writer (and person), I find that really offensive. Heck, even in an action novel I would throw that business across the room.

I cannot see this working as a romance at all. If it really is an action novel, I pray the heroine serves a better purpose than being raped/ kidnapped for plot reasons.

siebendach said...

Wait a minute . . . I just re-read this.

Josh doesn't just kill one of the bad guys at the scene of the store robbery, he "holds another for arrest".

If Josh kills one bad guy, but holds another one for arrest, then it doesn't seem to me that he flew into a blind rage. It seems more like he killed one in self-defense (because it wasn't a feasible option at that moment) --- then subdued the second one (because for some reason, it was a feasible option for the second guy.)

Josh is sounding less and less like a guy who's going to dismiss the local police as "no help". As a detective, he can make educated guesses about whether a hostage is safer in a police standoff --- or a vigilante gun battle.

I'm no expert, but I'd bet statistics will show that hostages are much better off if a bunch of officers come to their aid, rather than a lone civilian gunman.
Now assuming I'm right --- if Josh doesn't know this after years on a big-city police force, how competent is he? If he doesn't care, then how heroic is he if he's that cavalier about risking her life?

There are lots of ways around this stuff; unusual circumstances, or a plan of Josh's, may involve police watching from a distance while Josh moves in close for some clever reason (not mentioned in the query). Or maybe Josh's love interest isn't Jolene after all, but rather some other person not mentioned in the query.

My gut is telling me that the story is stronger than it looks --- but that the query omits essential things that make the story look weaker than it is.

Sorry about the long posts; I'll be quiet for a while.

arhooley said...

A visit from the Vocabulary Nanny.

he exists as a reclusive farmer just as his Amish grandparents had.

Exists? Maybe subsists, survives, or just plain lives.

LupLun said...

Advice to anyone who copy & pastes into an e-mail: don't do it in one step. Copy from Word, or another e-mail, or whatever, into Notepad. This forces the message into plain text with no weird formatting. Then copy and paste from Notepad into your e-mail. Then, before sending it out to the agent/editor/whoever, send it to yourself and see how it looks and if you need to make changes. Commonly you'll need to insert the spaces between paragraphs manually, for example.

Jeanne said...

A comment about formatting issues: Some folks leave Word set up to its own devices as far as formatting goes (options in autoformat, etc.), and in that case, Word's weird internal coding can cause some havoc when cutting and pasting into another program, email or otherwise. Save a Word doc as plain txt, then make any needed changes in Notepad before copying and pasting into an email. Plain text will almost always behave as it should in another program.

MsJess said...

Lucy and JS- agreed. In its current iteration the women exists soley as to be raped and kidnapped so the hero has someone to rescue and fall in love.

Bicyclefish said...

@Lara "everyone who has lived there knows no one has AC in Seattle."

Absolutes are rarely true. I've lived in Seattle for years and know multiple home and condo owners with A/C, either central or window mounted. Also some apartment dwellers who aren't allowed to install AC opt to buy the "portable" kind. Some higher end apartments also offer AC on the top floors.