Dear Query Shark:
Reed has reached the pinnacle—a beautiful fiancée, successful career, prestige—but the toll for all this is too high. Directed to bury a damning memo, he knows he’ll lose his soul if he continues working at his law firm. He decides to opt out . . . way out and leave all the shadows of success to find something else. But what? An old friend suggests that Reed consider a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border as a place to start, where he soon finds himself in the middle of a Cambodian civil war and the aftermath of Khmer Rouge genocide: perdition.
If you add one word to this you'll change everything: Reed thinks he's reached the pinnacle.
Adding that one word tells us that this is going to be a novel about a guy who finds out life isn't what they told him it would back there at WhiteShoe Law Review.
He still sounds like a total drip (I'm sorry but he does) It would help if we had a sense that he'd struggled to get where he is, or the thing he was asked to do seemed a little more dangerous (hell, we bury damning memos here every day of the week, and twice on Festivus). You mention "past wrongs" farther down. What were they?
And it will help if we have a sense of why he thinks going to Cambodia during one of the worst genocides we know about seemed like a good idea.
At first Reed works hard to try to make up for past wrongs. But his motivation quickly turns deeper when faced with the cold reality of the refugees’ plight. These newfound convictions put him on a collision course with Dith, a murdering Khmer Rouge operative who brutally conscripts refugees. Their battles culminate when Dith kidnaps Reed’s new friend, seemingly perfect Sister Claire. Reed calls in a favor from a powerful Washington, D.C., ally to save her; now he’s in trouble with the Thai government.
What's he doing to make up for past wrongs? In fact what wrongs?
Amid the chaos Reed not only connects with his own buried morals but also with Sister Claire, who impels him to examine the path his life has taken. Yet he discovers he isn’t the only one running from a past. Sister Claire has a stunning secret of her own that, when revealed, flips Reed’s retraced life upside down.
THE UPPER AIR, a 92,000 word commercial fiction, is set in 1980. It is my first novel.
You're drowning in generalities. Be specific.
It will really really help if you can frame the antagonist in a way that doesn't make him a cartoon. The Cambodian Holocaust was awful, but there were true-believers. Your job is to convey why they were, and to make us see their point even while we don't agree with it, and certainly don't agree with the results.
You have to show me there's a story here, not just cardboard characters moving through an exotic landscape.
This doesn't work yet.
Dear Query Shark:
When the senior partner at his law firm directs Reed Sutcliff to bury a damning memo implicating his client in covering up defective heating units, he knows it’s wrong—continue down this path and he will lose his soul. Deciding he needs to put as much time and distance between himself and his current situation, Reed takes a sabbatical from his firm. Of course, he will miss his fiancée, Suzanne, but he has to sort this mess out.
You're writing like a lawyer and that is not a compliment. Law school beats the "trust your reader" stuffing right out of you. Here at Fiction Central, trusting your reader to fill in the gaps will be an enormous asset not a liability. I know, it's a world gone mad.
By trusting your reader I mean you can leave out things. Consider: Asked to bury a damning memo, Reed Sutcliff knows he'll lose his soul if he continues working at his law firm.
There are two advantages to this: you cut the number of words spent on set up, and it's zippier. I'll even spare my usual rant about starting with a clause rather than my preferred subject/verb/clause structure.
With the help of Suzanne’s father, a powerful member of Congress, he heads to a refugee camp on the Thai and Cambodian border and finds himself in the middle of a world of dire suffering. There he meets Claire, a remarkably caring, gifted, and enigmatic woman—who is also a Catholic nun. Although she initially gives Reed the cold shoulder, his tenacious attempts to befriend her pays dividends.
And here's just more set up. It's not that big a deal that he meets someone in his travels. I'd be shocked if he didn't. It's not a big deal she gives him the cold shoulder, he's probably utterly useless at refugee work, and certainly if he's trying to hustle her in to the sack she's not going to just fall all over him.
What's the story here? Why does he persist? What is it about her/the situation that calls to him. For that matter why the hell is he in Cambodia in the first place. Unless it's listed under Places to Save Your Soul in Lonely Planet, there must be something there.
But all that matters not a whit cause what you don't have here is PLOT.
After they have several harrowing scrapes with corrupt border operatives, most notably a murdering wretch named Dith, and amid the daily chaos, Reed eventually finds himself falling for Claire. He’s certain nothing can come of it; still, he can’t shake these feelings. He’s bewitched.
"Murdering wretch" is such an unequal pairing that it made me laugh. It's like nefarious unicorn or wily sloth.
And still, despite those murderous wretches and their nefarious ways, There Is No Plot here.
And the irony of a Catholic nun being "bewitching" is not only not lost on me, it makes me wonder if you don't realize how funny it is. Witches not being something nuns aspire to and all.
When Claire winds up in the hands of Dith, Reed takes a risky course of action to rescue her that results in his expulsion from Thailand and lands him back in the States. Now what? Should he return to the life he had—Suzanne, money, power, and prestige—the good life, or should he leave it all and return to Thailand for seemingly unrequited love? No doubt, it’s messy, but life and love often are.
Winds up in the hands of? She hailed a cab and he was driving? He hijacked her mule? She took a wrong turn at the footbridge?
And sadly, this reveals the problem with the novel: Reed is kind of lame. Why is he dithering if the woman he loves is in the hands of a murdering wretch? He's going to leave her there and return to the vapid Suzanne and her porkbarrel paterfamilias?
I understand this is not a romance, but the idea that he just leaves her there makes me wonder why I ever got in book with this guy.
THE UPPER AIR is a 96,000 word romantic novel set in 1980. It is my first novel.
Oh wait, it is a romantic novel.
Ok, I take it all back. Reed better get his asterisk back over there and rescue her.
This is still not working. There's no plot, there's too much dithering and Reed is a damp rag of a hero.
This whole query needs a good stiff dose of starch. There's not enough substance here to entice me to read on. Come to think of it, that's what I said on the first version of this too.
I see from your Publishers Marketplace listing that you have represented Book/Author XYZ.
This makes me crazy. It's akin to saying "hi, I see you are breathing." What you need here is WHY you're mentioning Book/Author XYZ.
Yes, I represent Jeff Somers. So? Unless you are writing top notch commercial urban fantasy like TRICKSTER, it doesn't matter that I rep him.
Also, you want to be VERY careful about Publisher's Marketplace. Unless you've actually read the book that's listed, it's very easy to think it's a comp title when it isn't. Remember, Publishers Marketplace lists books before they have been published.
And the ten-twenty word buzz phrase that's listed in Pub Mkt is NOT a reliable indicator of whether the book is a good comp for your book. Trust me on this please.
Comp titles should be published books. If you want to use a comp, you say I see you represent Jeff Somers, author of Trickster. Readers who like Trickster (like me!) are the audience for this book.
Reed Sutcliff sits on a bench looking out over a frozen Lake Michigan wondering, Where in the heel did it all go wrong? As a successful attorney, he had it all complete with a beautiful fiancée, Suzanne Warner, and her well-connected father, a powerful member of Congress. Reed's charmed life crashes down on him when the head partner in his firm asks him to engage in some questionable ethics and tactics.
Where in the heel?
This is a textbook illustration of the value of reading your query out loud. You'd have heard heel and known in wasn't the word you meant to use. Your spell czech does not recognize homonyms as errors.
Also, this setup doesn't make Reed Sutcliff sound enticing or interesting. He had a charmed life? I'm kinda glad life has taken a turn for the worse for him then.
Also, "asks him to engage in questionable ethics and tactic" makes Reed's charmed life crash around his head? Unless Reed is facing jail time, this doesn't seem all that serious. It makes Reed sound naive and wet behind the ears. Those qualities are not the qualities of a romantic novel hero.
To try and sort out his life, with the help of Suzanne's father, he goes to a refugee camp along the Thailand and Cambodian border. There he meets Nicki, a remarkably caring and gifted woman—who is also a Catholic nun. At the camp, he witnesses the terrible condition and treatment of the refugees. During several excursions outside the camp, he encounters a nasty border operative named Dith.
This is actually where your story starts. I'll eat my rosary if a Catholic nun is named Sister Nicki though.
And you'll notice that your main character is very passive here. He's witnessing and encountering. He's not involved. He doesn't really seem to have anything at stake. He's a cardboard cutout of a character. This bodes ill for my interest in spending several hundred pages with him.
Reed's growing attraction to Nicki adds to his confusion regarding his life. Besides his uncertainty concerning his career, he must now sort out his feelings for Nicki and then reconcile them with his relationship with Suzanne. Of course, it won't be easy. Love never is.
This is tepid. You've got to insert some vim and vinegar in this narrative or it will be too flat to hold anyone's interest.
THE UPPER AIR is a 96,000 word romantic novel set in 1980. It is my first novel.
Contrast what you wrote with the jacket copy of another male protagonist romantic novel THE CHOICE by Nicholas Sparks:
Travis Parker has everything a man could want: a good job, loyal friends, even a waterfront home in small-town North Carolina. In full pursuit of the good life-- boating, swimming, and regular barbecues with his good-natured buddies--he holds the vague conviction that a serious relationship with a woman would only cramp his style.
That is, until Gabby Holland moves in next door. Despite his attempts to be neighborly, the appealing redhead seems to have a chip on her shoulder about him . . . and the presence of her longtime boyfriend doesn't help. Despite himself, Travis can't stop trying to ingratiate himself with his new neighbor, and his persistent efforts lead them both to the doorstep of a journey that neither could have foreseen.
Spanning the eventful years of young love, marriage and family, THE CHOICE ultimately confronts us with the most heartwrenching question of all: how far would you go to keep the hope of love alive?
Can you see the difference? For starters the language is more vibrant. Second, we see the tension and understand the plot, and what's at stake.
Romance novels aren't plot driven, so everything depends on writing characters we want to spend time with, that we care about.
I'd suggest reading more of them to really see this. Read as a writer does: watching how the author turns a phrase, introduces a character, keeps you reading on. It's helpful to keep a writer's journal where you write this stuff down. The act of writing helps you understand things more fully, and helps you remember stuff. Just READING isn't enough if you're analyzing books.