Friday, January 25, 2013

#235-revised 3x

Dear Query Shark:

For 26-year-old Promised Savior, John, life changes forever when he grows fond of a bar girl, Tanya, and struggles to decide between human bondage and a divine duty.


Are you getting tired of listening to me yammer about putting things in the right order in sentences? I'm getting tired of repeating it but it doesn't seem to be getting through.

This opening sentence starts with a clause, not the subject. 
Start with the subject. John. 
Then the verb. John's life changes forever. 
Then the clause. John's life changes forever when he must choose between human bondage and divine duty.

Can you see the difference? 

The reason this is important is twofold: it's stronger writing, and it's easier to understand.

Once you get the sentence in the right order, smaller problems are easier to see. Smaller problems like what the hell is human bondage?

On a quest to find a middle path of reconciliation, John lands into a part of India simmering with the six-month-old communal conflicts that started in December 1992.  The all-round suffering and violence push him into a spiritual cul-de-sac, where priests, pujaris and maulvis bay for every Tanya’s blood.

Put the sentence in the right order: India simmers with communal conflicts in December 1992. 
Smaller problems: everything else.

On John’s lookout is a fugitive Roman priest, who carries the gift of a two millennium old secret. Generations of the dying priest have scouted for a virgin-born Savior like John, who can convince the world about the reality of the Last Gospel of Jesus.

This paragraph makes no sense.  Phrases I don't understand: "on John's lookout" "fugitive Roman priest"  "generations of the dying priest." 

The heartrending gospel of worldly bliss removes John’s blinkers. As he  accepts Tanya’s hands and prepares to preach a new message of salvation,  a revenge-seeking journalist reveals the shocking conspiracy behind the tale of his sacred birth. Now, John must prove to his betrayed followers even a disgraced mortal can be a true messenger of God. If he fails, the world will never hear the redeeming songs of the Last Gospel..

At 100,000 words, The LAST GOSPEL is a literary fiction based on the theme of the Second Coming.

I’ve extensively reported on religious and political issues as a professional journalist for 20 years. .

Thanking you for your time and consideration.


This isn't getting better. You're not doing what's been suggested in the previous critiques.  You don't have to implement my suggestions if you don't want to, but you do have to improve.  Right now, I don't see that.

Start with simple sentences. Be clear about what John wants. Be clear about what is keeping him from getting what he wants.  Make every sentence less than 10 words. That will force you to take out all the adjectives, adverbs and clauses.

That will become your skeleton. From there you can add things, but you have to START with that basic form.

Revise. Resend.


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Dear Query Shark:

When a faith healer and promised Savior of the Second Coming, John can’t revive a dying child, he senses the urgency to tackle its possible cause: A raging conflict between his prophesied duty and fondness for a bar girl, Tanya. At stake is his evangelical mission, the faith of his virgin mother, his mentor priest and thousands of followers.

This is very awkward writing. One of the reasons is because you're starting with two clauses rather than the main sentence.  I have GREAT fondness for subject/verb/object structure in query letter sentences. It establishes a base rhythm for your query and you can alter the cadence when it makes sense to do so.  This is what you agents call "being in control of your writing."  You're not being awkard on purpose to make a point. You're awkward here cause you are writing as if you're talking.

And you're trying to stuff too much in to one paragraph: faith healer, promised Savior, dying child, raging conflict, prophesied duty, bar girl, evangelical mission, virgin mothe, mentor priests, thousands of followers.

Any ONE of those would be the subject of an entire paragraph. 

By way of comparison here's the blurb for Dan Brown's DaVinci Code:

A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ. 


The victim is a high-ranking agent of this ancient society who, in the moments before his death, manages to leave gruesome clues at the scene that only his granddaughter, noted cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and Robert Langdon, a famed symbologist, can untangle. 

The duo become both suspects and detectives searching for not only Neveu's grandfather's murderer but also the stunning secret of the ages he was charged to protect. Mere steps ahead of the authorities and the deadly competition, the mystery leads Neveu and Langdon on a breathless flight through France, England, and history itself. 




After months of prayers and penance in a distant region, when John can’t regain his peace and healing touch, he prepares to live a life in obscurity. That’s when a dying Roman priest provides him refuge and a two millennium old secret. Generations of the fugitive priest had guarded the last gospel of Jesus and awaited a Savior like John, who could convince the world Christ passionately loved Mary Magdalene and sang the virtue of earthly bliss before his Ascension.

You're trying to tell too much of the story here.

The gospel opens John’s eyes: If Jesus doesn’t see human bondage as sin, why can’t he embrace Tanya and carry on with his Divine duty?

And here again, too much.


Hand-in-hand with Tanya, when John prepares to resume his mission and preach The Last Gospel, a revenge-seeking journalist unearths the scandalous conspiracy behind his sanctified birth. Now, John faces another challenge: To prove to his betrayed followers that with the power of love and compassion each of us – whether the Chosen son of God or a mere mortal – can be a true healer of body and soul.

And this is the ending of the book. A query is NOT a synopsis or a description of the whole book. A query has ONE goal: entice the agent to read more. If you tell me how the book ends, you've removed any reason to read it.

At 100,000 words, The LAST GOSPEL is a literary fiction.



I’ve extensively reported on religious and political issues as a professional journalist for 20 years. .



Thanking you for your time and consideration.

Simplify this. Get down to basics. What does John want. What's keeping him from it? Give us a sense of the time and place the story takes place in.

Right now this is an overstuffed sofa on skates. 

 
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Dear Query Shark:

Tall, dreamy-eyed, and three months short of thirty, Master John falters on his divine mission when a mystique bar girl, Tanya trespasses into his evangelical life. If he lets her tarry there, he’ll betray his virgin mother and millions of Christians who see him as the Promised Savior of the Second Coming.

Some of this word choice may simply be cultural (the writer is not American): "dreamy-eyed" is not something an American reader would associate with a handsome man.  He might be called "dreamy" if he were  60's heartthrob of some kind (ex. what Doris Day calls Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk) but it's not a word a contemporary reader would resonate with.


And "mystique" is an aura, not a state of being.  Someone has mystique (Thomas Pynchon! Greta Garbo!) but they are not called mystique writer or mystique actor.


When I see this in the opening paragraph of a query, I know I'll see it in the novel.  Sometimes this can work to your advantage if you use words in a fresh, new way.  This isn't that.  This is confusing.  That's NOT what you want.

Here's where the value of an American English beta reader comes in handy.  Even Brit writers need an American reader if they are querying here. There are some words that simply do NOT mean the same thing here as they do there.


And if he shuts the door on her, he dies of a broken heart!

This is a tad melodramatic isn't it?  And as consequences go, I gotta say...so what?  I haven't come to know or care about the characters yet. They can defenestrate themselves with impunity at this point.

In a theater of religious fanaticism, violence and death, John receives a rare gift: The Last Gospel, preserved by a fugitive Catholic sect through generations. Only a Savior like John could convince the world Jesus sang such a sweet sermon of earthly bliss in between the Resurrection and his Ascension. The gospel opens John’s eyes: God wouldn’t have created this Eden if he wanted his children to practice renunciation.

Theatre? You're using this like theatre in "theatre of war" but this isn't taking place across a wide swath of Europe or the South Seas as far as I can tell.  Thus, it's the wrong word.



Practice renunciation?  I actually called on a friend, a former monk to see what this meant, and he didn't know.  Thus again, confusing.


Hand-in-hand with Tanya when John prepares to unveil the supreme message of The Last Gospel, the Serpent coils up. A revenge-seeking journalist unearths the explosive truth behind John’s sanctified birth. Now, he can strip the Savior of divinity and leave him to the mercy of his betrayed followers.



At stake is not only a life, but a gospel that can reconcile Tanya and God in every troubled soul.

oh dear, this sounds like some sort of parable.

The LAST GOSPEL is a 100,000 word literary fiction based on the theme of the Second Coming.

It's not "a fiction" which is what you're saying here if you strip out the word count and the adjectives.  You're writing a novel.  Thus: The LAST GOSPEL is literary fiction, 100,000 words, and based on the theme of the Second Coming.


And if I can talk you out of including any talk about theme/purpose/intent when querying about a novel, I will count this a good day's work.  Leave it OUT. Let the story lead the reader to conclude what the book is about.


I’ve extensively reported on religious and political issues as a professional journalist for 20 years. .

Thanking you for your time and consideration.



This is a LOT better than the first iteration, but it's still a form rejection.




Focus on the elements of the story. Leave out all the folderol which is Sharkspeak for fancyschmancy. Just tell the story as PLAINLY as you can.







------------------
Dear Query Shark,

What if you grow up believing you are the Chosen Son of God born of a virgin mother? What if the Church has forecast your birth as the fulfillment of the Second Coming prophecy? What if a revenge-seeking journalist is out to prove you are an impostor? Will you lead a reclusive life as the promised Savior, or marry a Hindu bar girl and enjoy the bounties of creation? Will you choose your own life over salvation of the world?


This is the classic example of why you should not ever start your query with a rhetorical question, let alone a series of them. You're writing a letter to me, and I am not marrying a Hindu bar girl no matter how well she cooks.

Also, there's no context of any kind here. "You" ie me is not the protagonist of the story. What choice I would make is utterly irrelevant. What choice your main character makes---that's what we want to know about. That's where the story lies.

The rule of "don't start with a rhetorical question" is a rule for a reason. You can break it ONLY if you improve your query. This doesn't. This isn't enticing.




These are the questions Master John must resolve in The Last Gospel, a 1000,000 words literary fiction.

I'm really REALLY hoping you don't mean 1,000,000 words cause one million words is about ten times too many. It's really ok to abbreviate word count as 100K, or however many thousands of words your novel is. It might help you avoid this kind of glaring error that, if I had kept reading, would make me stop now.




Unable to any more preach the gospel of morality during the day while thirsting for love in the loneliness of night, John flees Goa and takes refuge in Kerala. In that war zone of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, suffering, fanaticism, violence, death and a series of events open his eyes: A loving Father would never deprive his sons and daughters of the fruits of His own creation and set them against one another.


This is so general as to be meaningless. I had to look up Goa and Kerala. They're both places in India, but I didn't know that for sure. I have no idea what any of the rest of that means because I don't know what the story is here.



John now wants to embrace Tanya and spread the supreme message of Love and Joy, but he may be risking his life. His followers disown the Savior who does not preach abstinence, and the journalist zeroes in on the scandalous story of his birth. Will there be any taker for the preacher of The Last Gospel?

Who's Tanya? Right here your reader is adrift in information but there's nothing enticing. For all intents and purposes this is Stranger in A Strange Land without Mars, set in India.


Set in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, The Last Gospel is based on extensive research and may well trigger a major controversy across the Christian world.

This last phrase is the kind of hyperbolic over-statement that even if you had written a magnificent query would make me reach for the rejection form. It demonstrates unrealistic expectations about the  reality of publishing: you'll be lucky if people read it, let alone care enough to protest about it.



I am (job) of India’s (newspaper). I was also associated with the country’s (other newspaper) for eight years.



I look forward to hearing from you.



Sincerely,




Once you get rid of the rhetorical questions and the absurd estimates of the novel's impact, you're still left with generalities and little to entice me to read pages.

Start over.

Use the formula in the archives to get your plot on the page. There's a lot to be said for just plain straightforward writing. And it's a whole helluva lot harder than it looks.

17 comments:

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Oof!

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

yes. It is.

Carol said...

Janet, for some reason I can no longer reach the archives. Since you have introduced the new format for your blog, I can't see anything from the old site. What am I doing wrong, do you know?

BonnieShaljean said...

There's probably a great story in there somewhere, but it's been buried alive in a query that chokes off any drama rather than highlighting it. "A series of events open his eyes" needs to be illustrated in some way - and said Events will have to be pretty stupendous if they're going to play the following act to fanaticism, violence, and death in a war zone of major religions.

Speaking of the major religions, I think your "could trigger a controversy" teaser is not only over-the-top PR-wise, as Janet says, but also unnecessarily provocative, given the volatile nature of the subject. People shouldn't get killed or driven into hiding because of the written or spoken word, but they do. It's a bad way to try to sell books.

But: I am interested in what this story has to say, if I can *find* the story. The author sounds well qualified to tell it, IF [bad grammar alert] they can stop getting in their own way. The theme is certainly a vital and enduring one.

- - -

WHEN will the linguistic powers above give us a neuter-gender singular pronoun???

BP said...

Truest truth about getting people to READ, then CARE, then much less CARE ENOUGH to do something about your silly little writer ideas in their busy lives! :D Otherwise it just comes off as pretentious...

Although I would LOVE to read from an Indian author in fiction (or something fiction that dovetails from "Behind the Beautiful Forevers"), this almost comes across as humorous and I could see any number of these lines popping up on Slush Pile Hell...

Theresa Milstein said...

What does the protagonist want? What prevents him from getting it? How does he overcome it only to reach the next one?

How he overcomes the first challenge will let us know who he is. The next challenge he faces will tell us the plot.

I know, it's so easy to say, but much harder to actually do.

I think a story where the protagonist puts yourself in a position to challenge the beliefs he's held dear is an enticing start. I look forward to getting a better sense of your protagonist and story.

Good luck!

french sojourn said...

I've followed Query Shark for three years and find it hard to believe this writer has read any/all the previous querys and comments.

Beta Shy said...

If this is a real query, then just take the time to read the archives. It will help you with your query, and will also very likely help you clean up your overall plot.

That being said, the multiple rhetorical questions, the
"1000,000 words" and "I look forward to hearing from you" all suggest a tongue-in-cheek query. Or, as French Sojourn implied, fibbing about having read the archives at all.

PS: Carol, I've been having the same issue. I ended up bookmarking the "How Query Shark Works" page since that still shows the old blog format.

marin sj said...

@BonnieShaljean wrote:

"WHEN will the linguistic powers above give us a neuter-gender singular pronoun???"

The use of "they" and "their" as neuter singulars has been approved since the days of Shakespeare and the King James Bible and, as if one could find a higher "linguistic power," is the standard as approved by the editors' Bible, The Chicago Manual of Style. Writers really must stop angsting over this, and particularly must abandon the his/her slash-and-burn abuse of our poor English language.

As to this query, I took it as a farce in extremely poor taste, with Salmon Rushdie as the sorry butt of the joke. If it's actually meant to be serious, then BonnieShaljean is right, it's OTT and a bad way to sell books. There is a place for honest writing about religious/cultural clashes, but this querier certainly seem far from that kind of headspace. The last thing this sad world needs is more gratuitous stirring of the already bloody pot. Isn't Mali showing us that as we speak?

heath said...

"1000,000 words" and "I look forward to hearing from you" actually suggest a writer from India, where numeric comma placement is different from Western systems, and business communications, even between unknown individuals, have a personal flavor.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree, this is better.

If you don't speak American English, you need an American to read your writing. My husband is a scientist, and he helps his non-American scientists edit their papers for clarity all the time.

When I have problems with cable, I chat with customer service online. I can always tell when the person is from India because the writing/speaking style is so different.

GillyB said...

By biggest issue with this revamped query is that most of the grammar is just plain wrong. There are missing subjects and nonsensical tenses. Words are misused. It just does not inspire confidence in me that the author has a firm enough grasp on the English language.

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm impressed with how the author keeps tackling the problem of the query from different angles. But he's not there yet. Yes, this reads like a short summary. A synopsis is hard enough. To do within the shortened constraints of a query is harder. My advice is to keep trying and show it to other writers before putting another version up here.

BonnieShaljean said...

This is a great improvement, though there's still further work to be done. For example, "fondness" isn't a strong enough word to hold its end up against a "raging" conflict - you need something more dramatic and exciting, active rather than inert. Each noun must generate energy, not dilute it.

I do like your opening image because it sparks off all sorts of questions. It's not every day that we encounter a Saviour, and a dying child is always powerful because it goes against the natural order of life. But take to heart Janet's advice about sentence structure, which will make your narrative tighter and let us see/hear/feel the action. Something along the lines of

John, faith healer and promised Savior of the Second Coming, can't revive a dying child. He needs to know why.

Then you can highlight the opposition between his prophesied duty and the pull of (forbidden?) love, throw in the revenge-seeking journalist bent on unearthing a scandalous conspiracy (don't tell us whether he/she succeeds or not), and maybe finish the query with the dying priest giving him a two-millennium-old secret.

The other aspects - the evangelical mission, the mentor priest and followers - will have to develop organically from the plot, so it's not necessary to go into great detail here. Telling us outright what's at stake reveals too much of the story's architecture. It's like removing the stage curtains in a theatre: you can see into the wings as well as the set, and it spoils the illusion.

Just give us a tantalising taster, not the whole meal. Leave us wanting more.

Lara said...

Does literary fiction use language like "grows fond of" and some of your other clauses? Maybe it's because I've never read that genre, but I was confused as heck with the entire thing.

Theresa Milstein said...

There are too many long sentences. There's no need to pack so much information into one sentence. It reminds me of those contests where they tell you write a logline bout your book in one sentence. Even without reversing the subject and clause, they read clunky.

If I ever get chosen for Query Shark, I will remind myself to take my time and show my query to other people before I resend. It must be tempting to fix it, but then I can see how I'd lose perspective.

Julia said...

About the subject/verb/clause thing, if the subjects in the hook and the first line of the synopsis are the same - i.e., the name of the character - one ends up with two paragraphs that start with the same word. This is also a no-no. But if I switch things around, then it's not subject/verb/clause any more. This leaves me with the last option of writing another sentence for the second paragraph simply because I am trying to avoid the first two issues, or converting an existing sentence into another one that says the same thing - but doesn't use the character's name for a subject. (Daniel is a... / Daniel trained at...) I'm utterly at a loss and now want to re-re-revise my query that I just sent you. Is there one of these rules that is more important? Or do I have to figure out some way to make a strong opener for my second paragraph without using my main character as a subject?

Thank you for your time,
Ms. Eyes Mell Bludina-Water